In 1656, Amsterdam's Jewish community excommunicated Baruch Spinoza, and, at the age of twenty-three, he became the most famous heretic in Judaism. He was already germinating a secularist challenge to religion that would be as radical as it was original. He went on to produce one of the most ambitious systems in the history of Western philosophy, so ahead of its time that scientists today, from string theorists to neurobiologists, count themselves among Spinoza's progeny.
In Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Goldstein sets out to rediscover the flesh-and-blood man often hidden beneath the veneer of rigorous rationality, and to crack the mystery of the breach between the philosopher and his Jewish past. Goldstein argues that the trauma of the Inquisition's persecution of its forced Jewish converts plays itself out in Spinoza's philosophy. The excommunicated Spinoza, no less than his excommunicators, was responding to Europe's first experiment with racial anti-Semitism.
Here is a Spinoza both hauntingly emblematic and deeply human, both heretic and hero--a surprisingly contemporary figure ripe for our own uncertain age.
This biography of 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) may seem out of place in the Jewish Encounters series, devoted to Jewish thinkers and themes, because Spinoza denied the importance of Jewish identity, and Amsterdam's Jewish community expelled him for heresy. But Goldstein, author of The Mind-Body Problem and Incompleteness and a professor of philosophy, reconstructs Spinoza's life and traces his metaphysics to his efforts to solve the dilemmas of Jewish identity. The philosopher grew up in a community of Jews who had fled the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. As Goldstein argues, Spinoza's "determination to think through his community's tragedy in the most universal terms possible compelled him to devise a unique life for himself, insisting on secularism when the concept of it had not yet been conceived." For Spinoza, "salvation" lay in achieving the radical objectivity of pure reason, which dissolves the contingent facts of one's personal history and religious and ethnic identity. Spinoza's effort to live as neither Jew nor Christian nor Muslim was unthinkable in the 17th century, but his arguments for political and religious tolerance were forerunners for the U.S. Constitution. In this admirable biography, Goldstein shows that Spinoza is paradoxically Jewish, "[f]or what can be more characteristic of a Jewish thinker than to use the Jewish experience as a conduit to universality?" (May)
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August 09, 2009
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Excerpt from Betraying Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein
Prologue: Baruch, Bento, Benedictus By what right is Benedictus Spinoza included in this series, devoted as it is to Jewish themes and thinkers? Can the seventeenth-century rationalist, who produced one of the most ambitious philosophical systems in the history of Western philosophy, be considered, by any stretch of interpretation, a Jewish thinker? Can he even be considered a Jew? Benedictus Spinoza is the greatest philosopher that the Jews ever produced, which adds a certain irony to his questionable Jewishness. He was excommunicated at the age of twenty-three by the Portuguese-Jewish community in which he had been raised and educated. It was a community of refugees from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition, a Jewish calamity whose tragic proportions would be exceeded only in the twentieth century. The members of the community were predominantly former Marranos, who had lived on the Iberian Peninsula, mostly in Portugal, as practicing Christians since Judaism had been formally outlawed on the peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century. The word marrano is believed to derive from the old Castilian for “swine,” a particularly apt slur to insult those believed to be concealing Jewish practice beneath Christian performance. The relatively liberal city of Amsterdam provided the conditions for their reconnecting to a Judaism that most of them barely knew. Brutal forces of history had given this community its distinctive tone: ambitious for the material trappings of middle-class stability and yet skittish, anxious; enviably accomplished and cosmopolitan and yet filled with religious intensity, confusion, disillusion, and messianic yearning. Before his expulsion from it, the hothouse world of Amsterdam’s Sephardim—as Jews who derived from Spain (Sepharad in Hebrew) continue to be called to this day—had been Spinoza’s world as well. Yet when it closed its doors to him, he made no attempt to reenter it or any other Jewish community. Excommunication, as it was practiced in his community, was not as severe and final a punishment as the word now suggests. The period of isolation from the community (the terms of excommunication did not extend outside of Amsterdam) typically lasted anywhere from a day to several years. The imposed banishment was a tool of chastisement resorted to with quite common frequency, fundamentally a form of public embarrassment with which to exert control over the volatile mix contained within “the Portuguese Nation,” as the Amsterdam Sephardim continued to identify themselves. Whereas others among the chastised had obediently—and sometimes desperately—sought reconciliation, Spinoza calmly removed himself from any further form of Jewish life. Nor did Spinoza seek out another religion. In particular, he did not convert to Christianity, though it would have been convenient for him to do so. Spinoza opted for secularism at a time when the concept had not yet been formulated. He supported himself by grinding lenses, which was no lowly menial occupation, as it is often presented to have been in romanticizing versions of the philosopher’s life, but was rather a craft that drew extensively from Spinoza’s serious interest in the science of optics. The quality of his wares was highly valued by other scientists of his day. The important Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Saturn’s rings as well as one of its four moons, preferred Spinoza’s lenses to all others. “The [lenses] that the Jew of Voorburg has in his microscopes have an admirable polish,” Huygens wrote to his brother in 1667. The one part of the romantic lens-grinding legend that is sadly true is that the dust from the optical polishing wa