Simcha Wood's Reviews > Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

Betraying Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein
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's review
Apr 15, 2011

it was amazing
Read from April 05 to 15, 2011

Betraying Spinoza is ostensibly a biography of the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. At its heart, however, the book is a rich mix of memoir, history, and speculative biographical narrative.

The author approaches Spinoza and his work from various angles. She finds parallels between her own experiences growing up as an orthodox Jew and the philosopher's upbringing and ideas. She explores the history of the Spanish and Portuguese Marranos and the establishment and development of Amsterdam's community of Sephardic Jews in an attempt to shed light on Spinoza's attitudes toward religion and Jewish identity. And, finally, she concludes with a long, speculative (but not wholly fabricated) narrative of the philosopher's life from his childhood as a gifted yeshiva student, through his excommunication from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, to the final hours before his early death - all punctuated by passages from the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and his magnum opus, The Ethics. The result is a sympathetic (though thoroughly un- or even anti-Spinozist) and moving portrait of Spinoza as both a philosopher and a human being.

As someone who'd always known Spinoza primarily as a footnote to Descartes, I found this book to be an enlightening and an engaging read. Goldstein brings her novelist's sensibilities to its composition, but does so without sacrificing its scholarly rigor.

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