Method to Our Mitzvos

When is it appropriate, in our spiritual journey as Jews, to manipulate our own emotions — to perform, before an audience composed only of our own hearts, as an actor on a stage does, to simulate joy or other emotions in order to create… an “effect”?

I was always troubled by the suggestion I once encountered that crying during the Rosh Hashana prayers is so desirable that one should go so far as to bring on weeping, even by making oneself think of something unrelated to the day’s theme of repentance but guaranteed to bring on tears. The commentators or rabbinic sources are not universally in agreement with this approach, I have since learned; there would probably, if we knew how to count, be a majority vote against it. I was not surprised, however, to learn that among those who did not favor tearing up during the prayers at all is Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, who evidently counseled an attitude of joy, not sadness.

The consensus among learned Internet commentators seems to be that sincere tears are even fine with the Gaon, whereas a lack of any emotional movement during this period may itself portend a troubling lack of spiritual movement. But the Gaon’s approach appealed to a younger version of myself, not only because of what I considered at the time to be my own distrust of emotion, but because of something I learned when I was a student in a major Brooklyn yeshiva, known as “Chaim Berlin.” I had noticed that in Chaim Berlin, when the Ark was opened in order to remove the Torah scroll for reading, everyone remained where he was standing. This was in contrast to what I had seen even growing up in a Conservative synagogue and in virtually every orthodox one, where members of the congregation moved toward the Ark and the Torah scroll from the time the curtain was opened until the scroll was placed on the reader’s desk; and so again in reverse when the reading was over.

I asked the late Moshgiach [spiritual dean], Rabbi Shimon Groner, why no one moved. He told me that the yeshiva followed a teaching of the Vilna Gaon that reflexive, automated manipulations of our bodies, or of space containing our bodies, held a danger of making our service to Hashem thoughtless. Counseling that we move, for example, toward the Torah and make a point of thinking about it would hardly help, because human nature being what it is, we would end up automatically doing the moving and forgetting the remembering. From the Gaon’s point of view, as I came to understand it, this was worse than not doing anything at all, because it is a lie to ourselves and to anyone observing us. It is worse, to borrow the aphorism concerning speech, to stand in place and be thought of as not devotional than to walk like a zombie and prove that you aren’t.

It did occur to me, however, that this practice appeared to represent a minority approach to the matter, and that there was probably some reason for that.

At this stage of my life, I don’t have to worry too much about whether to make myself cry on Rosh Hashana, at least a little bit. When you’re older and you’ve racked up enough mileage, you don’t need to force it on the one hand. And on the other, you have no choice about whether, “trustworthy” or not, you are going to permit it: emotion will come, and probably the damp, too. (I once read that the great Rabbi Elyah Lopian explained that he no longer wanted to lead the congregation in prayer this time of year because “tears come easily to old men,” and he didn’t want the congregation to believe he was “really” crying tears of repentance.)

And at this stage of the year, I juxtapose those thoughts about spiritual “method” acting — the better-known kind being something I actually trained in during college — to the coming holiday, which on the one hand seems emotionally less challenging but is actually the opposite: Succos. And in doing so, I come out in favor.

I find Succos a great challenge because it’s supposed to be a very joyous experience. And me, well, I’m not known for joy; and I’m not feeling so joyous inside either after Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I’ve missed all that work, and there’s even more to miss ahead with this big weeklong yomtov; I’m bleeding money on expenses relating to the holiday and its joyous celebration; my square old feet hurt from all that standing up and davening and there’s even more ahead, with those hakofos and the full Hallel too — I could go on, but I won’t. Let’s just stay that, it’s good for you if you just lap up the joyousness “by Succos,” but for this camper, I desperately lack what the method actors call, using a term that spawned a million show-biz one-liners, some “motivation.”

And the Torah gives it to me. Lulav bundle? Check. Hold it in your hand. Esrog? Check. Hold it in your other hand. Put ’em together. Sit in the succah. Wave ’em front. Wave ’em right. Wave ’em back, left, up, down. IT’S NOT OPTIONAL. DO IT!

Did you like that Mr. Sourpuss? Good! So now that you’ve put it all way… Take it all out again and walk around the shul in circles over and over while reciting stuff!! Are you having fun yet?

Well… yeah, I am.

I am. My body, directed by the Torah to have fun, makes me have fun… which we know there is no word for in the Holy Tongue. Which must mean I am having, or experiencing, something else.

Joy. Despite myself, my aching back, my twitching feet, I end up… how do you say? “Into it.”

We learn in method acting how to use the mind and the body to create an effect. The effect is not just for the audience. The novelty of the Stanislavsky Method, and what enabled its masters to leave mere play-acting behind, is that the effect is to create a stage-reality for the performer so that he is to some extent (not entirely, for he is still performing) living the moment on stage — emotionally, for real. He is not “emoting”; he is having a real emotional experience. The audience believes because he believes, and they are entitled to do so, because it is real.

The same thing happens when I make myself jump into the circle of dancers at a wedding. Oy, it goes on too long. Oy, the dance floor is too crowded. Oy, the kid in the middle doesn’t even know me. But it’s a mitzvah to celebrate a marriage, and the way we do it is to throw our body into it, no matter how intellectual of a creature we think we are. We do it, we let go — yes, even your crusty blogger lets go, and, what do you know? HAPPY FEET!!

It’s joy. It’s ok. And I know the Gaon would approve. I know it because on his deathbed he picked up his tallis katan and said, in tears, “For a few cents, in the world I am about to leave, I could buy this and by putting it on, earn a supernal award — and now I will have no more chances to earn merit that way!”

The Vilna Gaon earned virtually every merit a Jew could earn during his life, especially the kind you earn with assiduous application of the brain — and all the more so when that was coupled with determined denial of the body. But he knew — no, not “but”; rather, therefore he knew that there is a place in this world for the physical.

In stagecraft we called it a prop. And so too in mitzvos, wise use of props gets us where we need to be; not just where to go through the motions, pantomime or pretend, but to really be.

It may not be wise for most of us to use mental props such as emotions to simulate related emotions; that’s only for true masters. But when the Torah hands us a prop — a lulav, an esrog, a circuit ’round the shul; a succah to sit in; a massive mouthful of matzah; a daunting Hillel sandwich right afterward; a tallis; tefilin; a deep square of tiled “living water”; a gooey clump of challah; a pair of candlesticks — our job is to grab the prop, remember our lines and play it to the hilt — despite ourselves, to believe it and, as we say in the theater, “live in the moment.”

The applause in our souls is guaranteed to follow. And take it from a crusty old thespian: Applause is addictive. Plus when we take what we think are our final bows, we just might have reason to hope for another curtain call!

Ron Coleman writes a blog about intellectual property law called LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®.

3 comments on “Method to Our Mitzvos

  1. Well put, Bob. Michoel, thank you very much. That instruction in the machzor is priceless! I assume you don’t remember which one it was…

  2. Ron,
    Great writing. I once saw a machzor with directional notes (like, “All stand for kaddish” but in Hebrew). It had note by Unsaneh Tokef that said “Kahn Bochim”.

  3. A lot of Judaism involves projecting ourselves back in time. Earlier in our national history, earlier in our family’s history, earlier in our own life. And a lot involves projecting ourselves forward in time to the Geulah Sheleimah. The present has its place, too, as in “I’d better get my act together right now” or “Save us right now”)

    The holiday objects, motions, prayers,..set the stage, helping us to do this. Sometimes, there is an overt emotional reaction,and other times not; that’s not altogether under our own control. As long as we’re not going through the motions to show off, the motions can be productive.

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