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Religion as Theatre

Theatre is my life. I spend more time in my school’s theatre wing than my own home, Sondheim dominates my iPod, and I break out into song and dance in public on a regular basis. Besides family and friends, theatre brings me the most happiness. I love the rush of being in the spotlight, and I jump at the opportunity to perform in or attend shows.

Religion is also an important aspect of my life. And as odd as it might sound, there are many ways in which theatre is similar to religion. In religion, there is an audience (congregation), actors (clergymen), ensemble (choir), props (such as the Torah, candles, and Kiddush cup), and in some religions, costumes (such as elaborate robes, head scarves or prayer shawls). For both theatre and religion to be successful, the audience should feel a connection to what they are seeing—the performance should be personal.

Theatre gets mixed reviews, and so does religion. People often have different responses to a theatre performance, just as everyone does not feel the same way about religion. And just as you would not simply accept a theatre critic’s review, I don’t believe it is appropriate to automatically accept a religion without critical analysis. It is important to question what you see, and to think—to stay true to your deepest beliefs even if others may not agree. To blindly follow the opinions of others shows a lack of integrity.

In the theatre, performances must be believable. If the message is not genuine, if you do not connect to what you see, then it is not good theatre. But is religion is the same way? Good theatre relies on the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief—you know that what you’re seeing is not reality, but the performance makes you feel like you’re in another world. And when the show ends, you are no longer a part of the world the actors created. However, in religion, the role of the audience is different. The curtain should never come down. Religion is not a costume you wear for services once a week and then discard—it should constantly affect your life. I search for integrity in my life by letting my religion have an impact on my decisions. I allow my religion to be a part of who I am.

When the Confirmation Class visited Willow Creek, an Evangelical Christian Church, last year, I was blown away, not only by the size of the building (it looks like a huge shopping mall), but by what was happening inside. It was, in essence, a rock concert. They had a live band blasting Christian music in their colossal chapel with occasional breaks for readings and a sermon. It does not even seem right to call it a chapel—it was a theater. At first, it was fun listening to the music and admiring the space, but when I took a closer look, the experience became unsettling. All the readers gushed about their volunteer and charity programs, and how their mission is to help others. Community was clearly very important to them, but looking around the space, it didn’t seem to be that way. Their congregation was tremendous, and yet there were many empty seats, even rows, between most people, and there wasn’t much conversation between people before and after the service.

They spoke about brotherhood and community, but I didn’t really feel a sense of community there. Because the church was so big, people didn’t seem to have personal connections to their religion. In the spectacle of the service, people got lost in the shuffle. It was like the congregation was simply an audience, and not invested in their own religion.

Attending a service at Willow Creek made me appreciate Kol Hadash. We are small, but that makes us more tight-knit. Our services are performances too in a way, because there are “actors” conveying certain messages to the “audience.” But we as a congregation have such a different role as an audience. We participate by reading responsively, singing, and occasionally having discussions throughout the service, instead of always being read to and sung to. It all feels genuine and very real. We are “loose”—there aren’t that many rules to be a Humanistic Jew. People can feel many different ways about Humanistic Judaism and still feel at home at Kol Hadash. We are a community, but there is not the pressure to be one group with the identical motives and beliefs instead of the unique individuals we are, unlike Willow Creek. We accept that we are all different people, so religion cannot possibly the same for everyone.

Comparing Willow Creek to Kol Hadash is similar to comparing my experiences at different kinds of theatrical performances. For instance, take Wicked and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I saw Wicked four years ago at the Oriental Theater in Chicago. The space was huge and ornate, and the show was a fairy tale—fresh, upbeat and wild. It was a larger-than-life show with an enormous budget. I had so much fun watching it, but it didn’t really make me feel anything. This year, I saw Virginia Woolf at Steppenwolf. The theater was much smaller, and the show so much more intimate. I was sucked into the twisted world of George and Martha, and felt both terrified and amused at their dysfunctional relationship. I forgot that I was sitting in an audience. I felt like I was sitting in their living room watching their disastrous evening unfold. Apparently, the rest of the audience felt the same way. At the end of the show, there was a moment after the final scene, before the curtain call, when the stage was dark. No one moved or spoke—everyone was still part of the reality we had experienced for those few hours.

I loved Virginia Woolf because it was so different from anything I have ever seen, but that does not mean I cannot also enjoy Wicked. There is value in shows like Wicked, and churches like Willow Creek. They are fun experiences, and if big and show-y make people happy, then that’s the right fit for them. For me, there is more to religion than that. My religion should be like Virginia Woolf—real and raw and riveting, although not horribly dysfunctional. It should make people think and feel, and not just be along for the ride. Like Virginia Woolf, my religion should not necessarily be easy.

I know that I feel differently about my Judaism than other people in the congregation, and even within my own family. I love being a part of the Kol Hadash community, but I’m not sure if I would call Humanistic Judaism a religion. Religion can mean so many different things, but I’m just not sure where Humanistic Judaism fits in that range, because it is so unlike anything I’ve seen. A religion is a shared set of beliefs along with a common culture and customs. But I feel like there has to be more to it than that. In the Deerfield High School theatre department, we share the belief that “the most important thing is the way we treat each other” (in fact, it’s our motto) and we have special rituals we practice before shows, like tongue twisters and doing the Hokey Pokey. Even though I devote most of my time to DHS Theatre and we share beliefs and customs, it is by no means a religion. For religion, I feel that God almost has to be in the picture, like it is for so many other Jews, because I feel like too many groups share beliefs and customs. I love eating Jewish foods, singing in the choir, and sitting down to a seder every year with my family, but all the other branches of Judaism have so much to do with God, and we commit to having nothing to do with God. Because we share a philosophy and customs, does that make us part of the Jewish religion as well as the Jewish culture?

I do not know the answer to this question, and I’m not sure if I ever will. But I am at peace with that. One of the things I realized this year through Sunday School is that it’s okay not to know the answer and to have doubts. I have a very close friend who is Catholic, and we recently talked through our different beliefs. He firmly believes there is a God, who listens to him and helps him through his hardships. I always thought I was an atheist, because that’s what my family said they were. Now I realize that no one can possibly know if there is a God or not, and you can’t disprove something. If there is a God, he (or she) doesn’t affect my life in any way. My friend and I respect each other’s opinions, because we know that there is no way to prove that one of us is right. You cannot prove whether Wicked is better than Virginia Woolf, or vice versa, because everyone sees them differently. We know what’s best for us, and what makes us happy.

As far as religion goes, there are no “right” or “wrong” choices. It doesn’t really matter what your faith is, as long as you have integrity in your practice and it makes you happy. In other words, to commit to your beliefs one hundred percent of the time. Actors are not their characters. When the curtain goes down and they take off their costumes, the act is over and they are themselves again. It is not the same with religion. I feel Jewish inside and outside our services. My friend feels Catholic inside and outside of church, because he applies his faith to how he lives his life. I have many friends who don’t have these same principles. So many people have asked me, “Wait. You don’t believe in God? So then you’re not Jewish, right?” Now, I’m not so sure of this answer, but I do know that I am one of the few of many Jews at my school that still attends Sunday School every week after my Bat Mitzvah, lights Shabbat candles every Friday night, and has a real Seder, not just a big meal, every spring. I am still not sure how to define Kol Hadash, and religion still confuses me, but I know that I feel Jewish.

Religion should not be just a show. It should be personal, deep, and very real. At this moment, Kol Hadash is a good fit for me. There is a warm atmosphere here unlike any I’ve felt at other congregations, and I know I will be accepted here no matter what I believe. Even though I have my doubts about religion, I know I feel so at home here, and in this moment, that is good enough for me. There is music and meaning, laughter and love—everything that signifies something very real. And most importantly of all, we Humanistic Jews have true integrity. We say what we believe and reflect our beliefs in our everyday lives. For us, the curtain never comes down.

Follow the links below to read other Confirmation speeches.
Wed, October 28 2020 10 Cheshvan 5781