In 1656, Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza paid a steep price for his controversial ideas. Deemed a heretic, he was sentenced to herem — tantamount to excommunication — by the Jewish community leadership of his home city, Amsterdam.
Spinoza’s beliefs about subjects ranging from God, the natural world and Judaism remain a contentious issue among some Jewish communities. Underscoring this is the enduring power of the ban, which has not been lifted over 360 years later. Its severity was felt during the COVID-19 pandemic: An Israeli film crew sought permission to film part of a documentary about Spinoza inside Amsterdam’s historic Portuguese Synagogue. Instead, the documentary’s star expert, Johns Hopkins University professor and Spinozist Yitzhak Melamed, was himself banned from the premises due to the lingering sensitivity of the subject.
“The ban is a very violent act,” the documentary’s producer, Israeli filmmaker Yair Qedar, told The Times of Israel, “as though it justifies what are the right religious ideas and notions, but still it was shocking. I think it is something you must resist. This is a place of worship that bans artists wanting to make a film.”
That film has now been completed and released under the title “Spinoza: 6 Reasons for the Excommunication of the Philosopher.” Directed by David Ofek, it’s the latest installment of Qedar’s long-running biographical project, “The Hebrews.”
What began as a spotlight on poets and writers such as Abraham Sutzkever, the great Yiddishist of the Holocaust era, has extended to thinkers including Spinoza as it nears 20 episodes. In fact, the Spinoza biopic is part one of a three-part series-within-a-series that will also include Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.
“Surprisingly, it’s done very, very well,” Qedar said. “Philosophy can be popular, in a way… It had a strong opening in Israel and wonderful reviews. It’s a surprising success story.”
Making the film meant tackling multiple challenges, including the unexpected ban on Melamed from the Portuguese Synagogue — an experience referred to in the documentary.
“We were fortunate and unfortunate at the same time to have been boycotted under cherem,” Qedar said. “At the beginning of the film, we experience a Spinozian experience.”
The ban on filming made international headlines, from Le Monde to the BBC. It eventually had negative repercussions for Amsterdam’s then-chief rabbi, Pinchas Toledano, who is shown onscreen sharing his thoughts on free speech and its limits.
As Qedar explained, “The synagogue and institution are supported by the municipality of Amsterdam,” which is “not supporting discrimination, not allowing it… the rabbi continued to another position and left Amsterdam.”
Although the ban on filming inside the synagogue was eventually rescinded, the filmmakers couldn’t fit a return visit into their schedule.
Beyond the controversy over accessing the synagogue, there were wider challenges facing the filmmakers from the beginning of the project.
“The first was to create a biography of a person who is no longer with us for a few centuries, with very [little] evidence about his life,” Qedar said. “It was burdening and challenging. The second — and greater — was, how do you translate philosophy into documentary filmmaking? How do you take complex philosophical ideas and explicate them or represent them in a way that’s possible for a large audience to understand?”
The filmmakers were able to surmount these obstacles thanks to some creative approaches and fortuitous findings.
They met a Jerusalem-based family with connections to Spinoza: artist Itamar Mendes-Flohr and his mother, artist and writer Rita Mendes-Flohr, who can trace her ancestry back to the philosopher’s sister Rivka. Paul Mendes-Flohr, Rita’s husband and Itamar’s father, is a scholar of philosophy who is currently working on a project about a relatively more recent Jewish thinker, Martin Buber.
Itamar is “a dyslexic artist, very tender, sensitive and brilliant,” Qedar said. And, he noted, he “looks a bit like Spinoza himself.”
The filmmakers spotlighted a key piece of evidence regarding what the philosopher actually looked like. They propitiously learned about the discovery of Spinoza’s death mask at Columbia University in New York, with Melamed getting an opportunity to hold it.
“You feel like you’re almost getting a piece of Spinoza,” Qedar said. “It’s the closest we get to Spinoza, seen for the first time in the world, [what] did Spinoza look like. It’s amazing, very exciting for us to discover it, shoot it and to touch it.”
In the film, Melamed turns the mask upside-down, much as Spinoza turned contemporary thinking on its head.
As the film explains, the philosopher came of age in a Sephardic family with roots in Portugal. His ancestors fled the persecution of the Inquisition for the more tolerant Netherlands, where Jews could worship freely by the early 17th century. Yet tolerance had its limits. The Dutch were displeased with allegedly noisy Jewish funeral processions, and compelled the minority community to transport its dead to their final resting place by using the area’s many waterways.
Tolerance also was restricted within the Jewish community, including toward Spinoza’s radical ideas on a variety of subjects.
These are distilled to the viewer in multiple ways. Sometimes it’s through academics such as Melamed and fellow scholars, including Jeremy Fogel and Noa Naaman-Zauderer, both of Tel Aviv University, as well as the Hebrew University’s Yosef Kaplan, who relays an unusual anecdote about the posthumous circumcision of Spinoza’s grandfather. Although it was done to accord with halacha, or Jewish law, it may have alienated the future philosopher from religious orthodoxy early in his life. The filmmakers also showcase their subject’s beliefs through animated sequences, one of which illustrates the limitations of considering the divine. A circle will think of God as having circular attributes, a cat will imagine a feline divinity, and humans will envision themselves as being created in the image of God.
“We tried to find amusing, clever, inspiring ways to show examples of philosophy,” Qedar said.
Maybe they’re amusing today, but the ideas behind them represented a serious threat to the contemporaneous Jewish leadership, which responded in kind. Or was such outside-the-box thinking really the cause of the herem? The filmmakers aren’t so sure — and propose five additional possibilities.
“They are exceptional, surprising, original,” Qedar said. “We don’t know for sure what happened.”
For instance, what if the underlying issue wasn’t heretical views but family finances? As the film explains, after the death of Spinoza’s father, young Baruch sought to have the estate adjudicated not in a rabbinical court but a Dutch one, which offered a better chance at escaping his father’s creditors; a Dutch court would look more sympathetically on the fact that Spinoza was now an orphan. The ban was issued mere months later.
“It seems the data show this was more the case than any other [reason],” Qedar said. “You look at the records, the municipal Amsterdam records from that time, it’s a detective story. I don’t want to elaborate — see the film, be surprised.”
Following the ban, Spinoza went into exile from the community and penned the philosophical works that earned him a place in history — the “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus” and the “Ethics,” with the latter only published after his death, per his request, in 1676.
The filmmakers delved into these provocative works — which were banned by state and religious authorities alike — and explored other aspects of the philosopher’s life in exile. A Christian family took him in, letting him live in their attic. As a day job, he worked with lenses, which were used in some of the era’s cutting-edge technology: microscopes and telescopes. Such work reportedly caused respiratory issues that led to his early death.
“It was very interesting that Spinoza worked on the lenses at the time of the invention of the microscope and Rembrandt’s mirror,” Qedar said. “It was fascinating, the other reality that lenses can provide to what we do as filmmakers, using lenses to see the story, see the world.”
Through multiple lenses, the filmmakers help viewers see Spinoza in a new light.
“We’re glad to have the opportunity to work on this amazing thinker,” Qedar said.
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