THE MOST UNDERRATED STORY EVER TOLD
Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to leave the Beltway and move near a college town somewhere in the hinterland of the country, where my commute would be benign, the traffic would be almost non-existent, and my neighbors (to the extent I had any) would be more down-to-earth and spontaneous. Then, periodically, something happens to remind me of why I feel so tied to the Washington, D.C. area.
The latest reminder comes via our local Jewish playhouse – Theatre J. First of all, I don’t know how many American cities other than New York even have a Jewish playhouse. But I do know for a fact that D.C.’s Jewish theatre is the first one outside of New York to offer David Ives tremendous play, New Jerusalem. Actually, the full title of the play is much longer and gives a clear sense of what the play is about, at least on the surface: “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.” So yes, a well known and well respected playwright has written a tale about my favorite philosopher and how he was excommunicated by the Sephardic Jewish community in Amsterdam when he was 23 years old – a fate that befell him because he refused to renounced his “heretical” philosophy.
It’s a subject we’ve all encountered before – the forces of religious Orthodoxy strike out against the solitary genius, who sees truths that they are afraid to acknowledge. Yet there is something particularly compelling about the episode of Spinoza, and it stems from the identity of the persecutors. This isn’t just another case of the Catholic Church enforcing the official faith. Modern Jews have for a while taken incredible pride at the idea that theirs is NOT a religion of dogma, but rather one of deeds. And for this reason, Spinoza, who was a law-abiding citizen who still kept some attachment to the rituals of the synagogue, should by rights have been treated as a good Jew. In reality, however, he was cursed and cast out, and the members of the Jewish community were forbidden from reading his work and even standing within six feet of his body. All of this happened because he dared to teach doctrines about God and humankind that threatened the security of a so-called “non-dogmatic,” intellectual people.
The story of Spinoza’s excommunication is most fascinating not because of what it reveals about Spinoza’s philosophy – which wasn’t fully developed until many years later – than by what it reveals about the hypocrisy and limitations of Judaism. I don’t mean to say that Judaism is inferior to the other great organized faiths but only that it claims to be something that it is not. What the story of Spinoza shows is that Jewish traditionalists, for all their passion for learning, simply cannot afford to open their minds too far. They are vested in a particular conception of God, a particular conception of the origins of the Torah, and a particular conception of what it means to have a human soul. This applies even to the rabbis who are able to think philosophically – when push comes to shove, they prefer “their truth” to “the” truth, even when they recognize a conflict between the two.
Typically, philosophy/science vs. faith dramas are presented in a historical context. This one is no different – Spinoza lived and died in the middle of the 17th century. But again, to think of this tale primarily in terms of its historical context is to miss its fundamental point. Stated simply, the SAME battle that Spinoza fought about God, immortality and scripture is being played out today in churches and universities all over the country and in much of the world. This isn’t like the Catholic Church forcing Galileo to recant his heliocentric views – which is of lesser interest to a world in which everyone, including the priests, is now a heliocentrist. Nor is this a simple case of a philosopher whose views are contrary to those of fundamentalist rabbis, priests and imams, but otherwise coincide with the views of the masses. Quite the contrary – even the so-called “liberal” clerics have striven to marginalize and trivialize Spinoza’s teachings, lest these teachings undermine the basis for perhaps the fundamental principle of Western religion, liberal and conservative: that the God we worship is the human ideal personified.
Spinoza viewed that attitude as disrespectful to the true God – whose largely-elusive nature was his primary object of interest. Spinoza recognized that human beings are severely limited in what we can know about the world, or of God. But this much we can know: that if we were triangles, we would think of God as triangular, and if we were circles, we would think of God as circular, so it only stands to reason that since we are people, we think of God in the way we would ourselves like people to be if we had all the power in the world. Merciful, kind, loving, wise, compassionate … just call it “omni-excellent,” based on a human standard of excellence. And of course, if we were God, we would bestow on each member of our favorite species (homo sapiens) immortal souls, and we’d reward these souls for virtue and punish them for vice. You all know the drill. We’ve heard it ever since we were all children. And so did Spinoza. He simply couldn’t sit back and watch as human beings elevated themselves to idol status. Like all the great spiritual leaders, he felt the need to speak out against conventional wisdom in the name of truth.
To a large degree, Spinoza is the patron saint of modern secularism. His criticism of organized religion has become adopted and absorbed by millions upon millions of so-called non-believers. But the tragedy of this story is that because the clerics of his day and ours have done such a fine job of silencing him, they have prevented most people from seeing that Spinoza was anything but a non-believer. He was a devout lover of God. He simply re-defined that term so that we stopped fashioning it in our own image.
Spinoza’s disciples among the greatest thinkers of modern history are legion. Deleuze, Einstein, Santayana, Nietzsche, Heine, Hegel, Schelling, Herder, Goethe, Lessing. Paradoxically, though, his is one of those names pseudo-intellectuals love to drop at cocktail parties to show that they appreciate obscure dead sages. Recently, one of our local papers, the Washington Express, drummed in this point in its brief statement about Ives’ play. The blurb was entitled “Beloved Esoterica,” and it went as follows:
“Baruch de Spinoza? Who? Oh, be quiet: This is the nerdiest city ever. You probably read Spinoza in third grade. So, when we tell you that there’s a play about Spinoza (a 17th century philosopher, not that you didn’t know), you’ll probably jump up and down with joy. Right? Right?”
Sure it’s funny. Nerds are funny, even if you’re one of them. And when it comes to Spinoza, I’m definitely a nerd. But what isn’t funny is the gulf between our spiritual potential as human beings and the extent to which the leaders of organized religions are willing to keep us from realizing that potential, particularly when it comes to examining the ultimate questions of religious philosophy. And what also isn’t funny is how much we could develop that potential if only we could come to better grips with the teachings of Spinoza, rather than treating those teachings as not-so-beloved esoterica.
New Jerusalem will continue to be playing in Washington through July 25th. And on Thursday, July 18th, one week from today, I am privileged to be leading the discussion right after the play, based on my having coordinated the Washington Spinoza Society for nearly nine years.
So please, if you live in the DC area, come! It’s never too late to open your mind to what this capacious and courageous mind had to offer. It’s a message that’s perfectly suited to building a bridge between the secular and the spiritual, the atheist and the theist, and the heart and the mind. Moreover, this production is both well written and well acted. So call 1-800-494-8497 to order tickets. And if you don’t live in DC and can’t see the play, check out the Spinoza Society page on my website (www.danielspiro.com) – and such essays as "Spinoza and Unitarian-Universalism" – to get a general overview of what this man taught.
If it was good enough for Einstein, I dare say it’s worthy of your time.