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Jewish Sacred Theater: Its Components and Its Means

Conservative Judaism, Vol.36(3) Spring 1983, 15-34 | Translated by Sue Gilliford

Introduction – Theatre and Ritual

In the following discussion on Judaism and theatre, I shall not deal with examples from the literature of Jewish theatre or with the development of modern Yiddish and Hebrew theatre. Nor shall I touch on phenomena such as the Purim Spiel, the storyteller, or the wedding jester, which despite their cultural importance are all just exceptions to the general rule that I will discuss bellow. Instead I will concentrate on the almost complete absence of theatre art – in the common sense of the term – within the Jewish tradition, for unlike other ritual traditions, Jewish worship never underwent the process of theatricalization. Indeed in the very instances in which foreign theatrical effects threatened to penetrate Jewish ritual, the tradition consciously fought them.

The roots of Jewish opposition to theatre appear as early as the prohibition in the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness” (Exodus 29:4). The opposition continued throughout the generations, as we see in the Talmudic prohibition against “the theatre and circuses of idolatry” (Avodah Zarah 18b; Shabbat 150a). But at the same time, Judaism did attempt to give concrete, tangible expression to the intercourse between the Creator and the believer. Furthermore, the laws, customs, mizvot, and holiday ceremonies turn almost every human and communal event into a means of actual expression of this relationship. Thus Judaism, like other ritual traditions, presents a highly detailed system of tangible means of communication between God and His worshippers. Also, to large extent these means are cast in the Jewish tradition from the same mold of expression as those of other ritual traditions or from the same means as used in theatre art: the articulated word, man in movement, speech and song, costuming, accessories, and ritual objects, all within a fixed time in a chosen place.

My goal here, therefore, is to suggest a broader definition of theatre for use in investing Jewish worship, in all of its different manifestations, as a type of scared theatre. Perhaps the Jewish tradition’s opposition to theatre makes these two areas surprising allies, a couple altogether contrary to the spirit of Judaism. Despite this apparent contradiction, an investigation of the elements of worship within a theatrical context and its comparison with other ritual-theatre traditions will help us shed a new light on the way in which Judaism concretizes the communication between God and the believer, and it will also help us to focus on the particular character of this communication system. Indeed the differences among the ritual-theatre traditions of various cultures are not just differences in style – variations of a basic model (as, for example, the relationship between the different languages) – but rather they are an expression of the different beliefs concerning the relationship between the deity and the believer. These differences in faith are what actually led to the creation of distinct communication system – the specific forms of ritual. Therefore, an investigation of Jewish ritual can discover the uniqueness of this system no less than can a comparative examination of the principles of faith.

an investigation of the elements of worship within a theatrical context and its comparison with other ritual-theatre traditions will help us shed a new light on the way in which Judaism concretizes the communication between God and the believer, and it will also help us to focus on the particular character of this communication system.

This discussion of Jewish ritual as a genre of sacred theatre appears during a time in which, within the context of decline of religious faith, Western theatre is constantly searching for its identity. A result of this search is a series of works in different styles of “neoreligious” theatre. Beginning with the works of Richard Wagner in the middle of the 19th century and the works of Appia, Gordon Craig, Max Reinhardt, and Antonin Artaud in the first half of the 20th century, and through the current works of Peter Brook or Jerzy Grotowski, the theatre borrows content and forms from the realm of religion, ritual, and religious theatre. This borrowing reflects an attempt to create a new type of religious theatre, or in extreme cases even to use theatrical art and its working forms as a subject for faith and a religious way of life. An examination of the theatrical aspects of Jewish ritual within this context also presents a new perspective for understanding the means of ritual-theatrical expression.

Since this is the case, in the following discussion we will attempt – to the extent possible in such brief article – to deal with the following questions: What constitutes sacred theatre within Jewish ceremony? Where does it take place? Who is the audience? Who are the participants? What is the dramatic action? What are its means of expression? (These questions are dealt in depth and are examined in the light of their expression in the hasidic tradition in Michal Govrin: “Theatre Sacre Contemporain, theories et pratiques” These de Doctorat, Paris 1976).

Jewish Sacred Theatre – Its Components and Its Means


In order to arrive at a definition of theatre that emphasizes the common denominator of theatre, sacred theatre, and ritual, we will employ the Greek etymology of the word: the verb theaomai, which means “to see” or “to view”. Using this root we may define theatre as the place and the time in which the community assembles to see – through the theatre’s means of materialization – that which is usually hidden from view, be it a social, political, or existential truth.

Sacred theatre we will define as the place and the time in which the community assembles in order to see – through the theatre’s means of materialization – the transcendent, the deity (Two examples of sacred theatre are classical Greek theatre and medieval Christian theatre).

Ritual is the place and the time in which the community assembles, not only to see but also to appear before God, or even to influence the deity, through the material means of ritual.

All three terms share a basic goal: to see, to perceive through the senses the hidden world and, furthermore, to make an appearance or even to influence.

Therefore, in the same way, Jewish ritual is a set of concrete means by which a relationship between God and the believers is established: God is revealed and the believers openly express their faith before Him.

Non-mimetic Theatre

Aristotle in his work Poetics addresses the relationship between the means of concretization – the arts – and the subject revealed through this art. He defines it as a relationship of imitation (mimesis): all fine arts, including theatre, are “all [just] modes of imitation”. Thus according to Aristotle, a system of means of concretization imitates another reality.

On this point, Judaism differs in principle with the validity of “imitation” as a concretization of transcendental reality. In the Ten Commandments the declaration of belief in one God is followed immediately by a prohibition of mimetic representation of Him. According to the Torah, the belief that it is possible to present the image of God through a statue or picture leads to adoration of the mimetic object itself, as if it were the total embodiment of the divinity or even the deity itself. Worship of the mimetic object is presented as idolatry, and the desire to imitate the transcendental or to personify materially the divine image are understood as a denial of the incomprehensible infinite nature of God. However, the prohibition against mimetic representation does not mean that there should be no communication between God and his believers. The prohibition itself appears at the head of eight commandments, which are first and foremost a listing of the non-mimetic modes – ethics and ceremony – that shape the relationship between God and man.

In order to illustrate the non-mimetic aspect of communication between God and man, it is interesting to follow Rashi’s line of thought in his interpretation of the word temunah (“picture”), which in the second commandment refers to mimetic representation. The same word, temunah, also describes the way in which God reveals himself to Moses: “With him do I speak mouth to mouth, manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude (temunah) of the Lord doth he behold” (Numbers 12:8). In his comment on this verse Rashi explains this apparent contradiction between the prohibition against image making and the divine revelation trough an image: “’And the similitude of the Lord doth he behold’. This refers to beholding the aftereffects of God’s Providence, just as it is stated, ‘And thou shalt see My back’”. Here Rashi alludes to the verse Exodus 33:23, “And I will take away My hand, and thou shalt see My back; but My face shall not be seen”. Rashi’s comment on this verse is “’and thou shalt see My back’ – He showed him the Tefillin knot”. Rashi arrives at the equation between temunah and a teffilin knot: he understands that the Lord who reveals Himself to Moses through a temunah does not reveal Himself in full nor in a complete image of mimetic representation, but rather He reveals Himself through a concrete symbol, through a means of communication that alludes to God without trying to imitate Him.

The teffilin knot, like the Sabbath or a brit milah (circumcision), is termed a “sign” (‘ot’ – the Hebrew term ‘ot’ means a sign or a letter of the alphabet. Hence, it serves both in the system of linguistic signs and in the concrete, ritualistic language). Along with the rest of the laws and commandments, they form the concrete ritualistic language – with is signs and symbols – that articulated the connection between God and the Jew. In ritualistic signs, just like these linguistic signs, the relation between the material designator and the transcendental designated is not a relationship of imitation, but rather one of allusion and indication. The designator does not imitate the designated (like the few examples of onomatopoeia) nor is it shaped from the same material (like portraying the God of Fire with fire), but rather it is different both in image and in form. The teffilin knot is not an imitation of God, nor is it formed from “divine material”; it is a symbol, a “sign” that alludes to God.

Thus, the means of concretization that Judaism employs to sustain the connection between man and God is not based on mimetic relationship between the signs and their subjects. Likewise, when we speak of “Jewish sacred theatre” we do not refer to mimetic activity. There are scarcely any forms of imitation in Jewish ritual. Neither in the prohibition of the use of statues or icons, nor in the lack of any mimetic drama, characters, acting techniques, or costume. These means do not constitute any sort of material image, but rather they convey a different type of “sacred theatre”.

However, the fact that the ritual signs do not imitate God does not detract from their holiness, for the relation between the ritual designator and the transcendental designated is not the same as the arbitrary relationship that exists in language between the significant and the signifie’, as defined by F. de Saussure. Jewish belief holds that the system of Jewish ritual signs – the commandments, laws, and ceremonies – is created b God himself, and He is the cause of the specific relation that binds any holy measure and the specific ritualistic designator which will be its concrete “attire”. As the Hassidic Master, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav said:

Because of His great love for Israel, He wanted them to cleave to Him and to love Him greatly from the depth of this material world, for He dressed His divinity in the measures of the Torah. And this is the meaning of the 613 commandments, for the Lord, blessed be His name, imagined the commandment of the teffilin, that this commandment must be so, with four Scriptural passages and with four boxes of leather and with leather thongs… for He imagined that by this contraction (zimzum) we could perceive Him and worship Him, therefore He did not command that there will be four boxes of silver and gold. For that is the way He imagines and measured by His love. (Sefer Likutei Moharan 33d)

The Audience

As we saw in our definition above, the basic condition for every type of theatre is a relationship of “watchfulness”; someone looks on while someone else present something. To a certain extent, the temple ritual had a similar element of spectacle, which was presented before the watching people. However, since the destruction of the Temple, almost all traces of spectacle have disappeared from Jewish ritual, including public worship. With the exception of a few isolated moments, such as looking on at the raised Torah, the very center of the ritual itself, prayer, is not connected to looking. On the contrary, looking at one’s neighbor during prayers or even being aware of his presence is considered to be a distraction. The absence of an audience is even more evident in the case of an individual praying alone at home: Where is any spectator who will fulfill the basic condition for theatre?

Nevertheless, this very question is discussed in the opening section of the Code of the Jewish Law (Shulhan Arukh). This section attempts to define before whom man performs his ritualistic acts – who is the spectator for his deeds when he is apparently alone:

“I have set the Lord always before me” (Psalms 16:8). The aforesaid is a cardinal principle in the Torah and a fundamental rule of life among the pious. For attitude and conversation of a man when he is in the presence of a king are not the same as when he is in his own home among his family and his intimates. In the presence of royalty a man takes special care that his speech had demeanor be refined and correct. How much more should a man be careful of his deeds and words, realizing that the Great King, the Holy One, blessed be He, whose glory fills the whole universe, is always standing by him and observing all his doing, as it is said in the Scriptures: “Can a man hide himself in secret places that I cannot see him?” says the Lord. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jeremiah 23:24). Bearing this in mind, he will acquire a feeling of reverence and humility and he will be ashamed and afraid to do anything wrong.

A man should be conscious of the presence of God even while still lying in bed; and as soon as he awakes he should acknowledge the loving kindness of the Lord, blessed be He, inasmuch as the soul, which was committed to God faint and weary, was restored to him renewed and refreshed, thus enabling him to serve God devotedly all day. For this is the goal of every man…It is therefore every man’s duty to make himself strong as a lion. Immediately upon awakening from sleep, he must rise quickly and be ready to worship our Creator, blessed be He. (Solomon Ganzfried, 1f)

In other words, the constant spectator before, which Jewish ritual is performed is the Divine Spectator. Before this constant audience, man carries out his deeds of faith. Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav comments that the world and man, the commandments and the prayers were all created for the sole purpose that God could be the spectator of this performance for the sake of His pleasure. (The defining of an effect of “pleasure” as a result of perceiving an “action” is in a way parallel to the defining the effect of tragedy on the audience as “catharsis”):

For the prayer possesses the aspect of kingship, and it likewise has aspect of dominion and that is the pleasure of the Lord, blessed be He, and it satisfies the will of the Creator. And what about in the beginning, before the pleasure existed? The Lord looked toward the future so that there would be pious ones to pray in this manner, and thus out of this joy the world was created by ten utterances. (LM97)

God beholds not only prayers or fulfillment of the commandments but even the internal struggles of faith that man encounters; God watches them as audience views a theatrical spectacle. Concerning man’s introverted existential struggle against his evil thoughts Rabbi Nahman describes God as a spectator before a classical theatrical agon – the show of the battle of beasts:

When evil thoughts and hesitations overcome man he must strengthen himself and in turn overcome them and conquer them and this is a great joy to the Lord, blessed be His name, and it is precious in His eyes. Like the kings on a holiday that they put into a pit animals to battle with one another, and the kings stand there and watch and derive a great pleasure from the victory. Likewise the thoughts, they come from the animal aspect of the soul: holy thoughts from the aspect of the pure animals and evil thoughts from the aspect of the impure animals. And from above they intentionally let them fight one another, and the Lord, blessed be He, derives great pleasure from watching man overcome the impure animals and conquer them. (LM233)

Even though Rabbi Nahman is only presenting a parable here, his use of theatrical images to describe the relation between man and the Divine Spectator shows us that he relates to man’s internal struggle as part of a dramatic struggle in which the success of the “good protagonists” will please the Divine Spectator.

However, the prohibition against mimetic representation does not mean that there should be no communication between God and his believers. The prohibition itself appears at the head of eight commandments, which are first and foremost a listing of the non-mimetic modes – ethics and ceremony – that shape the relationship between God and man.

Through individual prayer, as through public worship in the synagogue, at home or around the family table, aloud or silently, the Jew “presents” his deeds of faith before the constant audience. Even when another human audience watches, the Divine Spectator remains the basic principal viewer. As Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav says: “At the time of prayer when the worshiper hears another individual, that is, when he hears and feels his presence during prayer, it is not good, for the worshiper must hold in his mind that there is no one present but myself and the Lord, blessed be He, alone”. (LM Tinyana 103)

The Participants

Despite the principle of “There is no one present but myself and the Lord, blessed be He, alone” and the fundamental paradigm of individual worship before the Divine Spectator, surely the communal component, the public, constitutes a no less significant part of the Jewish ritual. The minyan – the smallest communal division of the Jewish people, of ten men – is indeed an important worship framework whose prayers and ceremonies are considered to be on even higher plane of holiness than those of lone individual: “Each prayer that is sent from many souls is more holy in its rising upward and arouses the utmost in the superior heart; because of the multitude of people, it increases in its holiness” (LM 20d). Yet, if, as shown above, the spectator is the Lord Himself, what is the intended role of the public and what relationship exists with the participants in the course of this special “theatrical ceremony”?

This point can be further clarified when we compare the public synagogue worship to church mass. Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple uses the name “sheliah zibbur” (“public messenger”) for the one standing before the Holy Ark. In contrast to the central role of the priests in the performance of the mass, this term shows that in principle anyone from the congregation can fill this function without any special training and that the role does not become a profession or way of life. Whereas the mass and the act of communion cannot be performed without the mediation of a priest, Jewish worship is acceptable even without a leader standing before the ark or in a group smaller than the minyan. If we compare the theatrical-spatial structure, the worshipers in the church sit opposite the pulpit, watching as the priest prays facing them and performs in front of them the ritual acts throughout the mass. In contrast, in synagogue worship no frontal relationship exists. During most of the service the sheliah zibbur or the cantor stands with his back to the worshipers; he and the public turn together to face Jerusalem beyond the holy ark, eastward toward the Divine Spectator. This basic spatial relationship is kept within the various traditions of synagogue sittings: Ashkenazic, Sepharadic or the Hassidic stiebel. In the church the audience listens to the priest’s prayers and only in certain places answers in unison, as a choir united into a single being. In a synagogue every individual prays for himself, with the exception of a few isolated moments in which the voice of the leader rises above those of the public or in which he repeats sections of the public prayer (and the very term “repetition”, hazarah, emphasizes their secondary function). Furthermore, even in the sections in which the congregation responds to the cantor, every worshiper still addresses his prayers directly to God without any attempt being made to melt the community into a single voice.

What we find, therefore, is a special congregation comprised of individuals, each performing independently, yet all joining their independent acts into a shared totality of individual acts. Everyone present takes an equal part in the ceremony. Also, when a “watching” relationship exists for those taking part – presence at the performance of such sacred acts as reciting the blessing over the havdala candle and over the hallot or beholding the raised Torah – this momentary relationship of spectatorship does not detract from the congregation’s role as active participants. These moments, even the watching of the great Hassidic Master, the Zaddik, are nothing but a means to arouse or to stimulate those present so that each individual may arrive at the highest performance level for this direct spectacle before the Divine Spectator.

In family ceremonies performed at home as well, despite the specialization of the roles, there is no necessary division between the active participants and the passive spectators. For example, in the Passover Seder, in addition to the head of the family who reads the haggadah to the reclining family, everyone present takes an active part in conducting the seder, even the smallest of children, whose very questions enable the ceremony to continue its course. Only through this setting of all participating individuals reclining around the Seder table is this ritual commandment of “we all recline” fulfilled.

In other words, the constant spectator before, which Jewish ritual is performed is the Divine Spectator. Before this constant audience, man carries out his deeds of faith. Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav comments that the world and man, the commandments and the prayers were all created for the sole purpose that God could be the spectator of this performance for the sake of His pleasure.

The Drama

According to Aristotle’s definition, drama is “an imitation of an action”. Indeed, in most of the works that we classify as drama, the stage action or the plot convey through artistic means such as language, characters, and acting, and through the defined time and place of the performance, an imitated model, the non-present action (either because it has already happened or because it is an imaginary action). Likewise, Mircea Eliade defines the ritual act as a principally mimetic activity: “Man only repeats the act of creation; his religious calendar commemorates, in the space of a year, all the cosmogonic phases which took place ab origine” (ME, The myth of the Eternal Return, 22). Eliada links the Jewish and Christian rituals and defines them both as parallel instances of imitative acts. “The Judeao-Christian Sabbath is also an imitatio dei. The Sabbath rest reproduces the primordial gesture of the Lord” (ME 23).

Many Jewish rituals are explained as a remembrance of a creational or historical act, such as Pesah, Sukkot, or Purim. The Sabbath is explained in the following words: “Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested” (Exodus 31:16-17). However, despite this element of remembering, is the Jewish ritual really a ceremony of imitative activity, events of representation in the full sense of the word? Are the calendar and the Jewish conception of time in general terms indeed, as Eliade claimed, expressions of “repetition”?

Another comparison with the Christian tradition will help us to illustrate this point. When Jesus passes on the ritual form to his disciples at the Last Supper, he does so knowing that it is the eve of his death and that once he physically vanished from the earth these ritualistic objects will serve as substitutes in his absence; they are the sole means of his representation, his only reincarnation. “And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body’. And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood…’” (Mark 14:22-24). Through the mass the departed deity is temporarily resurrected, according to the principles of Christian faith, and through the ritual objects the believers can reach a communion with him. The Christian holidays (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, etc.) reconstruct the events of the messiah’s life. Likewise the medieval Christian religious dramas, that presented the passion play to the believers, were in essence just a formal extension of the same attitude. The life story of Jesus was related through a theatrical representation in order to reconstruct, in the most convincing way, the ancient story in which he irreversibly left the realm of time. Only the resurrection of Jesus in the End of Days can rectify this fact. Yet, meanwhile, there exists his brief penetration into time through the means and performance of ritual.

We see, therefore, that the event, which has been absolutely finished before the ritual present, brings about the need to feel its own presence through re-presentation; the yearnings for that which has disappeared altogether causes the attempt to bring the event closer to reality by means of various substitutions. This conception of time in which an unbridgeable gap occurred leads to the ritual of reconstructing the story, the reincarnation of the participants in the past event through ritual substitutes – the wafer and the wine – or through stage substitutes – masks, marionettes, or portrayal of characters.

The Jewish conception of time contains a fundamental difference. Although mythological and historical events stand at the beginning of time, these events are not completed and do not come to an end nor is the present detached from them. The creation of the universe was not just an ancient, one-time event, but rather it is a continual and ever-renewed activity, as we read in the prayer: “In Your goodness you renew daily the act of creation, forever”. Like the universe, the first week and the original Sabbath are continually recreated without actually being dependent on any human ritual reconstruction. The coexistence of two commandments concerning the Sabbath – “to observe” and “to remember” – points to the duality of this ritual attitude. At one and the same time the worshipers recall the Creation act and also take part in its present continued existence. For example, the Sabbath prayer of the Levites in the Temple (“A song for the Sabbath, a song for the days to come, for the day that is all Sabbath and rest for life everlasting” [Musaf Service]) places the specific present Sabbath on a plane of time that continues into the future, in the hope of arriving at the highest level of “the day that is all Sabbath”.

Likewise, Jewish holidays and festivals, in addition to being remembrances of a historical or primordial act, are also concrete attempts – renewed annually, here and now – to reach anew the state of being particular to each holiday. The exodus from Egypt is not just a one-time historical event in the life of the nation, but rather it is striving for an exodus from slavery to freedom renewed annually: an exodus from national slavery, from over dependency on materialism, or from dependence on “foreign thoughts”. Therefore, the Jew does not deal with representations of the past, but with concrete actions in the present, which the echoes of the past only serve to strengthen.

The Sabbath, the holidays, and the festivals are just permanent “stations” through which time advances toward its completion. They are only a part of the continuous “drama” that began with the creation of the world and the time, and whose end will be with the world reaching its completion. In kabbalistic terms, the drama begins with the zimzum (contraction) and the “breaking of the vessels”, and it continues through the struggle for tikkun which will bring the universe to an ultimate unity.

In any case, the present is part of continuous process, a certain point between the past and the future, part of the single continuous drama – the drama of the world’s existence. Rituals, therefore, are not “imitation”, representations of an ancient time or its reconstruction; rituals are select moments that clearly “connect” the present to the continuous flow of time of the world’s existence. Thus, the believer who performs these ceremonies neither reconstructs nor imitates, but rather takes part as a one-time participant in the specific present of his own, in the continuing drama.

We see, therefore, that sacred theatre and the drama therein are not “imitation of an action”, but rather the performance of an action. They are not the repetition of a dramatic story that reconstructs the mythic paradigm, but rather the one single drama that begins in the past, continues in the present, and will end in the future.

The Characters

The performing actor, like the spectator, is a basic condition for the existence of theatre. According to Aristotle, the characters themselves are the components of drama: “…tragic imitation implies persons acting”. Like the relationship between the dramatic action and the reality that it portrays, the Aristotelian conception of the character also contains the same duality of the non-present character and the actor imitating him. The actor always re-creates the character through acting means (speech, movement, song, melody, mood, etc.) and only the style of imitation varies from one acting tradition to the next. Within a ritual the same duality usually occurs between the priest, the religious dancer, or the possessed medium, and the divine-mythic characters that they represent or generate through their rituals.

As we have seen, Jewish ceremony is not imitation of an action, and its participants do not re-create divine, historical, or mythological characters. We therefore ask the questions: Are there characters – persons acting – at all in Jewish sacred theatre? Does the Jew “act” when he performs a ceremony or prayers? During the ceremony does he portray any sort of personality that differs from who he is outside the ceremony in his daily life? Or, in other words, during the ritual does the Jew play a “role” in a drama?

Let us now recall the opening section of the Code of the Jewish Law (Shulhan Arukh). After establishing the principle of “being before the constant Divine Spectator”, the section continues: “And as soon as he awakes he should acknowledge the loving kindness of the Lord, blessed be he, inasmuch as the soul…was restored to him renewed, thus enabling him to serve God devotedly all day. For this is the goal of every man”. In other words, man has a goal: the role of serving God has been cast upon him. He was brought into this world for this purpose of fulfilling this role, and for its perpetuation his soul is renewed every morning.

Jewish sacred theatre is performed before the Divine Spectator. The drama therein is not an imitative plot, but a continuous experience within time. The actors who take part in it do not portray other characters but diligently try to present their own personalities and to fulfill their roles. Its theatrical techniques are symbolic, not mimetic. It is theatre whose dimensions are simultaneously cosmic and tangible, and that may occur in the home, the synagogue, or outside – in any place in which a Jew alone or in a community fulfills the commandments of divine service with the consciousness that he is fulfilling a role in the cosmic drama.

Every day on the Stage of Jewish Sacred Theatre, man renews his portrayal of “believer”, an image that carries a unique and define role in the cosmic drama. Martin Buber writes referring to Hassidism:

According to Hassidism each Jew must strive in knowledge and intention to be unique in his qualities in the world, and none in the past were similar to him. For if there was already one similar to him in this world, then there would be no need for him to have come into this world…Every individual is a new creation, and he must put forth his best qualities in this world. (Man’s Way According to Hassidism, in Hebrew, Jerusalem 1957, 15)

Buber also quotes from Hassidic rabbis to make his point:

Rabbi Simhah Bunem of Przysucha, in the days when he was old and blind, said, “I would not change places with Abraham our Patriarch. For of what benefit would it be to the Lord, blessed be His name, if Abraham was like Bunem the blind and if Bunem the blind like Abraham?” And even more in the words of Rabbi Zusya of Hanipoli, uttered right before death, “In the world to come they won’t ask me, Why weren’t you Moses our Prophet; rather they will ask me, Why weren’t you Zusya?” (16)

From the moment of awakening and reciting the prayer “I thank Thee”, the Jew consciously begins to embody his character. For this role he prepares himself through a series of physical and spiritual activities that parallel those that an actor goes through in order to throw off his own personality and to assume his dramatic character. The Jew washes his hands, cleanses his body, and puts on his fringed undergarment and his tallit, both of which have the zizit knots that are the “sign” that the Jew bodily carries daily. The Hassid also wears a girdle to divide his body into “higher” and “lower” regions as part of his role in the cosmic drama. Both the manner in which one moves the vessel when washing one’s hands or the way in which one wears the tallit are fixed, exact, and significant, just as the way in which one handles props or wears the costume of theatrical or ceremonial characters is also fixed and brings the actor closer to the character that he portrays. Thus, at the height of the performance – the time of worship – the Jew tries to exclude all foreign thoughts from his mind and to achieve a supreme concentration, to regulate his breathing and to articulate clearly in whispers, shouts, or silence as necessary for the part, and to move precisely, all in order to achieve a supreme perfection in the significant performance of his prayer and kavvanah (The Hebrew term kavvanah comes from the root for “intention, direction”. Within the context of prayer, the term implies the intention, the inner integrity, concentration, and spiritual level that one brings to worship). In the same manner, the actor will use body movement, pronunciation, breath control, and intense concentration in order to express precisely the life, activities, and intentions of the dramatic character. Yet there is one substantial difference, for in the theatre or the theatrical ritual, the actor or religious individual portrays another character, one other than himself, while the Jew tries to portray only his own character of “believer”, that of specific Jew on the cosmic stage.

The kabbalistic tradition went to great lengths in emphasizing the Jew’s role in the drama of the universe. According to this tradition, religious activity is charged with the power of concrete action. In addition to the goal of fulfilling the commandments or of bringing pleasure to the Divine Spectator, the religious activity is performed with kavvanah, for the sake of unity, as a tangible act in the drama of building the cosmos. Within this tradition, man and God share in the performance of this drama, each in his own way. As Rabbi Hayyim from Volozhin said: “’And God created man in His own image’. Just as the Lord, may His name be blessed, possesses all of the powers in the entire universe and He continually arranges them according to His will, thus the Lord, blessed be He, grants man the authority that he will be the gatekeeper for the myriad of forces in the universe…as if he too possessed theses powers” (Nefesh Hahayyim, 15).

According to this tradition, each of man’s activities is two sided: the overt side exists in the lower realm, and the concealed side, which with the aid of the kavvanah of “unification” works toward repairing (tikkun) the upper realm. All of man’s activities may accelerate or detain the holy coupling and therefore man, who lives in his character and role, must always recall the power of his actions:

That is the way of the Jew, that shall not say, Heaven forbid, “What is my power to perform through my lowly acts any matter in the world”; he must understand and know and fix in the depths of his heart that every small act and word and thought of his at every moment is not in vain, Heaven forbid. The greatness of his acts grows greater, each one ascends to the heights of the heavens to perform its tasks and to burnish the empyreal lights (Ibid ch.4 p.13)

The kabbalistic prayer books constitute, therefore, a sort of director’s book in which alongside the text and the stage directions that should be followed every moment during prayer there are also instructions for the desired kavvanah. The prayer book describes how as the result of a specific lower action – an utterance or a movement – a corresponding action in heaven will occur in the cosmic drama. The detailed instructions for these actions, therefore, appear in a greater abundance than is typical of other prayer books. The breathing, the tone and volume of voice, the pronunciation, the way the words are uttered (run together, separated or spread apart, the moments for silence or for shouting aloud), special movements (swaying or clapping the hands), as well as the kavvanah that is to accompany each of these are all carefully defined and detailed. Man is thus required to strive for great concentration and exactness in his performance. (See also: Rivkah Shatz-Uffenheimer: Contemplative Paryer in Hassidism. In: Studies in Mysticism and religion, 1967)

The kabbalistic tradition is the climax of the definition of the Jew as one fulfilling a role in the universe, for this tradition bestows on him the dimension of the mystical-magical action in the upper realm and thus enriches the ritualistic dramatic means of expression. However, this tradition is only expanding the basic paradigm that every Jew has an exclusive, one-time character that he must personify and that has a define role. The detailed system of commandments, laws, and customs aids man in achieving this character. They are a means of influencing one’s mood at any given moment during the day and during specific life-cycle events, and they are the tools of expression through which he will also perform his actions, even the smallest and most introverted of them, in the way that suits the character and its role.

Pesah and Sukkot – Examples of Two Acts of the Drama

The Passover Seder is probably the clearest example of theatrical ceremony. It is an activity with definite scenes, occurring in a specific place at a prescribed time, and throughout the ceremony the participants, who are wearing special costume and sitting in a particular way, are aided by special ritual objects and accessories. The Haggadah serves as a script with stage directions, for it includes both the text which is recited during the event and the instructions for the different actions that will be performed. The actors and the audience (in addition to the Divine Spectator) are comprised of the invited family guests who sit around the table. The event occurs in the home, which has been prepared during the Passover cleaning and the burning of the leaven in order to set the proper stage for the ceremony. The main scene occurs around the table at which the participants in special costume are reclining in a special manner. Throughout the event there are predetermined accessories in use – the Seder plate, unleavened bread, the afikomen, etc. Finally, the event itself is limited in time from sundown to no later than the following sunrise.

Yet the goal of this theatrical event is not to stage the historical exodus from Egypt. The participants do not portray the characters of Moses, Aaron, Nahshon, Yokheved or Miriam. (hrough the dramatization offered by the ceremony and through recollection of the historical exodus, the participants present and live in the present moment their very own exodus, here and now, as expressed in the Haggadah: “For ever after, in every generation, every man must think of himself as having gone forth from Egypt”. Consequently, the story of the exodus in the Haggadah is not told in the third person as if the story happened to other historical characters and as if the ceremony serves just to remember them and to “represent” them. Rather, the story appears almost entirely in the first person: “And the Egyptians plotted evil against us, and we cried onto the Lord, the God of our fathers, and God hears our voice, and God drew us forth from Egypt [italics added]”. (Some Sepharadic Jews, like the Jews of Iraq, customarily wear clothing like that of the Israelites to the Seder, and their children, also in costume, knock at the door and call the adults to hurry in their exodus. Yet, these gestures do not disturb the basically non-representational character of the ceremony).

The event that begins with the exodus from slavery in Egypt continues to renew itself every spring, and it is of contemporary, concrete nature: “It was not only our forefathers that the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed; us too, the living, He redeemed together with them”. The “we” in the Haggadah encompasses in it the participants present at the table; the rest of the nation, who are also reclining over their Seders; and all of the past generation as well. The story belongs simultaneously to each and every generation: “This is the promise, which has stood by our forefathers and stands by us. For neither once, nor twice, nor three times was our destruction planned; in every generation they rise against us, and in every generation God delivers us from their hands”.

These continuous historical community with all of its trials and experiences joins the participants, every year adding force to the prayer recited before the door opened for the prophet Elijah, a prayer which is a petition for the present: “Pour out thine anger upon the nations that will have none of Thee, and upon the kingdom that call not upon Thy name”.

Therefore, the great effort that is put into cleaning the house for Passover and the tension that hovers over the housewife as she tries to remove all of the leaven are not the results of a reconstruction, but rather an experience in the present moment. Likewise the participants’ prayers, hopes, and joys are not imitations of the past or recollections, but rather a concrete expression of the present experience that is influenced by the particular historical and personal context in which this Seder is performed in every year and place.

Several years ago, on the last day of Passover I happened to be in the synagogue of Rabbi Arele Roth’s son in the Me‘ah She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem. The rabbi was reading the portion of the parting of the Red Sea as the worshipers listened. Supposedly this was a reading and not acting or being. Yet the manner in which the rabbi stood there, shouting the words of the Torah, extending them outward, imploring, demanding, and threatening, and pounding his fists against the podium – all of this scene was as if he were at the moment not just in a small synagogue in Jerusalem but actually at the Red Sea itself with the Egyptians right upon his heels. It was all as if were he not to shout or to take that daring jump himself – through the intensity of his reading – then the sea would not have parted and he would not have been redeemed. Through theatrical means like reading, reciting, shouting, and movement, the rabbi turned the historical event into a contemporary one right on the spot. He recalled the historical happening while also taking an active and immediate part in it, with full kavvanah.

Another illustration of the theatrical ceremony is the holiday of Sukkot. The Bible justifies the holiday as a recollection of an historical event: “That your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43). Let us compare the Christian Christmas with the Jewish holiday Sukkot. The Christians have developed a Christmas tradition of building models of the manger where Jesus was born, and they place inside it figures of Mary, the baby, Joseph, and the others who came to celebrate the birth; thus, the believers look at the model (or even at a play performed within the manger) and recall the sacred historical event that is reenacted before their eyes. At first sight, the Jewish tradition could have noted Sukkot in a similar manner by building models of the booths of the Israelites and putting these models in their homes or yards or in the synagogue, and then as worshipers they could look at the booths and recall the event.

Yet rather than building representations of booths like those of the Israelites in the desert and presenting them throughout the holiday, the commandment is to sit inside the booth. The goal is not to look at a mimetic-ritual object, but rather to move in and to live in the sukkah throughout the week of Sukkot. The basic act of life: from sleeping, eating, and drinking to study and worship, are all performed within the booth. Instead of worshiper watching a play which reconstructs the mythological event and presents its historical participants, he lives throughout the holiday as if he himself were a part of the “life of the booth”, with all its symbolic, religious, and existential meanings. Thus the community inside the booth becomes a concrete symbol and is as much a real part of the drama as the booth setting itself. Like the Sabbath and Passover, Sukkot is a part of the renewed time. In addition to recollection of the past and a present experience, it also contains a hope for the future, for the ultimate sitting in a sukkah in a perfect messianic level – the hope “to sit in a perfect Leviathan-skin sukkah” that is expressed upon parting from the booth.

Jewish sacred theatre is performed before the Divine Spectator. The drama therein is not an imitative plot, but a continuous experience within time. The actors who take part in it do not portray other characters but diligently try to present their own personalities and to fulfill their roles. Its theatrical techniques are symbolic, not mimetic. It is theatre whose dimensions are simultaneously cosmic and tangible, and that may occur in the home, the synagogue, or outside – in any place in which a Jew alone or in a community fulfills the commandments of divine service with the consciousness that he is fulfilling a role in the cosmic drama.

The Style of Jewish Sacred Theatre

The Dialectical Position of the Ritual Means

In summing up we will concentrate on the question of the ritual means. We will recall our opening comment: in Judaism there exist fundamental tension between the belief in an imperceptible, non-approachable God and the longing to establish an enduring, intimate relationship with Him; a tension between the striving for an absolute abstraction and the dependence on the concrete, in the need to depict the Lord in a material, tangible way. The tension causes what we call a dialectical relation with the corporeal world.

On the one hand, the ritual objects, the commandments, the laws, and the Torah and its letters are all presented as divine creations. They are the material garb that God chose for his revelation to man, the means which He gave them to serve Him and by which they may even take part in running the world. Yet on the other hand, despite their divine origin, the ritual activities, ceremonial objects, or their implementers, as virtuous as they might be, are neither a worldly manifestation of the deity nor His incarnation. They never become a concrete worldly substitution for God. (See also: G. Scholem: Der Name Gottes, Ascona 1970)

On the contrary, to understand the ritual as an embodiment of the Holy one is a form of idolatry, as we saw above. Such a case is no different from the Israelites’ sins in the desert, when in attempting to materially depict God through the golden calf, they said: “This is thy god, O Israel” (Exodus 32:4). Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav adds:

Some of the people believe that one must serve the means, as the Israelites erred with the golden calf when they wanted to make it as an intermediary between themselves and the Lord, bless be His name, and they said, “…a god, which shall go before us”. Many err by making the means an intermediary between themselves and the Lord.

Within the Hassidic tradition the zaddik (the spiritual leader) also maintains such a dialectical position. Despite the belief that he is central in the universe – “the zaddik is an everlasting foundation” – and despite his central position within the hassidic community, he like any ritual object does not become an incarnation of God. The zaddik has such a compelling influence on the Hassid that just to be in the master’s sight is enough to arouse the Hassid. (Bratslav LM Tinyana 72) Yet, the zaddik’s role is only to help the Hassid draw close to God: “The Hassid draws close to the zaddik and is attached to him, his eyes are opened so that he can see, and he looks at the greatness of the Lord, and he looks at the world, that his eyes have been opened by the glorious revelation of the righteous zaddik in truth” (Bratslav LM 67). In other words, even at moments when the zaddik appears before the community and presents his acts of faith, he does not serve as a substitute for the intimate direct contact between the Hassid and God. The zaddik is just a stimulant, a channel for strengthening the tie.

The ritual exists against a background of tension. The many material means and the ceremonies that aid man and arouse him to approach his creator stand in tension with the perpetual guard over the spiritual origins of these means. Likewise, there is tension with the highest respect for these means – whether it be faith in the zaddik or in the embellishment of a commandment – and the knowledge that these are just ways to approach the Lord. If one goes too far in the material realm, it is easy to slip into idolatry. Therefore, Hassidism, as a popular mystical movement that instituted more ceremonies and customs than any other movement since the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, also painstakingly stood on the need to guard the perpetual tension between serving God spiritually (beruhniut) and tangibly (begashmiut). Thus, in addition to this dialectical tension, within Hassidism there developed an extreme mystical striving for the absolute liberation from any material dependence. At that level of devekut (cleaving), an anarchical state, man ascends through the “negation of materialism” to the midst of divinity, as a lofty expression of pure faith, transcending form and matter.

The Style of Performance

Even if this extreme level of devekut is more a goal than a comprehensive system, both the explicit striving and the inherent dialectic create that which may be called the “style” of Jewish sacred theatre.

The distinguishing feature of sacred theatre in other cultures is above all the maximum attention given to exactness in performance, to perfection of the external form, to the esthetics of the ceremonial or theatrical event. This feature is common to sacred theatre in the East and the West, from Indian dance, Balinese theatre, and No theatre to the Christian Mass or the theatre of Jerzy Grotowski, despite their differences in form. This supreme importance placed on the perfection of the form and the exactness of its conventional performance is not just an expression of esthetic sensitivity; it springs directly from the status of the tangible means of mediation within these traditions. Beyond the different styles of form, the material designator is always represented as carrying within itself, to one degree or another, the divine self. The means itself, in its different forms, is the personification of the deity, the essence of the divinity. Any flaw in the sacred object, any scorn for the exactness of the performance of ritual movements, therefore, is an insult to the deity itself. Perfection and exactitude of performance and precision in the fixed elements are more than just means to create beauty, for they themselves are the condition for sustaining the holy – holiness that exists through the material world, if only for the duration of the ceremony.

As we have seen, in Jewish ritual the act of faith or the sacred objects themselves do not become the goal, be it religious or esthetic. Rather, they remain the way in which man arrives at a certain frame of mind, to a certain kavvanah; they are the means by which his faith will flow and will carry him beyond the tangible realm. It is not a system of forms that must be imitated with maximum precision in a way demanding physical and artistic skill; it is a ritual language through which every man expresses in his own personal way his faith that is special to that time and place. Therefore we conclude that even the anarchic disruption of the religious act sometimes does not express a lessening of faith, but may be a prime expression of man and society in peak moments of faith and the religious communication that surpasses form and material.

On the one hand we have the uniform, fixed, exact, nature of other sacred theatres, from the harmonious expression in the Mass to the exactness in bodily control, voice, and breathing within the Oriental ceremony. In stark contrast, we find the hassidic shiebel, which gives the impression of a lack of organization, or even intentional “negligence”. Each of the worshipers apparently does as he wants, at his own pace and in his own manner, within a great variety of common fundamental forms. One shouts while one worshipers; one moves about while one stands frozen in his place; one proceeds with eyes closed while another claps his hands. There is no exact uniformity of dress, nor is any sacred attention given to the arrangement of the benches and the tables. The ritual event occurs around a few basic forms in its own special way each time, in each place, and for each community, yet all of this without deviating from the realm of Jewish ritual.

Indeed, this aspect of non-permanence is perhaps the most faithful expression of Jewish sacred theatre. This theatre is not performed before an audience, but before the Divine Spectator, who is always before the Jew. Its goal is not to reconstruct the many acts of mythological drama, not to portray convincingly a character from the past, but to work diligently as individual and group in this very present moment through the ritual, in order to sustain the intimate, real relation between the individual, the community and the Creator.

In conclusion, today we see on the one hand attempts at “modernization” and “estheticization” of services in the synagogue and on the other hand attempts at dramatization the Jewish sources. It is important to remember that Jewish sacred theatre is more than just a series of mythological stories or a system of ceremonial and folkloristic forms; it is first and foremost a particular genre of realizing the holy and of sustaining communication between man and the Creator. The introduction of forms drawn from other traditions in order to enhance synagogue services is liable to cross that fine line between Jewish service and idolatry. Translating Jewish traditions into formal tools taken from other ritual-theatrical traditions might make the tradition devoid of its very essence.