Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Spinoza's excommunication: a play by David Ives (1)

New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch De Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656. A play by David Ives.
June 26–July 25, 2010, DC Jewish Community Center.
Directed by Jeremy Skidmore.

"In this witty theological drama, philosopher and accused apostate Baruch de Spinoza faces excommunication from the Jewish community."

Baruch de Spinoza
Simon De Vries
Clara von Enden
Rebekah de Spinoza
Rabbi Mortera
(Rabbi? ) Ben Israel

I saw this play last night. It is an excellent play, brilliantly written. Baruch Spinoza explicates and defends his heretical philosophy in the face of impending excommunication. The characters, their belief systems, the rationale behind their behavior, and the interaction of their perspectives make for compelling philosophical theater. The audience discussion following the play was uncommonly intelligent as well.

The logical structure of the play is impeccable, though its historical accuracy cannot be vouched for, other than the recitation of the kherem. I don't know Spinoza's biography well enough to evaluate the characters. I was told during the discussion that the Simon De Vries of the play, who is presented as Spinoza's betrayer, is a composite of three historical characters. Clara von Enden is presented as Spinoza's shiksa love interest. Spinoza's sister Rebekah is tossed into the mix as comic relief to taunt Spinoza but later to taunt his antagonists. If I knew anything about these actual historical characters, I could comment, but I can only claim that as fiction they work quite well.

The audience members who participated in the discussion showed that they picked up on the logic of the play quite perceptively. There is more to be said about the logic of Spinoza's system in relation to the real world, particularly in terms of human destiny and irrational social institutions, to take the next step beyond what was explicitly discussed. We see a logic behind Spinoza's coming up with the notion of the intellectual love of God and his conception of a purpose for human perfectability in an impersonal universe. If we extend the logic both of Spinoza's thinking and its interaction with its antagonist--tradition-bound, fear-based, superstitious, repressive social institutions--we can move some steps beyond Spinoza after opening up the covert dialectic in play here.

(To be continued)

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