Midrashic Moments- Putting Art and Spirit into Action

by: Shawn Israel Zevit

Rabbi Shawn Zevit, author of Offerings of the Heart, has over 25 years experience in spiritual leadership, organizational consulting and training, educational arts, writing, recording, teaching and performing. He is a founding member of Shabbat Unplugged and the Davenning Leader’s Training Institute. He teaches at the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School in Philadelphia, and is a the Director of Outreach and Tikkun Olam for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. See www.rabbizevit.com.

Let us look at an example of how to put creative drama and music into action so that our theology and artistic expression become partners in co-creating new expressions along with our heritage of old. I am using the Book of Ruth from the Hebrew Bible as an example because God is actually absent as a character. This gives us room to bring God’s voice into the scene, or discuss where we think a Higher Source is operating behind the scenes, or through the characters themselves who see no burning bushes, hear no voices, and make no cultic sacrifices. This also gives us the opportunity to open discussions throughout the creative process as to how we experience and understand God in our own lives.

The Book of Ruth is traditionally read during Shavuot, the spring Festival of Weeks, a first fruit and harvest festival that was later linked by Jewish sages to the revelation of the Torah. It is one of the most beautiful and richly woven wisdom stories in the Hebrew Bible and is one of the few biblical texts that set women explicitly at the forefront of the story. It is also a story about faith across many cultures and religious expressions.

A creative drama and music process can work well for any size group, though groups of more than 12-15 should probably be broken up into smaller size groups with parallel or different assignments. In an online class, this can be done by using Zoom breakout rooms. learn more about how to use breakout rooms here and here.

You may want to write some lines down, have photocopied texts available for bouncing ideas off of and have a variety of instruments, percussion pieces, even household or classroom items that produce sound available. In an online classroom, send students links to the text on Sefaria here ahead of class.

  1. Spend time familiarizing yourself with the text with which you are working, even if you have studied it in the past. In this case, of course, the text is the Book of Ruth.
  2. Prepare hand-outs or portions of the text to read well ahead of time. Depending on the time you have, the number of sessions, and the size of the group, divide the book into narrative sections (say between 6-10 sections). If you are scrambling at the last minute for material, you will interrupt the flow of the process.
  3. Plan your introduction. If the group is not already familiar with improvisation you may want to take a few minutes to explain the process. Be sure to let participants know that they can control their level of participation and that they may choose to be an observer instead of a participant at any point in the program. You may also want to provide some context, especially if the program is to be used as part of a holiday celebration.
  4. Plan your warm-up exercises. Most groups will require some warming up. This can be done in a variety of ways. For example, you may want to ask the group if they are familiar with creative drama or music, the Book of Ruth, or the festival of Shavuot. Alternatively, simple improvisational games, such as asking participants to say their English or Hebrew names along with a gesture, or to adopt a pose of biblical character with which they are familiar, or to create a story by having each participant add one word or sentence can be helpful. While people do this, the musicians and/or vocalists can add their soundtrack to the images.
  5. At least a few minutes before the start of the program, be sure to check out the set up of the space. You will need space for as many break-out groups as you decide, as well as a space in which the whole group can convene and watch each others’ presentations. For an online classroom, plan the number and size of your Zoom breakout rooms in advance. 
  6. For a virtual classroom, you may want to ask students to come equipped with paper and coloring supplies or props for dramatic acting.

The Program

1. Welcome the group and introduce them to the process. Take time to answer any questions or concerns that the participants may have.

2. Do the warm-up exercises that you have selected.

3. Divide the group into break-out groups of a minimum of 3 people each, and provide each participant with a copy of the text or link to their assigned text portion using Sefaria.

4. Instruct each break-out group to develop a scenario with enacted scenes, dialogue, and sound-scape, from one of the narrative points. For example, you could ask each group to develop 3 or 4 tableaux (still images, like embodied photographs) and present them in sequence, with perhaps one line spoken by a member of the tableau, and others singing a song or playing instruments that support the context of the scene. The group might also create a short scene around the narrative, and provide the dialogue. This does not have to be limited to the setting of the biblical text. For example, a group may decide to present their scene as a newscast: This just in: Ruth and Naomi sighted at the border of Israel! Allow only 10 or 15 minutes for this work. I like to avoid lengthy time periods that create a production mentality and rob spontaneity. This is not about being stellar; rather, it is about being present. If there are not enough participants to the number of groups you want, or there are participants who are shy and do not want to be up in action, you can plan to simply read the missing moments from the text provided.

5. Reassemble the whole gathering and have each group present their work in sequence. In this way, the entire story is re-enacted and can be experienced in a more creative way than a straight reading might allow.

6. Take the time to debrief afterward. What insights did you get from the text? Where was God in this story? What Jewish values and beliefs about God’s unfolding in our lives does the text convey? If you were going to give God the last word, what would God’s message be? How did the creative drama, music, and/or song bring the story to life, convey new meaning, and engage you in the message of the book of Ruth?

You may also want to revisit the text to see what the spontaneous encounter brought to your understanding of the text, as well as process what the creative approaches unlocked in everyone’s sense of the wisdom about God and human beings in our sacred texts and tradition.

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