16 December 2016
16 Kislev 5777
Last night I was mesmerized once again by a Gann student theatrical production, this time of the George Bernard Shaw classic, St. Joan. Our students’ depth, sophistication, talent, and tremendous hard work were on display in our Bernice Krupp Black Box Theater in a show that made me laugh, cry, and, perhaps most significantly, think deeply about issues, both historical and contemporary.
The play tells the story of the life, death, and, ultimately, canonization of Joan of Arc. As director Jason Slavick puts it in his director’s note, it is about the paradoxes and complexities of zealotry and how societies relate to a person—saint or zealot—like Joan of Arc when she is alive and after she has passed. It also introduces many other themes and questions, prompting our faculty to develop this morning’s all-school educational program linked to the play. Students could choose from one of 13 educational workshops, including:
- What happens to someone who is “spoken to by God?”
- How far should someone go and what should s/he risk to do what s/he believes is right?
- How does Joan compare to other “zealots” in the Jewish and Christian traditions?
- Did Joan live out the middah (Jewish character trait) of anavah (humility)?
- In what ways was or was not Joan of Arc a politician?
- How do actors interpret and perform a complex scene? How does St. Joan compare to other artistic depictions of Joan of Arc?
These workshops are beautiful examples of the power of the arts and, more broadly, interdisciplinary education to engage our students with profound questions about history, society, politics, religion, law, morality, and more.
As I watched Joan fight passionately for her truth and defend her embattled French people against England in the face of religious and political opposition and conflict, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who noticed not only contemporary resonances of the play’s themes but also the beautiful timing of this production the week before Chanukah.
The Chanukah story, like the story of Joan of Arc, is really many stories. This is evident not only by the work of historians but even in the different ways it is told even in our Jewish tradition, from the Talmudic story about the miracle of the oil to our liturgical commemoration of the miracle of the military victory of the few, divinely inspired freedom fighters against the many.
The brilliance of Shaw’s production on the eve of Chanukah is a reminder of the importance of learning our Jewish story in all of its depth, nuance, and complexity. It is evident from the differences between the account of Chanukah in the Talmud and in the Book of Maccabees, for example, that our rabbis, too, wrestled with the role of zealots and zealotry in Jewish history and its place in our Jewish spiritual, ethical, and political tradition. While we don’t have saints in the Jewish tradition, we have our own history of righteous, spiritual individuals whose passion and purity both inspire us and challenge us. In every generation we need to ask ourselves: Who are our heroes and who are our villains, and why?
If we are going to learn and grow through finding meaning and relevance in our past, then history cannot remain for us a collection of children’s fables about one-dimensional heroes. Part of growing up is realizing that, sometimes, the most tragic of stories is the most redemptive and vice-versa. Sometimes, the most spiritually or ethically inspiring “heroes” are the most complex and problematic.
This realization need not be a “fall” that we or our students suffer when we reach greater levels of intellectual maturity and sophistication. It can be the beginning of an even deeper and more powerful relationship with the past that can authentically inspire us in the present.
To remember is to wrestle with the stories and the people who have come before us and to become aware, as St. Joan and Chanukah remind us, that we, the living, ultimately choose how we will tell their stories. Making these choices is a humbling responsibility, for as we tell the stories of the past, we are writing the stories of our future.
Rabbi Marc Baker