According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, insulting words are a greater offense than financial fraud, since money can be returned, while words that are spoken cause psychological damage and grief, and God will not grant forgiveness for the tears they cause.
Verbal Wrongs is a play being presented at the Acco Festival of Alternative Israeli Theater. Written by Avigail Graetz and directed by Lechay Beckerman, the play deals with the Talmudic issue of the power of words to hurt.
It examines a secular Talmud class held by a brother and sister who have been estranged for years. In Niv Manor’s set, designed to look like a page of Gemara, actors Shai Zviv and Shiri Nadav turn the words of the Jewish sources and the play’s in-depth debates into a fascinating journey into the interpretive logic of these sources.
The origins of the play are in the home of the playwright’s father, a Conservative rabbi, and her mother, a former lecturer at Ben Gurion University who writes on feminism and Jewish law.
In the play, as in the playwright’s life, the heroine, who has chosen a secular lifestyle, returns to the biblical texts from a perspective that is clear-headed, mature, and critical. “This doesn’t mean a return to something because I never really severed my connection,” she says. “The biblical texts are my connection with home, with my parents. How could it be expressed otherwise?”
A fascinating process of study
After years of being disconnected from her religious roots, today Graetz is attempting to move between the two worlds. She is not religously observant, but she does teach Jewish law at the Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, which stresses the humanist aspects of Judaism, and at Midreshet Iyun, a pluralistic center for adult Jewish learning. “For years I was embarrassed by my home,” she notes.
“Growing up in Omer in secular society and being the daughter of a rabbi meant living between two worlds, and I thought that that was impossible.” Over the years, living in the secular world, she sometimes chose not to tell people her father was a rabbi. “It’s my world but I live among other people, and you can’t help the fact that for non-religious people, the encounter with Judaism is difficult. This fear is always there.”
The production staff, the director, and the actors in the play are all secular. “Lechay is the classic secular person who had never before dealt with a page of Talmud. She asked me in the beginning if I didn’t want a director who came from the religious world, but this connection was important to me precisely because this world was foreign to her.
From my point of view, the fact that she found dramatic interest in the issue was something monumental. I’m convinced that for the actors as well it isn’t easy working on a play that comes from a place they don’t know, since they can’t draw on their life experience, but it was a fascinating process of learning and becoming enthralled,” says Graetz.
Even the audience was enchanted by the content of the play. “I have a desire for secular people to feel that this material is theirs, for them to realize that you don’t need to wear black clothing or a kippah in order to study Talmud,” she says. “Over the generations we’ve become so terribly estranged from this material that it has been lost to us.”
Is this an autobiographical play?
“On a certain level. I grew up in a Conservative religious home, but unlike in the play, I’m the only one who rebelled. My big brother is a rabbi in Gilo (in Jerusalem), and my sister is studying to be a Reform rabbi. Amother very significant difference is that in our home I was really pushed into studying.”
It’s very confusing. You’re a secular person dealing with Jewish experience. Where is the line?
“I know that it’s confusing—for me, too—but life is complex. I don’t know where the line is but I do know that there are many questions, that this is part of being Jewish. I’m a Jew and the struggle is within myself, so that I’m not ashamed either at home or in the life I’ve chosen.”
Is this a mission?
“It’s more like a dispute over our heritage. We all received these texts and the fact that we’ve chosen to live one way or another doesn’t make them any less ours. I show that it exists and that it’s accessible, I want to whet people’s appetite. This is a war within myself, about the desire to be understood. This is my home.”
Why did you choose the issue of insulting words?
“Because it is fundamental and at the same time it’s also impossible. In fact, what this means is to take responsibility for things that you say, not to deceive people through words, not to hurt them, not to cause permanent, invisible scars, even indirectly.
"Going through this process I realized that our words cannot be pure, that even without meaning to we sin. I’ve sometimes asked myself what the point is of demanding purity in speech if we can’t achieve this. It says in the Mishna that sinning through the use of insulting words is as serious as theft and cheating. They place the bar high, it’s utopian, and I’m proud that the culture I belong to considers it important that we aspire to something.”
For a person who writes, like you, precision with words requires you to place the bar very high in writing.
“It is definitely frightening. Words are a safe haven for me, which is perhaps why I relate to the issue of insulting words …. Words have significance, and my great fear is that I won’t be understood, just as I wasn’t understood at home.”
Another thing you got from your home that’s expressed in your play is the feminist approach to midrash. You give women a voice, though within the religious context we usually think of them as lacking such a voice.
“Feminism was something very present in my home. As early as the 1970s my mother dealt with it and wrote about it. Her research was on feminism in the Bible, and among other things, she wrote books on how Judaism confronts wifebeating, and feminist midrashes that are very common today, but were not so accepted back then.
"I definitely took something from that as well. I believe that a woman can do anything. There is a theory about the labia, which speak to each other and want all kinds of things. Similarly, I can also do all kinds of things, and what’s so amazing is the connection this has to the Talmud. In the study of Gemara there are all kinds of opinions; it isn’t linear. I totally compare the midrashic discussions to the radical feminist theories.”
That doesn’t make life easy for your audience. You can’t come to the play tired, and it’s also best not to blink.
“In Brecht’s plays there was something that was to a large extent counter-linear. His plays have something educational that ask people to experience Marxism and to think. I know that this is complex, I know that I make demands, but you know what? That’s exactly the place to stop being embarrassed.
"I exerted myself for more than a year to write this play, and you will have to exert yourself for me. This is a very tough place to get to psychologically. People need black and white, underlining, and the options I present, the home I grew up in, I myself am not black and white. I hope that they’ll go with me on that.”
Are you enjoying yourself?
“I don’t know. Not yet. I’m the one being assessed, they like me or they don’t like me—I don’t know if I’ve found salvation. But I’m on the way.”