The Jewish Theological Seminary of America last week announced the appointment of Rabbi Bronwen Mullin as its rabbinic artist in residence. The rabbi, who currently fills the same position at Town and Village Synagogue in Manhattan, will create a performing arts wing as part of the Conservative institution’s Artists’ Beit Midrash, which was launched four years ago.
A native of Philadelphia, Rabbi Mullin, who was ordained this year by JTS, is a playwright, composer, educator and co-founder of Meta-Phys Ed., which creates multimedia presentations based on Jewish texts. At JTS she will coordinate arts programming for the inaugural season of the school’s new performance space that is set to open in 2019. The Jewish Week spoke with Rabbi Mullin in a telephone interview.
What exactly is a rabbinical school’s artist in residence??
This is the first time that a rabbinical seminary has done this. It will bring consciousness of arts to all different facets of the rabbinical school. It means [teaching students] the art of storytelling — how does that affect how we teach in the classroom? How does our understanding of a story affect our ability to be pastoral care providers? In music, how does that [storytelling] affect our cantorial students? For rabbinical students, how do we make sure we develop a sense of artfulness?
Why does a rabbinical school need an artist in residence?
It shows the link between the rabbinical tradition and the great capacity of the arts to cultivate empathy, compassion, the ability to look outside oneself. Our rabbis for years have attempted to take archetypal [biblical] stories and read their own experiences into them. The more we delve into that, the more we find actual reflections of ourselves. We can look at a story about someone else and learn about ourselves.
Will an artist-in-residence program serve as a further attraction for people considering a particular rabbinical school?
People ask, “Does JTS have a place for someone like me?” When they hear of my background, people will give JTS a second look. I want to reach out to these [artistically oriented] people and bring them in.
Do the arts offer an alternative entry point into spirituality and the Jewish community?
Absolutely. The arts have always offered an alternative route for people to engage with spirituality. Music is important in our prayer services; it can elevate the soul, it can connect a person’s subconscious to one’s soul. It helps people feel connected with something larger than themselves.
Art is intrinsically subjective and personal, while Judaism is based in the collective, in a relatively objective acceptance of passed-down rabbinic interpretations.
How do you balance these two perspectives?
I’ve been working in the Jewish arts for the last decade — theater is my particular medium. Jewish theater has been the place where people feel they can bring the hardest questions they have about spirituality. A classic example is Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance” [which has themes of prostitution and a lesbian romance]. Theater brings out questions that look at some of the most complex aspects of our culture in a space that is safe. Theater breaks boundaries. It empowers our Jewish community to say we’re not afraid to wrestle with those questions.
Contemporary Jewish art — rabbinic art — is in line with the midrashic tradition. It’s a very interpretive tradition. You take any midrashim … they are wildly different [in interpreting a particular biblical verse], because the rabbis of our tradition were artists. They learned from listening to their own hearts. We have a Jewish obligation to keep alive that tradition.