Washington, DC - As Theater J, the nation's largest professional Jewish theater company, remounts its record-breaking production of David Ives' "New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza," curious observers are asking, "Why Spinoza? Why now?"
Daniel Schwartz, author of "The First Modern Jew: Spinoza and the History of an Image," and a professor at George Washington University chuckles at the thought of this implausible box office hit. "As fascinated as I am by Spinoza, I am perhaps even more fascinated by the seemingly boundless fascination with him. Why is this play that debuted in Washington a year and a half ago back so soon? Why are we revisiting his excommunication which happened more than 350 years ago?" In other words, why should modern America care about the life and thoughts of a 17th century philosopher?
Part of that answer can be found in one of the reason's for Spnioza's vilification and excommunication -- his espousal of a secular government at a time when none existed. It was Spinoza's ideas that helped lay the groundwork for the separation of church and state advocated by our own nation's founders.
Most of the time, we consider the debate over Church and State to be over. Our nation decided long ago that the best of all possible governments is a secular one, adhering to no one religious philosophy.
However, when a Presidential candidate says that he does not believe that the separation of church and state is absolute, can we say the debate is over? When a Congressional panel debating ethics and healthcare is half-filled with clerics; when high school students are bullied and ridiculed for being atheists; when every week we see headlines where major political debates are split down religious lines, can we say the debate is over?
One strong thread of this debate can be traced back 350 years to one man defending himself against his elders in an Amsterdam synagogue.
Spinoza's Amsterdam, in its Golden Age in the 17th century, was a philosophical outlier of its time. In other parts of Europe the Inquisition was carrying over into its second century. Jews were being hunted down, driven out, and summarily slaughtered across the continent. But they found refuge in Amsterdam. There they were not confined to ghettos, but allowed to participate in the life and commerce of the city.
However, literal ghettos were replaced with metaphorical ghettos, as those freedoms were increasingly circumscribed. Jews were excluded from trade guilds, from owning shops, and from holding public office. They held their religious ceremonies out of the public view. Amsterdam was still a Christian city in a Christian nation, and the Jews there were never allowed to forget this.
It was into this environment that Baruch de Spinoza was born and where he first began developing his philosophies. It was here that he first recognized the need for a secular government. He believed, and would go on to explain in his written work, that the freer a nation's people were to think, the more prosperous and stable that nation would be.
At the time, state religions were the law of the land in most European countries, and if you did not subscribe to that religion you courted alienation, imprisonment, exile, and death. Spinoza espoused a secular state, where all religions were tolerated, but whose laws were based on a code of ethics independent of any one religion.
He was vilified for this philosophy, and was exiled from Amsterdam and from the Jewish people for what it implied -- that man could discern what is right and wrong without God's assistance. His writings on the subject were called the most evil documents ever published.
This might seem irrational today; an artifact of a less tolerant age. But a look at today's headlines shows that we are not so removed from that age as we'd like to believe.
Now, as Theater J re-opens David Ives' witty recreation of Spinoza's trial and the company prepares for its culminating day-long "Spinozium" -- a gathering at which some of the Nation's greatest Spinoza scholars will debate Spinoza's excommunication and an audience will vote as to whether the writ might be lifted -- Washingtonians will be impressed by the enduring relevance of this 17th century philosopher who might easily have ended up a historical footnote.
Because, as dramatized in Ives' play, we see that Spinoza is not just fighting for his own liberty, but grappling with the most personal questions of philosophy, faith and government that we continue to wrestle with today.
"New Jerusalem" runs through April 1st at Theater J, culminating in its day-long "Spinozium" -- a national symposium and mock trial presided over by retired chief judge for U.S. Court of Appeals Patricia Wald. Others participating include Leon Wieseltier, Rebecca Goldstein, Marc Saperstein, Steven Nadler, Nat Lewin and Alyza Lewin. Attendees of the play will have the chance to cast their ballots at the end of each performance, and will be encouraged to return for the trial as members of the jury. New Jerusalem runs through April 1st, 2012. The Spinozium will take place on April 1 at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater at DCJCC.