New Jews in New Jerusalem: Seeing the Jewish Convert in the Trial of Baruch Spinoza

As a Jewish-Christian convert, it is challenging to explain myself to either of the groups with whom I share an identity. For the Jews, the issue of conversion is so emotional that it is difficult to have a conversation. And many Christians have such a “thin” and formal understanding of what it means to be Jewish that the conversation is rarely edifying. Moreover, converts themselves often have little shared understanding even among them about what it means to be Jewish, Christian, or converted.

So being a convert is a little bit like being an immigrant, unable to describe his place of origin to new friends who cannot envision the look and texture, the embodied psychology, of that other society.  Such a person is always delighted to come across a powerful explanation or depiction that he can take to those friendly characters and say: “See! This is what I’ve been trying to tell you!”

Charles McMahon’s excellent production of David Ives’ play, New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation, Amsterdam, July 27, 1656, which I saw at the Lantern Theater in Philadelphia about a month ago – and, should it be produced again in the future (which seems likely), would highly recommend – proved unexpectedly helpful in this regard. I hope you will forgive my inability to resist the temptation to write a review of the play which is a bit lengthy for this blog.

The play is a fictional recounting of the trial and expulsion of Baruch de Spinoza by his native Sephardi community – fictional because very little is known about it besides the fact that Spinoza was an extraordinary intellect who believes to have thought his way out of the “superstitions” of both Judaism and Christianity, and the text of the anathema (herem) imposed against the philosopher.

Spinoza as played by Sam Henderson is free-spirited and detached, unable to understand the emotion with which his various antagonists are attached to their faith and tribe, yet himself passionately committed to his ideas and his friends – and at the same time playful and distracted, even foolish. Henderson’s performance is nuanced and memorable, particularly in light of the actor’s uncanny physical resemblance to his character.

Always looking for opportunities to discuss his ideas, Spinoza has made himself known to the philosophically inclined among both Jewish and Gentile residents of Amsterdam. By doing so he has become a menace to the Dutch authorities, who fear the spread of heresy. A Dutch city official, Abraham van Valkenburgh (a fictional character), demands that the synagogue expel Spinoza or face the threat of being closed by the authorities.  A trial ensues.

The trial is conducted by the head of the Jewish community, Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira. He is Spinoza’s former teacher, attached to his bright and promising student with an almost parental love. Defying Valkenburgh’s wish to see Spinoza quickly condemned, the rabbi insists on letting the young man express his views and, being himself a learned and well-regarded intellect, attempts to debate him. Their exchange is a poignant drama; that the cast makes it so despite its highly abstract content is an impressive accomplishment.

To his surprise and terror, Morteira discovers Spinoza’s beliefs to be very little Jewish; indeed, Spinoza succeeds in planting doubts in the rabbi’s own mind. Grieved and angered by Spinoza’s apostasy and fearful for the future of the community, the distressed rabbi finally gives in to Valkenburgh’s demand for excommunication. Spinoza is condemned in the harshest terms and exiled from the synagogue.

The conflict between city authorities seeking ideological order and the philosopher who refuses to stop his subversive questioning is strongly reminiscent of the trial of Socrates. Spinoza’s demeanor, too, is worthy of the great philosopher: with no concern for self-preservation but only for truth, he challenges his accusers, then accepts his verdict with uncommon dignity.

But this new Socrates is not simply a citizen of Athens. He is also, and primarily, a citizen of the Jewish community living at the mercy of Amsterdam’s authorities. His trial is as much modeled after a Socratic archetype as it is shaped by the tension between these two societies.

We learn that in order to win permission to live in Amsterdam – a city that prides itself on its religious tolerance – the Jewish community accepted a variety of restrictions, in particular a prohibition on discussing religion with Christians. In actuality, this restriction was self-imposed by the Jewish community in Amsterdam to mollify the Dutch; Dutch law, in turn, prohibited Jews from marrying or even employing Christians, further limiting discourse.  Such laws existed in other European countries as well, and were generally motivated by fear of Jewish religious influence and the attribution to this influence of various local heresies (such as, for instance, the Judaizing Subbotnik movement in Russia).

Valkenburgh, the official instigating the trial, takes pride in the fact that the authorities of Amsterdam are above the sort of vile measures taken against the Jews in Spain or in Russia: all they ask is that the Jews refrain from speaking. But the dilemma he puts before the Jewish community – excommunicate Spinoza or be punished with him for his refusal to keep silent – shows the intensity of his discomfort with Jewish expression. For as long as Spinoza is a Jew, he speaks as a Jew, even if what he says is far from being Jewish; and that cannot be tolerated. Spinoza’s Dutch friend who accompanies him to the trial realizes this as well, accusing Valkenburgh of wishing to silence not only Spinoza, but all the Jews.

For the Dutch to deal with Spinoza as he is – a citizen and a heretic – he must first cease to be a Jew. Spinoza does not wish to be thus severed from his people, even if he has reinterpreted his spiritual heritage to the point of ceasing to be religiously a Jew. But the choice is not for him to make. The Dutch wish to cut him off from the Jews, and the Jews – even the rabbi who loves him – finally see no reason to defend a heretic within their own ranks.

Though more acute and dramatic, this predicament of Ives’ Spinoza is surprisingly like that of the Jewish convert. Christians often see the Jewish converts among them as having ceased to be Jewish. Or, just the opposite, they may be so focused on the ecumenical dialogue with Jews that the convert is seen as an embarrassment, an inconvenient disruption in the neatly outlined boundaries of two communities in dialogue. To the Jews the convert may still be attached by affection, but is no longer fully accepted by them as kin. Thus the convert, like Spinoza, must either be cut off from the Jews or absorbed into them; and like that philosopher, he is alone in attempting to define what it means to do neither.

In Ives’ rendition, Spinoza’s anger at this injustice is great and underlies his political philosophy; he demands political freedom for himself and his people. But what angers Spinoza even more is the complicity of the Jews in their oppression. When, in a private conversation, Rabbi Morteira tries to convince him to keep quiet about his ideas for the sake of ensuring the Jewish community’s safety, Spinoza blames the rabbi for complicity in the silencing of Jewish speech. Morteira admits as much, but cannot convince Spinoza to value what is of utmost importance for the Jews – permission to practice their faith in peace.

If the Dutch fear genuine encounter with the Jews – one that might take place if the Jews were allowed to speak freely –this exchange makes clear that the Jews, in turn, do not care much for genuine encounter with the Christians among whom they live. Their priority (for understandable historical reasons, surely) is safety; inability to speak openly with the Christians is a small, almost insignificant, price to pay. It is simply not important to the Jews, while it is terribly important to Spinoza.

In this respect, again, Spinoza is positioned similarly to the convert. Spinoza wishes to question Christians about what he sees as the flaws in their religion; the convert learns from them his true faith. But for both, engagement with the Christian side is a matter of course, an essential education. Not so for the Jewish community, ever-suspicious of missionary efforts and accustomed to dialogue only for the purposes of negotiating its condition or, in a modern context, expressing its grievances.

Ives gives us a Socratic drama, faithful to the raw intensity of its ancient model. The man who drank the hemlock stands over Western civilization as a perpetual reminder of the eternal tension between consciousness and conformity. Spinoza’s philosophy may not strike the Christian as worthy of hemlock. But by refusing to sacrifice his freedom to protect a Jewish-Christian relationship rooted in mutual fear, he – like the Jewish-Christian convert –bears alarming witness to the primary unresolved relationship in Christian history.

About The Groom's Family

I was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in Israel. I was baptized Orthodox Christian in 2006. Today my husband and I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!
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2 Responses to New Jews in New Jerusalem: Seeing the Jewish Convert in the Trial of Baruch Spinoza

  1. Pingback: Spinoza is Back! | The Groom's Family

  2. Pingback: Caution! Philosophy in Progress. | Unequally Yoked

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