There are many ways to teach Torah. And, happily, people learn in many different ways.
With that in mind, Mahwah’s Beth Haverim Shir Shalom plans to teach an old story in a new way. On Sunday, June 7, the congregation will put some very prominent biblical figures on trial.
During that trial — the Jewish People v. Rebecca and Jacob — a jury of congregants, chosen by lottery before the hearing begins, will determine whether mother and son were guilty of conspiracy.
Did Jacob and Rebecca conspire to deceive Isaac? Did Isaac really bless the wrong son? Is Esau totally innocent in all of this? Opposing attorneys Barry Cassell and Jack Schulman, members of the congregation, will tackle those questions. Another congregant, attorney Amy Littman — who has, in her professional life, run mock trials for law students — will serve as presiding judge.
“Back in the winter I saw an advertisement for a big congregation in the city doing a mock trial,” the synagogue’s senior rabbi, Joel Mosbacher, said. “Over there, the attorneys were also members of the synagogue.” Those attorneys were Eliot Spitzer and Alan Dershowitz.
While the Mahwah shul can’t claim such famous ones, “We have some pretty fantastic attorneys,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. “It sounded like a fun program and a fun way to educate people about these stories.
“We’re borrowing the best ideas from other congregations,” he added. “I reached out to one of the rabbis in New York and he was very kind and generous.” Still, “we’re doing it on our own, just making it up as we go along.”
While the New York mock trial charged Abraham with the attempted murder of Isaac, BHSS decided to consider other stories as well. Ultimately, Rabbi Mosbacher said, they chose the story about stealing the birthright “because it had more characters, more witnesses, and gave congregants more of an ability to participate.”
“One of the fun things about this project is that we studied together,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. The group — including Rabbi Mosbacher as Isaac, Rabbi Daniel Kirzane as Esau, educator Rebecca McVeigh as Rebecca, and senior youth group vice-president Ari Mosbacher as Jacob, as well as the attorneys and judge — “studied the story as well as the midrashim and interpretations of the story.
“We studied for its own sake and because we want to give the attorneys all the evidence they need. It’s a more complicated, more nuanced case than it seems on the face of it.”
Rabbi Mosbacher said that each of the four main characters will testify. Each has written an affidavit. The attorneys also have taken depositions, meeting with clients to get a sense of how each would answer particular questions.
When it became obvious that this could turn into a three- or four-hour program, “we timed it out so that it will be fun, interesting, and family-friendly,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. “The attorneys and judge have come up with a minute-by-minute timeline. Each of us will be on the stand 8 to 10 minutes, including both testimony and cross-examination. We’re inviting members of the congregation to serve as the jury.”
He explained that those congregants who want to serve as jurors will have to come 15 minutes before the program and participate in a lottery. “We didn’t want it to be just people who knew the story really well,” he said. “We wrote up the basic version to send out to congregants to learn the basic facts of the case. And the attorneys are really working hard and taking it really seriously.”
While they are engaged in serious research, he said, “they’re making their case and not telling each other” what they plan to present. (That’s why we cannot give readers a preview of the arguments.)
Still, Rabbi Mosbacher said, “on one side it seems very obvious that Rachel and Jacob colluded to steal the birthright. But on the other side, you might make the case that Isaac actually knew all along what was going on and was colluding with the accused — so it’s not so clear who’s guilty and who’s innocent. You might also make the case that Jacob was convinced or tricked by his mother or else he was so obedient that he simply did what she told him.”
All arguments will be backed up by text.
“We made a decision to stay faithful to the story and to the midrash written in our tradition,” he said. “We could go way off script — but affidavits are hewing closely to the Torah text and are informed by existing midrashim.
“I think there are so many modalities to teaching Torah, and the text speaks for itself. This is so dramatic that we could just teach it straight or in a sermon. But after 18 years in the rabbinate, I’ve learned that people learn in all kinds of ways. An opportunity to learn through watching the drama play out is just a different way to teach the complexity of the story. When you look at any story, when you sit and read it on your own or with partner, you gain insight and knowledge and different perspectives. But when you see the characters acting it out, you can see that it is even more complex.
“The reason why this story is so resonant and ripe for being played out is because it is a family story,” he continued. “Showing favoritism, sibling rivalry, jealously, desire, passion. These are all things people in 2015 still struggle with. It almost doesn’t matter how it plays out.”
And the people watching the trial each will relate to the story in his or her own way, he added.
The trial’s format is straightforward. The presiding judge will outline the charges and instruct the jury about how they should adjudicate. There will also be an opportunity for jurors to deliberate. During that time, everyone else will have a chance to “debate, discuss, share, and ask questions,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. “Everyone will get a chance to participate.” And if the program is a success — which he expects it will be — “we will do it again in the future.” There are some great debate possibilities, he said, suggesting, for example, Aaron’s role in building the golden calf.
“The Torah is full of complex characters,” he said. “You would think that in a sacred text, the personages would be perfect and morally pure — but the people in the Torah are far from that. That is the reason why we still read these stories, because we see ourselves in their strengths and foibles, flaws and humanness.”
“We can relate to them,” Rabbi Mosbacher concluded. “If they were perfect, we could hold them up as paragons but not relate to them. A parent can relate to Isaac and Rebecca. A sibling can relate to Jacob and Esau. They’re very human characters. And if the trial is not ‘made for TV,’ it’s certainly going to make for drama in Mahwah.”
What: Mock Trial: The Jewish People v. Rebecca and Jacob
When: Sunday, June 7; jury selection at 4:45 p.m., call to order at 5 p.m., verdict at 6:30.
Where: Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, 280 Ramapo Valley Road, Mahwah
Free and open to the public. RSVP to (201) 512-1983 by June 4. Attendees are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food item for donation to Mahwah’s Center for Food Action.
For more information, go to www.BethHaverim.org.