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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775

Back to the Bible

June 1, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

Our seminar center has now made a tradition of holding mini-festivals around holidays – the other day was our third, and the response in the community has been great. This time we featured a performance of "Eshet" ("Wife of…") on Thursday evening, and the next morning a lecture on psychology and Judaism, followed by a brunch and workshops.

The play, an award-winning production by a theater company from Tel Aviv, is based on the biblical story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38). Using actors and large puppets, the performance is as much dance as drama. The only words spoken are the biblical text. Essentially, the play is a midrash on the original narrative, using the theater arts to delve into the story behind the words of the text: what were the feelings of the characters whose actions are described so laconically by the Bible? What storms of emotion, of love and anger, are hidden behind the orderly narrative? Interestingly, the play was sold out – and this despite our rather disappointing record of attendance at theater events we have brought in. Furthermore, the crowd was almost entirely non-orthodox (judging from their headgear or lack thereof).

We had a similar experience a few years ago, when we brought in a production from Jerusalem: "Vayomer Vayelech" ("And he said, and he went"). In that play, the theater company engaged in a workshopping process for over a year, in which the actors created theatrical midrash on a variety to biblical texts, and then linked these all together into a full length production; because of the demand, they then developed a shorter version, involving only three actors, and took it on the road to local theaters and culture centers like ours. As in "Eshet," the entire script of "Vayomer Vayelech" – and of its sequel that focused only on the Saul-David narrative – consisted of unmodified biblical text. When we offered "Vayomer Vayelech," we sold out, and there was sufficient demand to justify a second performance a few weeks later.

A few observations:
Even to those of us who teach Bible, and who are therefore quite familiar with it, it is amazing how powerful the text can be when it is read through a different set of eyes. For example, one of the most moving and unforgettable scenes in "Vayomer Vayelech" was the rather obscure and bizarre narrative of Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11), that we tend to prefer to skip over. By the time the actress had finished reciting the text for the third time, there were no dry eyes in the crowd.

I think that these examples of creative midrash represent an important new stage in the development of Israeli culture. Up until now, the Bible has been seen here in a few different ways:
a. As the deed to the land. Thus, the tradition of hiking – or digging, as in the case of our own Nelson Glueck - with Bible in hand was an important pillar of Israeli education and identity. In recent years the enthusiasm has faded – and a new school of critical archaeology has begun to question the validity of this tradition, arousing fierce controversy.

b. As a text to be mastered, a classic required for socialization. For many Israelis today the Bible was just another high school subject, often a difficult one. The only chapters they read in any depth were those listed each year as the syllabus for the matriculation exams at the end of high school.

c. As a sacred text, to be understood only through the eyes of Rashi and his sources. Today, within the community of Orthodox educators, even this tradition is the subject of vehement debate, in the wake of calls for a new approach, "Bible at eye-level," that seeks to peel away the layers of traditional interpretation and let the narrative speak directly to the student.

Israeli culture may be disappointingly Americanized, and our children's ignorance of our classics may be a scandal, but it is encouraging to see how alive the Bible still is, and how powerful an influence it is on the cultural landscape and on intellectual and pedagogical discourse.


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