The appeal of Jewish worship for me has always resided in its innate theatricality — not that we witness a spectacle, but that we participate in one. When I walk into any worship setting — toting my own prayer book or picking one up at the door — I feel like an actor at a reading of a play. Even if I know the text well, I don’t know what the show that night will be. I will only discover its mood, tempo, and climactic moments along the way, trying to approach ancient liturgy as any good actor would approach a well-rehearsed show: to speak each line as if for the first time.
The Avodah service, on the other hand, is a liturgical moment that places most of the congregation in the audience rather than onstage. Like the reading of the Torah, kriyat haTorah, it is storytelling — the purest and oldest form of theater. There are three acts of narrative that tell the story of the High Priest. Like the murder of Gonzago in Hamlet, the Avodah service is a play within a play. Perhaps because it feels more like theater than prayer, it has become the part of the Yom Kippur liturgy most commonly adapted or jettisoned on the arduous path from Kol Nidre to the break-fast. An exploration of its theatricality may restore its relevance to the rituals of teshuvah.
The liturgy of the Avodah service consists of two narratives, one center stage and the other backstage. Center stage is the setting for a ritual encounter between the people and God, facilitated by the High Priest. The people fall upon their faces upon hearing the divine name and they are miraculously cleansed of sin. Backstage is the setting for the private experience of the High Priest who, in his obliga-tory tasks, sweats through multiple costumes and intensifying levels of consequence, accomplishing teshuvah for his family, his tribe, and his people.
The High Priest’s actions are continuous and concentrated. We witness and perhaps read along with a recounting of the Temple worshippers’ experience, not in real time, but certainly in a prolonged tempo, compared to the intense speed with which we often chant prayers. We have no choice but to settle in for the experience. And yet, the multiple and concentric circles of theatricality make it a good drama: It’s harsh and bloody, and reality blends with the mysterious and inexplicable to accomplish the miraculous.
The theatrical dynamic is heightened by tension in the text. The Temple worshippers anticipate hearing the divine name and hearing the litany of their sins. The High Priest, by comparison, is nervous, anxious, and absolutely needing to get it right. Again: it is a play within a play within a play. The people experience a single prolonged moment of tension; the High Priest, on the other hand, experiences a series of nerve-wracking moments in which the wellbeing of his family, tribe, and people hang in the balance.
Perhaps the most remarkable moment in the liturgy is the one when spiritual and theatrical coexist, when the High Priest needs to focus simultaneously on God and the people. It is the moment in which he utters the “Holy Name,” which he himself only speaks this one day each year, and he pronounces the people cleansed from sin. He reaches a moment of religious intensity all his own. He times the moment so that — between speaking “The Name” and the verb titharu, “You shall be cleansed” — he gathers the attention of all, the prostrated people and the divine, so that people recite “Barukh shem kvod malkhuto l’olam va’ed” before hearing him utter the magical word.
When we ritually prostrate ourselves at that moment, we extend the tension within the narration. We hold our breaths and quiver in anticipation as the people experience communal atonement.
As if to sweep the traces of human footsteps from the sand, the liturgy comes in immediately with a second-person singular address of God, “And You, out of Your goodness, aroused Your love and forgave the tribe of Your servants.” We relive the theatricality of old and extend its theatrical contrivance for a significant 30 seconds, and then we pretend that it never happened, returning fully to the pre-sent religious moment.
Temple rites exemplify the primal origins of live theatrical performance: real blood and real God. People throughout the centu-ries of Western history have felt the world change as the result of artfully staged encounters between humanity and divinity. Exam-ples include Aeschylus (The Eumenides), Passion Plays, the Catholic Mass, Cirque du Soleil, and Tony Kushner’s Angels in Amer-ica. Ingenious expert performers and producers create for us mystical experiences that we could not conjure for ourselves.
By virtue of our front-row seats and backstage passes we become acquainted with both the High Priest and the worshipers better than they knew each other in the time of the Temple. Albeit with a redemptive conclusion, the combined narratives of this high drama approach the Aristotelian requirements for tragedy. The description of the public ritual depicts the people’s awe, yirah, at the might of God. The narrative of the hard-working High Priest awakens our compassion, rachamim, for a fellow human being. By seeing both the High Priest and the people close up, we become more fully involved in the high drama of Yom Kippur.email print