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? It is a very Jewish one. Abraham smashed his father’s idols and left his family, his home, everything he knew, and struck out in a new direction. Moses’ true identity was hidden so that he could be raised in a safe environment – until he had to confront who he really was and leave the familiar, protected confines of Pharaoh’s palace and lead his people out of bondage into new territory and a new relationship with the Creator. The Children of Israel may not have lived the high life as slaves in Egypt – “the narrow place” in Hebrew – but the constricted lives they lived there were in many ways less terrifying than the wide open wilderness that lay beyond. There is a link between slavery and security, and this chain had to be broken in order for the Jewish People to become who they are. By forsaking the emotional comfort and acceptance of the world he knew to pursue his apprehension of the divine – and evolving our understanding of reality in the process – Spinoza was not rejecting his heritage. He was emulating it.