Category Archives: New Jerusalem: Spinoza

Season Ends – Spinozium Videos Arrive!

An amazing season has come to a close.  We’re still huffing and puffing, auditioning and mailing, planning and striking, and in the midst of all the summer pivoting from one intensity to the next, we do finally take the time to finish editing and now sharing with you some highlights from the season, including the videos from our April 1st Spinozium.  Who could ever forget our vote!?

And now we have 8 wonderful videos to share from the day-long proceedings. 

The Vimeo Spinozium Album is just one way to take in the day of debate.

The other way is through our website, at New Jerusalem: Spinozium

Let us know what you think!

Students Debate Spinoza’s Fate, Mortera’s Motives, and Ives’ Agenda in Portraying the Authorities of Amsterdam

Here was the program at today’s Post-Show Discussion — A student debate
Three Universities Debate Spinoza’s Fate
(Universities of Michigan, California at Berkeley, and Notre Dame)
In the comments section, we’ll be collecting student arguments and then constructing from the comments a transcript of today’s enriching, impressive debate:

Question 1:
(in anticipation of next week’s Spinozium)
Should the excommunication of Spinoza be reversed?
• Was the decision appropriate and right for its time?
• Did Spinoza prove he was sufficiently adhering to and abiding by tenets of the Jewish faith?
• Is Spinoza’s excommunication the equivalent of a modern day blacklisting?

Team Arguing Affirmative: That the Excommunication SHOULD be reversed — Zena Brenner (UC), Katie Jennings (UM), Meg Savel (UM), Kristen Dittus (UM)
Team Arguing in the Negative: The Excommunication SHOULD NOT be reversed — Anne Murkowski (UM), Katie Sauter (UM), Will Scheffer (UM), Gabe Egan (UM)

Question 2
Does the Rabbi have Spinoza’s best interests at heart?
• Does the Rabbi excommunicate Spinoza for the Rabbi’s self-preservation?
• Does the Rabbi’s rejection reflect his desire to save Spinoza or to protect the community?
• Does the Rabbi truly find Spinoza blasphemous?

Team Arguing in the Affirmative: That the Rabbi DID have Spinoza’s interests at heart – Andrea Alajbegovic (UM), Jaqui Duarte (UM), Tiffany Henton (UM), Demitri Tarabini (ND)
Team Arguing in the Negative: The Rabbi did have NOT Spinoza’s interests at heart – Sarah Alsaden (UM), Nora Goebelbecher (ND), Sara Berg (UC), Selene Hakobyan (UC)

Question 3
Was David Ives’ treatment of the Dutch Authority fair?
• Does Ives ridicule the Dutch Authority, failing to appreciate its tolerance of Jews?
• Is Valkenberg cast as a cruel villain or a reasonable protector?
• Was the Dutch Authority acting mercifully or coercively by setting the hearing under the auspices of the Jewish community?

Team Arguing that Ives’ Treatment was UNFAIR (essentially, an indictment and uncharitable) –Michael French, Will Reising, Anne McCarthy, Jenna Nizamoff (All ND)
Team Arguing that Ives’ Treatment was FAIR (rounded and portraying an enlightened, tolerant community) — Hasan Zahid (UC), Rafi Shi (UC), Kevin HAWRYLUK (UM), Tobias Franz (UM)

Each team had four minutes to present their sides, followed by two minutes each of rebuttal, followed by one minute each conclusion. Each rounded lasted a total of 14 minutes, with one minute after the opening rounds for audience questions or clarifications, followed by one minute for audience voting at the end of each round.

A great job was done by all the participants — and a very appreciative audience of 65+ stayed to appreciate the efforts. Results on the audience voting to be shared after compiling of a transcript.

181 Comments and Counting! Check Us Out on The Huffington Post!

What do Baruch de Spinoza and the Republican primaries have in common? Visit The Huffington Post and find out!

Ms. Shirley Serotsky and Mr. Stephen Spotswood wrote a fascinating piece inspired by Theater J’s current production of New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza. 

Then drop by and see what everyone’s buzzing about :)


…and Alexander Strain is holding court, and on trial, and taking questions from the audience after last night’s stirring preview! We’re rolling out lots of ways to talk-back to this play and let your voice be heard. Let’s start with a first wave of reactions to the play — from those who saw it 20 months ago – and for new-comers taking the play in for the first time!

For more edification on the kind of conversations we had in 2010, check out other blog postings about how our first run here. And all the exciting programming around this year’s Month of All Things Spinoza can be found on our website here.

Let This Day Not Go Unmarked

As we pivot from one season to a new season and the first rehearsal soon approaching later today of our 2010-11 opener, SOMETHING YOU DID, we know there is still so much to catch up on from the stunning success that was NEW JERUSALEM. We move from this…
to this

In so doing, we go from one incredible play and playwright to the next — both under the radar Off-Broadway achievements (“hits” would be too strong a word) during the 2008 season in New York, they each make their way to Theater J in what will prove to be wonderfully reconceived productions with content that is perfectly suited to Theater J’s character — and the soul of its audience.

In my next postings, I will play catch up on the boffo success that was our NEW JERUSALEM run, that closed on July 25 after 15 straight sold-out performances. We’ll discuss more of programmatic achievements of the post show discussions and peace cafe, and we’ll let you all about the plans to bring NEW JERUSALEM back! Back and How! How? When? We’ll tell you shortly. And finally we’ll report on NEW JERUSALEM’s trip to Cincinnati immediately after closing. A little jaunt to Cinci Shakes–Oh, what fun that was (I kid you not)!.

And then we’ll report on today’s rehearsal. And Willy Holtzman’s terrific presentation to us, with a sneak peak at his program essay which really nails this play’s raison d’etre.

In short, sorry for the backlog. We’re back blogging. Runaway successes have a way of holding one back from the imperative of reporting (we’re too busy stuffing in patrons into overflow balcony seats).

More soon!

New Jerusalem Discussions

On Sunday, July 11 we were thrilled to host two venerable speakers for our discussion:  Interfaith Views on Excommunication and Dissent. We were joined by Father John Langan, S.J. (Cardinal Bernardin Chair/Catholic Social Thought Professor, Georgetown University) and Professor Bernard Cooperman (Louis L. Kaplan Associate Professor of Jewish History, University of Maryland).

While I was able to make it over to the theater to get at least one (slightly too long-distance) shot to commemorate their time with us, I did not make it in time to take in the discussion. I’d love to hear thoughts and impressions about the talk from any of our blog readers who DID make it!

Ari Roth, Professor Bernard Cooperman, and Father John Langan, S.J.

This past Sunday, we hosted several members of Washington, DC’s Spinoza Society for a talk: A Discussion with Members of the Washington Spinoza Society, featuring Kenneth Feigenbaum (adjunct professor of psychology at The University of Maryland University College); Sidney Bailin (Composer, author, computer scientist, and Spinoza enthusiast); and Tim Beardsley (Editorial Director for BioScience, the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences).

Members of the Spinoza Society with moderator Ari Roth

One subject that came up–that has been a point of discussion in several of our Spinoza panels–is the issue of Spinoza’s determinism. Spinoza put forth so many ideas that align well with modern thinking, concepts that were clearly articulated by or panelists. Tim credited him for “anticipating so many moments and developments in science”, and for raising the question of “what consciousness is; and that there is even something to be explained (there)!”. Ken looked to Spinoza for his own examination of “what it means to be a Jew”. And Sidney spoke of Spinoza’s ability to look at scripture as a historical and archeological document, while still including a more elusive “mystical experience” element when speaking about his faith.

And yet for all of this forward thinking, Spinoza’s posit that we do not have free will seems to contradict modern thinking to someone like me, a less-studied audience member. Indeed, Spinoza wrote, “Nothing in nature is contingent, but all things are from the necessity of the divine nature determined to exist and to act in a definite way” (Prop. 29). Doesn’t this go against our ideals of life and liberty? Doesn’t this dictate that humanity will never be free?

Spinoza thought of this too.

In his note to Proposition XLIX of his Ethics, Spinoza names what he sees as advantages to maintaining the doctrine of determinism:

  • [It] teaches us to act solely according to the decree of [Nature], and to be partakers in the Divine nature, and so much the more, as we perform more perfect actions and more and more understand [Nature]. Such a doctrine not only completely tranquillizes our spirit, but also shows us where our highest happiness or blessedness is, namely, solely in the knowledge of [Nature].
  • [It] teaches us how we ought to conduct ourselves with respect to the gifts of fortune, or matters which are not in our own power, and do not follow from our nature.
  • This doctrine raises social life, inasmuch as it teaches us to hate no man, neither to despise, to deride, to envy, or to be angry with any. Further, as it tells us that each should be content with his own,and helpful to his neighbor, not from any womanish pity, favour, or superstition, but solely by the guidance of reason, according as the time and occasion demand.
  • This doctrine confers no small advantage on the commonwealth; for it teaches how citizens should be governed and led, not so as to become slaves, but so that they may freely do whatsoever things are best.

Spinoza enthusiasts out there–how do you interpret Spinoza’s determinism?

And for those of you thirsting for yet more Spinoza, please join us for our final panel on Sunday, July 25 at 5:15pm: The Rehabilitation of Baruch Spinoza in Modern Jewish Culture: A Conversation with modern Jewish historian Daniel Schwartz (George Washington University) and Professor Tom Beauchamp (Georgetown University).

Our Dramaturg Responds to “Is David Ives (Almost as Outrageous as) Oliver Stone?”

excerpted from yesterday’s comment section:
Steve Spotswood / July 10, 2010 at 3:33 pm | Reply

…I like the description “non-historical play about historical events.” New Jerusalem is a lot of things, but a history play isn’t really one of them. Its purpose isn’t to present a certain historical event, but to use that event to illuminate and dramatize much larger, and still very relevant, issues.

What Ives has done is use Spinoza’s cherem as a stage where we can see conflicting beliefs clash (modern vs. medieval, religious vs. secular, the needs of a culture vs. the passions of the individual). In many ways it’s a microcosm for the Age of Reason, where all of these battles played out on a much larger stage.

To do this, Ives has taken a number of liberties with historical events. Most of these liberties help either to tell a clearer story, or heighten the drama of the play. Yes, the Amsterdam Jews were always under pressure to regulate their community, but the civil authorities did not play as large a part in Spinoza’s excommunication as they do in the play. Valkenburg’s role is not a historically accurate one, but it does heighten the stakes of the play considerably, especially for Rabbi Mortera, who has so much to lose.

In reality, Simon de Vries was the name of a friend and benefactor of Spinoza after he left Amsterdam. He was not the one who betrayed Spinoza to the synagogue’s leaders. In fact, that was done by two young members of the synagogue who went to great efforts to get Spinoza to incriminate himself.

Clara Van Den Enden was also a historical character, though very different from the woman we see on stage. Clara’s father, a defrocked Jesuit and practicing deist, believed greatly in both the powers of education and in letting his daughters learn as much of the world as they were able to. The real Clara was possibly the only female master of mathematics, music, theatre, and Latin in all of Amsterdam. She was the one who first taught Spinoza Latin.

Were they more than student/teacher? There’s no evidence that they were lovers. But there were rumors at the time. However, those might have stemmed from the simple fact that she was a woman and nobody at the time could understand what reason, other than an illicit one, Spinoza would choose her as his teacher.

So, why—when the historical Clara is so fascinating—write her as a simple, devout Christian? And why does the Spinoza in the play love her so much?

I asked Mr. Ives the latter question when he visited our rehearsal. He said, “Spinoza is seeking a perfect love of God (or what Spinoza calls God). To simply live and love. And Clara does that without thinking. She just walks down the street and is irradiated by love.” Which is why, very early in the play, Spinoza refers to her as “perfect.”

Clara’s love of God plays a key role in the second half of the play, and leads Spinoza to complete his philosophy. While the historical Clara might have been an interesting character in her own right, Ives’ Clara allows the playwright to tell a much clearer, more emotional tale, and one that manages to outline 5 volumes of complex metaphysics in two quick hours.

In his blog, thinkingarthur notes that New Jerusalem is surely meant to be a teaching play. And I agree. But I don’t think its central purpose is to teach about the historical Spinoza, or the Portuguese Jews of 17th c. Amsterdam. What draws me to the play, and the reason I’ve been a big fan since first reading it last season, are what it teaches about faith and reason and love, and about the many ways that a person can choose to live and think about themselves and their role in the world.

* * *

Your take?

New Jerusalem press round up to date

The box office success of NEW JERUSALEM: THE INTERROGATION OF BARUCH DE SPINOZA is one of the more staggering surprises of the summer. After all, it’s summer; we’re fried; we’re still warped in blues; why a stampede on the box office for this show now?

We’ll try to answer that in the week ahead. Meanwhile, these rapturous words have a lot to do with the intensity of the passion this show is striking. But more so comes from the work itself; the show’s engendering the kind of word-of-mouth that one more associates with FEVERS and Springsteen tickets. Only this is a 17th Century philosopher.

Read all about him, as rendered in our fabulous production of David Ives’ play, first in Peter Marks’ splendid review in The Washington Post.

Next there’s Trey Graham’s review in the Washington City Paper

Barbara Mackay in the DC Examiner

Most recently, a wonderful rave in DC Theatrescene by Ben Demers

This press is wonderful. But where oh where are the comments from our readers? So far, we’ve only heard from Kay Halpern. Go figure. Better yet, go write a comment!

Spinoza on the Fourth

We’re off and running with our discussions surrounding NEW JERUSALEM–and it seems there is much to be said about the man and the mind of Baruch de Spinoza. This past Sunday Rabbi Tamara Miller was joined onstage by Jerome Copulsky, the Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Director of Judaic Studies at Goucher College. Professor Copulsky spoke with humor and authority of the enigmatic philosopher, enjoying a Yuengling all the while (as a tribute to Spinoza–who was apparently a big fan of beer and was occasionally even paid for his services with the frothy stuff).

For a quick taste from the discussion, I’ve transcribed below a portion of Copulsky’s answer to the audience question:

Would Spinoza have considered himself a Jewish philosopher; or a philosopher who happened to be Jewish?

Spinoza probably did not think of himself as a Jewish philosopher–it wouldn’t make sense, to put the “Jewish” before the “philosopher” for Spinoza would have been meaningless. You’re a philosopher or you’re not a philosopher. And the idea that there would be something Jewish, something either theologically Jewish or ethnically Jewish about his work—for Spinoza–would have been absurd.

We do know that there are a lot of Jewish influences on Spinoza’s thought. I mentioned Maimonides; Spinoza himself mentions Ibn Ezra for his biblical commentaries; other scholars would argue that there’s a kabalistic influence to his thought. Now what happens is, Spinoza is cast out of the community and for the next hundred or so years he is “verboten”, he is banned by the Jewish community. Moses Mendelssohn in the late 18th Century tries to revive Spinoza a bit, this causes a bit of a controversy, and it’s really not until the mid-19th and 20th century where Jewish thinkers among them Martin Buber, try to reclaim Spinoza as a particularly Jewish thinker. Martin Buber does this in his work and, to go from another angle, David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of the state Israel, back in the 1920s tries to convene a group to revoke the cherem, to bring Spinoza back into the fold.

Spinoza Backlog! Opening Tonight – 4 Previews in the Books – A hit on our hands coming out of the gate!

After 4 amazing previews, 1 extraordinary panel, 3 rich post-show chats, two wonderful features in the press, comes this first guest comment from our good friend Kay Halpern. Please send your comments in and, the good ones we’ll post as their own stand-alone posting, as we did with Mikveh. In NEW JERUSALEM: THE INTERROGATION OF BARUCH DE SPINOZA, the community is put under microscope. So let this blog be a forum for hearing from our community in response!

from Kay Halpern:

This play is such a rich meal, it’s hard to know where to begin. I have always admired the phrase (I think it was Voltaire who coined it) “liberty is the luxury of self-discipline.” It makes me think of the balance of powers in our constitution as a prudent response by the Founding Fathers to the dangerous impulses in human nature. What this play shows, though, is that self-discipline, when imposed through fear, can be tragic. New Jerusalem raises the question, what is the nature of freedom? It explores this on both a social and individual level. And it is a deeply Jewish story.

Socially, the Jewish community in 17th century Amsterdam is sacrificing liberty for security. It is giving up a piece of its heart, in the form of an unorthodox but valued member and his very Jewish proclivity for robust debate and exploring an argument wherever it leads. This fear-based reaction, or Faustian bargain, as the playwright more eloquently put it in the discussion after the show, is something we all recognize. As I recall, he mentioned media self-censorship after the uproar over the publication of the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad. He may have also mentioned the Patriot Act and the new Arizona immigration law. What wasn’t mentioned is the specifically Jewish form of this reaction: the refusal by some powerful groups in today’s Jewish community to tolerate criticism of Israel . They fear such debate will make Israel less secure, and the world less safe for Jews. Many members of the community who dare to break this silence are figuratively excommunicated as “self-hating Jews.”

On an individual level – the emotional core of the play – the rabbi must turn his back on his beloved pupil. He must close his heart for the sake of his community’s safety. This final scene is all the more poignant because we have heard the old man say he was present at Spinoza’s birth; he mentored him, and the youth is like a son to him, since he has no son of his own. We also know that Spinoza’s own father has died. Spinoza, who speaks of having no choice but to follow his thoughts, is the only one who is really free. He reasons that since all that is, is God, including the mind, he is compelled to pursue its logic. He feels compassion for his mentor, for the young woman who loves him, and even for the friend who betrayed him, but unlike them, he is not emotionally attached. He beautifully sums up the illusions people succumb to: wealth, honor, and pleasure. (I don’t know if Spinoza actually said this or if it is a dramatic flourish; if it is the latter, I would add power as a fourth illusion. I also suspect that he would consider romantic love another, ultimately fleeting illusion.) Such equanimity does seem like true freedom in a Buddhist sense. I think someone even mentioned Buddhism in the post-show discussion. Spinoza lets the drama play out, and seems almost relieved when the final judgment is rendered, allowing him to go forth, completely unencumbered, on his path.

But wait – haven’t we heard this story before? Continue reading