The surpising link with the world of Theater leads to various thoughts about Halakha and its place in our lives: what is included in the halakhic ritual? can halakha be a kind of a playful performance?
To some, the topic and title of this essay will seem odd, if not a bit sacrilegious. What connection might there be between holy halakha and frivolous theater? One of the goals of this essay is that you might come to entertain the idea that there is a relationship between halakha and theater – and even more provocatively, that thinking of halakha in this way can be beneficial in the practice of halakha in general.
The idea that halakha can be likened to another field, known from outside of Jewish thought, has been explored by others. Thinkers have explored the idea of halakha as a system of law, halakha as a philosophy, halakha as literature, halakha as ritual, halakha as a set of symbols, and so forth. In this vein, this essay can be seen as another exercise in ‘halakha as’, an attempt to give us greater understanding into the extraordinary field of halakha, by means of an analogy. Though truthfully, it must be pointed out at the outset: this analogy is limited. Indeed analogizing halakha to any field will be limiting as halakha is an internal Jewish field, not bound by the laws of any other field, and must primarily be known on its own terms and through its own sources. Still, utilizing these analogies with care does have the potential to expand our horizons and our approach to halakha, which is indeed our intention.
More than anything, we hope this essay is taken as more than a theoretical matter. Halakha is a living force in Judaism. As such, any approach to halakha should be more than words printed on a piece of paper (or a screen, to be more accurate). Truthfully, the best and primary way halakha has been performed is through real-life imitation. The second best way is to describe a living, non-theoretical way to live halakha in writing. This exploration into the relationship between theater and halakha should therefore be taken as a suggestion for real life, a disposition to have in mind during the actual performance of halakha.
Some of the questions we would like the reader to have in mind throughout this essay include: how might we view ourselves as progenitors of a ‘halakhic’ drama? What is the relationship between the drama being played out in halakha and ordinary reality? What are some the spiritual advantages of viewing a halakhic act as a ‘performance’? These are some of the questions we plan to tackle in the following sections.
1. What is Part of Jewish Ritual?
Let us begin our comparison between theater and halakha by noticing that many Jewish rituals have the nature of being quite theatrical. Some especially theatrical halakhot were executed in the Temple, whose explicit role was one in which one came ‘to see and to be seen’.1 Thus, the Mishnaic descriptions of the bringing of the first fruits, the punishment for a capital crime, the ritual of the seductress, and the ritual of the scapegoat are highly theatrical.2 But even today, Jews perform some rituals which are theatrical in nature, which is not to say that they are not sincere.3 The waving of the four species on Sukkot (originally, perhaps, a ritual confined to the Temple4) is perhaps the most exemplary of this. But even the laws of Yom Kippur – the prayer, the fact that people are fasting, that people are wearing non-leather shoes, etc – are highly theatrical. In Masechet Ta’anit and in the book of Jonah which is read on Yom Kippur, even more theatrical elements of fasts are introduced, such as wearing a sackcloth, having animals wear a sackcloth, separating animals from their parents so that they cry out in pain to God, and putting ashes on a Sefer Torah and parading it in the streets.
Aside from the theatrical nature of particular mitzvot, the prism of theater is useful in the discussion of the nature of halakha in general. Firstly, as we will see, it raises the question between the performance of actions and the script which directs them. Second, it re-envisions halakha from the perspective of the spectator, and not just that of the performer. In theater just as in halakha, action is performed based on fidelity to a script. In theater, the script consists of the dialogue and stage notes, and in halakha, the script is dictated by halakhic works such as the Shulchan Aruch. In both fields, however, the script can by no means fully dictate how to perform the action. Thus, when one performs the monologue ‘To Be or Not to Be’, one might stand still with one’s hands stretched out in despair, or else pace the stage with nervousness. Both would be faithful to the script. One can wash one’s hands for netilat yadayim in a metal cup or a silver one. Both would be faithful to halakha, since both follow the directions given in the ‘script’.
However, how far can one stretch the idea that there are multiple ways to perform halakha/theater? Some actions are technically faithful to the script, but they add a completely foreign element to it. For example, one might perform ‘To Be or Not to Be’ in a spirit of apathy or mirth. Or one might jump up and down for five minutes at that point in the play. This, one would have to say, would technically be a faithful rendering of the play as it is written. In all of the cases mentioned above, the performers have indeed staged ‘Hamlet’ (perhaps even an interesting ironic new take on Hamlet). However, these actions are not in the spirit of the original soliloquy. Likewise, one might wear a Kermit the Frog costume to Yom Kippur (this might also be considered an interesting take on Yom Kippur). Doing so does not contradict halakha (except the minhag cited by the Rema to wear white on Yom Kippur).
On the other hand, in halakha at least, there are some actions, which, though not stated expressly in halakhic works, are clearly part of the Jewish ritual. For example, many people cry during the Yom Kippur service. Though this is not mandated by halakha, this phenomenon is clearly a positive Jewish action; the Jewish ‘theater’ of Yom Kippur clearly includes crying. Seeing halakha in the vein of theater gives us a framework for action that is continuous with halakha but not expressly stated.
To summarize at this point, above we mentioned some of the theatrical elements of Yom Kippur expressly legislated by halakha, such as fasting and not wearing leather. Some actions, we said, such as wearing a Kermit costume to a Yom Kippur service, would either be a brilliant reinvention of Yom Kippur, or more likely a disastrous farce in poor taste. We also proposed that other actions are an integral part of the Yom Kippur ritual today, though not mandated by halakha.
I now want to analyze a different type of action found in many Yom Kippur services: what of some actions which are considered a part of Jewish culture, but hard to pin to a specific halakhic concept?5 What about actions which we see time after time in the Yom Kippur service, but seemingly are not religious at all – for example, kids fighting with their parents over how long they have to stay? Can that be made an integral part of Yom Kippur, or will it forever be considered incidental? Is this akin to crying on Yom Kippur?
To answer this, let us consider the following story:
Reb Levi Yitzhak wanted so much to spend a Shabbes with Rav Baruch [of Medzhibozh], the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson, that he finally invited himself.
Rav Baruch said: ‘You can come, but you have to behave my way. Especially at the table, with my family, you must be very proper.’
Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev thought about it: ‘The only way I can behave is if I don’t open my mouth. I won’t even pray, except to say ‘Amen,’ because the minute I daven, I’m no longer myself.’ So he said to Reb Baruch: ‘When we’re making kiddush, don’t ask me to say a blessing. Let me be absolutely silent, because it’s the only way I can control myself.’
The two rebbes agreed. Reb Levi Yitzhak came for Shabbes. They davened and he only answered ‘Amen.’ The praying went beautifully. Everybody was sure that by kiddush, Reb Levi Yitzhak would start jumping on the table. But, no, Reb Baruch made kiddush and Rav Levi Yitzhak only said ‘Amen.’
Everybody knows that it’s a minhag, a custom on Friday night, to eat sweet fish and sour fish. The deepest question in the world, and a big controversy among the rebbes, was which fish to eat first. Some said sweet fish, because then you have the strength to bear the sour. Others said: ‘Let’s get the sour fish out of the way, so that the end will be sweet.’
But both ways are holy.
Rav Baruch was civilized. He had a little hasid, like a waiter, bring the fish on a platter and ask each person which he preferred to eat first – sour fish or sweet. So the waiter came, sadly enough, to Reb Levi Yitzhak and asked: ‘Do you like sweet fish?’
That’s all the poor hasid had to ask. Rav Levi Yitzhak said: ‘Do I love sweet fish? I love HaShem! I love only God!’
And he took the whole platter of fish and threw it up to the ceiling. And the fish began to drip onto Rav Baruch’s tallit, because in those days the big rebbes always wore their prayer shawls for the feast on Friday night.
Everyone was aghast. Everyone, that is, except Rav Baruch who, for all his civilized behavior, would never wash his tallit after that feast because, he said, the stains were very holy. ‘These stains are caused by a Jew who really loves God. How can I wash them out?’6
This story takes place in the halakhic setting of kiddush and Shabbos meals. However, the story glorifies behavior which is not only not expressly stated in halakha or minhag, it is not even really continuous with halakha. Since this behavior expresses a core Jewish value (love of God), the goal of this and other Hasidic stories is to show how seemingly meaningless extra-halakhic parts of the Hasidic scene are part of the same religious, ritual ‘stage’ of halakha, even if they aren’t halakhic themselves. An interesting subset of these stories are the stories in which the extra-halakhic parts of the setting conflict with the halakhic setting, such as the famous story of the young ignorant lad whose pure-hearted playing of the flute during Yom Kippur services was countenanced by God more than the prayers of the faithful congregation.7
In short, thinking of halakha as a form of religious theater widens our perspective on which features of ritual Hashem (the audience of the theater) is watching. I would not necessarily take this to its extreme conclusion, by arguing that even the most ancillary actions should be considered ‘part of the mitzvah’. Instead, I’d like to propose a hierarchy of the ‘performance’ of Jewish ritual: explicit halakha, actions continuous with halakha (such as eating shiurim beyond the necessary amount of matza), extra-halakhic actions continuous with Jewish values (in extreme versions, anti-halakhic), and actions (such as going to the bathroom during a Shabbos meal) which are usually devoid of any halakhic meaning. However, the story above shows us that it might not always be easy to classify each situation. One of the differences between the Hasidic and non-Hasidic perspectives is in the difference of weight ascribed to the extra- and non-halakhic rungs of the hierarchy. In the extreme position, Hasidic behavior sometimes places non-halakhic and anti-halakhic behavior above halakhic behavior. Thus the Hasidic customs of wearing a gartel and going to the mikvah – rare I might add in the more pan-halakhic world view of American Modern Orthodoxy – are part of a Hasidic ‘performance’ during prayer which goes beyond halakha.
Being conscious of the wider theatrical surroundings of halakha can grant us many benefits in its performance. It widens the purview of the ‘halakhic moment’.8 The halakhic moment becomes richer as we notice more of its aspects than what is strictly legislated. We realize that there is more to halakha than performing it correctly, but rather the whole atmosphere – not just as experienced by the lone subject but the public visuals – become relevant. We begin to notice more of what is happening at the time of the ritual, and our sensitivity to this could potentially lead us to experiment more with the surroundings, such as the space in which the ritual takes place, the spatial relationship between the people, where eye contact is shifting to, etc. We might have greater appreciation for ‘theatrical’ types of people, like R. Levi Yitzchak, who are not the traditional model of a Jew. Other Hasidic Rebbes have had this quality, and according to what we are proposing here, we should take note of its virtues and its Jewishness, insofar as Jewish ritual is theatrical. Educationally, in order to improve our halakhic performance, we might all want to improve our own appreciation for theatrics and theatrical sensibility.
The topic of halakha and theater also has relevance to the debates which judge the merits of some Jewish phenomenon based on whether or not it is purely halakhic. If halakha has more elements to it than pure halakha, as we pointed out, such as actions that are ‘continuous with halakha’, ‘inherently religious, but not halakhic’, etc., then these should surely also factor into the judgement. At the same time, the proposed hierarchy of religious action can also guard us from ascribing the same weight to every action done during a Jewish ritual. The screams of parents at their children during the Yom Kippur service are not as important as the prayer itself – though no one could doubt their persistence in Jewish life.
2. Play vs. Performance
In this portion of the essay, I want to focus more closely on the meaning of the term ‘halakhic moment’ that was mentioned at the end of the previous section. Performance studies distinguish between a ‘play’ and a ‘performance’ as we do in common speech. The play is the set written version of the act, the skeletal generic way of doing it. The performance is a one-time occurrence of the play, filling in all the unwritten aspects of it through thousands upon thousands of decisions such that no two performances of the play will ever be the same, even if the actors and venue are identical. For example, in every performance, the lines will be uttered somewhat differently, and the audience has changed.
Similarly, due to the usual halakhic perspective, we tend to think of the kiddush week after week as the same kiddush, for week after week, the same halakhic obligation has been discharged. However, looking at kiddush as a type of performance teaches us that no two kiddushes are even nearly the same. As in the play, the lines are uttered differently in tone and temper. The audience is different, in the sense that we are responding to a different moment. We have changed from week to week, and thus halakha is in constant change as it reacts to the vicissitudes of life. Thus, viewing halakhic activity as a one-time performance gives it a three-dimensionality which the pure focus on the script of halakha (or the five-act play, in the case of theater) misses.
Ephemeral Halakha as an Antidote to Idolatry
Another advantage of the one-time nature of the performance of the mitzva (as opposed to the timeless nature of its formulation on the books) was explored by Moses Mendelssohn in an exceedingly interesting passage:
The truths useful for the felicity of the nation [of Israel] as well as of each of its individual members were to be utterly removed from all imagery; for this was the main purpose and the fundamental law of the constitution. They were to be connected with actions and practices, and these were to serve them in place of signs, without which they cannot be preserved. Man’s actions are transitory; there is nothing lasting, nothing enduring about them that, like hieroglyphic script, could lead to idolatry through abuse or misunderstanding. But they also have the advantage over alphabetical signs of not isolating man, of not making him to be a solitary creature, poring over writings and books. They impel him rather to social intercourse, to imitation, and to oral, living instruction. For this reason, there were but a few written laws, and even these were not entirely comprehensible without oral instruction and tradition; and it was forbidden to write more about them.9
According to Mendelssohn, the fleeting nature of the performance of mitzvot is an antidote to idolatry. Also, he points out that shared living experiences are conducive to social cohesion, as opposed to the more solitary reading of texts. Thus, the halakha in its book form can be made as a kind of idol. But no such danger exists when performing mitzvot. Thus the infiniteness and eternality of God is ironically perceived specifically in the most fleeting moments. This reminds me of an interpretation of the term tzelem elokim as interpreted by Heschel:
Why are we forbidden to make images of God? It is not because God is beyond all images, so that no image could possibly depict God. If that were the case, images would merely be harmless. God has and image, and that is you. You may not make the image of God because you are the image of God. The only medium in which you can make God’s image is the medium of your entire life, and that is precisely what we are commanded to do. Everything you do, everything you say, each moment and the way you use it are all part of the way you build God’s image. To take anything less than a full, living human being – like canvas or a piece of marble – and call it the image of God would be to diminish God, to lessen God’s image.10
Famously, according to the Bible, man was created b’tzelem elokim – ‘in God’s image’. Heschel here points to the striking fact that the term literally means ‘in God’s idol’, as tzelem literally means statue or idol. However, this is no fossilized statue – God’s life can only be beholden through the living presence of humanity, and this is precisely the difference between living humans and marble statues.
The lesson for our purposes is that God’s fullness is only grasped in living form, in action. Like theater, halakha accomplishes this through disposable, one-time actions in their relation to script, rather than in written words or still objects. The performance – rather than the script – is a testament to the living God – אלוקים חיים. Of course, one aspect of halakha is the written works given by God on Har Sinai and expounded by the rabbis. But another aspect is realized in the infiniteness of those fleeting moments of lived life and mitzvot.
3. Halakha, Theater, and Truth
Levels of Ontological Reality
An additional aspect of theater which must be addressed relates to theater as a representation of a fictional world. Several readers must be raising eyebrows at this point at the very suggestion that Torah, which for us represents the most truthful and ultimate reality, might be compared to theater, which is often a tool to escape from reality to another, fictional reality, invented for the stage. The world of fiction causes discomfort for some on a number of levels: it is factually untrue and ahistorical, it is artificial and inauthentic, it is pre-scripted rather than arising out of the moment, and it has no practical utility. However, in truth, there is a real analogy between these two worlds of theater and halakha on the very issue of the nature of their reality.
Unlike us, most people would claim that there is more case for contrast than for comparison. Here is one quotation from a contemporary religious thinker who distinguishes between true religion and fictional theater:
I want to explain why it was the case that theater arose in Greek culture rather than Jewish culture. It would seem that people need theater when they feel an urge to experience someone else’s experience. Etymologically, the word “theater” and the word “theory” are interconnected. In other words, theater is the place I would go to become a different person from who I am and thus theater contains an element of deliberate illusion. A Jew, on the other hand, when he wants to behold another dimension and participate in a great drama – this Jew visits the revelation at Sinai. At Sinai there was a sort of collective theatrical play, in which the characters were real. The actor at Sinai did not play Moshe Rabbeinu – but was rather Moshe Rabbeinu himself. Additionally, the principal actor – God – did not play God, but was God himself. One can reason from all this that a culture like Jewish culture, which is built on the traumatic experience of such a revelation – a collective revelation – does not see any need in staging plays. Whoever comes in contact with the prophetic experience is not in need of any kind of an external duplication of that event.11
In our view, on the other hand, ‘fact’ is not necessarily superior to ‘fiction’, and neither of these terms is identical with ‘truth’. Contrast the view taken above with the attitude of Aristotle in his poetics. Aristotle turns this paradigm on its head, claiming that the loftier truths are probably not going to be factual at all:
It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen – what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.12
The two views of fiction presented above, like the two mediums of history and poetry, differ in the types of truth they are aiming for. It is true that theater and fiction represent events whose historicity is false. This makes it all the more amazing how enjoyable people find modern literature despite being fully cognizant of its unhistorical character. Literature and theater tap into different parts of the brain – loftier ones, according to Aristotle. I wouldn’t say that religion taps into the same part of the brain as literature. Instead, I would suggest that religion taps into yet even other parts of the brain than literature or history – though probably closer to the catharsis of theater than the this-worldliness of history. Consider Yehuda Liebes’ words on the nature of Jewish myth:
One need not be perplexed by the assumption that myths can be graded according to their ontological validity. A wide range of possibilities stretches between legends and parables, on the one hand, and an objective, inevitable reality, on the other. Myths do not always lay claim to absolute ontological validity, which may vary widely in line with the literary genres. In my view, it can be assumed that the mythical validity of religions based on canonized Scriptures will be particularly high. Hence, the mythical status of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is even higher than that of the Greek myth, which gave birth to the term. Undoubtedly, in Greece as well, myth was the foundation of ritual and considered a religious truth but, since Greek religion lacked ‘Scriptures’ in the full sense of the term, its ontological validity was lower.13
In other words, we have to get past the dichotomy between historical truth and falsehood. Philosophy and myth sit on different wavelengths in the brain. Each has its own ‘ontological status’ – that is to say that each is true in its own way. The same is true of ritual and theater.14 If one claims that one ‘believes in the power of love’ that is a different type of claim to truth than the belief that Apollo 11 mission did not, in fact, land on the moon.
We are suggesting using our relationship to theater to understand that religion too, relates to another reality, not physical but no less real. This should change or supplement the very disciplines used to study religion. Viewing halakha in relationship to the department of theater (where ritual is rarely studied) is quite different than viewing it through the lens of the department of anthropology (where ritual is often studied). Anthropology extends to the study of real-life activities, such as the way a certain tribe draws water from its local well and distributes the water among its members, of which ritual is one other activity. On the other hand, the study of theater is the study of something that is in some way otherworldly like religion. The fact that both theater and ritual appeal to a different, primordial part of the brain makes them apt analogues.
The Delight of Uselessness
Part of the anxiety of modern man surrounding the performance of halakha, relates to the fact that he feels like he is doing something fictional and useless. Take the waving of arbaat haminim (the four species) on Sukkot. From the outside, this action seems as ludicrous and ineffectual as any. However, consider that R. Nachman refers to halakha as שעשוע – a kind of delight, a form of play.15 What makes play so delightful is precisely its non-instrumentality. Were play to achieve some kinds of external goal it would not be play. In this vein, if halakha helped one achieve his shopping chores, it wouldn’t represent higher religious ideas. Similarly, in the book Homo Ludens, the Dutch theorist Johan Huizinga shows how man is an inherently playful creature. If we combine Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man and homo religiosus with Huizinga’s homo ludens (homo ludens-religiosus-halakha, not necessarily in that order), we get something of the ideal type we are striving for – someone who delights in the performative aspect of Halakha.
This also puts aside an additional anxiety shared by many moderns regarding the historicity of the Torah. It is not my desire to hash out the details of that debate in this essay. But it is helpful to note that the suggestion of describing halakha as a form of theater can bypass some of those concerns. The performance of ‘holy theater’ puts one on an entirely different plane from the questions of history – though theater may often reenact or relate to events that are indeed historical. Furthermore, given on the one hand, the reliance of each one-time performance on the script, but on the other, the essential independence of the performance from the original script, once the conformity of the performance of the mitzva to the scripted halakha has been established, the performance derives its meaning from the holiness being realized in the present, rather than its relation to history. As the verse states: ‘טַעֲמוּ וּרְאוּ כִּי טוֹב ה”.
Halakhic Outwardness and Relationship
What sort of relationship does a theatrical relationship to God and mitzvot create? What emotions are involved? In order to answer this, it is helpful to remember that all relationships we partake in have some measure of artificiality and theater involved in them. In a particularly radical essay, R. Menachem Froman conceived of tefillah as a form of theater, based on his reading of the Zohar:
Let us focus for a moment on the Sages’ favorite metaphor for describing the relationship between God and Man, the metaphor in which the Jewish people is likened to a princely son, and the gentiles are likened to the King’s slave. It goes without saying that a son tends to behave much less reverently than does a slave, whose essential distance from the King should be obvious. The son’s proximity to the king will invariably cause himself to act in a way which straightforward and unassuming, and which will appear to be disrespectful. According to the Zohar, this carefree behavior of the Jews/Prince is what causes the non-Jews to persecute the Jewish people. The non-Jews are persecuting the Jews are represented by the metaphysical prosecutor, the קטגור, who belongs to the outer realm of the spiritual world – the kelipot.
It is the קטגור, who judges everything according to its outer appearance – that is, according to behavior – who critiques the Jewish people for its lazy and negligent behavior towards God. Now contrast the behavior of the Jews with that of the non-Jews, who are the prosecutor’s representatives on Earth (descendants of Esav and Cain and others). They manifest a much higher degree of frumkeit than the Jews in their own behavior, which gives the prosecutor the artillery he needs in critiquing the Jews. Consequently, the קטגור’s critique of the Jews succeeds in its goal of arousing God’s darker side. Suddenly the King now notices his son’s general apathy towards him; he notices the exterior, behavioral aspects of their relationship, which arouse his disapproval. For an instant he becomes attracted to the admiration and reverence that is manifest in the slave’s behavior. In view of all this, the son must take control of himself, shake himself up, and adopt the same vigor that the slave exercised for his own benefit. Just as Abel adopted his brother Cain’s practice of sacrifice, and Jacob learning from Esav how to cook delights to woo his father, so too the people of Israel learn the non-Jewish art of prayer.
We can also illustrate this dynamic by likening it to a romantic relationship. Even when the love between two partners is deep, strong, and clear, one party in the relationship is still likely to be aggravated when the other party refuses to explicitly say just how much the other loves him or her, or to convey such love in simple acts such as buying a birthday gift or sending flowers. This aggravation at the lack of explicit affection is often aroused by affectionate behavior coming from a third party whose prior connection with the couple was previously tenuous at best.
Through smiling, affectionate words, or flowers that a husband might bestow on his wife (through completely exterior behavior!), he can trap the next critique, the next petty, ‘prosecuting’ glance in a net of the deep, elementary love that they share. By the same token, the husband manages to seduce the yetzer hara of jealousy and anger which threatens to separate and embattle them, by giving the yetzer hara his due – the outwardly-loving, mannered behavior he so desires. By giving the yetzer hara his due he chases him away from the couple’s deep inner love, that which goes beyond words and actions, love which is the inner voice of הקול קול יעקב.i17
Halakhic theater is shown here to be a means by which to overcome a related modern anxiety with regards to prayer. Often, we hear from many people that prayer feels forced and artificial to them. According to R. Froman’s reading of the Zohar, this is indeed the case. In this reading, the people of Israel, God’s children, don’t need the artificial niceties of prayer in order to be close to God. However, even the closest relationship requires that one anchor one’s love in some artificial gesture, such as bringing flowers or remembering one’s spouse’s birthday from time to time. If one doesn’t keep one’s appointment with God, God starts shifting his favor in the direction of the other nations. Therefore, we learn from the non-Jews the artificial gesture of prayer as a way to fool the devil. By realizing that in a sense, prayer truly is ‘just an act’, we can learn to embrace the artificiality of prayer. ‘Acting’ like we love God is a way of showing that we love God, even if we can’t muster up all the genuine emotion and communication that we would like during the act of prayer, just as buying flowers is an act of love even just as an outward gesture. This is another instance of the therapeutic potential of the ‘outwardly’ orientation of halakha, despite the fact that one of the primary criticisms of halakha has been that it is dry law devoid of feeling.
Halakhic Outwardness: Neurosis, and Absurdity
We can take this idea of R. Froman one step further through the lens of R. Shagar:
Halakha lends order to reality, structuring and anchoring the world. This structuring relates to body language, movements, inflections, and manner of speaking, all of which provide a context that incorporates the transcendent. Thus, the performance of halakhic practices entails internalizing the starkness that is part of the “grammar” of the halakhic language.
Moreover, awareness of the fact that halakha manifests the divine absolute can also explain why Jewish law is always behind the times, and why it should not strive to be too up-to-date: In relation to halakha, the absolute appears as resistance and disruption. In other words, the fixations and neuroses that accompany the halakhic lifestyle are part and parcel of that lifestyle, and one must not be too quick to dispel them with some “religio-psychological” treatment or other. The desire to purge one’s religious life of such aspects is tantamount to a psychiatric treatment that targets and eliminates the patient’s symptoms.18
I must concede that if it is to have a future, the national religious movement must internalize such ĥaredi outlooks or risk becoming either secular or ĥardal (fundamentalist ĥaredi Zionism), for these days theology must be founded on alienation and absurdity, among other things. This means that, in the absence of an absolute truth or language, the fabric of reality is permeated by myriad contradictory and irreconcilable truths. Only a religious outlook that succeeds in positioning itself as a hard, unconditional truth, while remaining open – absurdly – to the existence of other truths that contradict it, will be able to persist without losing its soul to rigid dogmatism or self-deception.19
This is a surprising perspective for an open thinker like R. Shagar to adopt. Usually, modern thinkers take the route of incorporating modernity and integrating it with halakha. Here R. Shagar does something interesting by giving a modern existential interpretation to a totalizing and fundamentalist approach to halakha. Precisely the incongruence between halakha and us is what R. Shagar supports and is what gives halakha its religious edge. R. Shagar emphasizes that in today’s world the only type of religion which can give meaning to modern man is one that is built on the absurd. This happens when our modern sensibilities come up against the radically different premodern strictures of halakha. Ironically, the modern notion of absurdity is borne out through uneasy contact with a culture that would not have known what ‘absurd’ meant. And thus by ‘acting out’ strictures which are radically different from our sensibilities, a form of absurd theater gives meaning to our lives. If R. Froman’s solution was to accept the artificiality of the formal act of prayer, R. Shagar’s solution is to embrace its absurdity. Thus, here we take a different path from those who try to explain that ritual is an authentic gesture for the Jews. Rather, as opposed to our non-ritualistic disposition which is more comfortable, the artificial, ritualistic disposition takes us to an absurd, Godly realm above this reality. Like the cathartic effect of theater in bringing us into contact with a radically different world, the absurdity of the ritual act in its otherworldliness has a cathartic effect. If halakha were too comfortable and continuous with ourselves, it would actually lack weight and ironically would not feel like real ritual.
The Halakhic ‘Actor’
The therapeutic nature of role-playing has long been noted by social psychologists such as Erving Goffman, and implemented in methods such as psychodrama, play therapy, drama therapy, etc. Worship of God is one of the most serious mode of humanity, but it is also a mode and role that we adopt sometimes – namely, during religious ritual. No one put the fact of every human situation being something of a role to be played as well as the famous words of Shakespeare: ‘all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’.20
One must recognize that just as we adopt a role in teacher-student, doctor-patient, mother-child relationships, we stick to a role in the performance of halakha. But the role is not the relationship. Behind the formal rules of halakha is the ineffable relationship, which is merely outwardly expressed through actions – because what kind of relationship expresses itself properly without attendant actions? However, recognizing the great theater of halakha can give some perspective on the relationship – without diminishing the importance of the actions. Through the embrace of the absurd, the weightiness of halakha is transformed into delight without losing any of its weight. Rituals can be performed with an air of humor, gaiety, spiritual loftiness, or deadpan solemnity. Each of these modes is a role we sometimes take on. Extremely serious, yet within a certain contingent framework. We should embrace it as a role. We should delight in it as we do with theater/play, only more so. Because play is a serious matter, and religion even more so. Each ritual should be seen as a new invitation into a role. For example, when we say kiddush, we should adopt the role of the mekadesh.
The Terror of Authenticity and Self-Invention
The idea of adopting religion and ritual as a role also has the potential to overcome the related anxiety of authenticity which is a part of modern existence. In premodern times, when values were derived from the overall religious structure, one’s map of how to act and one’s identity was clear. Part of the modern condition stems from the question of where to derive one’s identity and values without religion.
Nietzsche felt this malaise and bemoaned a world in which God was ‘murdered’ with nothing to replace it:
How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?21
In this quote Nietzsche doesn’t propose a return to religion. That option is closed, as far as he is concerned. But he does describe a terror in the idea of modern personal freedom, and at the prospect of one ‘inventing oneself’. Likewise, Sartre described man following the demise of religion as ‘condemned to be free…condemned at every instant to invent man’.22
Thus, thinkers such as Nietszche and Sartre, though completely alienated from religion and doubting its truths, were horrified at the results of its disappearance. They felt an intense terror from the lack of structure and guidance in the modern world. They knew that they didn’t want to participate in the religious ideal, but at the same time they didn’t know how to be without it. They shared the anxiety of having to invent oneself – that is, which character that one plays on the world – in the absence of a prescribed ‘script’ from above.
Interestingly, the Talmud is conscious of this anxiety, and views the Torah as the antidote to this very anxiety:
ואת התורה באור […] משל לאדם שהיה מהלך באישון לילה ואפילה, ומתיירא מן הקוצים ומן הפחתים ומן הברקנים ומחיה רעה ומן הליסטין, ואינו יודע באיזה דרך מהלך. נזדמנה לו אבוקה של אור – ניצל מן הקוצים ומן הפחתים ומן הברקנים, ועדיין מתיירא מחיה רעה ומן הליסטין ואינו יודע באיזה דרך מהלך. כיון שעלה עמוד השחר – ניצל מחיה רעה ומן הליסטין, ועדיין אינו יודע באיזה דרך מהלך. הגיע לפרשת דרכים – ניצל מכולם.
And the Torah is associated with light…This can be illustrated by a parable, as it is comparable to a man who is walking in the blackness of night and the darkness, and he is afraid of the thorns, and of the pits, and of the thistles, which he cannot see due to the darkness. And he is also afraid of the wild animals and of the bandits that lurk at night, and he does not know which way he is walking.
If a torch of fire comes his way, he is safe from the thorns and from the pits and from the thistles, but he is still afraid of the wild animals and of the bandits, and still does not know which way he is walking. Once the light of dawn rises, he is safe from the wild animals and from the bandits, which no longer roam the roads, but he still does not know which way he is walking. If he arrives at a crossroads and recognizes the way, he is saved from all of them.23
The Talmud praises the Torah as a something of a guide – regardless of its values – in contrast to the alternative of having no path at all.
For Nietzsche and Sartre, then, the challenge of the modern age is the question of what lies behind the exterior of religion when we strip religion away? A few answers might be given to this question. One view might answer that behind social and religious norm lies each person’s unique authentic soul. A radically postmodern answer might say that there is nothing beyond the societal, religious, constructed self. Either way, this is a recipe for deep anxiety. How does one find out authentic self – if it even exists? Theater in real-life roleplaying or religion has the potential to liberate us from this problem by positing that one has the ability to adopt a role, even if only for the short period of the ritual. The prospect of choice liberates us from having to construct ourselves in a total fashion. That is to say, we have possibly a new articulation for the foundation of religion, one in which religion is not chosen to fulfill a newly discovered functional role, but a choice to adopt it, in the mode of theater, just as one chooses to be Hamlet or King Lear and delve into that other – truer – realm.
4. Summary and Conclusion
Let us try to recap what we did in the previous sections of this essay. First we proposed the idea of ‘halakha as theater’ as a subtopic within the genre of ‘halakha as’ studies, and we introduced some of the central questions. In the next section, we put forward the first idea that by which halakha-as-theater might enrich us: when we put on our ‘theatrical’ lens, we pay attention to the full halakhic ‘stage’, not merely what we’re primed to expect by reading halakhic works. We also proposed a map for reading different elements in the halakhic event as a religious performance that includes: the basic discharging of the mitzvah, halakhic values, religious values, and finally elements that are completely foreign to the halakhic setting, and we discussed to what degree each of these is part of halakhic action. We noted how a Hasidic attitude might change to what degree we see some of the extra-halakhic behavior as embedded within the halakhic act.
In the second section we focused on the ‘halakhic moment’, distinguishing between halakha in its generic form, and the halakha as realized in the present, just as one distinguishes between a play and an instance of its performance. We pointed out the tendency of prevalent discourse to focus on halakha in its written and its generic form, at the expense of focusing, rather, on the performance of the ritual in the now. To this end we brought the words of Mendelssohn and Heschel which framed living action, as opposed to fossilized statues or written words, as an antidote to idolatry.
The third section of this essay was by far the longest, and in my opinion, perhaps the most fundamental. In this section we dealt with the ontology of mitzvot and religion and compared it to the ontology of theater. In a step which could be seen as offensive to some, we proposed that both are in a sense ‘unreal’, not because they offer an alternative history, but because they point to higher realities. We proposed this perspective as a possible solution to some of the anxieties of modern man: the suspicion that the Torah may be ahistorical or that the mitzvot are useless. On the issue of being useless, we combined R. Nachman’s concept of halakha as שעשוע – holy delight – with Huizinga’s concept of Homo Ludens to propose that the ‘uselessness’ of many rituals ties in quite well with the idea of their loftiness.
Another modern anxiety we pointed out is that of man’s having to reinvent himself. The idea of halakha as theater, we proposed, is a sort of middle ground between the pre-modern notion that man’s nature is already prescribed by God in the Torah, and the modern notion of man having no ground to stand on and having to constantly reorient himself. Man no longer has to determine for him or herself what the most authentic course of action is. The idea that one can simply act in a certain way, and choose a certain role, potentially redeems him from these anxieties. This idea referred back to our prior discussion based on R. Froman’s text which interprets the Zohar as saying that the whole idea of prayer is inauthentic to the Jewish people, as they are too close to God to need prayer. It is only in imitation of the non-Jews, and as an outer expression of love in order to reawaken God and give our love some concrete expression, that we pray. We also took this idea one step further using a text by R. Shagar, who spoke of the importance of the incongruity between man and halakha. We used his prism to propose that halakha gives us an important neurosis, that this incongruity creates a sort of ‘theater of the absurd’, adding an additional layer to ritual observance.
In addition to the ideas discussed in these sections, there are many more aspects of the deep relationship between halakha and theater which remain to be fleshed out. Some of these I began to develop during the writing of this essay, and I hope to return to at a later date. For now, the test for us is in the halakhic moment. Has halakha-as-theater truly improved our halakhic performance, in the now? Are we truly living humans, in the image of the living God, or have we ourselves become idols?
Theater as Imitatio Dei
I’d like to close by proposing that in enacting holy theater, we are emulating God. Indeed, God acts theatrically. God appears as an important character in the drama of the Bible,24 as a character in a story. Our notion of God is much more abstract than this, as is our interpretation of God in the Bible. Part of our notion includes God’s complete perfection, which would seem to preclude any change in God over time. It is an interesting question to think of whether God as he appears in the Bible is a character that changes at all.25 Change being the one of the major drivers of drama would seem to preclude any kind of perfect being from sharing a meaningful space in drama. On the other hand, we have complementary models of God. Open any introduction to Kabbalah and it will tell you of the so-called ‘divine drama’ being played out in the Godhead. If we combine the idea of the divine drama with the idea of the immanence of God – that God’s presence pervades the universe – we get the idea that whole universe is God playing out a sort of divine theater.
The idea of the entire world as a sort of cosmic play, with God using all people and all things as agents to act out this play, is a deep insight into the nature of God and is indeed shared by other religions. In Hinduism, the concept of Lila describes all of reality as Brahman manifesting himself in a divine play. To the extent that this is true of God, thinking of halakha as theater is a way of walking in Hashem’s ways. Indeed, this could be described as the message of Purim – the world is a farce, and God is hiding the mask of reality. Exposing this mask and this farce is the holy work that gets us in touch with Hashem.
This insight leads us to a deeper notion. Not only is God acting out a form of theater, but theater is itself Godly in a way. By showing us the contingency of reality and of our own selves, role playing points us to something higher. Perhaps God’s play is a way for him to ‘act’ in our world, and perhaps we’re returning him the favor so to speak, by attempting to participate in his world, through acts of rituals. For both sides, theater is a bridge from one realm into the next. And for all its supposed artificiality, theater is perhaps the truest form in which God and us can communicate with each other.