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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It may be asked, what essential difference is there between this practice and ours? After all, ancient custom was necessitated by the limits of their technology. Without printing presses and therefore without books, this was the only way that translation of the Hebrew original could be provided. We, on the other hand, can handle Hebrew illiteracy far more efficiently. With humashim [printed Bibles], we have no need for the Mishnah's cumbersome procedure. Isn't our efficiency preferable?

When we think in terms of efficiency, we miss a more basic point. It is true that we can provide translation in a book, but the procedure described above is far more than translation. It is public ritual performance. By "perfor­mance" I mean two things. First, all ritual by virtue of being performed or enacted is a performance. But ritual is also drama. By enacting a ritual, we symbolically dramatize a set of meanings. Such performance is simultaneously ritual, drama, communication, and instruction.

Torah as Holy Script

Needless to say, a printed translation, lying inert on the surface of a page, is incapable of replicating performance of this kind. The transformation of public ritual perfor­mance into private book-reading has, therefore, important consequences. These are well described in a cultural history of Shakespeare, Reinventing Shakespeare, by Gary Taylor of Brandeis University. Taylor details the effects on the audience/reader of making Shakespeare's plays into books:

Shakespeare's plays had been, throughout the 17th century, actions. They happened; they enacted a story temporally; they were acted out by particular persons from beginning to end; they acted upon an audience assembled in a certain place at a certain time. In the 18th century, they became things, they became, primarily, books. Books are spatial, not temporal; any reader can skip backward or forward, dip in, pull out, pause, repeat. Books can be cut up and rearranged, as time cannot. The transformation of Shakespeare's actions into books thus permitted and encouraged their disintegration into assemblages of quotable fragments… Undertext of commentary repeatedly interrupts the reading of the uppertext... The experience of reading Hamlet in the late 18th century was an experience of directed action repeatedly interrupted, postponed by eddies of subsidiary meditation. Books abstract, impersonalize, idealize; what had been an interaction between a cast and an audience became a kind of message left by an unreachable author for any and all possible readers. The text became a thing....

Disintegration, interruption, abstraction, impersonal­ization, an unreachable author--these words describe what happens to a dramatic performance when it is made into a book with commentary; these words also describe the experience of reading the humash. The books on our laps create a gulf between our experience and the dramatic performance on the bima. What might be alive--a voice with presence and spirit--is reduced to print on paper, brought to life only in the mind of the individual.

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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.