12 December 2014
20 Kislev 5775
For the second consecutive week, I am inspired to reflect on the power of art to generate communal conversation about profound human questions and matters of moral consequence.
Last night I had the uncomfortable pleasure of seeing Gann’s Red Curtain Drama Club’s fall production of The Visit, written in 1958 by Friedrich Durrenmatt, a Swiss playwright who lived through World War II and the horrors of Nazism. I was deeply moved by our students’ talent, emotional depth, and capacity to tackle a production so strange and difficult on so many levels. It was clear that they were able to bring this tragic comedy to life not only because of their natural talent but, more importantly, because of their tremendous hard work, their extraordinary ensemble ethos (which includes both actors and crew), and their intellectual and emotional engagement with the subject matter.
A parent of one of the student actors for whom theater at Gann has been central to her high school experience said to me after the show, “She hated it.” What was amazing about this comment was the level of pride he seemed to feel as he said it, along with the obvious fact that his child loves theater and Red Curtain Drama Club. She loves acting and stage managing, her director-teacher and her peers, and the process of creating a show. At the same time, she “hated” being forced to confront the deep and disturbing questions about human nature and society that this play demanded. I think the pride this parent felt was the knowledge that his child had not just finished a great performance but that she was in the midst of a transformative, sometimes even painful, experience of moral education.
In his director’s note, Jason Slavick explained that “(the play) poses problems about morality, justice, poverty, and wealth. Does a terrible action repay a horrible abuse? Can abject poverty afford morality? Does a terrible action repay a horrible abuse?” Late in the show, in a classic avant-garde theater moment, the house lights came up, and the audience was suddenly “exposed.” This brilliant directorial move viscerally brought home something that so many of us were already feeling: this farce-like story is actually about all of us.
What happens when our material needs and desires and our drive for self-preservation challenge our values, moral aspirations, and our fundamental sense of right and wrong? How do we discern when the rhetoric of a community and its leaders is an authentic reflection of values and commitments and when it is a manipulative tool for clothing individual and communal self-interest in the garments of lofty moral and spiritual ideals? Who is responsible for the moral character of a community, a society, our world, and where are the checks and balances when group-think sets in?
These are just some of the questions I have been thinking about since I left the theater last night, and these very questions lie at the heart of moral, civic, and Jewish education. When we study the Holocaust, we ask not only, “Why did they do this to us?” but also “How do normal, decent human beings transform into complicit agents of or, at least, passive witnesses to profound human evil?” When we read literature and perform plays, we ask ourselves about the inner drives and motivations that shape characters and about the ways that characters’ choices—small and large—shape their identities and influence their families, communities, and worlds.
As we begin the great literary and spiritual saga of the Joseph story this week and witness the moral failings and group-think of Joseph’s brothers, we should be asking ourselves, “How could they do this to their brother, and would we have acted differently at any point had we been in their shoes?”
Great education always brings the house lights up and always exposes the audience. To watch or perform theater, to learn Torah, to study history or literature or science is to study the human condition and to ask honest, challenging, moral, and spiritual questions about ourselves and the society we live in.
I am deeply grateful to be part of a community of educators and students who take this sacred task and moral responsibility so seriously.
Rabbi Marc Baker