'New Jerusalem' - thought-provoking, timely

By John Quinn

Baruch de Spinoza was a dangerous man. Thinkers usually are. Thinking may lead to questions about the fundamentals of religion and government that an entrenched establishment can't afford to answer. In the extreme cases you might preserve the youth of Athens from corruption with a simple cup of hemlock, but there are less drastic yet more painful ways to maintain order.

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre brings us David Ives' "courtroom drama" of Spinoza's defense against Church and State. Its complete title is "The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656," which is why I'm glad I'm not tweeting this review. Briefly, the play is called "New Jerusalem."

Spinoza was Portuguese and Jewish by heritage, but part of the fortunate community that found refuge in Holland from the persecutions in Iberia. His radical philosophy on the substance of God, Man and Nature is an early formulation of Rationalism in the manner of Rene de Carte ("I think, therefore I am."). He explored the unity of science and religion, a philosophical truth not yet fully grasped by some of the anointed. Since his work appeared to undermine the orthodoxy of both Judaism and Christianity, civil authority appealed to religious authority to silence him. If he was found in violation of the tenets of Judaism, he was in violation of the pact that allowed his community to live safely in Amsterdam. He faced excommunication and banishment.

Ives's script is lovingly researched but not without flaws. A play about a philosopher is bound to be talky; fortunately, this one is not preachy. It is next to impossible to follow the intellectual discussion, but that's not surprising. Philosophers are still chewing on the meatier portions of Spinoza's dense, convoluted work. This is, however, a play, not Philosophy 101; what Spinoza says is far less important than the effect he has on those around him.

That would include Abraham van Valkenburgh (Hugh Maguire), representative of the city, who calls for banishment, and Gaspar Rodrigues ben Israel (Phil Powers), representative of the congregation, who calls for excommunication. Then there's his erstwhile friend Simon de Vries (Rob Pantano), who betrays him for political gain, and his half-sister Rebekah who betrays him for financial gain. There's also his Christian friend-but-not-lover, Clara van den Enden (Christina Flynn), who fears his apostasy will send him to Hell. Last but not least, is his mentor, Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera (Loren Bass), who himself feels betrayed by Spinoza's heresies. Spinoza evokes emotional conflict in each of those he encounters, and it is that internal battle, not the legal debate, which is the essence of "New Jerusalem."

Director David J. Magidson has set a crisp tempo for his ensemble, and it buoys us through some turgid passages. Keeping Baruch de Spinoza both human and interesting falls on the experienced shoulders of Mitchell Koory. His Spinoza is a young, brash smart-ass, too impulsive for his own good, but thoroughly likeable. Couple him with Loren Bass' measured portrayal of Rabbi Mortera and we find ourselves witnessing the eternal duel between the experienced and the upstarts, the established and the unconventional, fathers and sons.

So what do we care about a dead 17th century philosopher? Only this: The Age of Enlightenment was sparked by the writings of the Continental Rationalists and the British Empiricists. That new way of looking at existence is fundamental in understanding this country's Founding Fathers and their great achievements, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Spinoza's fiery insistence that there are fundamental rights to free speech and free practice of religion could have been James Madison defending the First Amendment. His accusation that the Dutch Jewish community had given up those rights in order to secure a place to live could be Benjamin Franklin a century later: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Africa and the Middle East are swept by winds of change. Young men are yet again laying down their lives in the name of ideals we as a nation, sadly, have taken for granted. They are dangerous men. Thinkers usually are.

REVIEW:

'New Jerusalem'

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre at Aaron DeRoy Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield. Thursday, Saturday & Sunday through April 10. $32-$41. 248-788-2900. http://www.jettheatre.org

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