The Origins of Jewish Performance

From Prohibition to Precedent.

Theatre as we know it emerged from ancient Greece. To celebrate their gods, the Greeks gathered to watch plays on religious holidays. Greek theatre connected spectators, actors, and gods through observation. Judaism’s strict adherence to monotheism, modesty, and mitzvot–designed to connect people to their creator through action–stands in obvious contradiction. 

Indeed, there is a long-standing tradition of Jewish opposition to theatre. Many base this prohibition on the second commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness” (Exodus 20:4). The Talmud also records forceful comments that cast a broader prohibition, forbidding “the theatre and circuses of idolatry” (Avodah Zarah 18b; Shabbat 150a). Yet despite resistance and conflict, a Jewish tradition of theatricality and performance emerged.

Biblical Theatre

In the Bible, performance and theatrics appear in a number of contexts. Some biblical figures use costumes to hide their identities and thus secure what they need or want. Rebecca dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothing to help him pursue the birthright through deception (Genesis 27). Joseph, as Egypt’s viceroy, feigns not recognizing his brothers when they meet in Egypt, years after they sold him into slavery (Genesis 42). Joab directs a woman to act as a mourner to draw King David into meeting his rebellious son, Absalom (Samuel II 14). Performance in the Bible is also presented as an act of worship. Miriam leads the women in song and dance after crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 15), and David performs an ecstatic dance before the ark as it was brought to Jerusalem (Samuel II 6).

But how much do these instances of drama in the Bible reflect the realities of ancient Israel? Unlike the ancient Greeks, who attended performances of tragedies and comedies chanted by masked actors during the religious festival of Dionysus, ancient Israelites had no theatres. However, the Bible does describe an ancient practice of publicly reading or chanting the Torah text: “When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord, your God, in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears…” (Deuteronomy 31:11-13).

This commandment evolved into the current practice of weekly chanting from the Pentateuch in synagogues. The cantillation notes, whose current version dates back to between the 8th and 10th centuries, add more than a melodic element to this custom. Cantillation serves as punctuation, indicating when a sentence or idea begins and ends, and in a few instances also dramatizing biblical scenes. For example, in the story of the seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife, the shalshelet cantillation note on Joseph’s “adamant refusal” (Genesis 38:8) is a sustained wavering sound that rises and falls three times. This seldom used note underscores the tension between Joseph’s desire and his ultimate refusal to yield to temptation.

Changing Attitudes under Hellenism

Jewish attitudes towards theatre changed as the stage came to symbolize the oppressive Hellenistic and Roman cultures and regimes. Vulgar comedy and violence personified Roman theatre. Prisoners awaiting execution, including Jews, were often killed as part of Roman plays. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that the rabbis in the Talmud considered theatre a sinful waste of time. This attitude was expressed in a prayer composed during the talmudic period: “You did not cast my lot among those who frequent theatres and circuses… For I will inherit the world to come; and they, the pit of destruction.” Israeli theatre scholar Shimon Levy explains in his Theatre and Holy Script that theatre was deplored because it “presents a real religious threat: the power to transform matter into spirit and vice versa. In traditional rabbinic Judaism, this remains the exclusive prerogative of God.”

Jewish tradition did not oppose all theatricality per se. Performance with spiritual potential was sanctioned within the confines of the Temple. For example, Simhat Beit Hasho’eva (The Water Drawing Festival) was a carnivalesque celebration held in the Temple during Sukkot. Following the destruction of the Temple, the Talmud describes this event in nostalgic terms, yearning for a return to the exuberant atmosphere of singing and dancing, of rabbis juggling fire and performing strange acrobatics.

Despite the bans on pagan theatre, Hellenized Jews in both the Greek and Roman worlds could be found in theatre audiences. In ancient Turkey, according to a surviving inscription, prime theatre seating was reserved for pious Jews. There were also famous Jewish actors in the Roman theatre, such as the actress Faustina and the actor Aliturus, Nero’s favorite mime.

Amid the rabbinic aversion and brewing anti-Jewish sentiment there is just one known Jewish playwright, a dramatist named Ezekiel who lived in Alexandria around the second century B.C.E. He wrote Exagogue, a Greek tragedy about Moses. Only a fragment of the script has survived, but it is the earliest recorded biblical drama. In Alexandria, it is likely that Jews and Greeks both attended performances of this biblical adaptation. It probably served a political purpose in allowing Jews to present themselves as a law-abiding people with a philosophical understanding of God, at a time when the persecution of Jews was an emerging threat.

Jewish Theatre

Wedding and holiday celebrations functioned as a natural stage for Jewish performance. A particularly Jewish entertainment tradition began with the badhanim, professional wedding jesters, mentioned in Jewish literature from the Talmud to medieval rabbinic writings.

The holiday of Purim also lends itself to theatre. Actors have a story, audience, and performance space built into the tradition of reading the Book of Esther. The Purimspiel, a folk performance developed in the 12th century, gave the poor access to the rich and a more dignified manner to beg: “Today Purim has come in, tomorrow it goes out. Give me then my single groschen and kindly throw me out!”

By the 16th century the Purimspiel grew more structured and resembled a Fastnachtspiel, a German carnival play. In the late 17th century, other biblical stories were adapted for the Purimspiel including the sale of Joseph by his brothers, and David’s defeat of Goliath. These formed the basis for what would become Yiddish theatre in Europe. Though most rules relaxed on Purim, as cross-dressing and inebriation become permissible, German rabbis at times cracked down on lewdness in many Purimspiels, and banned their practice.

Theatre in Hebrew sprang from the seeds Yehuda Sommo planted. This 16th century theatrical producer in Mantua, Italy authored the oldest existing Hebrew play, Tzachut Bedichuta de Kiddushin (“The Comedy of Betrothal”). A farcical comedy written in the popular Italian style, it is based on a talmudic passage in Tractate Gittin (8b and 9a) concerning a master bequeathing all his possessions, except one, to his slave. While amusingly critiquing the Jewish community’s dealings surrounding betrothal and marriage, this play proved the literary potential of the Hebrew language and marks the beginning of Hebrew theatre.

In Mantua, the center of new Italian drama, Sommo’s Jewish community had its own theatre company. Though it operated in a ghetto, this theatre company performed annually for Mantua’s dukes. Its Friday performances started early to ensure they did not conflict with the Sabbath, and its success was largely a credit to the vision of Sommo. 

Having earned acclaim beyond Jewish circles as a theatrical authority and innovator in Europe, Sommo was the only Jewish writer admitted into Mantua’s Accademia degli Invaghiti (Academy of the Infatuated Ones–a society for noblemen and scholars). In 1580 Sommo was exempted from wearing the yellow badge required of Jews, and in 1585 he was allowed to purchase property on which the community’s synagogue was built.

Sommo bridged worlds. He argued in both his plays and theoretical writings that the idea of Jewish theatre is no paradox.  According to his Comedy of Betrothal, Jewish theatre’s lofty aim is “to glorify the Torah, to study and to teach and do what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord and Man.” In his Dialogues on the Art of the Stage he asserted that the biblical Book of Job, written in mostly dialogue, was the first dramatic text in recorded history–and that this form was appropriated by the Greek playwrights.

The Book of Job, his argument went, granted precedent and legitimacy for Jewish involvement in theatre. By dissociating Jewish theatre from the Hellenistic pagan tradition, Sommo opened the door for Jewish theatre of subsequent generations.

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