Idol Chatter

If you’re the kind who likes to hit the beach armed not with literary fluff but with serious reading, surf’s up: two of the year’s most important and engaging books with a religious twist have been published just in time for summer vacation. From Nextbook/Schocken Books comes “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity,” by Rebecca Goldstein. Goldstein meditates on the thought and image of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century philosopher, who was excommunicated by his Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam at the age of 23, but who remains a hero to Jews even today as one who fashioned a Jewish identity outside strict orthodoxy.

As this review in The Forward points out, Goldstein, a novelist as well as a philosophy prof, is at her best when she introduces moments from her own life to elucidate the Jewish community’s complicated relationship with a thinker whose philosophy often swerves closer to Buddhism, according to this interview with Goldstein, than traditional Judaism.

If Spinoza draws his fascination from being an outcast from his faith, Henry Ward Beecher was the ultimate insider. A son of the monolithic Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry took as his birthright the mantle of public intellectual, turning his pulpit at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church into a forum for debating slavery, women’s rights, temperance, and other controversies of the age, and turning himself into “the most important person in America,” in the words of his contemporary, Abraham Lincoln. Debby Applegate’s new biography captures why we’re not taught much about Beecher in high school: Not only was Beecher’s life marred by scandal—he was put on trial for adultery in 1875—but he helped invent the particular swirl of money, politics, celebrity, and religion that invigorates American life but also marks its most contentious and turbulent times.

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