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Free Radical

Baruch Spinoza inspired Rebecca Goldstein. So why is she out to betray him?

Stephen Vider
May 15, 2006

Betraying Spinoza, the fourth book in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series, presents the 17th-century rationalist as both the first modern thinker and the original yeshiva dropout. Baruch Spinoza’s rejection of traditional tenets—and his questioning of what it means to be a Jew—scandalized his Amsterdam community but has inspired disciples from Moses Mendelssohn to Albert Einstein to Rebecca Goldstein. A novelist and professor of philosophy at Trinity College, Goldstein dares to inhabit the mind of a man who preached objectivity, offering a lucid and often surprising exploration of how Spinoza’s Sephardic roots informed his greatest work, The Ethics.

Who was Spinoza?

He is the greatest philosopher the Jews produced. And he was excommunicated in the most vehement and irreconcilable terms possible, before writing the works for which he is now famous. The 17th-century Amsterdam community of Sephardic Jews—people returning to Judaism after being separated from it by the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition—used excommunication, as many communities did at that time, as a means of control. People were often put in kherem for days, sometimes years. There were conditions for returning to the fold, and then they did. Spinoza’s excommunication was final, there’s nothing he can do. Every curse is called down on the head of this 23-year-old philosophically inclined young merchant. It really is part of the mystery: what had that boy done that made people so angry?

Did he leave any clues? What do we know about Spinoza’s life?

We have a lot of his letters, but unfortunately they were edited posthumously by his friends, who deleted almost everything personal. But once he was excommunicated, he said, “Well, good, now I can what I want to do, which is to figure out the nature of reality for myself.” He attracted a small group of disciples, and he moved three times, and always tried to be quite isolated. He was offered a professorship in Heidelberg, but turned it down because he wasn’t sure they would give him the freedom to think, unconstrained by any requirements aside from logical necessity. That’s all he lived for.

You’ve written five novels. How did that affect your approach to Betraying Spinoza?

I was trained to write philosophy in this voiceless, storyless, centerless, impersonal way. Once I started writing novels, that way of writing didn’t interest me anymore. To find a way to write about philosophy that could bring to bear what I’ve learned as a novelist—a way that wouldn’t falsify the philosophy but would somehow allow me to inhabit character and voice and mood and utilize all the tricks of a novelist—that’s taken me a long time to find.

How are you betraying Spinoza?

Let me count the ways. First of all, to try to understand his philosophy by looking at the man: Why would he have come to such a point of view? On philosophical grounds, that sort of approach is really forbidden, and especially on Spinozistic grounds. His is the most impersonal of all approaches to the truth, and to bring in the person seems to betray the very spirit of that point of view. The second betrayal is to look at him as a Jew—that kind of contingency is irrelevant on his terms. But I argue that we can better get at the full philosophical content of Spinoza if we actually look at him in the context of his history, which happens also to be Jewish history.

Is your work in philosophy what connects you to Spinoza?

Well, I’ve been teaching 17th-century rationalists for many years, and I’m very interested in the claims of pure reason and how far we can get with it. But I first heard about Spinoza when I was a student in an Orthodox, right-wing, all-girls yeshiva as a kind of cautionary tale: this is the risk one takes in asking forbidden questions. You might become an excommunicated heretic like Spinoza. He was given unusual brilliance and he could have used it for the good of Jews, and instead was a traitor of some sort. It made a tremendous impression. I can almost remember, word for word, everything my teacher said in that lesson, because it struck me as so paradoxical that one can err simply by thinking too broadly and too rigorously. And it touched a part of me that was very much worrying about whether I could continue this way of life—and if I couldn’t, boy was that going to cause a lot of havoc in my family.

But reading Spinoza today, it seems very religious, there’s a lot of talk about God.

But it’s not in any way a personal God. Spinoza’s God is logic, basically. It’s the sum of all the reasons for everything. But it’s not a God whom one can pray to, and certainly not a God who would enter into a special relationship with a people.

And Spinoza was intent on disproving any sense of a special relationship or chosen people. Why?

For Spinoza, being a Jew is a problem to be solved. The continued identification of this people and their stubborn insistence on their difference has only brought woe on them, and the best way to solve this unbearable suffering that the Jews have been subjected to is to cure them of their beliefs in a difference. When he was a boy, there were stories of people who had gone back to Portugal and who were burned in the auto-da-fé—an ongoing calamity, the worst calamity of the Jewish people until the Holocaust. These stories clearly made an impression. Spinoza’s rationalism is a kind of answer to this tragedy, to the tragedy of all racist hatred—and the Inquisition wasn’t just religious hatred but racial. It’s saying that, to the extent that we’re rational, none of the differences between us matter. To the extent that we’re rational we actually share the same identity.

Part of our salvation—our secular salvation, as he sees it—is to deconstruct one’s own identity. I believe that somehow he had indicated this even at an early stage of his philosophy, that being Jewish is not the essence of one’s identity for those who are Jews; it’s not ethically essential. That’s a viewpoint I don’t think that Judaism could tolerate—not in his time, not in ours.

It’s sometimes said that Freud took Jewish mysticism and universalized or secularized it. Is that true in any way of Spinoza?

Yes, I think a strong case could be made. There are these two, very different scholarly traditions in Judaism, the mystical and the Talmudic. And in Amsterdam, the mystical tradition—kabbalah—was very, very important. At least two of the three major rabbis in Amsterdam in Spinoza’s time were kabbalists. In the Tractatus Spinoza indicates that he knows the kabbalah and doesn’t think much of it. But there are certain preoccupations—why is there something rather than nothing; the meaning of suffering—that are the two ultimate mysteries that kabbalah wrestles with. And Spinoza wrestles with them as well.

Also, the Platonic spirit of Spinoza may have been transferred to him by way of kabbalah. Maimonides is Aristotelean, and Jewish philosophy, to the extent that it was anything, was Aristotelean following him. In the 17th century, what they’re rebelling against is Aristotle. But Plato is very much in the air in kabbalah. It’s much more a mathematic model. You understand something by grasping the abstractions that it realizes. And there’s really a return to Platonism, not explicitly, but implicitly, in Spinoza.

In Betraying Spinoza, you talk about the surge of Jewish messianism in Spinoza’s time, specifically the appearance of Sabbetai Sevi. Do you think there’s anything messianic about Spinoza’s writing?

That’s another aspect in which he’s a Jew, and, as much as he tells us that we have to transcend our circumstances through reason, he is coming out of those circumstances. And his focus on, “How do we save ourselves? How do we transcend the conditions of our birth and also make ourselves as secure from suffering as possible?” is strongly, if secularly, messianic. For Spinoza, the only way we can do this is by thinking clearly and merging with what we understand, and in that way become bigger than ourselves, become one with the world. We have to become our own messiahs.

Why in Betraying Spinoza did you decide to focus on The Ethics rather than the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, which seems, just from its title, more obviously concerned with religion?

There is, I think, good speculation that the Tractatus grew out of the apologia that Spinoza had originally written immediately after his excommunication, so it’s an angrier book, very anti-clerical and anti-religious. The Ethics is self-contained and calm and impersonal and extraordinary. It tries to do everything—every claim that’s ever been made for a reason, it tries to make. I wanted to make it less impersonal. I wanted to be able to present the gist of it in a very natural way. And I wanted to show that beneath its unruffled surface there is the thrashing about with Jewish identity.

What is the gist of The Ethics?

That we can answer, through the exercise of our reason, the basic questions that religion, and the kabbalah in particular, wrestle with. We can understand why the world must exist, and why it must exist exactly as it does exist—because logic dictates it does. That gives Spinoza a way of answering the problem of suffering: The world wasn’t created with any particular viewpoint towards making us comfortable, and so, bad things will, of course, happen. But we can rise above it all. We can make for ourselves, purely by thinking, a life that’s worth living. We don’t need any religions founded on authority or scriptures or revelation.

How has studying The Ethics changed your ethics?

Everything I think about goes through that matrix. Just spending enough time in the company of Spinoza induces a disinterested point of view—a way of viewing oneself from a distance that can minimize suffering when things are going very badly and also make me act a little more loftily when I ought to.

In the epilogue of Betraying Spinoza, you trace a lineage from the Tractatus to the Declaration of Independence.

Spinoza was most interested in creating a state in which it would be safe to philosophize and trying to rein in the more pernicious forces of religion. Spinoza had already died when John Locke had to leave England and went to Amsterdam. But in Amsterdam, Locke did hang with these dissident Protestant thinkers who Spinoza had made a big impression on. And when Locke went back to England, he produced his writings on tolerance that influenced the people who created this extraordinary country that we’re fortunate enough to live in. It’s a wonderful kind of conceit to think that this reviled Jew might have played a role in creating America.

You’ve been studying Spinoza for more than 30 years. Is there anything you learned from writing Betraying Spinoza that surprised you?

What I discovered is that, despite himself, Spinoza identified with Jews. Albert Burgh, a former student, starts preaching to Spinoza to become a Catholic, and Spinoza suddenly starts talking about somebody who converted to Judaism and was burned to death by the Inquisition. First he starts sort of facetiously talking about it: “Well, you want to talk about martyrdom. Look, nobody has martyrdom stories like the Jews.” And then, suddenly—you can tell by the way he writes about it—he’s moved by the story. He’s moved by the transcendence of Jewish loyalty, even as he philosophically condemns it. So, I think in his person he’s not quite as consistent as he was in his philosophy. But of course, nobody can be—not even Spinoza.