Spin­oza: The Out­cast Thinker

Devra Lehmann
  • Review
By – December 22, 2014

Spin­oza: The Out­cast Thinker by Devra Lehmann | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

Seri­ous. Sad. Infor­ma­tive. First-time author Devra Lehmann pro­duces an out­standing expla­na­tion of the once-shock­ing phi­los­o­phy of the now-revered Bene­dict de Spin­oza. The detailed, chrono­log­i­cal biog­ra­phy opens with a flash­back to the most dra­mat­ic event in his life, also one of the most incred­i­ble in the his­to­ry of Judaism: his 1656 excommunica­tion in a staged syn­a­gogue cer­e­mo­ny replete with black can­dles, tolling bells, and curs­es. A life­long Jew who could nev­er again asso­ciate with fam­i­ly, friends, or com­mu­ni­ty, Spin­oza sur­vives this trau­ma to cre­ate. After that he is a shad­ow, more mind than touch­able per­son, ever in the back­ground as the book pars­es his rad­i­cal ideas. The trap­pings of his sad life, sat­is­fied only by his thoughts and writ­ings, are a mea­ger exis­tence as a lens grinder, a board­er in strangers’ hous­es, com­bined liv­ing and work­ing quar­ters, which pro­vide fer­tile fuel for his lung dis­ease as his fer­tile mind grinds out books of new con­cepts, cen­turies ahead of their time. 

Lehmann does a won­der­ful job, clear­ly pre­sent­ing Spinoza’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary think­ing, his brav­ery in insist­ing on rea­son in a world ruled by the­ol­o­gy, and in con­tin­u­ing to write and pub­lish (not to men­tion the courage of his pub­lish­ers). Our mod­ern indi­vid­ual free­dom and demo­c­ra­t­ic the­o­ry rise from Spinoza’s con­cepts; Lehmann reveals these against the back­drop of sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry Hol­land. She devel­ops the fury of estab­lished Judaism which reviles Spinoza’s recast­ing of God in whom he believed, but removed as cre­ator, Torah writer, dis­penser of eth­i­cal rewards, and des­ig­na­tor of cho­sen peo­ple. The Jew­ish com­munity brands him not man, but instru­ment of the dev­il. But Spin­oza is a man, a man of his own mind and heart. He seeks truth because truth is the ulti­mate good. Lehmann pro­vides almost as many illus­tra­tions and maps as pages of text. This for­mat adds to weight­i­ness: the engrav­ings and wood­cuts, all excel­lent choic­es, are not well repro­duced, but murky with long cap­tions. Lehmann’s thought­ful clar­i­ty val­i­dates Spinoza’s explo­sive impact on author­i­ty, tra­di­tion and reli­gion. Phi­los­o­phy dom­i­nates. Read­ers think, but also feel for this frail man with the strong mind whose ideas under­pin our mod­ern world. High­ly recom­mended for ages 13 and up.

Ellen G. Cole, a retired librar­i­an of the Levine Library of Tem­ple Isa­iah in Los Ange­les, is a past judge of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Awards and a past chair­per­son of that com­mit­tee. She is a co-author of the AJL guide, Excel­lence in Jew­ish Children’s Lit­er­a­ture. Ellen is the recip­i­ent of two major awards for con­tri­bu­tion to Juda­ic Librar­i­an­ship, the Fan­ny Gold­stein Mer­it Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries and the Dorothy Schroed­er Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She is on the board of AJLSC.

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