Reflections on New Jerusalem

By Katharine Kline, MJTC Communications Manager

Most of us dread opening the newspaper these days. The weight of world events often seems unbearable. Violence. Discrimination. Hate. Persecution. With escalating tension both nationally and around the world, a growing fear and uncertainty pervades our thoughts. Is there an end in sight? Will justice be served? What is the meaning of freedom? To what lengths will we go to preserve our communities? Are we safe? Unfortunately, although times seem particularly dire right now, these questions are not new. In New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656,  David Ives tackles these themes head on. The play takes place within the context of the Catholic Inquisition, but the issues it examines are both timely and relevant to today.

In Ives's production, the Jews have fled to Amsterdam to escape the mass conversions and public executions of the Catholic Inquisition. In exchange for safe haven, they have agreed to police their own community for unorthodox beliefs. This agreement is put to its test when Spinoza, heir apparent to the chief rabbi, is placed on trial for suspected atheism. The consequences to a guilty ruling are grave: permanent exile from the Jewish community. Also at great risk is the safety and survival of the entire Jewish community in Amsterdam. Either the Jews expel Spinoza as a heretic or Amsterdam expels the Jews. Yet, even when facing these known consequences, Spinoza stands steadfast in his beliefs. He remains adamantly true to his personal and philosophical principles. 

Is it courageous for him to do so? Or is it simply the boastful rebellion of youth? Ives challenges us to seriously ponder these questions. As human beings, we are frequently asked to choose between our principles and our safety or comfort. If it came down to it, would you risk the loss of your loved ones in the name of your principles? Would you fight for what you believe to be right and moral at the risk of your personal safety? To what lengths would you go to preserve your community? And where do you draw that line? For Spinoza, the answer is clear and resolute: there is no consequence that justifies backing down from one's principles. For most of us, this is not such a simple choice. Perhaps we vote for the "safe" candidate instead of the one who truly, deep down, aligns with our belief system. Or perhaps we lack mindfulness in our places of worship, valuing community and tradition above our intrinsic beliefs. Most of us yearn to protect the freedoms of oppressed people, but how many of us are motivated to personally sacrifice for this yearning? The vast majority of us watch (horrified) from afar, doing little because the risk of action is too high. But what is the risk of inaction? Should we judge ourselves or others for these choices? What is the human cost for our ideals? 

As we learn of tragic events in Syria, Gaza, and Ferguson, we are forced to confront our morality directly. We bear witness to oppression and persecution both around the world and within our own communities. Voices are silenced, violence is rampant, rights are denied, and lives are lost. Therefore, we are confronted with a considerable choice. Do we choose Spinoza's path of steadfast commitment to principle? Or, do we stand more closely aligned with his mentor, Rabbi Montera, who places the safety, preservation, and survival of his cherished community above all else? As we, the audience, watch Spinoza’s trial unfold onstage, we also serve as his jury. And it is not just Spinoza, but our very own ideals, awaiting a final verdict.