Playing at Belief or Putting Belief in Play: What Theater Can Teach Us About Prayer

Thomas Cahill in his book The Gifts of the Jews, writes the following:

“Metaphor is the basis of all language and thought, as it is of all religion… Deep within each of us, the need for correspondence remains… This is why something inside us responds spontaneously to metaphor, the heart of poetry and, finally, of all language and all meaning.”

A lot of what we say in Jewish Orthodox prayers can be termed metaphors. Whether it is references to ministering angels proclaiming God’s glory in time with us, God’s ‘opening the doors of the eastern heavens to let the sun out’, or ‘the windows of the firmament’, or even references to God’s ‘chair of honour glimmering in sapphire stone’ our prayers are rife with metaphor. Metaphor which we often have trouble connecting to. Sometimes we have difficulty connecting to an historical event that has maintained it’s place in our prayers, such as the request for ‘vengeance to be wreaked before our eyes upon the evil gentile nations who persecute us’, ironically titled Av Harachamim, or the prayer for ‘the well being of the Exilarch’ conveniently couched in the first Yakum Purkan*. Or sometimes our prayers can offend us, such as the exclusion of women from the term community, also in Yakum Purkan, or the blessing that men recite thanking God that they are not a women.

The examples are numerous and the text is certainly old and often it lacks a sense of seriousness and resonation within our hearts when we perform our daily, weekly, monthly and yearly rituals of prayer. We often miss the meaning behind the metaphor. And in some occasions we have difficulty understanding the metaphor at all, if there is one.

So how do we connect to ancient prayer text that was handed to us, to words that our not our own, to requests that are not our own?

The Rabbis in their wisdom added in a few places during which one can insert personal expression, and often modern day Rabbis will point to these and express how well thought out our liturgy is, and simply ignore the problematic sections in favour of the universal ones, or those that do allow for personal expression (Shema Koleinu, End of Amidah prayer, and inserting ones own blessings before prayer), but these tips-of-the-hat are hardly thirst quenching for a soul that yearns to find personal expression in the Jewish liturgy.

I for one have found some answers in my own metaphor. Note I refrain from saying ‘the answer’ or ‘all answers’ as this is a very personal issue and everyone must find an answer that works for them. My metaphor is in what is perhaps the greatest field of metaphors that exists, the theater.

Let us recall for a moment that theater used to be a religious act. The use of metaphor and the yearning for answers to the world’s great questions, is not something that is unique to religion. Science, philosophy, psychology, meditative arts, and yes theater have all been asking the same questions since they were conceived. What is mankind’s place in this world? How does one ‘connect’ to the ineffable and to others? what does it all mean to me personally? Theater when looked at closely can shed some light on this issue with relation to prayer.

Theater and prayer have a lot of similarities, which one might not expect upon first glance. The first similarity is that both ask the participant (actor/a person praying) to attempt to infuse words written years ago, sometimes even thousands of years ago, with meaning. Words written by someone else, that all else being equal, may contain little or no bearing on the life of the person reciting them at the moment. Reciting passages delineating the sacrifices in the Temple, without the idea of metaphor, is as irrelevant to today’s worship as reciting the conflict between the houses of Montague and Capulet. Both may have been historical truths at one time, but I am as likely to sacrifice a cow in the Dome of the Rock today, as I am to pick a fight with Tybalt.

The actor, like the person praying, must infuse meaning every time they put on the character anew in order to make the scene work. For professional actors, that means every day they must find meaning in the text, they must make the text reflect their own selves in that moment in order to make the scene real. No matter how absurd the text may be, no matter how convoluted or historically or scientifically inaccurate, the meaning must be there or the scene falls flat on its face. So too with prayer. Three times a day Jews are asked to find meaning in words that they repeat over and over again, in praises, requests, psalms and thanksgivings that they repeat often many times in the same prayer (See Psalms 24 on Rosh Hashannah, which is repeated almost 20 times, if not more, over the two day holiday).

In addition, theater teaches us about a meeting of the minds which is unique to itself and prayer as art forms. It is a four way mind meld, which can only achieve its goals if the four way interaction is understood in all of its facets. In theater the meeting of the minds occurs as follows: Writer-Director-Actor-Audience. For the audience to understand the intention of the writer, they need to understand the intention of the actors, who need to understand the intention of the director and what the audience will accept. While the director for his part needs to understand what the writer intended, what the actors can actually do, the limits of their abilities and what the audience will accept. A good writer, will understand all of the above; his intended audience, what a typical actor can do and portray, and what a typical director can glean from his or her actors. Prayer is very much the same.

God created the world with an understanding of his creations (the actors), the religious obligations and the leaders or Rabbis who would enact them (the directors) and the audience who would be listening to the final prayers (God Himself). God knew what those who prayed to Him would need, and set forth the style and examples of how to go about praying for them. The Rabbis, picked up on the nuances of the written word (the text) and interpreted, much like a director does, what the actors would need to say and how. Those who follows Rabbinic law, follow their directors and use the text given to find the meaning in their lives and in the messages which they then pray (perform) before their audience i.e. God.

And God, much like an audience in a theater should be, remains quiet, listening, watching, hearing, understanding but never once breaking the fourth wall as the poet Walt Whitman said, “the powerful play of life goes on…”. This is not to say that God is unresponsive. Ask any actor after a performance, and whether they are at the amateur community level or a professional West End or Broadway actor, they will be able to tell you very clearly just how responsive their audience was on any given night. God too responds. And like an actor at a theater, we may not see it or hear it, but the response is there, and sometimes even certain energies can be felt, or signs be seen. A smile here, a laugh there, a boo, or a heckle from the crowd ‘commenting’ on the performance.

There are many lessons like these that can be learned from Theater. But during this cycle of holidays from Rosh Hashannah to Shmini Atzeret, it is ‘these that I remember’. These guide me when all other concentration falls by the wayside. No matter, the text, as inane, boring, historically irrelevant as it may be, at the end of the day it is upon the actor to find the meaning in it. As personal a message as can be. For the performance must go on, and the audience is waiting for the show. The only question is will the actor perform, and if so how well will they connect or embody the metaphors of the character that they are asked to play.

And yes it is difficult. Theater and religion, much like love are not something which one falls into. But rather they are something which one stands in and creates, actively creating the relationships throughout their lives. If one ceases from trying to create these relationships, then they will cease to find meaning in them, if they maintain them at all.

*(The first Yakum Purkan Prayer requests: grace, kindness, compassion, etc… for the ‘Rashei Kalei Ulrashei Galvata’ literally translated as heads of the biannual academies called Yarchei Kallah and the Exilarchs called Reish Galuta, both of which were lofty positions within the Jewish community of the Babylon up until the twelfth century C.E. approximately. The idea of a prayer for communal and national positions that do not exist any longer, i.e. something in the past that has already happened and is no longer happening, is the actual definition of a Tefilat Shav – irrelevant prayer – according to the Mishna Tractate Berachot Chapter 9 Mishna  3)

About the Author
Raphael Poch is a Canadian-Israeli playwright, producer, director, actor and journalist. He is a volunteer EMT with United Hatzalah where he also works as the International Media Spokesperson and is the coordinator for the 'Ten Kavod' Project in Efrat.
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