On the face of things, reading a book about Baruch Spinoza is not an easy task for a religious Jew. After all, Spinoza is one of the great rationalist philosophers who started his “career” by annoying his Jewish community in Amsterdam so much that eventually it was decided to penalise him with the Jewish version of an excommunication. Spinoza went on to change his name to Benedictus (Baruch in Hebrew and Benedictus in Latin mean “blessed”), to learn Latin (forbidden to Jews in those days) and to develop a view of the world that equated God with nature, a big “no no” in Jewish theology. In many respects, Spinoza is considered to be the first secular Jew, or in the words of this book’s subtitle: the renegade Jew who gave us modernity.
Rebecca Goldstein is a (Jewish) professor of philosophy who wrote an autobiography of Spinoza. She opens the book by telling us about a childhood experience of hers: being “taught” about Spinoza by a religious teacher in her school. It was the understandably highly critical position of this teacher with regards to Spinoza that sparked her interest in the man and his work. Goldstein went on to study Spinoza in depth and teach courses about his philosophy (and that of Descartes) at university. She shares with the reader the love she has for the philosopher and her emotions at seeing her students slowly opening up to gain appreciation of his notoriously difficult writings.
Most of this book tries to reconstruct Spinoza’s life based on facts: what we know about him from his works and from what others have written about him. Goldstein introduces the reader to some of Spinoza’s philosophy throughout the book and some parts are indeed heavy-going (especially the discussion about his magnum opus: The Ethics). But it is towards the end of the book that her narrative turns to be really interesting. She breaks from the strictly academic approach and tries to imagine what Spinoza would have felt towards the end of his life. She uses a historical event – the opening of the main synagogue in Amsterdam – to tell us an imaginary tale about Spinoza coming back to watch the ceremony from a distance. We read about his throughts as he ruminated about the fate of this community of Portugese Jews who fled the inquisition in their country to find a new life in this relatively tolerant Protestant country. To me, the story of this community, which Goldstein explains at length and in vivid colours, was an eye-opener. It made a lot of what Spinoza wrote about clearer and put his philosophy in the right context.