Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity
By Rebecca Goldstein
Nextbook/Schocken, 304 pages, $19.95.
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Betrayal haunts the image of 17th-century philosopher Baruch (Benedictus) Spinoza like no other Jewish historical celebrity. For centuries, the name of this radical pantheist, pioneering biblical critic and defector from Judaism — once described as “the first Jew to separate himself from his religion and people without a formal religious conversion” — has been synonymous with infidelity. His caustic treatment of Judaism in the “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus” has made even some of his greatest Jewish admirers in modern times uncomfortable, while causing enemies like German Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen to accuse him of “humanly incomprehensible betrayal.”
Yet if Spinoza could speak today, he might well charge his Jewish interpreters with betrayal — perhaps especially his apostles. Since the start of Jewish Enlightenment and the Emancipation in the late 18th century, when a Jewish identity outside Jewish law emerged as a possibility, Jews have increasingly claimed Spinoza as one of their own. With the advantage of hindsight, he has come to be seen as “the first modern Jew” and specifically as a precursor for an array of rival movements, ranging from Reform Judaism to secular Yiddishism to Labor Zionism. Meanwhile, generations of scholars have scoured his writings in quest of Jewish elements of his thought. Often occluded in all this fuss is whether Spinoza himself — the Spinoza of history — might recoil from this re-appropriation, finding it a betrayal of his self-identity and philosophy.
Both of these insinuations of betrayal are present in the arresting title of Rebecca Goldstein’s beautifully crafted “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity.” The work is the latest in the Jewish Encounters line sponsored by Nextbook and Schocken, a series that seeks to bring fresh, somewhat off-center perspectives to bear on selected Jewish luminaries and motifs. The pairing of Goldstein and Spinoza is a master stroke. Both philosophical novelist and novelistic philosopher, Goldstein is a perfect fit for the notoriously difficult author of “The Ethics.” With a doctorate in philosophy and much experience teaching the Descartes-Spinoza-Leibniz triumvirate of 17th-century rationalism, she boasts a command of the nuts and bolts of her subject (knowledge that has, in fact, been missing in prior volumes of the “Jewish Encounters” series). At the same time, she is the furthest thing from a dry scholar, and the quality of this book, particularly in its more personal sections, owes a great deal to her imaginative flair and insight.
Goldstein raises the problem of jurisdiction point-blank. “By what right,” she opens, “is Benedictus Spinoza included in this series, devoted as it is to Jewish themes and thinkers?” Born in 1632 into the Sephardic community of Amsterdam, Spinoza was excommunicated at the age of 23. It was a divorce that appears to have been entirely mutual. For the rest of his life, the lens-grinding philosopher made no effort to reconcile with his native people, and while he never converted to Christianity, it is hardly a given that he continued to consider himself a Jew either.
Yet the “betrayal” implicit in treating Spinoza under a Jewish rubric, according to Goldstein, goes beyond possibly falsifying his self-definition; it also violates the spirit of his rationalist philosophy. What mattered most to Spinoza was contemplating the eternal and logical necessity he beheld at the heart of all reality — an immanent rationality he identified with the mind of God. Goldstein aptly terms Spinoza’s vision of reality one of “radical objectivity” or, citing philosopher Thomas Nagel, “the view from nowhere.” In the context of this utterly impersonal philosophy, “all the accidents of one’s existence, the circumstances into which one was born — including one’s family and history, one’s racial, religious, cultural, sexual, or national identity — appear as naught.” To emphasize Jewishness in a study of Spinoza would thus be to portray as seminal something the philosopher himself saw as superfluous in the infinite scheme of things.
‘Betraying Spinoza”begins with an infatuation, Goldstein’s admission that she fell in love with Spinoza before she really knew him. This initial flame — and the desire to recapture it — is the subject of “In Search of Spinoza,” the second and best of the six chapters. Goldstein takes us back to her adolescent introduction to Spinoza in the mid-1960s, in a Jewish history class of her strictly Orthodox, all-girls high school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As presented by her homely, reproving teacher, Spinoza was a no-good, arrogant apikores, “a cautionary tale of unbridled human intelligence blindly seeking its own doom.” Yet at the time, the author was starting to chafe under the “calf-length skirts” of her background, and she felt irresistibly drawn to this heretic that her teacher called the “first modern Jew” (in this setting, not a compliment) — particularly after learning that he had remained outwardly observant until the death of his father in deference to the Jewish value of “shalom bayis,” peace within the family. “The thought occurred to me that [Spinoza] must have been a lovable man. I sat in Mrs. Schoenfeld’s class and I felt that I loved him.”
Such moments of identification with Spinoza preceding any serious wrestling with his philosophy have a time-honored place in the autobiographies of modern Jewish intellectuals. Berthold Auerbach, a 19th-century German Jewish author who translated Spinoza into German and also wrote a historical novel about the philosopher, felt elated, after first reading about him, to realize that they shared the same Hebrew name. Micha J. Berdichevsky, the radically secular Eastern European Hebrew writer at the fin de siècle, described in his diary experiencing something akin to prophecy on purchasing a Hebrew translation of “The Ethics.” For these two, as for Goldstein, a certain kinship with Spinoza — a feeling that they inhabited a similar if not identical Jewish predicament — occurred at a decisive stage in their intellectual maturation, providing them with an exemplar to emulate in constructing a new identity. “There was a moment long ago,” Goldstein writes, “when I knew next to nothing about the magnificent reconfiguration of reality laid out in the system of Spinoza, and yet when I felt I knew something about what it was like to have been him, the former yeshiva student, Baruch Spinoza.”
The task that Goldstein sets for herself is to integrate the personal, affective, expressly Jewish insight she originally had into Spinoza with the “strictly philosophical” understanding that came to supplant it — a task that she concedes is a betrayal of the “radical objectivity” of Spinoza’s thought. But to betray — in yet another sense that Goldstein unobtrusively elicits from this word — can also mean to disclose something in breach of confidence; and Goldstein believes that her detection of a Jewish impulse buried beneath the geometrical proofs of Spinoza’s philosophy — if not quite what her intellectual hero would have wanted her to point out — is nonetheless accurate.
Goldstein finds the intersection between Spinoza’s Jewishness and the cosmopolitanism of his thought in the historical experience of the Amsterdam Sephardic world from which he hailed. This community — which became the most prosperous Jewish community in the world in the 17th century — primarily comprised former Marranos from Spain and Portugal, crypto Jews who had escaped the clutches of the Inquisition to become openly practicing Jews in the comparatively tolerant Dutch metropolis. Memories of the risks they had run by retaining Jewish allegiances underneath
their “New Christian” facade, coupled with the challenges they faced in acclimating to a rabbinic Judaism that was in large measure foreign to them, made these Amsterdam Sephardim extremely passionate about Jewish identity and on guard against deviance.
Spinoza’s parents were also émigrés from Portugal. Yet his response to the dilemmas of identity bred by Marranism was the exact opposite of that of his fellow Sephardim. What Spinoza took from his people’s history was not the need to cling to Jewishness with obsessive ferocity, but rather “to dissolve all sectarian frames of reference, to point the way to a concept of personal identity in which the question of who is Jewish and who is not simply could not meaningfully arise.” A philosophy of “radical objectivity” was, in essence, Spinoza’s reaction formation to the tragedy of the Sephardic experience.
“And if this is so,” Goldstein writes, “then Spinoza is something of a Jewish thinker after all. He is, paradoxically, Jewish at the core, a core that necessitated, for him, the denial of such a thing as a Jewish core. For what can be more characteristic of a Jewish thinker than to use the Jewish experience as a conduit to universality?”
Though the book starts with such promise, this resolution comes as something of a disappointment. Goldstein is at her strongest and most original in tracing her path to this book — the history of her shifting point of view toward Spinoza. This opening section works so well because Goldstein is so adept at switching between private experience and philosophical explication, which allows the richness of her thinking about Spinoza — its evolving blend of the emotional and the cerebral — to fully shine. The crisp, lucid explanation of Spinoza’s metaphysics in chapter two ranks among the best attempts to illuminate this daunting subject for the lay reader that I have come across — and is reason alone to read this book.
But when Goldstein moves from depicting the place of Jewishness in her personal engagement with Spinoza to staking a claim for its hidden yet vital influence in his worldview, her book loses some of its freshness. In suggesting that the mathematical reasoning endorsed by Spinoza was at bottom a means of transcending “the awful dilemmas of Jewish identity,” Goldstein appears to be guided more by cliché — “the Jewish experience as a conduit to universality” — than by sound assessment of the evidence. The theory that Dutch cultural history, in particular the mounting sectarian divisions and internal strife in the Dutch Republic of the 1660s and 1670s, might also have shaped his disdain for identity politics and his desire for “radical objectivity” is simply not considered, though this context has the advantage of being far more immediate to the time when Spinoza was writing. Here may be one “betrayal” of Spinoza that Goldstein fails to notice.
This aside, Goldstein has written a delightful book, one that manages to be nimble and playful while also doing justice to the demanding nature of Spinoza’s philosophy. Her clear exposition often imparted this reader with that most Spinozistic of emotions — the pleasure in understanding, and in realizing that one is understanding. Would that we all should be so betrayed.