Centuries Later, Spinoza Back in the Fold: Editor’s Notebook
By Jane Eisner
After more than 350 years of enforced exile, Baruch Spinoza has been invited back into the Jewish community — at least by the people who participated in a mock trial and symposium at Theatre J in Washington D.C. earlier this month. The vote was 108 to 41. The controversial writ of excommunication was lifted by a trio of rabbis who made the pronouncement and then ceremoniously snuffed out a black candle.
Yes, this was theatre, and brilliant theatre at that, dramatic and engrossing. The daylong event culminated Theatre J’s revival of the David Ives play “New Jerusalem,” a retelling of the story of the 1656 interrogation of Spinoza, arguably the most controversial philosopher in Jewish history, if you could call him Jewish at all. There was plenty of debate about that, too.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a modern audience sophisticated enough to sit through hours of scholarly and artistic presentations would vote in such a lopsided fashion in favor of inclusion and free speech. As one of a few journalists to take part in the “Spinozium,” I didn’t cast a vote or argue a position, but if I had, I guess that my personal and professional allegiance to the First Amendment would have trumped all.
Having Spinoza inside the communal tent is far more interesting and challenging than pushing him away.
Still, I found myself conflicted. My unexpected sympathy for the rabbinic edict that irrevocably placed the 23-year-old Spinoza into cherem was fueled by two revelations that day: about the Amsterdam Jewish community from which he was forever banished, and the philosophy that he preached.
The community had largely fled from Portugal and, while the Dutch were far better hosts than the Jews’ previous rulers who demanded conversion to Catholicism on pain of death, they still were hosts. Jews were guests. Freedom of worship was granted, not innate
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