High Holiday Feature (9): Embracing the Arts As a Path Toward Spiritual Fulfillment

Worshipers at High Holiday services might find something new this year: the arts.

Poetry, storytelling, musical performances and dance will play a significant role in ushering in the Jewish new year.

Indeed, a growing number of religious leaders across the country are finding that artistic expression heightens the religious experience.

“It’s an emerging phenomenon,” says Richard Siegel, executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

The foundation is funding three synagogue-based artists residencies in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Minneapolis as part of a three-year pilot program.

Meanwhile, 11 synagogues are experimenting with the use of music and movement in prayer and healing as part of the Synagogue 2000 program — a transdenominational project that is working to transform the synagogue.

“One of the things we are looking at is how we can create an authentic spiritual experience in the prayer service,” says Ron Wolfson, director of the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, which is spearheading the Synagogue 2000 project with the Hebrew Union College’s Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman.

The idea, Wolfson explains, is “to embrace the arts not just as cultural expression, but as religious expression.”

The trend has provided a new venue for artists interested in exploring Judaism.

Choreographer Liz Lerman, who runs Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Takoma Park, Md., works with Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., to create 10-minute dance segments for the temple’s family services as well as entire services of singing and dancing.

“People can’t get enough,” she says. “It turns into a dance of praise for people who know God.

“For doubters,” she adds, “it makes them feel connected and feel like they belong in synagogue.”

JoAnne Tucker, the artistic director of the New York-based Avodah Dance Ensemble, was so much in demand by synagogues around the country that five years ago she was able to quit her day job as a computer specialist at a bank.

A decade ago, Temple Beth El in Jersey City, N.J., commissioned Tucker to create a forgiveness-themed dance piece for the Selichot service, held late at night the week before Rosh Hashanah. This year, her company is bringing the work to Congregation Emanu El in Houston.

“For me, part of prayer is physical. We’re introducing a variety of ways that movement can play an integral role in services,” says Tucker, author of “Torah in Motion: Creating Dance Midrash.” For her part, the New York City-based composer Elizabeth Swados is aiming to reach young people with her innovative compositions. To that end, she is writing a Shabbat service for teen-agers.

“I don’t think there’s anything that’s really attracting them to Jewish text and religion at this point,” says Swados, whose musical theater pieces dealing with such topics as Job, Esther, the Song of Songs and biblical women are usually performed in synagogues and off-Broadway theaters.

One of the more innovative ways to combine art and Judaism is through Bibliodrama, the improvisational renditions of biblical scenes.

Bibliodrama is gaining increasing acceptance and popularity largely due to the efforts of pioneer Peter Pitzele and Rivkah Walton, director of the Institute for Contemporary Midrash in Philadelphia, an organization dedicated to bringing the arts into contact with sacred text.

The institute has held training in ways to interpret Midrash, including art, dance, music and Bibliodrama. The workshops drew 70 participants this past July.

“When I saw Peter teach a Bibliodrama class at a rabbinic retreat, I was just bowled over,” says Shelley Whizin, vice president of the Los Angeles-based Whizin Foundation, which supports innovative approaches to Judaism.

“Whatever character, whether it was Abraham or Sarah, they just became human beings for the first time in my life, not just one- or two-dimensional characters. They stepped out of the page and became human,” adds Whizin, an advisory board member of the Institute for Contemporary Midrash.

Often, Bibliodrama performers invite those watching the presentation to imagine they are the famous personalities. Engaging in such improvisational re- enactments enables “people to see themselves in the text and see the text in their own lives,” says Walton.

“The Bible is very porous,” she says. “It rarely tells you about people’s motivations, dreams and aspirations.

“There are often huge gaps of time and many, many silent characters, particularly women. Doing Bibliodrama is an opportunity to fill in the gaps. It’s really Torah of the imagination.”

Despite its growing popularity, incorporating the arts into traditional liturgy is not endorsed by everyone.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella organization of Reform congregations, suggests caution in bringing the arts into services.

The liturgical revolution is positive because “it gives us new insights to Jewish traditions,” says Yoffie.

But being liturgically creative “does not necessarily lead to more heartfelt worship. All kind of other things need to be done, too.”

Some rabbis oppose the innovations outright.

“I’m reluctant to replace the old prayers with newfangled poems that may come and go,” says Rabbi Richard Thaler of Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan. “There’s great strength in traditions. It’s a source of comfort and continuity.”

But others say that bringing the arts into the sanctuary can attract people who might otherwise feel alienated.

According to Cantor Judy Fox of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, the advantage of adding the arts is that “somewhere in the service everyone’s going to be interested.”

“Some people are more theatrically and artistically oriented, so they get their spiritual fulfillment Judaically through music, song and readings,” she says.

The arts can be particular meaningful for people who find the service inaccessible because they do not know Hebrew or the traditional liturgy.

Says Joel Grishaver, the author of “The Bonding of Isaac: Stories and Essays about Gender and Jewish Spirituality”: “In essence, the arts become bread crumbs that invite people into the study of Judaism.”

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