Spinoza’s Crucible: Faith, Reason Spar in ‘Jerusalem’

Some theater patrons prefer to switch off their brain cells and watch a light-hearted play, while others opt for strenuous mental exercise.

The latter can be guaranteed a vigorous workout in “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation, Amsterdam, July 27, 1656,” in a staged reading July 13-15 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

The play, by David Ives, is presented by L.A. Theatre Works, a low-key but important Los Angeles institution, which drafts high-profile actors to read scripts, without costumes, lighting and other traditional stage effects. The performances are recorded for later radio broadcast.

Such performances may not be to the taste of action aficionados, but as Susan Albert Loewenberg, the group’s producing director, pointed out, “When you sit a few feet away from the stage, without any distractions, you hear the words in a way you’ve never experienced before. It’s a compelling encounter.”

Such a promise, and approach, seems especially suitable in a drama of powerful ideas, such as “New Jerusalem.” Although leavened with humor, the play deals primarily with Spinoza’s arguments for replacing religious tradition with rational, scientific reasoning.

If such an idea appears heretical in the “enlightened” 21st century — imagine any current politician in his right mind espousing such views — to the pious Dutch burghers of 17th century Amsterdam the concept shook the very foundations of their society, however tolerant they were compared to the rest of Europe.

As the subtitle of “New Jerusalem” indicates, the focus of the play is on the historical interrogation of Spinoza by rabbinical and civic authorities, which led to the philosopher’s excommunication from the synagogue and the provision that he be “cut off from the Nation of Israel.”

Spinoza, a descendant of Portuguese Jews fleeing their homeland’s Inquisition, dabbled in painting and was a younger contemporary and admirer of Rembrandt, who lived in the same neighborhood.

This allows playwright Ives to coin one of the great throwaway lines in all literature. In the opening scene, as Spinoza hoists one in a pub, he turns to a friend and casually suggests, “Let’s drop in on Rembrandt.”

The chief intellectual sparring partner and interrogator of the then-24-year-old Spinoza is his revered Sephardic rabbi and mentor, Saul Levi Mortera. Although Mortera is fond of his brilliant and rebellious ex-pupil, and is even half-convinced by some of Spinoza’s reasoning, the rabbi sees no option but to excommunicate Spinoza.

What is at stake, the rabbi feels, is not only the basic foundation of his faith, but the good will of the Dutch authorities, whose religion is as much threatened by the heretic’s views as is the Jewish community.

The key role of Rabbi Mortera is taken by veteran actor Richard Easton, who essayed the same part in the full-scale off-Broadway production of “New Jerusalem,” backed by Yiddish theater star Fyvush Finkel as a synagogue lay leader.

The Montreal-born Easton, 77, has performed in 71 Shakespeare productions, and his classical diction comes across even in a phone interview.

His repertoire also includes contemporary drama, and in 2001 he won a best actor Tony Award for his role in Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love.” He played the title role of Benjamin Franklin in the Emmy-winning PBS series.

Easton said he was initially worried, as a non-Jew, about playing the part of a famous rabbi, but overcame the concern with the help of Jewish friends.

In any case, Easton said, “Spinoza believed that he was sent by God to break the rules. That is not only a Jewish message, but a universal one.”

Producer Loewenberg, who has guided L.A. Theatre Works since its founding in 1974, now disposes of a digital database of more than 300 plays, which are disseminated widely through public radio stations (locally KPCC-FM) and educational institutions.

She collaborates frequently with Britain’s BBC, and many of her productions have enjoyed successful runs at performing arts venues in the United Kingdom.

After more than a decade at the Skirball, L.A. Theatre Works will move this fall to UCLA’s James Bridges Theater. The change of venue will open up Saturday evening performances, not available at the Skirball, Loewenberg said.

“New Jerusalem,” directed by Rosaline Ayres, will open with an evening performance on July 13, followed by both matinee and evening shows July 14 and 15. (The play lasts 90 minutes, which means the Friday evening performance will be over ahead of the announced 10 p.m. closure of the 405 Freeway). For tickets and general Theatre Works information, call (310) 827-0889, or visit www.latw.org.

AUDIO: Interview with author Rebecca Goldstein

Eric Tomb talks with Rebecca Goldstein about her philosophical studies Betraying Spinoza: Ther Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity and Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Goedel and novels The Mind-Body Problem, Mazel and Properties of Light. He then talks with her daughter Yael Goldstein about her first novel Overture. Booktown 30 April 2007 (April 30, 2007) From public radio’s KVMR-FM in Nevada City.

Author: Eric Tomb
Date: 2007-04-30
Keywords: KVMR-FM Book Program

The Spin on Spinoza — Rebel or Traitor?

“Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity” by Rebecca Goldstein (Schoken, $19.95).

In high school, I read and reread two fluent, erudite surveys of philosophy until the pages of the books fell to pieces. By the time the glue bindings cracked on Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy” and Bertrand Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy,” I knew one thing for sure — they both loved Baruch Spinoza.

For Durant, Spinoza was as close as philosophy could come to sainthood — a life of austerity, rationality, independence, principle, rarefied thought. For Russell, the draw was not only Spinoza’s devotion to reason, but his willingness to devote himself fully to the world of thought. For a philosopher to be excommunicated gave him intellectual street cred, a kind of cognitive cache. Spinoza was the real deal.

But I also grew up knowing what Rebecca Goldstein tells us again and again in her about-to-be-released speculative, digressive, charming and lucid book, “Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity”: Traditional Judaism feared and distrusted this child of the enlightenment. Although prominent Jewish thinkers, from Moses Mendelssohn to Solomon Maimon to modern Zionists, have claimed him as their own, every deliberation on Spinoza wonders — is he a Jewish thinker? Surely he does not believe in the chosenness of the Jews or the Divine authorship of Torah or the mandates of halachah — does he even believe in God?

The prosecution has a formidable team. Although Goldstein does not speak very much about the reaction of Jewish scholars to their illustrious precursor, we recall that the great historian Heinrich Graetz, while insisting that Spinoza was one of the greatest thinkers of his time, also described Spinoza’s relation to Judaism as that of a “murderer to his mother.” Hermann Cohen accused Spinoza of “incomprehensible treason” and, needless to say, in more traditional circles Benedict Spinoza in Jewish history is seen with the same sympathy as Benedict Arnold in American history.

Who was this lovable genius and hideous traitor? Spinoza was born in 1632, one of five children. His mother died in his seventh year. He saw around him the multiple traumas that afflicted the Jewish community. Despite the relative tolerance of Amsterdam in that age (their libraries were famous throughout Europe for their extensive, uncensored holdings), there were persecutions of dissidents, excommunications in the Jewish community, vigilance and fear. The historical tidal wave of the Inquisition continued to ripple through Europe. Many Jews were at some stage of hiding: Jews who converted to Christianity and practiced Judaism in secret; Jews who remained sincere Christians but had close Jewish family; Jews converted and then returned to Judaism, weighed down by guilt. These and a thousand other permutations made identity, fidelity and individual contingency very fraught questions. One of the joys of Goldstein’s book is to watch her briefly trace the historical patterns of the Inquisition — work done so extensively in Yirmiyahu Yovel’s admirable two volumes (“Spinoza and Other Heretics”) — and relate it to Spinoza’s character and story.

Here is the “betrayal” of the title. For Spinoza was the most thoroughgoing depersonalizer in the history of philosophy. In the 20th century, existentialism sought to return philosophy to the “I.” It was about my individual, free, personal orientation to existence and my acceptance of the reality of death. Spinoza is the anti-existentialist. The only universal quality that can explain the world is reason. You don’t know my experience, but we can share a syllogism. It is emphatically not about me; a wise man, he wrote, thinks of nothing less often than death.

Spinoza was a monist, believing all things are composed of the same substance and all must have come to be the way they are. There is no room for individual variation, except as a manifestation of the same substance, the whole of which Spinoza called “god.” The way to grasp the substance, and to transcend the false individuality that traps us is through reason. Logic, reason, thought are the tools of salvation and of goodness. To relate Spinoza’s philosophy to the death of his mother or the status of the Jews was precisely to contradict his reigning insight — it is all impersonal and about the austere, diamond-hard, cold and eternal realm of logic. The logical web fastens the universe, and it is our task to understand it better to expand our minds. The intellectual love of God, to know all through logic, is the highest human goal.

One friend of Spinoza’s, quoted by biographer Stephen Nadler, said he never saw the philosopher sad or merry. We might call that a “flattened affect,” but Spinoza would call it philosophical detachment and calm.

In Spinoza’s world, there is no reward and punishment, immortality or freedom; there is the striving to use the mind to achieve union with nature, which is identical with God. We cannot change things, because everything is as it must be: “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, condemn or scorn human actions, but to understand.”

Goldstein, who grew up in an Orthodox girls school and went on to write novels and become a professor of philosophy, traces many threads of influence on Spinoza: his excommunication, his shattered family life, the way Spinoza used kabbalistic questions in his philosophy, his mathematical aspirations (the “ethics” is laid out like a Euclidean geometry.) She also powerfully investigates the Jewish upbringing that not only led him to a book on the composition of the Bible, but, at the end of his life, to compose a Hebrew grammar.

Spinoza was convinced the Torah was the product of human hands. Although he did not invent biblical criticism, he was an early exponent of it. He was also an early supporter of the “this-worldly return” of the Jewish people to Israel.

Spinoza spent most of his adult life grinding lenses in his apartment. He had friends and acquaintances who testified to the gentleness of his character; he turned down academic offers and offers of stipends. Some have seen him as the first truly secular man — he was excommunicated from the Jewish tradition and never became a Christian. But he could not reliably be called secular when he believed so deeply in a god — albeit a God very different from the one he had known in youth. “God-intoxicated” the poet Novalis called him, and he was — drunk with the Divine.

Spinoza died when he was 44 years old, with the herem — excommunication — still in effect. So can this gentle, heretical philosopher be legitimately included in Jewish history? In modern times, when our sense of Jewishness is broadened, it may be interesting to note which major Jewish figure called for repeal of Spinoza’s herem — David Ben Gurion.

David Wolpe is rabbi at Sinai Temple in Westwood.