Dramatizing Torah

Dramatizing Torah

Imagine, for a moment, that you are Eve. On the advice of a snake, you have taken a bite from the forbidden fruit. Now, you offer it to your mate, Adam.

Wait a second. Why do you do that? Why don’t you keep it for yourself? What are you thinking? What is your motivation?

These are the sort of questions that are at the core of the “bibliodrama” programs that Peter Pitzele has been leading for 30 years, and which Pitzele will be bringing this weekend to Congregation Gesher Shalom in Fort Lee. Pitzele will serve as scholar in residence, the first endowed by Leonia’s Congregation Sons of Israel which was absorbed into Gesher Shalom last year.

“There are lots of different answers to these questions,” explains Pitzele. “The Bible is full of these gaps, these places where the text is silent.”

Traditionally, these gaps have been the domain of midrash and rabbinic commentary. Pitzele democratizes the process of interpretation. He wants people to understand that “they have the capacity to do what the Sages did, the capacity to enter into the places with their own insights and their own ideas.”

It is not only a question of providing a biblical interpretation. It can be a way for people to learn about themselves. “They realize that what they say in the role of Adam or the role of Eve, in some funny ways comes out of their own life experience.”

Pitzele’s entrance to the world of the Bible came in 1982, when he was invited to fill in for a class at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The class was for senior year rabbinic students, and it focused on leadership challenges.

At the time, he was leading the psychodrama department at Four Winds Hospital, using role playing as a clinical method. He had trained in clinical psychodrama after earning a doctorate in literature at Harvard.

Pitzele challenged the rabbinical students to role play: “I had them imagine they were Moses, and asked them to speak about a problem of leadership they were facing in the role of Moses.”

The result was “a very fertile class.” He was invited back and he soon found himself doing Bible role playing – or, as he came to call it, bibliodrama.

He joined the JTS faculty as an adjunct instructor, wrote two books on bibliodrama, and through the Institute for Contemporary Midrash trained rabbis and others in its techniques.

One does not need to be a rabbi, however – or formally trained – to bring the techniques of bibliodrama to one’s encounter with Torah.

In fact, on Shabbat afternoon Pitzele will lead a workshop for parents and grandparents who want to become better storytellers.

“It’s an opportunity for them to see what it’s like to tell a story, not about a biblical character, but as a biblical character. With a little bit of preparation in terms of study, parents and grandparents can enchant their six-year-old by becoming Joseph, or Moses, or an animal in the Garden of Eden.

“This is what bibliodrama is: It’s a personfication where you give voice to the characters, objects, and images in the Torah. It helps find the voice of these things and speaks them,” he says.

What works for Pitzele leading a bibliodrama experience from the bimah “can also be done as a solo piece of storytelling. Every parent knows they’re an actor. I want to remind parents, and particularly grandparents, that there is an acting role that comes with parent- and grandparenthood, and that that acting role can be channeled toward Torah.

“You start with a piece of a biblical story and you just recognize what’s given and what’s not about a character. Take Joseph. His father singles him out and puts the coat on his shoulder. The text doesn’t tell us anything about how Joseph feels when the coat settles on his shoulder, but I think it’s one of the most dramatic moments in the Torah. It’s very consequential. You don’t need to be an actor or a scholar to imagine what it’s like to be Joseph for a while,” he says.

What is it like to be Peter Pitzele? He says the two most personally significant impacts of his bibliodrama work has been the effect on his relationship with Judaism ““ and with Christianity.

The Christian connection came when he was invited to teach by a German Protestant group that had their own, somewhat different, practice they called bibliodrama. That led to him training thousands of people in Europe in his method.

“It has become a very powerful expression of interfaith connection. I have been able to create an instrument for people to talk across boundaries,” he says proudly.

Closer to home, what started as an accidental entry into the world of the Bible ended up having a profound personal effect: “a deepening of a Jewish identity that I had none of as a child. After 25 years of doing bibliodrama, I became bar mitzvah. It was my involvement with Jewish texts, Jewish community, Jewish learning, that led to my own willingness to step up and claim this aspect of my identity in a more formal way.”

Pitzele says that what gratifies him the most is when people say, “I’m never going to read the Bible the same way again. The process of interpretation always has an autobiographical aspect to it, because in the end interpretation is a very subjective process.In order for us to feel a sense of ownership of and connection to the Torah, you really need to find your own Torah.

“Bibliodrama helped people imagine that they could do that.”

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