The Bible: Alive and Kicking

The Bibliodrama method brings the Bible alive for 21st Century Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

The author leading a Bibliodrama session.

Succot 2001. I’m in a large tent on a beach in northern Israel. Staring at me, in worryingly expectant fashion, are around thirty people, seated on colorful mats and dressed in the prerequisite hippy raiment of festival-goers. Behind us, music is blaring from the bar.

I, a modern Orthodox maideleh, originally from Manchester and now resident in Jerusalem, am, like the diminutive alien E.T., a long way from home: geographically, but also psychologically and anthropologically. I’ve traveled north to Segol, a small Israeli beach festival, to run my first Bibliodrama—though I’ve never trained in it, having merely read a “how to” book a few days earlier.

I am nervous. I am a fairly competent Torah teacher, but this is different. I’m implementing an untried method on a group of strangers in tie-dye tops, and in Hebrew to boot. Having to shout over the Israeli pop music blasting in the background doesn’t help.

So I bluff, projecting confidence. After arranging some chairs in the center and giving an introduction, we read some verses from Genesis 3. Then I say to the assembled:
“So here’s Eve, and she has just eaten the fruit – the one thing she was forbidden to do. I wonder what that fruit tastes like? [Pause] Would anyone like to, as Eve, describe its taste? Thank you. Is there another Eve present with a different response?”

People proffer answers. The session flows, and they seem to be enjoying it. I breathe a sigh of relief. The chairs in the center, I explain, represent Eve’s possible motives. Later in the session, the chairs will become stand-ins for the snake and for God. How would Adam position himself vis-à-vis the snake chair or God chair? Would he sit on it? Lie under it? Volunteers come up and strike different poses. The experience is fascinating.

That day, when I had little idea of what I was doing, marked the start of what over the next twenty years would become a delight, a challenge, a calling, and a profession for me. To date, I’ve been fortunate to have conducted 500 Bibliodrama workshops worldwide. I still can’t believe that I got here from there.

So, what is Bibliodrama? Despite its name, it isn’t acting. It’s a profound, surprising, collaborative role-playing technique, invented by Jewish Harvard professor of literature Peter Pitzele. He based it on methods imported from Psychodrama, a group therapy approach invented by another Jew, Jacob Moreno, a psychiatrist and psychosociologist who started his career in Vienna before emigrating to the US. It fills in the textual gaps with participant insights, in what some might term “modern Midrash.” And it has left indelible marks on people’s lives:
– I’ll never read the Torah with the same eyes.
– It’s a new gateway for me into this seemingly inaccessible text.
– I’ve taught this narrative many times, but this brought me to see it afresh.

Let’s zoom out for a moment. As postmodern Jews constructing our identities, we get to choose what to emphasize from the potpourri of available Jewish identity components: God, peoplehood, land of Israel, traditional scriptures and interpretations, commandments, rituals, halacha, history, or culture. Diaspora and Israeli Jews might highlight different components from this list—rituals and history versus Land of Israel and peoplehood, perhaps. Both groups, theoretically, could ignore the Tanach altogether and still be “good” Jews. But this off-the-charts timeless bestseller—a compelling read, whether divinely given or not—has been a good part of what’s been keeping the Jews together from the very start.

To paraphrase Ahad Ha’am’s statement about Shabbat, “More than the Jews preserved Bible study, Bible study preserved the Jews.” A collective text functions culturally as the “glue” binding a people together. Even the early secular Zionists, having abandoned great chunks of Jewish tradition in the quest for the “New Jew,” largely preserved the beloved place of the Tanach. Many of them—unlike some revolutionaries—knew that sidelining one’s foundational collective texts is akin to throwing the family jewels into the ocean.

However, this gluey function fulfilled by the Tanach only works well if the study remains vibrant. It isn’t a given that such an old-fashioned text can bridge the gap of millennia and speak to twenty-first century concerns. Can it compete successfully with that popular deity, the Smartphone? Or with the new narratives of our age, whether in the Diaspora or in Israel? Can an ancient book, replete with sacrifices and oxen, really make the cut? I, for one, vote “yea.”

I’m not going to cite scientific research concerning the current state of Tanach study. Doubtless there is plenty of evidence of boredom and alienation—alongside many indications of a flourishing culture (e.g., the popular Herzog study days and the 929 Project, the latter originally in Hebrew and now studied worldwide in English). But the crux of the matter is not whether but how. Not can but how can the Tanach speak today; how can it be what we seek, the “living tree” that liturgy claims it to be?

Let’s talk zeitgeist. Contemporary Israelis and Diaspora Jews, influenced by Western culture, rely greatly upon our own lived experience. We’re guided by our own thoughts and emotions, by what genuinely touches and moves us. We gravitate not to the dutiful but to the beautiful, to the meaningful, the memorable. If the Bible feels disconnected from our hearts and lives, there is the real possibility that it will end up gathering dust on the shelf.

True, we’re blessed with many creative minds finding new meanings even in this highly combed-over text, providing the bridge to often obscure commentaries of old. Much of the flourishing in both Israel and the Diaspora today is thanks to them. But one important corner remains unpainted, in which we yearn to find our own connection, our own hiddush (a word that means both “insight” and “renewal”). We want to live and journey with the text; enter into dialogue with it; pour out our passions upon it; allow it to touch our interiority.

Cue Bibliodrama. Back in 2001, I was already a Torah teacher in Jerusalem, doing my utmost to teach with liveliness, creativity, and relevance. But at the same time, a profound calling within me was forcing me on a journey of self-discovery, to find my own inner voice, to seek out personal illumination in my own tradition. Then I witnessed Bibliodrama at a friend’s house, and it was love at first sight. This was my besherte (destined) Torah approach: belovedly familiar, encompassing the age-old Jewish activity of pouring new meanings into old vessels (to paraphrase Ahad Ha’am once again). But it was also refreshingly different, demanding first-person language, thrusting us under the skin of the text, introducing powerful psycho-dramatic dimensions. It suited me in so many ways. Thus, I embarked on a lifelong journey with Bibliodrama, along the way abandoning the chairs and nudging it closer to the kind of Torah teaching that I already did. This gave it, with all its innovativeness, a familiarity that resonated with participants from traditional backgrounds.

Let me describe the method further, to give a complete picture. Bibliodrama, for all its complexity, is implemented by means of a very simple device: asking a question with no obvious answer, and requiring a response in first person. Here’s a sample snippet:

Facilitator: So, Moses—you’ve turned off the path and are now staring at a bush that is burning yet not being consumed. What are you thinking or feeling at this moment?
Person A: Curiosity keeps me rooted to the spot. I’ve never been so puzzled in my life.
Person B: And I feel humbled. Normally I can explain why things happen, but now I am stumped.
Person C: This bush feels like a metaphor for my own life: it is me. By rights I should have died many times—floating in the reeds as a baby, by Pharaoh’s hand, wandering in Midian—yet here I am. I am moved.
Person D: I’m not thinking anything; I’m simply in awe.

Confronting participations with a question lacking a single specific answer is not simply a technique. It is fundamental to the nature of the Tanach. As professor of Hebrew and comparative literature Robert Alter notes, the Bible aims to create ambiguity and indeterminacy of meaning, especially with regard to motive, moral character, and psychology. “Meaning, perhaps for the first time in narrative literature, was conceived as a process…continual suspension of judgment, weighing of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided.” (The Art of Biblical Narrative, 12) Alter quotes Erich Auerbach, a German Jewish literary scholar, who contrasts biblical with Greek writing, arguing that the deliberately cryptic conciseness of the former is a reflection of profound art, not primitiveness (ibid., 17). Thus, though Bibliodrama can successfully be done with other literary genres, it aligns precisely with the Tanach’s own modus operandi.

The open-ended question posed to the group causes a moment’s pause, as the mind’s cogs whirr. Then participants take up the gauntlet, delving into the text—and its wider context, if they possess the requisite textual literacy—and drawing upon their own imaginations and emotions. The action occurs on multiple levels: the literary, analytical, psychological, and even mystical, as we, in a Jungian vein, plug into a collective archetype, the Moses archetype, or perhaps even “download” material from higher realms: “Moses consciousness,” so to speak.

This is a performance without an audience; we all serve as the audience for each other. The multi-voice conversation is very rich. As we can see above, Person B bounces off Person A, while the ideas of Persons C and D, though different, may have crystallized upon hearing the formulations of the first two. Unconventional answers are welcome: in my introduction to a Bibliodrama session, I clarify that all answers are legitimate insofar as they adhere to the given boundaries of the text. Every voice is crucial to the process, as this is “Torah 2.0”: it is user-generated. If people remain silent, the page we want to write together will remain blank.

After proceeding through the story for approximately ninety minutes, we reach some kind of end point and “de-role,” saying our own names to step out of character. Then we process and reflect. What literary or personal hiddush has emerged from the text? What emotion and insight has been engendered? How has this ancient story touched our lives? It is not therapy, yet poignant items often emerge from the inner depths. Sensitive participants can walk away provoked, transformed, or even healed by the realness of what just happened. That’s the magic.

Magical, too, is how the method cuts across denominational and faith lines. All can come together to learn Torah in this way. While background knowledge helps in grounding the answers in the text, at times it is the person with little background who offers a wonderful insight.

Peter Pitzele (whom I eventually met when he astounded me by suddenly appearing in one of my workshops in New York) has trained many students, but they’re mostly active in the USA and Europe. He has visited Israel, and Scripture Windows, his instructional book that I hurriedly devoured before the aforementioned beach festival, was translated into Hebrew (although never published) by academic Yoram Kanzler. However, back in 2001 I found the Israeli field pretty much wide open. No one had ever heard of Bibliodrama! And indeed, I wondered how I could convince people to book workshops. So I got going creating momentum: I showcased it and talked it up, and soon workshops began to happen, in Israel and abroad.

I took up the motto, “Have Bibliodrama, will travel.” Whether with Hollywood scriptwriters in Los Angeles, “Shul on the beach” over pizza, or in the Krakow JCC, in an interfaith Bibliodrama in Iceland, or with Mormons in Norway: Bibliodrama has proven itself time and again. Even Muslims have participated, albeit with less ease as the Quran’s version of events differs somewhat.

In Israel, I have done Bibliodrama in local synagogues, homes, and institutions; with a group of Christians and Jews on the Via Dolorosa; and in Hebrew, for groups of educators, attempting to propel this approach into mainstream teaching here. I have discovered others doing Bibliodrama locally: Michael Ben-Ishai, who recently ran a session on Zoom with 120 teachers, and Tamar Peleg, who facilitates workshops in her hometown of Zichron Yaakov and elsewhere. They are trained in psychodramatic techniques as I am not; so they favor the psychological side of things slightly more, while I lean more to the textual.

I have discovered that Bibliodrama isn’t for everyone. Highly academic and yeshivish people don’t always seem to connect. But enough people have found it refreshingly exciting for me to feel that I am doing holy work, wherever and for whomever. Yet it holds, in a subtle way, a greater valence and significance when undertaken in Israel and in Hebrew.

This is the Bible’s language and general locale. If my aim is to bring the Bible alive, here it is already so, even if it may be frozen and in need of some defrosting before consumption. Passages about entering the Land of Israel take on a keen existential meaning here. Israelis can be a tough crowd; but I’ve found that they can also be incredibly tuned-in. These are the extremes present in this fierce land. Either way, the work feels extremely important in today’s climate of waning biblical literacy, in the very land of the patriarchs and matriarchs, kings and judges.

In 2020, the coronavirus pushed me into begin a weekly Bibliodrama on Zoom. The core group of dedicated global fellow-journeyers that eventually coalesced include Jews from Israel and the Diaspora, a pro-Israel Christian couple, and a wonderful Irish nun. While my Bibliozoom worked surprisingly well for the most part, this group also brought its own challenges. I found some participants imposing their agendas on the text. When the question “So, you as the twelve spies are the first Israelites to step foot on Holy Land’s soil—how do you feel?” is answered with “Colonialist,” you know something has gone wrong! So, I urged them: “Let Bibliodrama touch and change you: don’t come to it with preconceived ideas.”

Bibliodrama continues to slowly make inroads into Tanach study in Israel and abroad. Perhaps sometime soon we will see a “tipping point” kick in, and the technique becoming as common as regular study. I can but hope.

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