A review of Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity  by Rebecca Goldstein

In the summer of 1656, the Amsterdam Jewish community took the extraordinary step of excommunicating a young man, then 23 years old, whose parents were refugees driven from Portugal by the Inquisition. He stood accused of "abominable heresies" and "monstrous deeds." Accordingly, it was decreed that he be "banned, cut off, cursed, and anathematized."

Baruch Spinoza neither protested the edict nor tried to reverse it. Unbowed, he abjured both the God of Israel and the people of Israel, and replaced his old religion with an audacious faith in the supreme power of human reason. In the two decades remaining to him, Spinoza lifted himself, as Goethe said, "to the summits of thought." Somehow, this ex-Orthodox Jew in Calvinist Holland—schooled in Hebrew (he composed a Hebrew grammar), speaking Portuguese, and writing in Latin—fashioned himself into one of the most radical philosophers who ever lived.

Three hundred and fifty years later, Rebecca Goldstein, a novelist and visiting professor of philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, tries in her new book, Betraying Spinoza, to bring the heretic back into the fold. She is not the first to make the attempt. The Israeli statesman David Ben-Gurion, for instance, proposed that the 300th anniversary of the ban serve as the occasion for an official revocation. But the latest shot at reclaiming Spinoza as a Jewish thinker reveals less about Spinoza than about the fascinating ways he has been imagined.

Spinoza's radicalism begins in his critique of religion. In the anonymously published Theological-Political Treatise, he insists on the distinction between philosophy, which aims at truth, and theology, which aims, he says, at obedience. He revolts against revelation as a source of truth, and rejects fundamental doctrines like divine providence, free will, reward and punishment, election, the possibility of miracles, and the immortality of the soul. Although Hobbes, in his Leviathan, had already taken a swipe at the Mosaic authorship of the "Five Books of Moses," Spinoza more or less fathers biblical criticism by rejecting the Bible's divine authorship. Though he stops well short of endorsing a religion-free polity, and though he cautions against expressing such an opinion to the masses, Spinoza deems adherents to organized religion slavish and superstitious. He articulates a radical determinism that banishes purpose and contingency and chance, and allows into the world no arbitrary or spontaneous events. (It is in this sense that Einstein said, "I believe in Spinoza's God.") He also famously posits a God who is identical with the totality of nature. This God-or-Nature, this infinite substance outside of which nothing exists, is eternal, necessary, self-caused, self-sufficient, perfect, and perfectly indifferent to us. 

Yet Spinoza's particular genius consists in bringing not only God, but also man, under the universal rule of nature. He does this in his masterpiece, the posthumously published Ethics. A strange thicket of definitions, axioms, postulates, demonstrations, corollaries, and scholia, the Ethics deploys what Spinoza called a "geometrical order" (inspired by Euclid and Descartes) to treat human desires and emotions "in exactly the same manner as though I were concerned with lines, planes, and solids." Considered in this impersonal light, man's highest good, accessible only to an elite few, is shown to be the knowledge of God, which itself yields to an exalted, unrequited love—amor dei intellectualis

Finally, if Spinoza's radicalism naturalizes God and man, it also secularizes politics. The Treatise is the first and perhaps the most eloquent defense of toleration and liberal democracy—and the freedom of thought and speech it secures—in the history of political philosophy. In a sense, Spinoza founded liberal democracy. 

Despite the systematic lucidity of Spinoza's thought, it has proved amazingly fertile in its interpretive possibilities. The reception of Spinoza's thought, in other words, is as full of wonders as the thought itself. 

Spinoza has been read as a kind of patron saint of freethinkers and atheists, but also—because he saw God as the immanent cause of all things—as the "God-intoxicated man" of the German Romantics. He has been variously portrayed as the last of the medievals and the prophet of modernity; metaphysician and mystic; grim determinist and champion of human freedom; social contract theorist and Machiavellian. Grateful for his attacks on religion, libertines loved him early on; but his Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect encouraged Schopenhauer to regard him as a model of ascetic renunciation. Nietzsche read him and exclaimed, "I have a forerunner, and what a forerunner!" 

Indeed, by stressing one dimension or singling out another, many readers have claimed Spinoza's views as an anticipation of their own, in effect imagining him in their own image. Friedrich Engels saw in Spinoza "the splendid representative of dialectics," and the Marxist thinker Louis Althusser labelled Spinoza "the only direct ancestor of Marx." Others, citing his influence on Thomas Jefferson by way of Locke, have called him a "proto-American." The neurologist Antonio Damasio suggests he was a "proto-biologist." Spinoza's pantheism, meanwhile, inspires so-called deep ecologists like Arne Naess to laud his "proto-ecologism." For Woody Allen, the pantheism suggests rather a proto-dieter: "Spinoza…dined sparingly because he believed that God existed in everything, and it's intimidating to wolf down a knish if you think you're ladling mustard onto the First Cause of All Things." 

The Jewish reception of Spinoza, meanwhile, has proved no less storied. Leo Strauss offers one example in his Preface to Spinoza's Critique of Religion, showing how German Jews looked to Spinoza, who pointed the way out of the ghetto, as the symbol of their emancipation. Later, on the basis of a passage in which Spinoza entertains the possibility that the Jews might one day "raise up their state afresh," it was the Zionists who adopted him as a precursor. They sensed a similarity between Spinoza's secularization of history and their own impatience with the traditional Jewish expectation that a homeland would be restored only with providential or messianic aid. (One such reader, the early Zionist Moses Hess, went so far as to acclaim him as a Jewish nationalist who successfully combined philosophical rigor with a love for the Jewish people.) Finally, because he left the synagogue without entering the church, Spinoza has been understood—especially in Israel, where he is very avidly studied—as the first secular Jew.

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Betraying Spinoza is best understood as the latest installment in this last tradition. Goldstein aims "to recapture the sense of the man behind the formidable system, locate the pounding pulse of subjectivity within the crystalline structure of radical objectivity." The result is more "a novelist's attempt to imagine her way into another's life," as the author puts it, than a philosopher's endeavor to come to grips with someone's reasoning. Goldstein opens the book with a long description of how—as a student in an all-girls yeshiva, long before liberating herself from the Orthodoxy of her youth and beginning a career in philosophy—she first encountered Spinoza. So it comes as little surprise that the Spinoza she discovers is himself an ex-yeshiva student driven by a deep, if unacknowledged, wrestling with an identity he never managed to overcome. Goldstein argues that beneath what she calls Spinoza's "impersonal grandeur" lies "a Jewish sensibility," and even an "emotional affinity with the narrative of Jewish history." "Spinoza's brave new revisioning of the world was an answer to the centuries of Jewish suffering," she concludes. "And if this is so, then Spinoza is something of a Jewish thinker after all. He is, paradoxically, Jewish at the core." 

Here, too, Goldstein is not the first to make the point. To take one example, in 1929, Leon Roth, the first professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote: "In spite of himself, and in spite of the Amsterdam community, [Spinoza] remained in his innermost being a son of the People of the Book." But whereas Roth came to this conclusion from a consideration of Spinoza's ideas on philosophy as a practical art of living, Goldstein arrives there on the basis of his universalism, noting that "for him salvation rests in the dissolution of one's personal identity, in a merging into the whole." 

The critic Harold Bloom, for one, has already criticized Goldstein in his review for "desperately arguing" that Spinoza's "detachment and loftiness were defenses against the sufferings of Jewish history" ("The Heretic Jew," New York Times Book Review, June 18). Yet we might go a step further by taking up Goldstein's invitation to read her as she reads Spinoza. In short, what deep need brings Goldstein to strain toward such a view? What compels her to betray Spinoza in just this way? 

After all, the impulse to read Spinoza as a Jewish thinker derives not merely from the kind of Jewish pride that commonly claims Freud or Einstein. Nor does it stem from the obverse of that generosity Heinrich Heine remarked upon when he said, "[T]he gentiles were generous enough to grant [Spinoza] the title of Jew, of which the Jews had deprived him." Nor does Goldstein's denial that Spinoza had simply been motivated by reason—by what he calls the peculiarly binding character of the known—follow merely from her indulging the temptation to reduce philosophy to autobiography. 

Goldstein's interpretive gesture originates, rather, in the old desire to see Spinoza as a precursor. This time, however, the ties between past and present are less ideological than psychological. This time, Spinoza is made to appear as the first American Jew: a Jew free of Jewish commitments and attachments, a successful immigrant fulfilling the promise of America—the very sort of liberal democracy Spinoza defends. In other words, the gesture is born of the American Jewish desire to be guiltlessly universal, to lose the trappings of Judaism in a way that America uniquely allows and yet still be somehow "Jewish at the core." Emphasizing the way Spinoza moved into the previously impossible space that was neither Jewish nor Christian, Goldstein celebrates him, actually, as the first Jew to transcend his tradition, and by transcending it to embody it.