Judaism Equals Theater
By Tuvia Tenenbom
To many people, the assertion that Judaism is a theatrical concept is blasphemous or, in the least, pretty bizarre. But the truth is that Judaism shares, conceptually, with Theater more than with anything else.
To illustrate this point, let's compare Judaism with its two monotheistic sisters/daughters, Christianity and Islam. While the New Testament and the Quran contain exulted glorifications of their founders, the Jewish Bible and Talmud tell countless stories of wrongdoings of those in authority. Jealous leaders, oversexed kings, corrupt priests or just plain old murderers and rapists populate the pages of Jewish religious texts. In Jewish culture, it seems, leaders exist for the sole purpose of recording their misdeeds; this includes, interestingly enough, God himself. Jewish theology is filled to the brim with mutual recriminations between God and his "Chosen People." Examples abound: He takes them out of Egypt, they create a Golden Calf; they worship Him around the clock, He sends them to Auschwitz. Not to forget the very name "Israel," which means 'he who fought God.' What honor! And who can forget the Psalmist, King David, who's supposedly one of the authors of the Bible. He is the same man, btw, who sens a husband to die so that he could have sex with the wife. How great!
You might ask: If leaders are ridiculed, how will the flock hold together?
Well, here comes the concept that Judaism equals Theater.
Judaism, a culture that delights in contradictions, is a theology that preaches to its members that they should think for themselves. When Abraham, the first Jew, asks God for His name God replies: I am who I am. In short: Whatever. When Moses, the Law Giver, asks God for the pleasure of seeing Him, God says -- practically -- no way, Jose.
What the Jewish "Written Word" does is merely provide a compass by which one can finagle his way into that mysterious maze called Life. To make sure nobody screws this up and crowns themselves an all-knowing leader one shiny morning, the flame keepers of Jewish thought, those famed Talmudic rabbis, instituted the axiom that every opinion has an equally valid opposite opinion. And just like theater, where characters won't stay long enough to answer the audience's questions, Jews don't have leaders who will satisfactorily answer any question. After all, how can you accept a leader's fatwa when his chief opponent is equally right?
But, you might keep asking, if nobody leads the way, how will the flock move?
To keep those of us who lack a sense of direction from ever getting lost, Judaism came up with a perfect leader. His name is Messiah, a.k.a. "The Messiah that Never Arrives." That Messiah is somewhere out there, but he would evaporate in front of your eyes the moment you think you have seen him. Try to imagine, if you will, Messiah's arrival in Israel: there won't be two living Jews who will accept his authority.
If you are wondering, "What good is a Messiah that never arrives?" think about theater. In theater we have a similar person; its name is Character. A character is on the stage but dies the second he or she crosses the Fourth Wall. A character can efficiently engage you from afar, but let them get near, and you'll lose any interest in them. Just like our Mr. Messiah.
Whether or not a Messiah arrives, Judaism and Theater have something else in common: the Metaphor. Because theatrical characters and Jewish Law have nothing to do with reality, the Metaphors created by both have infinite power.
You might ask: if Judaism is Theater and Theater is Judaism, what then is Jewish Theater?
For Jewish Theater to exist as such, it must take its cues from ancient Jewish texts. And this means that no idea should be foreign to such a theater, no question silenced, and no answer ever supplied. The life of the theatrical, much like the life of the Jew, is best lived when it is shrouded by the glory of the unknown and lit by the excitement of the ever-lasting Question Mark.
This approach, so clearly alluded to in many Jewish texts, has never materialized in the world of the so-called "Jewish theater" in America--with the noted exception of The Jewish Theater of New York. All too often American-Jewish theater presents a nonsensical glorification of the past, coupled with a suffocating absence of self-criticism. In Fiddler on the Roof, a musical that has shaped the style of the American-Jewish theater for decades, a man suffering devastating poverty and brutally expelled from his country responds to his plight by blessing, singing, and dancing. This portrait of Judaism, perpetual schlimazels who answer disaster with song and dance, has so influenced many American Jews into believing that Fiddler IS Judaism.
For the Jewish Theater of New York, a company of artists who believe in challenges, making Jewish theater means presenting theatrical and literary works that dare to question, to challenge, to explore. And, just like the great thinkers of Biblical times, to wash our dirty laundry on the public stage--when and if such laundry exists. Quite simply, we make it a point not to abide by any Stop sign. When we present a character on the stage, be it a Rightist, a Centrist or a Leftist, we present him or her from their p.o.v -- without judging. When, at times, we think it necessary to present nudity on the stage, we do it fully. When the Arab-Israeli conflict reaches new heights, we get to the bottom of it. When we discover authentic journals of Jewish leaders from the Nazi period that have been kept secret by the powers that be for about seventy years, we make them public at once. When we come upon the story of the assassination of a gay rabbi by fellow Jews, we put the story on our stage with no hesitation. When passionate love letters to Adolf Hitler, written by countless European women, come our way we put them on our stage despite alarming threats to our theater. When we notice black nannies pushing baby-carriages with white Jewish babies inside on the streets of New York, we make a musical about it. When we wake up in the morning and see Ms. Madonna teaching Judaism to the masses, and realize how religion is being marketed in our day and time, we make a play about it...a Mystical Comedy on the Nature of Religion. When Arabs across the Middle East go to the street to make a revolution of whatever sort and kind, we are the first to make a show of it. When we encounter "peace-loving" Jewish activists who, in real life, are nothing but self-hating Jews, we unmask them in front of all to see. When we meet refugee-lovers who, at the same time, can't stand the sight of a Jew, we expose them. And when anti-Semitism becomes a fad in the West, we are there to put a mirror on them immediately.
Very proudly, no subject or issue is foreign to us: rabbis and pimps, lovers and foes, yuppies and paupers, liberals and conservatives, the righteous and the obnoxious---and anyone in between who's got a good story to tell.
If you ever wondered about the "Jewish" in The Jewish Theater of New York, now you know!