Image credit: George Schiavone
By John Thomason
It’s great to be the smartest guy in the room if you’re a president, economist, or engineer. It’s less than great if you’re Baruch Spinoza — the pioneering 17th-century Dutch philosopher, Enlightenment thinker, and pantheistic provocateur behind the seminal tome Ethics.
That’s right. It sucks to be the smartest guy in the room when you’re centuries ahead of your time. Born a Portuguese Sephardic Jew, Spinoza was part of a faith that believed God himself wrote the Bible, personally dispatched it to Moses, and intervened in peoples’ lives until they ascended to Heaven or burned in a lake of fire. But he was denounced at age 23 as an enemy of Judaism and, by extension, the very foundations of Abrahamic faith.
But the stuff he was writing — about God and nature being the same thing, about the nonlocal consciousness of the mind, about love’s transcendence — would earn him a spot today on Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul Sunday. You’d catch him polishing off carafes of kombucha with Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer at new-age conferences.
At least that’s how Spinoza comes across as played by Abdiel Vivancos in GableStage’s stimulating production of David Ives’ New Jerusalem, a fictionalized account of the real interrogation the philosopher received at Amsterdam’s Talmud Torah Congregation in 1656. Spinoza is free for just one scene in New Jerusalem. Then he is summoned to appear before a Christian civic leader (Stephen B. Anthony), a ranking member of Talmud Torah (Gregg Weiner), and ultimately his rabbi/mentor (Larry Bramble), where he is forced to defend himself against charges of atheism while facing a possible penalty of excommunication.
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