Dramatizing the Torah

The Torah reading in most synagogues is inaccessible, the author says, and needs to be "livened up" through the use of drama and performance art.

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Kraemer makes several suggestions, drawn in some cases from classical models, to improve the experience of the Torah reading. Kraemer argues, "The books on our laps create a gulf between our experience and the dramatic performance" of the Torah reading. Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma: The Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

Imagine yourself sitting in the audience at an avant-garde performance in a foreign language. Onstage is a main performer, reciting quickly in a repetitive sing-song. He is surrounded by others who occasion­ally interrupt with brief interjections. You have been provided with a translation, but not understanding the language of perfor­mance, you have no way of judging precisely where your attention should be directed at any given moment. Chances are, you are tempted to walk out and never come back.

dramatizing the torahThis is the experience of most Ameri­can Jews during the Shabbat morning Torah service. There are many reasons for the situation just described, some of them obvious: few American Jews understand Hebrew, few have adequate Jewish educations, few conduct their lives according to the precepts first suggested in the Torah, and so forth. But such expla­nations (however true they might be) are just excuses for not acting to improve matters.

Make Ritual Meaningful

If we want to bring Jews back to the synagogue, to educate them and increase their commitment to Jewish religious expressions, we must recognize what has been demanded of them, and how intoler­able it is. True, there is value to tradition on its own terms, and the Torah service as we know it does reenact, as best it can, a tradition of many centuries. But, as presently conducted, it no longer speaks meaningfully. It is not feasible, therefore, to maintain this practice without modifica­tion. Jewish tradition does not demand that Jews suffer through ritual that offers little, if any, edification.

The Power of Performance

Ours are not the first generations that have had little comprehension of biblical Hebrew. Most Jews in the first centuries of the common era, in the Land of Israel as well as in the Diaspora, spoke Ara­maic, some spoke Greek, and only a few spoke/understood Hebrew. How did religious leaders of that age respond to Hebrew illiteracy? They made oral translation a regular part of the Shabbat morning Torah reading.

According to the record of the Mishnah (the first document of Rabbinic law) and other early rabbinic sources (Mishnah Megillah 4:4, Tosefta Megillah 3:20), the Torah reader would read a single verse, followed immediately by a translation into the vernacular. Hebrew, translation, Hebrew, translation--thus the reading would proceed until the weekly portion, far smaller than our weekly portions, would be completed. It was impossible for those present in the synagogue not to understand what was being read.

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Dr. David Kraemer

Dr. David Kraemer is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is a Senior CLAL Associate at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.