Thursday, December 28, 2006

How to Murder a Philosopher Who Has Been Dead for Over 300 Years.

For Hanukkah my mother bought me Betraying Spinoza: the Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. To be fair to my mother, I asked for it. This book is a perfect example of how one should not handle the subject of history. It is difficult to describe what the book is about mainly because it is an incoherent ramble without any clear thesis.
Act I of the book deals Goldstein's reminisces of her dealings with Spinoza at various points in her life. She tells of the rant given by by her teacher, Mrs. Schoenfeld, in her all girls Yeshiva high school in New York. Spinoza in this case was used as an example of the sort of dangers of thinking for oneself and asking too many questions. Goldstein next moves on to her philosophy professors in college who trashed Spinoza's metaphysics and who also saw Spinoza as the ultimate example of intellectual arrogance for thinking that the human mind, through sheer logic, could comprehend the entire universe. Goldstein though, later on as a teacher in her own right fell in love with Spinoza. She is not clear why she came to love Spinoza, particularly since in practice she rejects almost all of his thought. I have no idea why someone like Goldstein would approve of Spinoza more then those "irrational," "superstitious" kabbalists, which Goldstein decries. One is left with the impression that Goldstein's interest in Spinoza has less to do with the actual thinker then with his utility as a patron saint for secularists.
Act II of this book provides an overview of marrano history and of the Jewish community in Amsterdam, which excommunicated Spinoza. None of the material is original; Goldstein is completely dependent on secondary source material and she does not seem to have any notion of how to get a proper grip on the material. Reading this part of the book could make one forget that this is supposed to be a book about Spinoza.
Act III is a narrative of the life of Spinoza except that in Goldstein's hands Spinoza sounds like Rebecca Goldstein. He went through the Yeshiva system and slowly became disillusioned by it and broke free of the shackles of tradition. His pure intellect simply could not digest the slop he was fed in school. Talk about betraying Spinoza, he has been body snatched. As the man who helped create the modern world, the least one could do is give him his life.
For all of her attacks on Mrs. Schoenfeld's class, Goldstein has managed to learn quite a bit from it. She has managed to reproduce everything wrong with popular orthodox history writing. She does not care for the past except in as it serves as a springboard to polemicize about a contemporary agenda.

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