For the week ending 26 December 2015 / 14 Tevet 5776

Theater in Judaism

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Ian

Dear Rabbi,

It seems to me that in addition to literature in the form of instructive stories, there is a fair representation of music and other artistic forms mentioned in the Torah, and applied in the service of G-d in the Temple, and on other occasions. But it strikes me that theater doesn’t seem to be mentioned or practiced in ancient, or Orthodox Judaism, despite the fact there are so many ethical or educational stories, events or ideas that could be set to the stage. Is this so? And if so, why?

Dear Ian,

I think you are right. Theater hasn’t played a major role in Judaism.

A few obscure, minor examples come to mind, but none occupy center stage.

One example is Yaakov’s dressing up and acting the part of Esav. But this role-play was hardly play and can’t even be considered a skit. On Purim we find the custom to wear costumes and mimic the character portrayed, but this can hardly be considered drama. And even the traditional Purim shpiel is at most a skit that is more of a comic spoof than actual theater.

An example of a serious-minded skit with more educational character might be the custom among some Sefardi communities to integrate into the Pesach seder a mini-enactment of the departure from Egypt. Interestingly, it seems that the well-known thinker-kabbalist Ramchal did actually write a few meaningful plays, but if they were performed at all, it was only in a very limited way.

So why has Judaism seemed to close the curtain on theater?

One major reason might be due to repulsion for the idolatrous context and content of ancient Greek plays, coupled with values which were unacceptable to Judaism. But this wouldn’t necessarily preclude Jews from using this art form in a Jewishly educational or uplifting way.

Another possible reason might be Judaism’s general disinclination to personify. Perhaps “sculpting” a character that appears on stage smacks of making images. Insofar as the play may enact stories portraying G-d or revered personages, there would certainly be a reluctance to personify these holy figures.

Conversely, there is a certain reluctance to ascribe a particular, physical form to G-d or these revered ancestors, because doing so diminishes their veneration by quantifying them and thereby limiting our reverence for them.

But either of these concerns wouldn’t preclude using plays to convey stories or messages which wouldn’t have these problems.

Accordingly, another possible objection to the venue of theater, even for educational purposes in a way that doesn’t have the problem of physically portraying revered characters, might stem from the idea that doing so limits the quality or depth of the message as originally portrayed in the written Torah source. This may be due to the playwright’s particular interpretation of the message, or the audience’s impression of his expression. This would be akin to the all-too-common phenomenon, “The movie is not as good as the book”.

Additionally, in a tradition where supplementary commentary is so essential to a proper understanding of the original text, the play might not fully encompass the vast wealth of commentaries on any given story or teaching, and therefore be inaccurate, misleading or even untrue to the source.

But both of these concerns could theoretically be allayed by a sensitive and conscientious study by the playwright of all the relevant sources in order to present a comprehensive and accurate representation of the ideas or events. In any case, they would not seem to preclude using theater at least to present authentic Jewish teachings through the venue of new stories, not directly based on Torah texts.

In cases such as these, perhaps the reluctance to use theater as an educational or inspirational venue might be due to bitul Torah, meaning diverting oneself from the mitzvah of engaging oneself in active, personal Torah study. This reason would apply even to a play which is very true to the sources, since one should learn the sources himself rather than passively view a theatrical rendition of them. All the more so this reason would seem to apply to a message distinctly divorced from the sources, even if it’s true to Torah.

But arguably, this may not be so different than attending a Torah lecture, where the members of the audience, instead of using their time and mental energies to be personally and actively involved in the traditional format of Torah study, rather passively absorb the Torah message distilled by the rabbi on stage at the podium.

Thus, a final possible reluctance to use theater for Torah is that after qualifying its expression based on all the aforementioned objections, there results a fine line between theater for education and theater for recreation. And even though some Torah lectures are also entertaining, the very venue of a lecture or class ensures that it will be entertaining education; while the venue of theater is likely to be, at best, educational entertainment, which could easily devolve into being “purely” entertainment. And entertainment for entertainment’s sake is discouraged by Judaism.

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