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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In contrast, the ancient practice kept the performance aspect of the ritual alive, thus assuring genuine communi­cation and instruction. Near-simultaneous verbal translation created a live connection between the reader and the audience. The reader acted as witness to the word of God. The congregation listened and understood as a community. The Torah's message was not merely recited as past history; it was present and alive. Its immediacy was such that the teacher of the day had to respect the community's own hearing of the text. The ceremony as a whole yielded genuine learning and communal involve­ment.

The connection between performance/drama and true instruction cannot be underestimated. Effective education requires that the message conveyed in a way that com­mands the student's attention and interest. One of the most effective means of doing so is through live presentation. For this reason, it is generally easier to learn from a good teacher than from an academic article, and from a professor who speaks spontaneously than from one who reads lecture notes.

But, you might ask, isn't Torah reading just that-­-reading from a text (closer to reading lecture notes than to spontaneous performance)? Bible scholars have long recognized that the biblical text (including the Torah) preserves significant aspects of the original oral forms of the stories it contains. And for good reason! In ancient societies, it was difficult to produce books (or scrolls) in large numbers, and books were therefore quite precious and rare. By necessity, for most people book reading was oral and public, and written texts continued to be characterized by common oral features. (One scholar calls this the "oral residue"). More accurately, then, Torah reading was closer to dramatic reading from a script, where the words and form are intended for oral presenta­tion.

Bringing the Text to Life

I first appreciated the difference between reading and listening to the Torah portion when I had my first child. With baby in arm, it was impossible to follow the reading in a humash, soI began simply to listen. (I am fortunate to be able to understand the Hebrew without translation). And what a difference it made! I no longer felt that I was fulfilling an assignment--to follow the reader word for word in the printed text. More important, I was no longer distracted by the commentary or by interesting pieces of text, earlier or later, that diverted my attention from the words then being spoken. Instead, I could experience the story or teaching as it was related to me personally and directly. There was something immediate and fresh, ­something I had not felt when I was reading the text. In fact, I could often imagine the reader as one in a chain of lawgivers or storytellers. The teaching he/she now repeated to me had been related to him/her by an elder, who had learned it from a prior elder, and so forth. Before me stood a living participant in the ancient chain of tradition and, as the next listener, I too now stood in that chain.

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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.