NEW JERUSALEM: THE INTERROGATION OF BARUCH DE SPINOZA is Back!

…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.

19 thoughts on “NEW JERUSALEM: THE INTERROGATION OF BARUCH DE SPINOZA is Back!

  1. I left Theatre J last night stunned and unsure of where to begin describing how wonderful “New Jerusalem” was. I was immediately drawn into the play and made captive as a member of the “community” that would interrogate Spinoza; it is that very community that came out through the play as a central source of conflict. A community is often defined as a group of individuals residing in a geographical region and sharing similar values, ideals and interests. What made this production so powerful is its insertion of the community as an invisible character, one that shapes the play and gives it life and allows Spinoza’s impassioned pleas and attempts to convince his community that much more striking and unsettling. He is met with resistance because his ideas (which are based in Jewish theology) contradict a tradition and a way of life within the community—not because they contradict religious doctrine.

    His ideas ask the community members to consider what they know in a different way, to unsettle their thoughts in order to “free their minds.” What struck me most about the play is that the three characters who began to comprehend what Spinoza’s idea would mean for their lives felt “poisoned” as if they had been robbed of something they held dear- ignorance. The three outbursts that followed, the first from Clara, the second from the Ben Israel and the last from Rabbi Mortara— were the turning points of the narrative—the points at which I as a member of the audience (and the community) began to realize that Spinoza could not be accepted as a member of the community, that his ideas could not exist and flourish within the community that raised him and taught him to be as he was.

    What is an even more interesting part of the play is its ability to take complex philosophical issues and make them accessible without being reductive. I am not familiar with Spinoza but I was able to understand what his ideas were while still comprehending how difficult they must have been to both grasp and how revolutionary they were for his time.

    New Jerusalem is a play about the 16th century Jewish Philosopher, Baruch de Spinoza, but the entire production was timeless. It seemed to me that the events in the play were those that could have happened not too long ago, that may be happening still and that may happen in the future. The play’s ability to take a historical event and make that event not only extremely interesting but relevant, is one of its most wonderful traits.

    • I totally agree with Sarah that the Jewish congregation was threatened by Spinoza’s apparent rejection of Jewish “tradition and way of life” and not the religious doctrine itself. It seems that it is human nature to feel aversion towards anything that seems different or strange, and this instance, the congregation was so averse they felt compelled to expel Spinoza because of his “poison.”
      I also agree that this play was surprisingly accessible for being about a philosopher I’d never read about before. I was also able to follow along and comprehend the more theoretically-heavy portions of the play.

    • What Sarah is saying regarding the plays historical comprehension is very interesting to me. While Sarah found it easy to understand, and to a sense relevant, I found the concept as a whole very difficult to wrap my mind around. Perhaps this has to do with the ultra liberal environment I had growing up so the ideas seemed so distant it was difficult to grasp their concepts. I do agree that the play did a great job dating its performance, so it was obvious to the audience that this was another time that held different values.

  2. Baruch de Spinoza.

    Now I really feel the weight of the name. This man is truly a saint-like figure in the history of philosophy, the Middle Age equivalent of Aristotle/Plato. Well, Plato creates his theory from almost nothing, but Spinoza creates his philosophy from the darkest period of human intellectual development in Europe. I find it equally hard to build a house on the Sahara Desert and to build one after Hurricane Katrina, so…

    First of all, I would like to point out a definition trap in the program brochure.

    Upon answering the question “Why does this philosophy sound so familiar to modern ears?” The brochure states that Spinoza’s philosophy is “very close” to the modern concept of secular humanism. And it goes on showing everything about the secular humanism and at last traces back to Spinoza’s philosophy as the possible origin of the modern humanism. For an audience member who doesn’t know about Spinoza or humanism, he/she can be easily misguided by such inducing answer.

    While it is worth noticing that the word “secular” in the term carries a negative connotation to the modern humanists as it is named by the religious fundamentalists in a hostile manner, secular humanism and Spinoza’s philosophy, despite their similarity, I reckon, are two rather different sets of ideas.

    Secular humanism is indeed, as pointed out by the brochure, a philosophy that celebrates reason, ethics and justice as the basis of morality and decision-making, while rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism and superstition.

    However, Spinoza’s philosophy is much less “secular” than the modern humanism. One line in the brochure summarizes Spinoza’s stand between state and religion very well: “In short, Spinoza does not so much subtract God from the world, but subtracts the divinity from God.”

    Indeed, the influence of Judaism on Spinoza is evident in his philosophy. Even though it is clear to him that the entire universe is a manifestation of the essence of God, he does not equate nature with God.

    It is tempting for us the audience members to understand Spinoza’s philosophy to be the equivalence of God and nature. This is because the dramatization in the play creates an antagonism between Spinoza and the Jewish/Christian community so strong that Spinoza’s philosophy almost appears ‘secular’, or too scientific/rationalistic.

    In fact, in a letter to Henry Oldenburg Spinoza states that: “as to the view of certain people that I identify god with nature (taken as a kind of mass or corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken.” Upon a bit of extra research, I realize that Spinoza is regarding the nature as a subset of God. To Spinoza, nature is what we understand through thoughts and extensions (the things we sense and the thoughts that come about). However, Spinoza recognizes human’s shallow capability to discern the world and claims that God has much more ability beyond human understanding. (Only two attributes of God’s transcendence are known to humans – thoughts and extensions)

    Spinoza’s acknowledgement of God’s superiority (not in terms of divinity but capability/attributes) is also revealed by the determinism of his philosophy. He claims that as the nature is the manifestation of the essence of God, then all things, including human thoughts and behaviors are determined and happen the way that they do. This is rather different from humanism which greatly treasures human reasons and wills. In fact, in Spinoza’s deterministic philosophy, our free will cannot REALLY affect our behaviors, but it can help us to understand better our behaviors and turn ourselves more active/free, thus “become more like God”, as said by Spinoza in the play.

    Hence, Spinoza’s philosophy is quite different from humanism, in fact, it is more acceptable to regard it as an amalgamation of philosophies/ideas/beliefs of Descartes, Jewish tradition and medieval scholasticism. This is evident from the play too. During his debate with Mortera, Valkenburgh, Ben Israel and Clara, his approach was never extremely confrontational or aggressive. Despite that the rest of the people blamed his ideas as radical, Spinoza’s attitudes were loving, affectionate, kind, witty, agitated at times but not annoyed. His ideas too, were inclusive, virtuous and truthful.

    In my opinion, Spinoza shows an effort of reconciling the gaps between his philosophy and and the religions throughout the play. If he has no intent for such reconciliation at all, he could have gone ahead and commit in all sorts of activist activities to promote his ideas. If he does that, he would probably end up like Nicholas Copernicus. His love of the Jewish tradition, Amsterdam, the community, Clara and God never cease. Spinoza left his community not because of his loathe against the religious dogma or theism, but because of his loyalty to his own faiths and beliefs.

    Thus, even though the title of the play is “the interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza”, from my perspective, what Spinoza went through in the play was a catalytic process that helps him to amalgamate the essence of the Cartesian, Jewish and Catholic ideas with his brewing philosophy and to generate a complete system of new ideas of his own.

    The most beneficial part of this play to me is that it really makes me think. I once also had the idea that God is in every object and behind all processes and the nature is governed by only one set of unifying laws. However, I never put more thoughts on it. Spinoza did, and it was amazing to see four completely different sets of philosophy/beliefs bombarding and colliding with one another on stage. (Cartesian, Judaism, Catholicism, Spinoza’s Philosophy) Actively involvement of the audience was a plus. It really kept the audience as a member of the judgement process, thus gave us power to judge and pushed our minds to reflect and think more critically.

    My most favorite part of the show?

    [After Spinoza kisses Clara]

    Ben: Shame on you! Shame, Baruch — in this place!

    Spinoza: Blame the laws of Nature. Blame gravity. Blame God.

    ME: Oh I love the laws of Nature.

  3. Philosophy: Investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods; A system of values by which one lives

    Religion: Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe; A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader; something of overwhelming importance to a person

    Several definitions of philosophy and religion, but I chose to list here the definitions that I found most relevant and interesting when thinking about “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza.” Throughout the play my mind kept wondering off, thinking about the difference, or lack there of, between philosophy and religion. Is religion a philosophy? Can a philosophy be a religion?

    In trying to answer these questions I felt incompetent. I was raised Catholic, but in I started to move away from my religion as some of my moral beliefs were not upheld by my church. I felt frustrated because I searched for answers, but kept getting some fluffy response about how I just needed to believe. However, I, like Spinoza, could not simply accept what the church said. I needed explanations, I needed to understand, but it seemed that my religious community was unable to provide me with those answers. So, unlike Spinoza, I abandoned my religion. As someone who no longer identifies with any “common” religion, I find it impossible for me to answer the first of these questions. If I do not believe in a “religion,” how can I tell you if it is a philosophy?

    However, the second question that I posed I do feel that I am able to answer. That answer may not be universal, and I hope there are others who will challenge my response. I think the response to this question depends on what an individual believes are the correct definitions of religion and philosophy. My response to the question would be yes, a philosophy could be a religion. Personally, I believe in the last definition of religion, “something of overwhelming importance to a person.” Although I have moved away from Christianity, I still have a strong belief in something that I would call a philosophy: feminism. I consider feminism a philosophy based off the second definition: “a system of values by which one lives.” Feminism is the belief that all barriers of oppression should be broken down, so that everyone is equal regardless of religion, gender, sex, race, ability status, sexual orientation, etc. Feminism values every individual equally, and values a nonviolent society, and it is by these beliefs that I live my life. Someone who believes in the first definition of a philosophy or the earlier definitions of religion may disagree with this response, and I encourage those individuals to explain their opinion.

    After working through my own thoughts I had to think about how Spinoza may answer these questions. I believe he would have responded affirmatively to both questions. I also think Spinoza would have agreed with the first and second definition of philosophy. He was exploring nature, but as he stated, god is nature, so he inherently was also exploring god and his religion, but his religion was the root of his moral beliefs. I also think Spinoza would have agreed with all three definitions of religion. He believed in a god, he knew the teachings of his religion, and those teachings were highly important to him. Important enough that he was willing to dedicate his life to explore those teachings and making sense of them. I believe Spinoza’s dedication to trying to understand his religion and questioning explanations only makes him more religious, not atheist.

  4. “New Jerusalem” was one of those rare and deep works that I could not stop thinking about and pondering for a long time afterwards. It was a play that had so many thought-provoking aspects: Spinoza’s groundbreaking yet potentially blasphemous philosophy, the interplay between Christians and Jews in 17th century Amsterdam, and the powerful force of love manifested in many of the relationships, just to name a few. The play made the audience consider the issue of Spinoza’s predicament on multiple levels. Firstly, is his philosphy valid, or does it have important flaws? Even if it is valid, does it constitute sacrilege against his Jewish faith, and does he deserve excommunication, even if the philosophy is “correct”? How is love restricted, both in the society of the day and in Spinoza’s philosophy? Can these restrictions be overcome? All of these issues are presented simultaneously in the work, creating a rich, textured play that presents tough and worthwhile questions for the audience. The play seemed to bring up more questions than answers, in the best way possible. Even the church’s decision on Spinoza does not feel final or closed: though Spinoza was in the end excommunicated, one got the sense that the audience should not necessarily accept this decision as right, and should consider this issue further.

    The only aspect of the play that I did not think worked well was the audience being the actual crowd or community judging Spinoza. While I understand that the playwright was most likely trying to make the audience feel a part of the trial, I felt that this device took away from the play. Instead of having a real, jeering, upset audience to more accurately reflect the feelings of the mass public at the time, we instead had a silent, awkward audience that did not seem to know how to react at most points. Not having a more accurate “jury” blunted the idea that it was “Spinoza vs. the world,” and essentially undersold Spinoza’s true plight. Other than this though, I truly enjoyed “New Jerusalem” and felt that the play was both enjoyable and provided long-lasting value in the important questions it provoked.

  5. I will freely admit that I was not excited to see “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza.” Despite reading rave reviews of the initial production, I was dreading sitting in through what I thought would be a history and philosophy lecture disguised as a play. I could not have been more wrong. New Jerusalem is one the most interesting, riveting, and thought provoking plays I have seen in my life. Going into the play I knew very little about Spinoza’s religious and philosophical views. I imagined him as a imagine most philosophers, old and lonely huddled over a desk somewhere. Yet when Alexander Strain, the actor who played Spinoza, entered the stage, I could see that this was not Spinoza’s case at all. I can only describe Mr. Strain’s performance as the title character as wonderful. It never felt pushed or contrived, but kept me on the edge of my seat and intrigue the entire time. I was constantly wondering what he was thinking, what his next statement would be, and what the motivations behind his actions were, yet never felt like I was missing information.
    One of my favorite parts of this experience was hearing comments during the talkback. This was my first experience with the play and with Spinoza’s philosophy, but it was revealed during the talkback that there is quite a following. A few audience members had seen the show during its first run and came back for seconds. Hearing their comparisons of Mr. Strain’s performance really opened my eyes to some of his choices. Two people commented that this run Spinoza seemed to have more fight in him. I thought Strain’s performance had just the right amount of fight. He professed what he believed with such passion and honesty that you had to accept his thoughts as truths, yet avoided using so much emotion that it fell into the territory of pleading. Overall the entire cast gave great performances, but I feel Mr. Strain’s certainly stood out. I cannot recommend this play highly enough. It spans the spectrum from devastating to hysterical, all the while being thought-provoking and soul-stirring.

  6. I went into New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza with low expectations. Not being a religious history buff (or a history buff at all), I was expecting a very dry portrayal of the life and works of Spinoza. Thankfully, I was surprised to find the play as riveting and challenging as it was. Since I’m not religious at all, I felt that I was able to consider whether Spinoza should have been excommunicated from a very unbiased perspective. And yet, I’m still torn. Ari wrote in his note in the beginning of the program that the play not only exposed Amsterdam’s hypocrisy but also “the flaws within Spinoza himself.” At several points in the play Spinoza demonstrated that his ideas were not fully formed. David Ives shows that he was deeply conflicted with his thoughts. While he couldn’t help from thinking about God through a rational lens, Spinoza also could not admit to himself that these thoughts did not correspond with the teachings of the community he was a part of.
    Again, I don’t have a fully formed opinion yet in terms of which side I agree with since I’m not a student of religion. The part of the play that I identified with the most is just how heart wrenching it must have been for Spinoza to be banished from his community, from his family. Ives shows how difficult it was for Mortera to make his decision, to let go of his star pupil who was a like a son to him. In the end, this play showed me that I’m lucky to live in a time where differing opinions are accepted, even within cohesive communities. But it also reminded me that they are not always encouraged, even today.
    I appreciated that Ives made the dialogues about Spinoza’s specific philosophy easy to follow. It didn’t all go over my head, so I’m happy to say that I truly learned something educational from this play. I thought the acting of the play was superb. Alexander Strain and Michael Tolaydo played their roles as if the parts were written for them. My only critique is that I wish the character of Rebekah was not so emotional and dramatic, but rather a character who contributed constructively to the debate. I felt that I could not take her seriously, which is unfortunate.

  7. “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza” was a riveting and exciting play. I love history and discussing religion, so I had high hopes for this performance, and it certainly exceeded all of them. David Ives wrote “New Jerusalem” in a way that makes the many themes discussed through Spinoza’s trial relevant to today’s viewers. Not only are the themes discussed still very much pertinent to a modern audience, they are also applicable to those of many different faiths.

    I am a practicing Catholic, and I was discussing the play with a friend who is Muslim, and both of us were commenting about how we could relate to Spinoza’s struggles with his own faith. There is a kind of constant battle between religion and reason. Too often I feel that people are unable to see any sort of mixture between the two. It has become something of a black and white issue in the eyes of many in society. You are either a religious fundamentalist or an atheist intellectual.

    Spinoza’s line “I want to believe what I believe and be a Jew,” resonated a lot with me. As much as religious leaders would like their followers to believe every teaching and bit of dogma about their religion. I personally have met very few people that do believe everything about their religion. I think that at least nowadays, more often than not people choose the religion that matches their own beliefs the best and then live their lives the best way they can.

    Something else that made the performance very fun to watch was the different character dynamics. The characters acted together in very believable ways. I liked how when they were on all on stage together they had very vivid reactions to whoever was speaking. They did not necessarily look at who was speaking, but would look at another actor to gage their reaction.

    “New Jerusalem” was an excellent production and was my favorite play that I have seen at Theater J so far.

    • Meg, I agree with you, that most people now seem to stick to a religion even if it does not perfectly align with all of their beliefs. However, I would disagree with your choice of words, because I do not really think people “choose” their religion. Based off the experiences of those I know, and myself, I believe that for the majority of the public people are raised in a certain religion, and then as they grow they find ways in which they diverge from that religion. Often people have such a strong connection to the religion they were raised with that they find ways to justify their differences and stay committed to their faith. I find that this is very different from Spinoza. He was not willing to simply accept differences between his ideas and Judaism; he wanted to find a way, using his own beliefs, to stick to his religion. In doing so he actually exposed himself to and explored other religions, including Christianity. I wish I agreed that individuals now-a-days put this much thought into their decision of religion, unfortunately, I do not think that is the case.

      • Thanks for the response Katie. You bring up an interesting point about people rationalizing the religion they were born into. I do agree with you that some individuals certainly stay with the faith they were born because it’s easier and they fear separation from their family is they decide to separate from their faith. I was referring to the fact that I feel like a lot of people in our generation are choosing to leave the religion their parents raised them to be. I know many people that have switched religions, become agnostic, or now identify as atheists because they feel that the religion that they were raised to believe in no longer fits with their view of the world. Additionally, I feel that many people are now choosing to identify themselves as being spiritual instead of religious because this allows them to have more control over what they say they believe in instead of listening to any religious leaders.

  8. I very much enjoyed learning about the man that was Baruch de Spinoza during this play. As well as the realities of the time in which he lived, his logic as it related to his philosophical opinions, and his relationships with those around him. Personally, I have a great amount of interest in philosophical and theological discussion, even though Spinoza was forced to dance around the latter term much of the debate was theological in nature.
    I myself am Catholic and am familiar with the process and consequences of excommunication. However, I was not aware that the Jewish tradition has a very similar procedure specifically that if someone is found to be teaching or influencing others to accept heresy that person is reprimanded by being completely ostracized from their faith community. It was difficult to watch Spinoza go through this inevitable outcome. Spinoza did not appear to be one of ill or manipulative intentions. He possessed in himself an incredible and bold mind, having no fear of attempting to tackle the most complex questions. The whole basis of his work I gathered was led by a healthy skepticism. He was not satisfied simply believing the conclusions that others before him had ascertained, but rather he sought to discover the answers himself.
    One thing in particular I greatly admired about Spinoza was his relentless pursuit of truth. Regardless, of whether or not I agreed with what he felt to be true, I was impressed by the bravery in which he pursued it. It is a little bit of a pet peeve of mine when someone will believe something but have no idea why they in fact believe it, and in line with that sentiment I could not help but respect Spinoza’s efforts. There are many aspects to Spinoza that could be disagreed upon, but one thing is for sure, this man did not take the easy way in life.

  9. If you loved “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza” then i hope you will participate in the “Spinozium” on April 1st. This isn’t necessarily meant to be a plug for Theater J; my goal is more to encourage those who have seen the play to help me and others answer the question “Should Spinoza’s excommunication (or charam) be reversed?” Many people i talked to left the play with a strong feeling that it absolutely should be reversed. I left the play, however, leaning towards the answer “no, the excommunication should not be reversed.” I say leaning because my mind certainly is not made up. The main issue in my mind is distinguishing between religious freedom in a country vs freedoms within a religious community, which might not be guaranteed.

    In the last few scenes of the play Baruch De Spinoza has a pivotal realization that his “theory” is missing a piece. He identifies the missing piece as being love, however i would offer an alternative idea and say the real missing peace is faith. Religion is not something that can be logic-ed through because when you consider religion logically it does not all add up. Faith is the keystone of religion. Faith is what makes religion distinctly human. If faith was not a critical aspect of religion then we could just come up with a mathematical equation or computer program to prove that God exists.

    What i loved most about the play was that each character represented a different stage in an individual’s religious development. From the most religious figure, Rabbi Mortera, to the unquestioning and God-loving Clara, to the hopelessly confused and conflicted Ben Israel, every angle of human faith was examined during the play. Ben Israel was by far my favorite of all of the characters, and to me best embodied the average religious person who maybe thinks less for themselves and more about what others say.

    One interesting parallel i was able to draw out of “The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza” was with “Necessary Sacrifices” and the idea of political feasibility. At one point in “The Interrogation” we saw Valkenburgh, the government official leading the charge against Barauch, break down and admit that as much as he wanted greater acceptance between the Jews and Christians, the leaders above him were not tolerant. In “Necessary Sacrifices” Abraham Lincoln used the same defense against outlawing slavery.

    “New Jerusalem” was an awesome, thought provoking play, and i’m fairly certain i will be making an effort to see it one more time.

    • The missing element of faith and/or love in Spinoza’s life was another major theme I wanted to address in my blog post but ran out of room and saw you already addressed this theme. My impression after the play was that Spinoza was skeptical in admitting to the role of faith and love in one’s life, since all of his writing and philosophy was based in rationality.

      One definition of faith involves the strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based more on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. Spinoza seemed to reject this definition of faith because belief in and adherence to one central doctrine impedes on one’s freedom of thought. Another definition of faith involves the complete trust or confidence in someone or something. Spinoza seemed to have faith only in his own rationality, which would lead him to want to develop his own worldview or doctrine to prove the existence of God through rationality. Whether this is possible or not is quite debatable, but Spinoza seemed to think and believe the endeavor was possible.

  10. Philosophy is something that has never particularly interested me. As a performance centered on philosopher Baruch De Spinoza, I had minimal expectations for “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza”. My expectations, however, were largely surpassed. I thoroughly enjoyed this performance and found the struggle between reason and religion to be applicable to modern day society.

    “The true representation of something is nothing” was the line that I found most thought provoking in the play. While, as I mentioned, philosophy is not something I am usually interested in, this line made me stop and think. Trying to decipher this reasoning was challenging. The idea that a representation of something is not actually that thing itself, so is nothing, a more realistic representation of something? I don’t know. While thinking philosophy had always not been my thing, the interest this question ignited in me was partially responsible for my, surprisingly, attentive behavior during the performance.

    I, probably naively so, found it surprising that Spinoza continued to identify as a Jew. As a man unable to accept teachings of church, why would Spinoza choose to remain in the church? Why would he not, voluntarily, remove himself form the boundaries of the Jewish faith so that he could freely express his philosophies?

    During the talkback I learned that Clara was more of a device that Ives used in the play, rather than a character that represented a realistic person in Spinoza’s actual life. I felt as though Ives employing this device was excellent and brought excitement to the piece.

    The acting was another pleasing aspect about the performance. First, it was exciting to see a performance with more than four actors. Second, Alexander Strain was excellent as Spinoza. Strain brought Spinoza to life. It was intriguing to participate in a talkback with Strain and hear many people that had seen the play multiple times comment that they felt the difference between this performance and others was that Strain exemplified a greater amount of fire. While I haven’t seen the play prior to this performance, I am not sure I would of found it as enjoyable if Strain did not have the intensity and fire that he did in this performance.

  11. From the notes I scribbled down during Thursday’s showing of “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza,” the line uttered by Spinoza during the play that really captured the main message I derived was, “No faith has a monopoly on virtue.” The corollary to this statement is that, logically, one or more religions have to be wrong about virtue since almost every religious dogma claims to have the undeniable monopoly on the correct way to live one’s life.

    Historically, this play is set between the Renaissance, an age of intellectual development and curiosity throughout Europe, and the Enlightenment, which featured strains of modern Biblical criticism through the tool of rational thought. Spinoza’s philosophy and writings on religion set the stage for further criticism of religious dogma. The dialogue found in “New Jerusalem” vividly depicted the very nuanced and intellectual arguments found on both sides of the argument between rational, Enlightenment thought and religious dogma entrenched in a rich history of both religious and philosophical thought.

    Though these phrases were uttered by a 16th Century philosopher, just as Sarah pointed out in her blog post, the ideas are still incredibly relevant to today’s discussion on religion and philosophy. This does not speak to the inability of mankind to progress over centuries, but rather to the extreme weight of these ideas. The afterlife, as well as framing the purpose of one’s life on earth, is central in this discussion. Additionally, the inability to conclusively prove one side of the argument has led to the discussion continuing for centuries.

    Another related story line in this play was the central theme of the struggle between liberty and religious dogma. Spinoza seemed to conclude that truly free thought was incompatible with religious historical dogma because these doctrines told humans exactly how to think and what to believe.

  12. For a long time Baruch Spinoza was only a distant figure in my philosophy class. Based on the title and description, I expected to see a dry historical/philosophical play, but I was drawn into the play since the beginning. I was surprised when I saw young Baruch because he was different from what I expected him to be. He appeared as a very kind, caring and witty person. At times, I could relate to his and other characters’ struggle between faith and reason. The brochure stated that the trial taking place on stage was not just the trial of Spinoza: “Within the heart and mind of Rabbi Mortera, who is forced to choose between the flawless reasoning of his beloved pupil and the tenets of his faith, Ives presents the clash between religion and reason in the modern world.”

    Spinoza’s flawless reasoning “poisoned” the minds of the characters, including Rabbi Mortera, Clara, Rebekah, and etc. I liked how Rabbi Mortera indirectly admitted the fact that Spinoza’s reasoning is nearly flawless, but stated that he cannot live in a world described by Baruch. The following comparison might be extreme, but the play reminded me that in some cases people who live in an illusion are much happier than people who accept the world the way it is. The play showed not only a struggle between reason and faith, but also a choice between accepting the truth and living a disillusioned life or continuing to live a happy life where nothing can be doubted because it might be threatening to your own existence. At some point, the characters begin to understand Spinoza’s reasoning, but they go back to their traditional “safe” belief systems. The play and the struggle to find the truth reminded me of John Stuart Mill’s work “On Liberty,” in which he emphasizes the importance of listening to all sides and states that a fact must be held up to debate or “it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”

    The actors’ performance was great. The father/son or teacher/student relationship between Rabbi Mortera and Baruch was especially touching; at the same time, the play shows that the differences in their beliefs were irreconcilable in the 16th century Amsterdam.

  13. In David Ive’s play, “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza”, the main character, Baruch de Spinoza, is especially good at two things: raising questions and instilling doubt. Unfortunately for Spinoza, those skills are frowned upon – to say the least- by 16th century Catholic-run Amsterdam and the fellow members of his synagogue who are desperately trying to keep their heads down to avoid conflict with the government. Throughout the play, Spinoza captures the audience as well as the other characters on stage, forcing them to take a look at life, government, philosophy and how religion ties them together at this time.

    As a theatrical performance, Ive’s show was nothing less than stunning. The dialogue was crisp and clear. The actors were eloquent and impressive. The set and use of the audience as members of the synagogue helped provide an all-inclusive nature to the show. This show was by far the best Theater J production I have yet to see.

    All of those elements were critical in making Ive’s play as realistic and compelling as it was. However, I did not leave Theater J thinking about the play as merely another show. I left thinking about the actual concepts discussed by Spinoza.

    In the show, Spinoza is an intriguing and charismatic character. He is eloquent and far ahead of his in time in how he analyzes his faith. However, his philosophy and analysis does conflict with the conservative orthodox Jewish teachings. I rooted for him throughout the show and left enjoying how he broke down many religious paradoxes such as the idea that if one religion must be right, the others must be wrong; however, from the start I knew that he could not escape excommunication and it does not look like even now it has strong grounds for being overturned. In the play, the Rabbi clearly explains that as part of the orthodox faith, members of the Jewish community are not supposed to question the validity of the Torah and many of its incumbent clauses. To question one part of the faith could, as Spinoza shows, virtually undermine the religion. Therefore, although Spinoza is not necessarily an Atheist, his questions at the time did appear to break the rules in a way that would warrant expulsion, especially during politically tumultuous times in which the Jews were trying to do anything but rock the boat. For this reason, his excommunication seemed unavoidable and less questionable than I might have expected.

    That being said, I firmly believe that Spinoza created a drastically important precedent by poking holes in religion, questioning it and analyzing how it co-exists with the world around us. I was born and raised Catholic, but my parents always allowed and encouraged me to question my faith. Through this exploration I sometimes went as far to question God entirely and sometimes went back towards a more agnostic way of looking at life. I still acknowledge my Catholic upbringing because, like Spinoza, I view it as part of my culture and fully see it as having shaped me. I think that formal religions play a huge role in setting a basic moral compass by which many can choose to live their lives. Blind faith and adherence to most religions will keep people out of trouble and doing good for others. However, I think Spinoza was correct in suggesting that much can be learned by taking a look at our own faith and religions and discovering what it means to us personally and how we fit in.

    For example, I have a hard time believing that any God is particularly focused on the nitty-gritty of our daily lives such as what we eat and what we wear, but rather on the big picture of how we interact with others. Obviously, this goes against many Catholic teachings and is not reflective of every/many Catholics. However, I feel that I have a better idea of how to go about my life by breaking down my faith in how I think it does and should apply directly to me, as an individual as well as a member of a community.

    I fully acknowledge that I am privileged in being able to think and say this aloud. I live in a place and time where my religion does not put me at political or social risk. I can question it and not risk being imprisoned or kicked out of my community. Spinoza did not have this luxury and therefore had to choose between continuing his philosophical quest for what he felt was right and following the strict laws of his day. For this I’m impressed and admire him because although I personally value my own religious reflections, I do not think I would have engaged in much questioning had my parents not supported it or if my community was so strongly against it.

    David Ive’s play left me with questions and thoughts and half formed ideas and interpretations of how I think Spinoza’s philosophy agrees with my own views. Overall, I very much enjoyed the play. I felt that it brought up important topics around the need to question religion both personally and institutionally and how that fits into political struggles. I have not answered all my own religious questions yet, but I feel that Ive’s play helped me take a deeper look. No matter what, the play made me think and reflect, and I think that makes it a highly successful play.

  14. When going to see “New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza” I held a preconceived notion that I would not enjoy the show. Leaving the theatre I felt these feelings were correct. I was bothered by the fact that we watched a 2 hour long play simply about a person who was excommunicated due to the fact they simply believed something different. However over the course of time I came to realize some aspects of the performance affected me more than I initially understood.

    After thinking about the play for a while I realized there were a few things that stuck with me from the show and left an impression. The first was the striking use of sounds and music within the performance. There was use of background music, however it was not highly noticeable and was used in a very distinct way. I found it to heighten my awareness of the tension within the situation without becoming blatantly aware of the sound itself. When being conscious of the sound I realized it started as a very quiet humming sound, which grew slowly over the course of a few minutes to lead to the most intense part of a scene. Then the sound would abruptly stop at the moment of broken tension, which created a much more dramatic impression. This was done in a few distinct scenes, such as when Spinoza goes to leave and he is yelled after. This scene was also carried out over the length of the theatre, which pulled the tension like a blanket placed over the audience.

    The lighting was another subtle but moving aspect of the performance. Without being obvious, the lighting provided the eye with a focal point that was natural. For example, a large moment for me was when the Rabbi entered from the top of the stairs behind the audience there was a flood of light. This exposed his large, outlined shadow on the stage and over the audience members.

    Not only did the sound and lighting make an impression in the audience, but it also engaged the public. These aspects called for the audience to be a part of the story, which I felt was different from other performances I have seen. Instead of involving the audience in a participatory fashion, it actually placed the audience within the story. This makes them a part of history as well as put the weight of the excommunication on both their shoulders and the actors.

    Although I initially did not enjoy the play, it was one that stuck with me for a long time and continued to appear in my thoughts. I believe this play grew on me, and created more meaning as time went on. I feel that in the beginning my feelings were those of thinking with a modern mind, not taking into account the time period of the 17th century. So while at first the play was not my favorite, it became more enjoyable after digesting its distinguishing moments within my inner dialogue.

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