I grew up in New York. I went to college in New York City. I left and moved to California and have lived on the west coast almost ever since. I don’t really miss New York, though that will be hard for dyed in the wool New Yorkers to hear. New York is not the center of the universe, as Saul Steinberg once posited.
But every once in a while I read about a cultural event so singular that it could only happen in New York (at least in this country). And I know there’s not a hope in hell that I’ll ever hear the concert or see the play or the museum exhibit. Then a frisson of regret runs through me at what I know I will miss. In that, New York is unsurpassable.
Reading today’s NY Times Arts & Leisure section I saw an ad for the play, New Jerusalem: the Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation, Amsterdam, July, 1656. As a long-time student of Jewish history and rabble-rouser I’ve had a love affair with the Spinoza story. But mostly with the IDEA of what happened to him and not as much with his actual philosophical views which are shrouded a bit in obscurity. This play is clearly my chance to brush up my Spinoza. And alas I will not have the chance.
Here is what Wikipedia has to say about Spinoza’s ban:
Spinoza became known in the Jewish community for positions contrary to normative Jewish belief, with critical positions towards the Talmud and other religious texts. In the summer of 1656, he was issued the writ of cherem (Hebrew: חרם, excommunication) from the Jewish community, perhaps for the apostasy of how he conceived God, although the reason is not stated in the cherem. The terms of his cherem were severe: He was, in Bertrand Russell’s words, “cursed with all the curses in Deuteronomy and with the curse that Elisha pronounced on the children who, in consequence, were torn to pieces by the she-bears”. It was never revoked.
Given that Amsterdam’s Jews had themselves fled from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions and were accepted in the Netherlands on pain of keeping their religion to themselves, one can understand that the community might not suffer free-thinkers like Spinoza gladly. It was simply too dangerous to have people proclaiming “deviant” views of Jewish theology.
The Amazon synopsis of Steven Nadler’s book summarizes his theory of Spinoza’s banning:
…Nadler argues that Spinoza’s main offence was a denial of the immortality of the soul. But this only deepens the mystery. For there is no specific Jewish dogma regarding immortality: there is nothing that a Jew is required to believe about the soul and the afterlife. It was, however, for various religious, historical and political reasons, simply the wrong issue to pick on in Amsterdam in the 1650s…Nadler argues that Spinoza’s beliefs were not only an outgrowth of his own metaphysical principles, but also a culmination of an intellectualist trend in Jewish rationalism.
In his review of Nadler’s book, Joseph Chuman expands upon the motivation of the communal leaders who brought down the wrath of the Jews on young Spinoza:
The issue of the immortality of the soul was elevated to great significance because it related directly to the fate of Marrano Jews still living under the oppression of Catholic Spain and Portugal. As Nadler states, “The immortality of the soul would seem naturally to be an important issue for a group of recent returnees to Judaism who still had relatives living in apostasy in Spain and Portugal, who were therefore concerned about the eventual fate that awaited the souls of their loved ones. Would those who, under compulsion, publicly reject the Torah nonetheless receive the eternal reward that the Talmud appears to promise every member of Israel?” That Spinoza would deny access to an afterlife in all but the most philosophical and impersonal terms would deeply offend.
More significant, however, are the implication of his views with regard to the external relations of the Jewish community. It was a commonplace of religion, both Jewish and Christian, in the 17th century that the capacity to be moral was predicated on the existence of a life after death. Immortality and social order were directly linked. By denying the immortality of the individual moral soul, Spinoza was thereby placing the community at risk, or so its leaders feared, in the eyes of their conservative Calvinist hosts.
Fascinating stuff. If you are in the vicinity of New York and can find tickets to what promises to be a very popular production, you owe it to yourself to see this play. The drama of the historical event described is incalculable and from the reviews I’ve read the play does the story great justice. The Classic Stage Company which presents the play is also doing the community a great service by hosting a lecture series about the issues surrounding Spinoza.
I jokingly like to refer to anyone who has ever been fired from a job in the Jewish community or ostracized or reviled by fellow Jews for dissident views as honorary members of the Spinoza Society. It’s my own club, but some of our best Jews are members. Here’s to you, Baruch Spinoza, honored and reclaimed member of the Hebrew tribe.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.