The Rabbinic Arts Company presents The Oven of Aknai

In May 2024, the Rabbinic Arts Company produced a contemporary retelling of The Oven of Aknai. The show represents some firsts for the Rabbinic Arts Company and for us, its co-founders, Rabbi Nicole Fix (RRC 2023) and Rabbi Bronwen Mullin (JTS 2017), who, in addition to creative partners, are a married couple. We formed the company both as a producing organization and as a place where female-identified and non-binary artists could engage in rigorous text study and develop new work from our classical texts. The Oven of Aknai is the company’s first production and the first time we (Fix and Mullin) have collaborated as artists. As such, we wanted to choose a piece that inspired us both and one that reflects the values-driven vision of the Rabbinic Arts Company.

What is the Rabbinic Arts Company’s vision? The Rabbinic Arts Company envisions a world in which Jewish art and Jewishness are acknowledged as essential to contemporary life and culture. Through the fusion of textual rigor and artistic excellence, we seek to uncover essential human truths and to cultivate a global love of and appreciation for Judaism.

With that vision in mind, our first piece, a work-in-progress, is based on an aggadata, a story, that appears in the Talmud (Tractate Bava Metzia, 59b) also known as The Oven of Aknai. While Bava Metzia largely deals with financial damages, this story appears in the middle of a sugya, a passage, about verbal oppression. In the course of this halakhic sugya, one of the most well-known adages of the Talmud emerges: “One who embarrasses their fellow, it is as if they have shed blood.” Many of us have personally experienced embarrassment by a friend or colleague’s insensitive or jeering comments and, in the moment, it can feel as though we’ve been mortally wounded. However, is the Talmud’s description meant to be taken as poetic, or is it intended to be literal? Following the statement, the Talmud relates a strange story about a rabbinic debate over the purity of an oven—The Oven of Aknai.

The Talmudic story is quite theatrical and even has magical elements. When we thought about translating a text to stage, this story naturally stood out. However, after the events of October 7th, when Hamas attacked Israel, setting off the war, we knew this story needed to be told. While we didn’t set out to create political art per se, nor does the play express a political opinion, everywhere we looked, we witnessed a concerning and deepening fracture within our Jewish communities.

One of the most well-known adages of the Talmud: “One who embarrasses their fellow, it is as if they have shed blood.”

We saw the ways our friends and colleagues weaponized words against one another, speaking violently about others’ opinions and humanity. Even though, broadly, people shared feelings of profound shock and dismay over the humanitarian crisis in Israel / Palestine—for the hostages, for Palestinians, for everyone, our American Jewish community wasn’t uplifting those shared humanitarian values. Rather, the crisis in Israel / Palestine became a fight for our identity as American Jews. Who held the right position? In some circles, it became an exercise of proving one’s point and wielding language to vilify, obfuscate and erase the experience of others.

In the Talmud, The Oven of Aknai exposes rabbis on both sides of the issue, in this case tahor (pure) and tamai (impure) with regard to the oven, behaving badly and without compassion for others’ humanity. Suddenly, we realized that The Oven of Aknai was the perfect allegory for our time, a time when using words to oppress distracts from the central concern and undercuts the moral imperative that called each side to action. As Zadie Smith wrote, “…language and rhetoric are, as they have always been when it comes to Israel and Palestine, weapons of mass destruction.” (New Yorker May 5, 2024, “Shibboleth”)

The goal of the Rabbinic Arts Company is not to simply dramatize text, but to innovate new text as an organic evolution, thus making new theatrical midrash that we hope will become a part of the Jewish canon. As such when we began adapting The Oven of Aknai for a contemporary audience, we knew we wanted to address what we saw as the experience of the American Jewish community right now. We decided to interweave contemporary scenes of an American Jewish family celebrating Thanksgiving and Passover, two complex narratives in which Jews have classically held steadfast to their views and narrative version of these stories to the chagrin and often trigger of their family and friends. Like the bare bones story in the Talmud that illustrates a black and white argument between our rabbis, we chose to rely on archetypes in creating our family scenes. (Who doesn’t have some version of that stubborn-headed father, that conflict-avoidant mother, that hippy, rebellious aunt, that altruistic, equally stubborn idealist sibling, in their own families?) We’re asking the question—what does it mean when we become so obsessed with fighting for our own point of view that we effectively become two-dimensional versions of ourselves?

In approaching the classical text, we decided to expand upon what we viewed as the crux of the dilemma between Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and the school of learning headed by Rabban Gamliel. For us, the story is about competing narratives, narratives to which both parties clung too tightly. R. Eliezer clung to a world of absolute truth in which, like during Temple times, God was very much a participant, a world in which a Bat Kol (a Divine voice) could interject and decide an argument at any time. While still very much a part of the rabbinic project, Eliezer believed in the absolutism of lineage, preserving exactly that which previous teachers had taught. One might say that Eliezer is a purist and holds to a “purist” narrative. (Incidentally, he rules that the oven is tahor or pure.)

  1. Gamliel and his followers want to push the rabbinic project forward and toward the rule of the majority, the yeshiva, the human-made collective that is an imperfect, dynamic and fluid decision-making body. Gamliel can be described as a classical “impurist” or holding by a proto-postmodernist narrative in which human authority, despite its imperfection, leans toward free will and self-determination.

As we create new midrashic work, we seek to draw not only on the stories, but on the structures of our classical text. We’re asking ourselves, how can we make the page, a page that was once a living oral, history, a three-dimensional organism that speaks to society today. The collaborative process of theater functioned as a critical step in this process.

For example, the fugue-like repetition and inversions of choreographic gesture in the movement, created by choreographer Ella-Gabriel Mason, effectively mimics the structure of a Talmudic narrative where rhetorical phrases, inversions of roots and root words, plays and parsing of Biblical quotations, are often repeated as a whole or in fragments to both explicitly and subliminally link the moments of a sugya and its characters together. Those links are not just about the immediate situation but about the larger picture of the Talmud, this radical document created under Roman occupation and in the aftermath of the the destruction of the Temple, the largest internal “crash”, as Rabbi Benay Lappe puts it, for the Jewish people at that time in history.

Similarly, our director Elianna Boswell brought an incredible amount of wisdom to this process. We first met Boswell in Jerusalem where we knew her as an expert facilitator and Educational Director of Achvat Amim, a Jerusalem-based education platform engaged in critical learning and Jewish-Palestinian solidarity. As our friendship grew, Boswell revealed that she also had an extensive background as a theater deviser and director. The play we created, much like the classical text, felt lived at the fraught intersection of arts and activism, and we knew Boswell was the director we needed.

Her expertise in living in the discomfort proved to be incomparably valuable to the show. Boswell’s direction lifted up the ways in which the child’s-play world could be the lens for the entire action. Her choice to eliminate all “real-world” props in exchange for children’s toys lifted up the internal ways that each character was playing out their own game—a game of self, a game of boundaries (solidifying their own and pushing up against those of others). Boswell often painted a stage picture like a daf (page) of Talmud itself, where the action begins center stage and each character is peeled off to a corner to offer their own commentary and thereby expand the narrative into an entirely new realm.

Through the rehearsal process Boswell invited us into what she describes as the central charge of political theater: to ask an unanswerable question, a question that draws us together into both a sense of turmoil and of collective responsibility to show up and wrestle. That unanswerable question was different for each of us, but one that emerged again and again was—how far are we willing to go to prove that we are right? Is there any extent to which we’ll go that is too far in defense of “The Truth”? Dwelling in the place of that question and others equally tumultuous, Boswell urged us to see our process together as a microcosm of how we wanted the world to be—one of genuine exchange, mutual respect, appreciation and care. Indeed she modeled that and guided all of us into that space. In our check-in before the final performance we all agreed that this space we held together as collaborators and now friend-family could be 1/60 of the World-to-Come.

In the Talmudic story, The Oven of Aknai poses two questions: Are we whole or broken? Are we pure or impure? These are exactly the questions facing the Jewish community at large. As American Jews living in diaspora, we are the largest population of Jews living outside the State of Israel. Yet, the narrative so many American Jews experienced growing up, in Hebrew school, in their communities, is inextricably tied to the State of Israel.

This has created a crisis of identity for some American Jews and for all of us, we think, it has forced us to ask—as American Jews what is our place in Judaism?

For two female rabbis who have considered, from time to time, making Aliyah, this question is alive for us. There is the romantic ideal of living in a place where Jewish observance and the calendar align with the way we’ve chosen to live, and then there is the reality on the ground. Could we, as female rabbis, even do rabbinic work there? Could we, whose bulk of our formational experiences happened in America, ever truly feel grounded and fulfilled in the State of Israel, a land that is both foreign and home? Additionally, there is a concern in our household and for many Jews in our communities about the seemingly growing fundamentalism in the current Israeli Government, wherein the lines that separate religious and secular law are dissipating, not dissimilar to trends we are seeing in America.

This represents only a part of the complex narrative American Jews hold. What does it mean to be Jews living on American soil, a soil that was acquired through forced dispossession of Native American land? More and more, Americans from all backgrounds are revisiting, reexamining, and reworking the story of Thanksgiving. What does it mean for Jews, who have settled and thrived in America, more so than most other places in the world, to tell the traditional Thanksgiving narrative? Even if we aren’t telling the story itself, are we complicit with its biases simply through ritual participation? Are we complicit in other ways as well? We can’t really do this without compartmentalizing, without fracturing ourselves. Who are we? Where do we belong? What is our voice in the larger Jewish narrative? These are the questions facing American Jews today.

But what’s happening in the American Jewish community represents a microcosm of American society. We have reached a point in our national history wherein “might makes right” and “cancel culture” have become the standard modes of winning an argument. Truly though, none of us is winning.

What is not in heaven becomes a little more Divine because we treat one another as holy.

The Oven of Aknai is a Jewish story but it’s also a universal story. Like the Talmudic story, our conversations today largely lack nuance, and we believe that whoever shouts loudest will win. However, that’s not what the Talmud teaches. Rather, the Talmud preserves both the majority and the minority opinions, recognizing that even though the way of the world may be a certain way at this moment, it doesn’t diminish or delegitimize the quieter voices. Perhaps the “quietest” voice in the sugya itself is Ima Shalom, one of the few women named in the entire Talmud. The Talmud has Ima Shalom deliver the punch-line of the entire sugya: “All the gates of prayer are locked except for those of the victims of verbal oppression.” We decided to make Ima Shalom the central figure of our play, both as a child and as a grown woman. She has navigated and lived among the newly created power structures of these radical rabbis and, in our adaptation, she boldly declares:

It’s not in heaven

The things that we do

The games that we play

And the things that we pray for

It’s not in heaven

It’s here on the ground

What we lift up

And who we push down

Who is Tamei (impure)?

And what is Tahor (pure)?

So many words

And none of them pure

But all of them sharp

With an edge that can puncture…

(lyrics from “It’s Not in Heaven”, The Oven of Aknai)

Our incredible cast, including James Bierer, Miryam Coppersmith, Laura Beth Gilman, Ella-Gabriel Mason, Simha “Simi”  Toledano and Lori Leifer as the Bat Kol, brought out the quiet voice within their characters, their unspoken longings and struggles. The Rabbinic Arts Company aims to create a world of Jewish art where we are seeking that which is unspoken, reveling in the dialogue and discourse of theater as a beit midrash, a house of study, and where, in fact, what is not in heaven becomes a little more Divine because we treat each other, and the creative work of our hands, as holy.

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