This May Day, a Jewish Refusenik looks back on the Spring of 1985
On July 27, 1656, Amsterdam’s Jewish community declared Baruch Spinoza excommunicated, and, at the age of twenty-three, he became the most famous heretic in Judaism. His “abominable heresies”? He denied the immortality of the soul and challenged the accepted belief that the Torah was literally given by God. His work remains as resonant and provocative today as it was when it first appeared. In Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein sets out to rediscover the flesh-and-blood man often buried beneath the veneer of rigorous rationality and to provide a comprehensive cultural and religious context for the formation of his ideas. Here is a Spinoza both hauntingly emblematic and deeply human, both heretic and hero—a surprisingly contemporary figure ripe for our own uncertain age.
I first heard the name Baruch Spinoza uttered as an admonition, a cautionary tale of unbridled human intelligence blindly seeking its own doom. This is what happens, the voice of my teacher warned, when someone thinks that human reason is sufficient unto itself and that the truth divinely given to us can be ignored. This is what happens when philosophy takes the place of Torah. Baruch Spinoza had come from a good family of God-fearing Jews, similar to your families, girls—all too similar in certain ways. Like so many of your parents and grandparents, your aunts and uncles and cousins, Spinoza’s family had suffered le-kiddush Ha-Shem, for the sanctification of the Holy Name. No, not in Germany or Austria or Poland. Not in Hungary, Rumania, or Russia. The persecution had been in Spain and Portugal, starting in the fifteenth century and continuing for hundreds of years. The Espinozas, the philosopher’s family, had been Marranos, those who, even though they had been forced by the Church to convert to Christianity, still continued to practice Judaism in secret, hiding their observance of the Torah from the cruel edicts of the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. The slightest suspicion that they still obeyed the Torah—that they remembered the Shabbos and kept it holy, that they would not eat pig—and they would have been subjected to brutal torture and horrible death. In Spanish, auto-da-fé means acts of faith. What it really meant was the mass trial of those accused of being secret Jews, and then the mass burning to death of all those who were condemned. And still, as you well know girls, know, many of you, from the examples of your own families, not even this terror was able to extinguish the spark of Yiddishkeit from their souls. Look at what your own families had gone through under Hitler, and yet one of the first things that concerned them when they got to this country was to make sure that the next generation—your generation, girls—would still learn Torah. They never lost their faith. And that was how it was for Spinoza’s family. After generations of their dangerous secret Jewish allegiance, his family, like many others before them and after, managed to make their way to the Dutch city of Amsterdam, where a community of Portuguese-Jewish exiles was thriving as it could in few other European cities of that day. Amsterdam was the most tolerant city in all of Europe. But don’t think that it was as free as what you girls have come to take for granted here. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it was as tolerant as New York City in 1967. Baruch Spinoza had reaped the benefits of the long years of danger and suffering that his family had endured. He had been born into blessed circumstances, had been educated at the yeshiva the community of Portuguese refugees had organized almost as soon as they got to their new shores. It was, by all accounts, an excellent school. Rabbis from other parts of Europe who visited the Talmud Torah of Amsterdam marveled at the level of learning attained there. Baruch had studied under worthy rabbis, including the chief rabbi of Amsterdam, Rabbi Morteira, and he had distinguished himself. He was a brilliant student, a boy born with blessings. His very name, of course, means “blessed” in the holy tongue. Yet this misguided young man, my teacher continued, ascending toward the climax, who might have used his superior mind to increase our knowledge of the Torah, had died with the pagan name of Benedictus, excommunicated and cursed by his own people, condemned and reviled as a dangerous heretic even by believing Christians. Let the history of the philosopher Spinoza serve as a warning to you, girls, against the dangers of asking the wrong questions. In my teacher’s telling, this Baruch Spinoza might have been one of the no-goodnik boys attending one of the several yeshivas in the neighborhood, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Mrs. Schoenfeld taught at an all-girls yeshiva high school. There was only one such girls’ school in the neighborhood, but several boys’ schools, anachronistic reminders of the once teeming Jewish immigrant neighborhood that was largely dismantled by then. I had a long commute to it from a suburb out in Westchester, where my father served as the community’s cantor. It was an extremely Orthodox school, the sort that had to be single-sex, since its outlook included the dictum that there be no mixing of girls and boys until it was time to think of marriage, and then the necessary encounters would be carefully supervised. And yet, despite the many oughts and ought-nots drilled into us, some among us still managed to achieve waywardness. There were girls who were not as pious as they might have been. There was a certain kosher pizza shop on East Broadway, favored by certain girls from my school, the kind who rolled their skirts of regulation length (down at least to the calf) up above their knees as soon as they were out of the sight of our teachers. These girls would go to the infamous pizza shop for the purpose of flirting with “bumulkes,” as my father used to call them, bums with yarmulkes, yeshiva boys who were out on the streets or in pizza shops, up to no good, when they ought to have been in the bais medresh, the house of study, bent over their Talmudic tomes from morning until night. Mrs. Schoenfeld’s discussion of Baruch Spinoza suggested that she had seen his type before, and so, she feared, had we. A boy who thinks he knows better than his rabbis and the Torah, who flaunts the Law and flirts with girls. Baruch Spinoza, a bumulke.
Baruch Spinoza, a quiet young man who wore a signet ring inscribed with the word caute Latin for “cautiously,” sent shock waves through 17th-century Europe with his views on rationalism and God. In Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Goldstein breathes life into this reluctant radical, offering a dizzyingly personal look at the author of a most impersonal and universal philosophical system. The following questions are a means to begin exploring this surprisingly contemporary figure.
Fractured Identities in a Shattered World
“Late in the twentieth century Catholic Mexican-Americans, in Arizona and other western states, would reveal secrets to university researchers, telling of their families’ practice of not eating bread during Holy Week, and of closing all the shutters and lighting candles in secret cupboards on Saturday nights.” -Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza
In many ways, the Sephardim of 17th-century Amsterdam can be considered an immigrant success story. Seventy-five years after arriving there, Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition had formed a vibrant, affluent community, working as merchants, adopting Dutch names and style of dress, and building the largest synagogue in all of Europe. But beneath the surface roiled countless anxieties. How was Spinoza, the son of first-generation refugees, affected by growing up in a community where Jews attended mass funerals for victims burned at the stake hundreds of miles away, where Inquisitorial spies roamed the streets, where the danger of implicating family members or friends still on the Iberian peninsula remained all too real? How did the Amsterdam community’s preoccupation with identity shape Spinoza’s philosophy?
If Spinoza’s assertion that there are no ethnic or religious distinctions is a personal reaction to growing up in a community obsessed with questions of Jewishness, does that complicate the extreme rationalism of his philosophy? Does it humanize it? How does the legacy of the Marranos, who were forced to keep their identities hidden, manifest itself in Spinoza’s philosophy? Are there any remnants in contemporary Judaism of this inward and self-reliant process?
Goldstein writes that the Inquisition forced questions o f identity “into the forefront of the consciousness of Spinoza’s Jewish community (just as the Jewish calamity of the Holocaust has forced these questions back into an embarrassed silence).” What are the forces at work that would cause these similar catastrophes to induce such different reactions? How might the Holocaust affect contemporary thinkers the way the Inquisition clearly affected Spinoza?
In 1619, not long after the Sephardim began pouring into Amsterdam, the city council granted them the right to practice their religion—as long as they adhered to Mosaic law and remained observant Jews. How does this compare to the approaches contemporary Western societies take to their religious minorities?
In what sense is Spinoza, who was excommunicated at the age of 23 and never tried to reenter the Jewish community, a Jewish thinker? Is this designation different today than it was during his time? How do we decide what constitutes a Jew? Is it an ethical or cultural category, or an immutable genetic trait? And what do such designations mean in our post-Holocaust world?
Memoir and Storytelling
“Dr. Fischelson concluded that even the so-called spiritual men had abandoned reason and were doing their utmost to pander to the mob. Now and again he visited a library and browsed through some of the modern histories of philosophy, but he found that the professors did not understand Spinoza, quoted him incorrectly, attributed their own muddled ideas to the philosopher. Although20Dr. Fischelson was well aware that anger was an emotion unworthy of those who walk the path of reason, he would become furious, and would quickly close the book and push it from him. “Idiots,” he would mutter, “asses, upstarts.” And he would vow never again to look at modern philosophy.” —I.B. Singer, “The Spinoza of Market Street”
For Spinoza, personal identities—ethnic, religious, the specific circumstances of one’s birth and life—were of no consequence. Yet Goldstein constructs her narrative on the premise that, to understand Spinoza, she must delve into the particulars of his existence. What does such a betrayal do to our comprehension of Spinoza? Does it enhance or complicate it in any way? Can we truly understand the formation of Spinoza’s ideas if we are learning about them from such an anti-Spinozist point of view?
Goldstein is writing from two distinct perspectives—as a philosopher and as a novelist. In what sense do these identities color the narrative? Does one override the other?
Goldstein also “betrays” Spinoza by utilizing her skills as a novelist and imagining his story. What sort of effect does this turn—a break from fact into fiction—have on us as readers? What does this reconstruction add to Spinoza’s story? Does Spinoza become more lifelike through Goldstein’s imaginings? Would it matter if the scene of Spinoza walking by the festivities celebrating the dedication of the new Sephardic synagogue was pure fiction?
As Goldstein points out, the memoir is the most characteristic literary genre of our day, and she includes a significant portion of her own story to shed light on the philosopher. What does it say about our time that we hunger for these stories, and indeed expect that we have a right to the details of people’s lives? And what would Spinoza say about that desire?
Jewish tradition relies on the power of storytelling; at Passover, participants are asked to recite the Haggadah as if they personally escaped from Egypt. Was Spinoza ever able to fully reject storytelling? If not, how did it seep into his consciousness?
Community vs. Free Thought
"[A] most pestilential book.” —Johan Georg Graevius, professor of rhetoric, on the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus
“I have read the book by Spinoza. I am saddened by the fact that such a learned man has, as it seems, sunk so low.” —Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
“I absolutely dread quarrels.” —Spinoza
When Goldstein learned that Spinoza withheld his radical views until both parents passed away, maintaining shalom bayis, peace within the home, the philosopher “burst into vivid life before me…The thought occurred to me that he must have been a lovable man.” How else does the tension between Spinoza’s community and his desire to explore his ideas manifest itself? What are other examples of compromises that he made?
Upon learning he had been excommunicated, Spinoza responded, “I enter gladly on the path that is opened to me, with the consolation that my departure will be more innocent than was the exodus of the early Hebrews from Egypt.” Would it have been possible for Spinoza to achieve the fullness of his philosophy if he had not been excommunicated? Knowing what we know of Spinoza, do you think he would have left the community eventually on his own accord?
Years after Spinoza was excommunicated, he was routinely referred to as the “Jew of Voorberg.” In a letter to a former student written in the final months of his life, Spinoza begins by disassociating himself from Jews and ends up, almost despite himself, betraying a deep sympathy for his former community. Why wasn’t Spinoza ever able to leave his Jewishness behind? Is it possible for anyone to truly shed his or her identity?
The rabbis in Amsterdam were in constant battle to determine what it meant to be a Jew, trying to prod those unfamiliar with Jewish law onto the right path and utilizing the decree of excommunication for those disinclined to follow their way. What did their strict control do to the community at large? Were the rabbis, like Spinoza, simply trying to impose a rational set of rules in order to override the countless variables of extraordinary circumstances and experience? At times, as in the case of Uriel da Costa, who committed suicide after being publicly humiliated in the synagogue, did their aggression go too far, mirroring the oppressors they left behind in the Iberian Peninsula?
Excommunication in 17th-century Jewish Amsterdam was generally not as severe a measure as our understanding of the word might suggest. But Spinoza’s excommunication was unusually harsh—there was no possibility for reconciliation—and vague on the precise nature of his offenses. What had Spinoza done to so incite the rabbis’ ire?
Spinoza and the Contemporary World
"I believe in Spinoza’s God.” -Albert Einstein, upon being asked if he believed in God
Spinoza’s influence has been vast, from Leibniz (who downplayed it) to John Locke and Einstein. What are some contemporary applications of his theories?
Spinoza held that God was a noninterventionist, and the “universe ruled only by the cause and effect of natural laws, without purpose or design.” To much of 17th-century Europe, the philosopher’s religion of reason was blasphemous, its proponent an “insane and evil man” (as one bishop called him). Today, a thinker might not be exiled or excommunicated for espousing similar views, but many still perceive certain bodies of scientific knowledge as threats to religious ideas, just as they did in Spinoza’s day. What is a contemporary example of such a controversy? And how does modern Judaism grapple with these questions?
Spinoza’s views were considered so abhorrent and incendiary during his lifetime that for a century after his death he could only be admired in secret, much as the Marranos had nurtured their Jewishness under concealment. Would Spinoza still be considered heretical today? Would his insistence on the rule of reason and unimportance of ethnic, religious, and cultural differences be considered more acceptable today than in his own time? What are some contemporary positions that have touched a similarly raw nerve?
Goldstein writes that Spinoza’s “ecstatic rationalism is a solution to…the problem of Jewish history.” How does the philosopher’s impersonal and universal system speak to the particular problem of the Jews?
“Elegant…splendid… Goldstein (whose book belongs to a series of short volumes on Jewish thought) wants to reclaim Spinoza’s famously dismissive attitude toward notions like ethnic identity as a paradoxically Jewish position.” Continue reading
“Rebecca Goldstein…manages to write both a popular biography that explains Spinoza’s thought with considerable seriousness and a philosophic biography that is a remarkably good read. That her account becomes partly autobiographical is ultimately a strength of the book, since her experience with Spinoza stands in for that of many of her readers.” Continue reading
“Rebecca Goldstein aims to show how much his heritage nonetheless pervades his later thought. To do this, she offers both a precis of Spinoza’s life and work and a history of her fascination with both.” Continue reading
"My last book was a nonfiction about Spinoza. It was [subtitled] “The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity." Through that book I got drawn, in a peripheral kind of way, into the debate between the so-called "new atheists" and others. I started being invited to speak at various of the conferences of the new atheists, and I was just struck by the lack of communication between [atheists and believers]. I was struck by the lack of charity and the failure – on both sides – to understand what the other was getting at. And the amount of emotion that was involved." Continue reading
REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN is the author of Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel and of five novels and a book of short stories. She is a professor of philosophy and a Fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute. She lives … Continue reading