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.


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

  1. Arguing Affirmative for “Should the excommunication of Spinoza be reversed?”

    Not thinking in a 17th century state of mind is how culture, religion and technology in society progresses. We are in no way disrespecting history by reversing the excommunication, we are simply respecting the progression of religion, faith and value systems.

    I am Jewish, however personally I do not necessarily know what I believe. Being Jewish is about so much, not just our belief in god, but also our values and morals, our beliefs in family, kindness and community. I would hope that the Jewish community would be a place for me to go to and receive guidance and inspiration for any ideas I have that might be different or unheard of. I believe this has the opportunity to Strengthen, not hinder my faith.

    Spinoza was still a Jew in his belief system of treating people with kindness, respect and standing up for what he believed. His only downfall was he thought differently from the strict rules of Judaism at the time, which should now been celebrated, not continue to remain excommunicated.

    • Spinoza’s excommunication can be compared with the McCarthy era in the United States. During this time American citizens were accused of both being communists and sympathizing with the party. The accused, some employees of the entertainment industry and government agencies, were denied jobs and blacklisted because of their alleged beliefs and involvement with the party. Eventually a decline in McCarthyism occurred. It was the result of two things. First, changing public sentiments and second, supreme court rulings. While the court rulings are partially responsible for the decline of the movement the change in public sentiment largely undermined it. With time and a changed public opinion changes discrimination against these individuals faded.
      As previously mentioned, today is much different than the 17th century. According the theater J blog an overwhelming majority of the theater J theatergoers believe Spinoza’s excommunication should be reversed. Clearly the public sentiment regarding Spinoza’s excommunication has changed. This, however, is not surprising. Spinoza did not hurt anyone. Frankly, he did not do anything wrong. He deserves to be respected as a part of the Jewish community. Just because he thought differently does not mean that he should be excommunicated. Spinoza, rightfully so, kept loyal to his beliefs and does not deserve to be punished for that. Not surprisingly, some argue that Spinoza’s excommunication was just as he did not abide by tenants of the Jewish faith. Spinoza, however, simply exercised his right as an individual to think differently. He did not do anything wrong.

  2. Arguing negative for “Does the Rabbi have Spinoza’s best interests at heart?”

    The Rabbi and Spinoza’s relationship is both spiritual and familial/emotional
    o As a rabbi, Mortera is charged with making sure that all the members of his congregation adhere to the teachings of Judaism, by excommunicating Spinoza, the Rabbi fails to account for Spinoza’s spiritual well-being; he has in effect given up on Spinoza and cast him out from his community in order to free himself from the obligation he has to Spinoza.

    o Rabbi Mortera’s connection to Spinoza is also familial, at several points throughout the play the Rabbi proclaims that Spinoza has been something of a surrogate son and praises his intellect and his aptitude for Judaic studies (page 3). If the Rabbi cared for the emotional/familial relationship between them, he would not have excommunicated Spinoza. Excommunicating Spinoza has the effect of isolating him from the only father figure he has left (the Rabbi) and also his sister, his brother, his friends—the entire Jewish community that he has grown up with. Hardly in his best interests.

    o In addition, there is no indication that the Rabbi thought that excommunicating Spinoza would be the only manner in which his ideas could be properly disseminated. At several times the Rabbi proclaims that the world that Spinoza is proposing, despite being logically necessary is not one in which the Rabbi could live- his excommunication is not so that his teachings can be accepted by Jews the world over, but rather, so that the congregation would not have to live with the consequences of understanding his ideas

    • To reiterate my group, the student group arguing in the affirmative for “Does the Rabbi have Spinoza’s best interests at heart?”

      For our debate we acknowledged that the chief rabbi publicly damned Spinoza and Spinoza received the harshest punishment but there is a subtext to this hearing and excommunication stating: “it may have not been motivated by the desires of the Jewish community, rather the demand of Amsterdam Christians. The Dutch tolerated the presence of Jews but any hint of unconventional theology, especially originating with solely one actor the Jewish community, could result in an expulsion of the entire community.” The rabbi was facing the loss of his entire community and essentially the acknowledgment of his religion. With publicly damning Spinoza, one of his greatest and most beloved students, who had unfortunately caused great issues, he not only saved his community, but, more importantly, he freed Spinoza. He was free to develop his radical philosophy, The Ethics.
      We stressed that Spinoza’s Ethics was written after his excommunication. Given that the Rabbi acknowledged the validity of Spinoza’s philosophies by indicating that he was unsettled by his own grasping of them -so much so that he couldn’t even sleep at night- it can clearly be deduced that the Rabbi’s true motive for excommunicating Spinoza was to let Spinoza’s ideas flourish.
      The Rabbi did not excommunicate Spinoza for his own self-preservation. Spinoza did not have the freedom within the Jewish congregation in Amsterdam to freely expound upon his ideas. At the time of the trial, Spinoza had not fully formed them. “Recognizing the validity in Spinoza ideas and also the premature state his ideas were in, the Rabbi knew Spinoza’s ideas would only be able to flourish if he was separated from the Jewish community.”The Rabbi made the decision to excommunicate Spinoza so that Spinoza could freely discuss his ideas, write about them, and then get them published. Spinoza’s published philosophy would then benefit the Jewish nation as a whole by introducing them to a new interpretation of the Jewish doctrine. The truth that the Rabbi saw in Spinoza’s ideas could only be refined outside of the congregation in Amsterdam. With Spinoza’s best interests at heart, the Rabbi excommunicated Spinoza so that he could better inform all Jews with his ideas.
      Furthermore, the Rabbi’s deep struggle in deciding whether or not to excommunicate Spinoza is evidence enough that the Rabbi did not excommunicate Spinoza for self-preservation. If this were true, the Rabbi’s choice to excommunicate Spinoza would have been self-evident, as the benefits of casting out Spinoza out clearly outweighed the costs of keeping him around and endangering the existence of the Jewish community in Amsterdam. Rather, we see that is not the case as the Rabbi’s decision to excommunicate Spinoza was difficult and nearly heartbreaking. That the Rabbi clearly had other interests at heart is clear. Those interests are Spinoza’s well being and the well being of the Jewish nation as a whole.

  3. Should the excommunication of Spinoza be reversed?
    Position: Negative, the excommunication should not be reversed.

    The decision to excommunicate Spinoza was necessary during the time to protect Spinoza and the Jewish community living in the hostile, Christian-ruled city of Amsterdam. The Rabbi stated that Spinoza’s ideas would haunt him and keep him from sleeping at night; but in doing so, he acknowledged that his philosophy was knowledgeable. The Rabbi did not excommunicate Spinoza because he purely disagreed with his viewpoint; he did it because he knew that Spinoza’s ideas presented a danger to both Spinoza himself and the rest of the Jewish community. He did not want to hold Spinoza back from exploring his thoughts and philosophies. His decision to excommunicate Spinoza was a merciful decision, so that Spinoza could continue to question and hypothesize about his beliefs without criticism from the government, Christian Church, or the Jewish Congregation. Spinoza was excommunicated to protect himself and the rest of the Jewish community.

  4. Arguing in the Affirmative: Ives’ Treatment was Fair!

    We believe that David Ives portrayal of the Dutch authority is fair and accurate because he does a good job showing what the historical climate of the cultural atmosphere in Amsterdam during 1656. His portrayal of the Dutch authority shows how the two unique groups coexist in unity, further reinforcing the realistic portrayal invoking the sometimes limiting nature of the Dutch rule.

    Ives’ does this using Valkenberg by showing the conflicting nature of the Dutch authority. And uses Spinoza explicitly to critique it. By doing his he strikes a middle ground, not to ridicule nor glorify the Dutch Rule.

    Ives’ displays the conflict but also holds together with the intricate balance of the agreement that is placed in order to restore peace and hold in place the sanctuary for the Jewish community within Amsterdam

    On one hand it shows the control that the Jewish community is put under, and seems they are under the rule of the Dutch showing the intense condition some would deem harsh

    On the other, given the historical context, it shows their permission to live freely, conditionality that they govern community matters among themselves.

    Both of these combined and especially the ladder show that the way by which the screen wrights brought it to live was accurate

  5. Arguing that the harem should not be reversed:

    Fundamentally, Spinoza’s actions hurt the Jewish community in Amsterdam. He selfishly chose to further his ideas in spite of the negative effects it had on the Jewish people he claimed to love. Some would say he was fighting for freedom of speech, but that was not his goal; Spinoza was simply promoting his own ideas. And those were ideas that even his closest friends didn’t buy into. For the damage he did to the Jewish community he deserves excommunication.

    In the arguments, the opposing side tried to compare Spinoza’s excommunication to McCarthyism. I argued that this was not a fair comparison, because Spinoza was actively out promoting his heretical ideas in public, while McCarthy’s victims were often just political enemies of McCarthy, not real Communists.

    The opposing side also argued that Spinoza dint deserve excommunication because he didn’t hurt anyone. I outlined in my argument all of the ways he did hurt the Jewish community, with the capstone being that their synagogue was closed by the Amsterdam authorities.

  6. Arguing in the Affirmative: Ives’ Treatment was Fair.

    Over the past 15 minutes, you have heard both sides of the argument and our respective rebuttals. Although the play “New Jeruselum” prompts controversy on many philosophical and religious debates, I hope you can agree with me that this should not be one of them. David Ive’s treatment of the Dutch Authority is without a doubt fair.

    David Ives does this by showing both the good and the bad of the Dutch Authority to leave the audience conflicted towards it. Moreover, the play would have been especially unfair had Ives only showed the Dutch in black and white terms as either a vindictive and manipulative or as all merciful with the Jews’ best interest in mind. Both of these descriptions are incomplete and not entirely accurate.

    David Ives shows the good side of the Dutch Authority by explaining that the Jews were protected under a unique agreement that no other country at this time was willing to make. This agreement created a tenuous peace that both sides had stake in preserving. Valkenberg, in particular, explains that whether or not he believes in everything he must do, he believes that he must abide by the Dutch Authority to protect this balance, which benefits the Dutch citizens and the Jews.

    Ives completes the portrayal of the Dutch by showing the other side. He shows that the agreement came with distinct limitations on the Jew’s freedoms. He also makes Valkenberg a blunt, agressive and unlikeable character to represent the government as a whole and finally he shows that the Dutch coerced the Jewish community to excommunicate Spinoza, though members of the community were hesitant to say the least.

    As you can see, David Ives is fair in his treatment of the Dutch Authority. He shows that they are merciful and protective of the Jews in many ways, but imperfect. By showing these imperfections, Ives provides a realistic representation of the Dutch and their relationship with the Jews.

  7. Does the Rabbi find Spinoza blasphemous?

    No. The formal definition of blasphemy is the “impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things or in Judaism the act of cursing or reviling God.
    At several points within the performance, most of the performers accuse Spinoza of being an atheist or hating God. One scene where this is seen the most is when Mortera is interrogating Clara.
    Clara “But Bento is a saint. Really. Nobody deserves eternal blessedness with God more than Bento. I’ve told him that.”
    “Bento thinks too highly of God for him to mean that.”

    Also many of the Spinoza’s ideas are based on love. In the climax of the play we see Spinoza come to the realization that love is the missing part of his philosophy.
    SPINOZA “Thank you, Clara. Clara as always is the clue. Clara is the clarification. Love. That’s what’s missing. God’s love for us. No. God can’t love. Nature cannot love, Clara.”
    SPINOZA “Our love for God. Our love for God. That’s what I was missing. It’s not just comprehension that we must attain. We must ascend through comprehension, beyond comprehension, to love. To loving that God that is indistinguishable from the world and that must be loved as I love Clara without the hope, without the need, of receiving anything in return. And this is going straight into my book. Thank you.”

    • Blasphemous in general refers to being irreverent towards God or holy things and traditions. In this sense, the Rabbi most certainly finds Spinoza blasphemous. Spinoza is not an atheist, no. But, Spinoza disregards religious dogma by questioning the teachings of the Torah. Though today, many accept and respect those who question their faith to gather a deeper understanding, at this time it went against the basic rules of the Jewish faith and was therefore forbidden. By questioning the afterlife, the existence of angles, and dominance of the Jewish religion, Spinoza disrespected the religion. Though the Rabbi accepted that he made a strong argument, he found it dangerous for his congregation and did not want Spinoza to prompt others to attack the faith in a similar manner. He believed that Spinoza’s blasphemy was dangerous for his people and for that reason excommunicated him.

  8. Arguing that Spinoza’s harem should be reversed:

    The other team laid out their top three arguments for why Spinoza’s harem should not be reversed. The first is that he was a heretic. The second is that the rabbi excommunicated Spinoza from the community as an act of compassion, and the third was that Spinoza had to be excommunicated in order to preserve the safety of the Jewish community living in Amsterdam at the time. While I cannot argue against the first and third points, I think it is very clear that the rabbi was not acting with compassion. The opposing team argues that if Spinoza had stayed in the jewish community he would not have had the freedom to fully explore his philosophy and would not have grown in to the great philosopher we know him as today. They argue that casting Spinoza out of jewish society was an act of compassion. Yet Spinoza could have left Amsterdam any time he wanted to go and explore his philosophy. He instead chose to stay with the family and community he knew and loved. It is obvious from the play that Spinoza loved his faith and his community. To kick him out is not an act of compassion, but one of cruelty. I can’t imagine being forced to flee my home for fear of persecution to then be forced out of my new home for thinking outside the box about my communities traditions. It was unfair. Spinoza made great contributions to Jewish culture and did no wrong in Amsterdam. Considering he was a self professed Jew he should be let back into the community. Reversing his harem is the right thing to do.

    • What i see in your argument is 2 conflicting values held by Spinoza. The first is the value he sees in the Jewish community, and the second is the value he sees in questioning and perhaps changing the Jewish understanding of faith. Spinoza’s conflict is that these two values conflict. Spinoza cannot exist in the Jewish community of Amsterdam while also questioning the Jewish faith in the vocal and outward manner he chosen to do so. The rabbi gave Spinoza the choice between staying in the community and continuing to question religion, and Spinoza himself chose the latter. It was not the rabbi who made that decision, it was Spinoza. The rabbi was kind enough to leave the decision up to Spinoza in spite of the damage he had already done, but ultimately Spinoza chose excommunication and therefore chose his right to question over the Jewish community.

  9. Question #3: Arguing the portrayal of the Dutch authority was unfair

    Opening Statement

    We believe that in order to understand the unfair light in which the Dutch authority was portrayed in New Jerusalem, historical context is needed. The Jewish population in Amsterdam emigrated there from other areas in Europe to escape persecution. In 1492, they emigrated from Spain and Portugal and in 1648, a mass slaughter of 500,000 Jewish people by the Cossacks in Poland drove them to the city. In other places of the world, such as Russia and Saxony, Jews were not allowed to practice their religion whatsoever. In summary, the Jewish population who emigrated to Amsterdam was a people looking for refuge from other areas where they were facing real threats to their lives.
    Now, why Amsterdam? Because this was a city known for its religious tolerance. In 1657, Amsterdam granted Jews the official right to practice their religion as long as the Jewish community was self-contained, living by Jewish orthodox law. This was conveyed very effectively in Ive’s production. In mordern eyes, the fact that the Jewish population had to keep their faith practices behind closed doors seems harsh. Yet, It is important to keep the practices of other countries in mind, because most places did not even allow that much. Amsterdam exemplifies a progressive spirit, and an intent to further the religious freedoms and culture.
    This is all reflected in the words of Spinoza himself. “The city of Amsterdam reaps the fruit of this freedom in its own great prosperity and in the admiration of all other people….his religion and sect are of no importance.”

    Ives admits in an interview with The Lantern Theater in Philadelphia that no one knows what actually happened in the Talmud Torah Congregation on the day of Baruch de Spinoza’s excommunication; the play is therefore not based on fact and the portrayal of the Dutch could be skewed. We believe it is
    • The Dutch authority never listened to any of Spinoza’s explanations for his behavior; Valkenburgh would simply ignore Spinoza’s thoughtful answers to his charges and move on to his next accusation. This implied that Valkenburgh did not care about tolerance; he simply wanted Spinoza out of Amsterdam
    • After Mortera excommunicated Spinoza, Valkenburgh threatened to shut down the synagogue, which shows he wasn’t biased only against Spinoza, but the whole Jewish community.
    • Valkenburgh says to Spinoza, “Young man, do you want to be responsible for the suppression of the Jewish population of this city?” meaning that Valkenburgh had no qualms about repressing the Jews in a harsher manner than mandatory self-containment

    While we acknowledge that Amsterdam’s policies of self-containment towards its Jewish population might not have been tolerant by today’s standards, they were extremely progressive for the time. The examples from New Jerusalem listed above paint the Dutch in a harsher light then we believe is fair, making them out to be intolerant of not just revolutionary Baruch de Spinoza, but of the Jewish population as a whole.

    • Conclusion:

      While we acknowledge that the toleration of 17th century Amsterdam wasn’t perfect, it was exponentially better than everywhere else in the region. Save for a brief monologue by Valkenburg explaining his precarious position, David Ive’s portrayal does little to point this toleration out. While the Dutch authority’s imperfect toleration was ultimately the reason for Spinoza’s excommunication, the play puts an almost sole focus on this. On the other hand, it does not fairly represent the incredible tolerance of Amsterdam relative to other areas of the world.
      To return back to Spinoza’s own words, written after his excommunication: “For in this most flourishing state, and most splendid city, men of every nation and religion live together in the greatest harmony.” Today, we may not view the treatment of Jews in Amsterdam in the 1600’s as “perfect harmony.” But, at the time, maybe this was as close to “perfect harmony” as was possible. Ives could and should have gone farther in portraying this.

  10. Arguing Affirmative for “Should the excommunication of Spinoza be reversed?”

    Regardless of whether or not it was appropriate in the 17th century, is that really the sort of metric we want to be judging its modern day implications by?
    o NO!
    o Other things that were appropriate for the time period
    • Belief that diseases could be cured by removing offensive smells
    • Dumping sewage into open pits
    • Punishing female gossips by putting them into a contraption that caused their tongue to be cut up if they tried to move it, followed by being dragged through the city and whipped
    o You can try to say that it was necessary for the times, but that doesn’t mean it should still be in effect
    • Distraction from the real issue that we are debating today
    • Which is that Spinoza’s excommunication should be reversed

    The Jewish faith is a strong faith that can withstand some dissent from it’s members
    o Spinoza’s works challenge his readers to think for themselves about their faith
    • This is not a bad thing
    o A questioned and tested faith is a stronger faith
    • Blind faith without knowledge is not really faith
    • That’s called a cult where members are not allowed to think for themselves
    o Reading Spinoza’s philosophies will cause Jews to re-examine their faith
    • but this should not be considered threatening
    • This will cause them to become more familiar with it and believe in it more strongly

    • Although times absolutely do change and there is always room and opportunity to right past wrongs, I think it is important to look at Spinozas charem both symbolically and historically before judging whether the charem made hundreds of years ago should be over turned today.

      Symbollically, the charem stands as a reminder of a stricter time, a time of oppression of Judaism in the world that led to the oppression of Jews within their own community. The charem is a reminder of how the Reconquista played a role in shaping Jewish communities and can serve as a representation of how times have changed.

      Historically though, the charem against Spinoza was appropriate for its own time. Whether to protect the community against heretical beliefs or to set Spinoza free to develop his beliefs apart from Jewish law, the charem was based on valid religious beliefs when it was put into effect.

      Overturning a this ruling now, that was made on good faith at the time, does more to deny change and hardship than it does to celebrate the rich culture and history that Spinoza’s story provides.

  11. Topic No. 2:

    Opening Statement, Second Half:

    Does the Rabbi have Bento Spinoza’s best interests in mind? He does not. Although Rabbi Mortera himself agrees with Bento’s philosophy, Mortera speaks constantly of how wounded and insulted he is that Spinoza would contradict the Jewish teachings that Mortera himself taught him. The argument, the Rabbi says, “is not only Baruch’s name and Baruch’s life. This is my name, my life.” It is clear that the Rabbi takes this situation very personally. He cries, “I come into this synagogue, my own synagogue, and I hear insults from you against the deity? This is the example I set you? Are these the fruits of my instruction?” These words highlight the kind of dialogue we consistently hear from the Rabbi throughout the play. Mortera is an authority figure in the community, and if a member of his congregation challenges his teachings, this challenges the leadership he possesses over the community and may jeopardize his ability to serve as a spiritual guide for his congregation. Pride, then, is really essential to the Rabbi’s position as a leader. The phrase “pride goeth before the fall” doesn’t apply here. From Mortera’s perspective, “pride preventeth the fall of the congregation.” By proudly affirming the veracity of Jewish teachings and expressing outrage at Spinoza’s deviance from them, Mortera is protecting his position as Rabbi and the duties that go with it. He is acting in his self-interest, not Spinoza’s.

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