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Summer Reading: Acclaimed novelist brings philosopher Spinoza to life

By Rabbi Dena A. Feingold
Special to The Chronicle

June 19th, 2008

Seventeenth century Jewish philosophy is probably not most people’s idea of “summer reading,” but if any book relating to philosophy can fit the bill, Rebecca Goldstein’s “Betraying Spinoza” (Schocken Books, 2006) is it.

Rabbi Dena A. Feingold

Rabbi Dena A. Feingold

Goldstein is undoubtedly better known for her fiction, such as “Mazel” and “The Mind-Body Problem.” And in truth, although I have long had an interest in Jewish philosophy, part of the reason I picked up the biography “Betraying Spinoza” was because I loved “Mazel”and the amazing way that Goldstein captured the voice and idiom of the Yiddish-speaking characters in that book.

If anyone could make Baruch Spinoza come alive, I thought, Rebecca Goldstein could. I was right.

“Betraying Spinoza” is part of Nextbook’s “Jewish Encounters” series. Edited by Jonathan Rosen, the series is “a project devoted to the promotion of Jewish literature, culture, and ideas.”

Now a fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein was a Barnard College philosophy professor in a former life. And long before that, she was a student at an all-girls Orthodox Jewish day school in New York City.

Given the span of influences and interests in her life — from a typical Orthodox day school education to the academic world of secular philosophy to the art of writing fiction — Goldstein is uniquely positioned to give a lively tutorial/story on the thinking/life of Baruch Spinoza.

The provocative title of the book, “Betraying Spinoza,” refers to Goldstein’s professed goal of revealing the life of Spinoza as a person — a pursuit that Spinoza himself would have deemed worthless. Spinoza was the ultimate rationalist, who believed that the goal of existence was, in Goldstein’s words, “rational objectivity.”

That is, again in Goldstein’s words: “all the accidents of one’s existence, the circumstances into which one was born — including one’s own family history, one’s racial, religious, cultural, sexual or national identity — appear as naught and the lingering emotional attachments to such accidents are only evidence of impartial rationality and obstacles in the way of achieving a life worth living.”

And so, in delving into the story of Spinoza’s life and speculating about its meaning and the influences that his Jewish upbringing had on his thinking, Goldstein sees herself as betraying what Spinoza was all about. But, in so doing, she has written a masterful piece.

The subtitle of the book, “The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity,” refers to Spinoza as the forerunner of modern philosophy. His ideas can be seen even in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, in its (interpreted) insistence on the separation of church and state.

Excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656 at the age of 23 because the leaders of the community deemed his ideas heretical, Spinoza took on the first name “Benedictus,” the Latin equivalent of Baruch, and developed his thinking while living out the remainder of his brief life in Rijnsburg, Netherlands.

Many would argue that Spinoza should not even be considered a Jewish thinker. Some would say that he is not even a Jew. Certainly, in the eyes of Goldstein’s Orthodox high school teacher, Mrs. Schoenfeld, he was an embarrassment to Judaism.

And yet, drawing on his family’s past as secret Jews who fled from the Portuguese Inquisition to the Netherlands, Goldstein manages to show us just how Jewish Spinoza was in his thinking. She illuminates the ways in which he remained connected to Judaism, perhaps in spite of himself, throughout his life.

This is an excellent biography, augmented with amusing snatches of Goldstein’s own autobiography, and intertwined with wonderful pedagogy in the discipline of philosophy. And it’s only 263 pages, without the notes.

How many books have all of that? It’s definitely worth taking to the cottage this summer.

Rabbi Dena A. Feingold is the spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha.

Would you like to share a great Jewish book with the community? If so, contact Austin Greenberg at 414-390-5775 or austing@milwaukeejewish.org.