Who is this who obscures counsel without knowledge? Indeed I spoke without understanding, of things beyond me which I did not know Therefore I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes. -Job 42:3, 6
We went to the theater the other night, to a performance at the Karmiel culture center by the Kameri, one of Israel's leading repertory companies. The play was a new one, "Oy God!" by the popular playwright Anat Gov, part of the country's entertainment elite she is married to singer-comedian-television personality Gidi Gov. The lead roles are played by two well-known actors, Yossi Polack and Shiri Golan.
A 40-ish psychologist, not particularly happy with her lot in life as a single mother raising a teenage autistic son, receives a call requesting an urgent therapy appointment. The client, when he appears, turns out to be God, who is depressed over the way his relationship with humanity has developed, and wants to end it all. Needless to say, the opportunities for funny dialogue here are many, and Gov keeps the therapy session going with intensity, interspersing theological discussion with jokes, some obvious and some really clever. The play is very entertaining, and the hour and a half passes very quickly and in the end, God, the psychologist, and the world all find a measure of redemption.
Of course, a great deal of the dialogue consists of biblical allusions and quotations, including extensive declamation of passages from Job. Not to mention references to Rashi's commentary, and the midrash. And as I was sitting there straining not to miss a word of the rapid-fire dialogue, I couldnt help thinking that this was just what Ahad Ha'am had in mind when he and Bialik and the other fathers of modern Israeli culture envisioned cultural Judaism. There we were, a theater full of Jews from every different religious background, from every corner of the world, studying Torah and thinking about theodicy, in Hebrew, for an evening's light entertainment. Somehow, the secularization of the tradition did not destroy it; perhaps it even kept it alive to be taken up in new ways by new generations.
It is tempting to be dismissive of Israeli pop culture like any other pop culture. We have more than enough vapid, stupid, celebrity cults, reality TV, etc. And of course global culture has huge impact here music, film, literature in translation. Still, experiences like our evening at the theater are not that uncommon. The phenomenon of popular entertainment grounded in Jewish text and Jewish history, without a religious agenda or undertone, remains an important strand in Israel culture in literature, in theater, even in popular music. Moreover, as inescapable as English is as the global lingua franca, still, the first language here is Hebrew, which connects the most trivial theatrical dialogue or song lyrics to the weightiest and most ancient of our sacred texts.
I used to be quite skeptical about the sustainability of Judaism as a secular national culture; it seemed to me that if you take God out of Jewish identity, all that's left is a hollow shell. But seeing the creative and sometimes powerful ways in which Israeli culture has maintained and/or renewed its connections to classic Jewish sources, now I'm not so sure.