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Rebecca Goldstein


The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

This book seems to be primarily aimed at a Jewish readership; it is, after all, published as one of a series of volumes called 'Jewish Encounters'. Thus, although it in a sense a biography of Spinoza plus a discussion of his ideas, much of the text is taken up with a description of Jewish life in the seventeenth century in Amsterdam, where many Jews had taken refuge to escape persecution in Spain and Portugal. There is a good deal of information here about the views of rabbis at this period which is of limited interest to non-Jewish readers. Spinoza was expelled from the Jewish community in Amsterdam although he himself was content to have it so.

The book begins with an account of Goldstein's upbringing, in which her teachers made it clear that Spinoza was an outcast and a renegade from the Jewish tradition who was to be ignored as much as possible. So one strand of the story is Goldstein's dawning recognition that Spinoza was in fact a profound thinker of world importance. He was a true revolutionary who, almost uniquely for his time (and perhaps ours), clearly saw the difference between superstition and religion.

Superstitions, as opposed to religion, offer us false cures for our finitude. They make us believe that we are more cosmically important than we are, that we have bestowed on us—whether Jew, Christian or Moslem—a privilged position in the narrative of the world's unfolding. And they make us believe that we can, if we have jumped through the right hoops, live on after our bodily death.
Some have seen in Spinoza an influence of kabbalism, the mediaeval Jewish mystical tradition. This may seem odd, given that Spinoza himself was dismissive of such ideas and rejected the kabbalists' mystical explanations of existence. But Goldstein thinks that there was an influence from that source, in the form of the "ecstatic impulse that irradiates" his philosophy and distinguishes it from that of his contemporaries, Descartes and Leibniz. And he sought to answer two questions that were central in kabbalism: why does the world exist, and why is there suffering if God is all-good and all-powerful? I found this an illuminating idea.

21 December 2009

%T Betraying Spinoza
%S The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity
%A Rebecca Goldstein
%I Nextbook
%C Schocken, New York
%D 2006
%G ISBN 0-80524209-0
%P 287
%K biography

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