Ben Zoma says, “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” This teaching from Pirkei Avot is a powerful guide for our mission with the Bible Players. This idea is central both to the concepts of chochma/wisdom and kehilla/community. At the Bible Players, we believe that improvisation is a crucial way to explore these values, and strengthen our Jewish community. We continue to grow together and that’s why our mantra for the Jewish community is to be: “Always Improv’ing.”
The Bible Players advance Jewish chochma/wisdom in two ways: Performance, and Play.
Performance: Since 2011 we have performed Torah Comedy Shows where we pick one Jewish value to focus on and bring it to life through two Biblical or Rabbinic stories. We teach how Jacob and Esau made shalom bayit/peace in the home and how Abigail taught King David to show chesed/kindness. The language of these shows is contemporary as when Eliezer asks his smart phone, “Where can I find a bride for my master Isaac?” The smart phone replies, “Sorry no luck, would you like the location of nearby vegan pastry shops?” We teach that while times change, the Jewish values that we can learn remain relevant in our lives. We ask children and adults alike to reflect on a Jewish value and how they’ve experienced it today.
Play: Improvisation is the idea that the way to learn is by getting on our feet and trying. Through improvisation we play together and try to put our values into action. Values like kavod/respect or shma/listening, cannot just be talked about in the abstract. When we play improv games together, we wrestle with how to live out our values, all in a space where mistakes are inevitable. We allow ourselves to stumble in improv and learn from those mistakes. In life we are constantly asked to improvise and learn and adapt, sometimes with high stakes. Improv allows us to explore Jewish values in a safe space and recognize that falling short is all part of reaching higher. We learn resilience and how to act out our values and work cooperatively. Rabbinic wisdom is given fresh meaning when we put it on our feet and experience it ourselves.
In many ways the history of Rabbinic thought is a long game of “yes, and.” Jewish tradition is a story of listening to the wisdom of those before us and adding our own ideas and perspectives. Though we mostly side with the ideas of Hillel, we still listen to the ideas of Shammai. When we start with shma, the active listening of Sinai, we can continue our rich tradition of adding ourselves to the Jewish canon. We must appreciate tradition but also, as Jewish adults, we must make the traditions our own.
My first act as a Jewish adult was to not have a dance party and instead go white water rafting. All my peers at Solomon Schechter Day School (now Perelman) in Philadelphia were celebrating becoming a Jewish adult in the same traditional way: Read the Torah, throw some candy, play Coke and Pepsi, and end the night wearing glow in the dark headbands. I wanted something different and an experience for my close friends, not the whole neighborhood. Becoming a Jewish adult felt like a great time for a wilderness challenge. It was my first real act of Jewish self- determination and I’ve never looked back. We must learn about traditions and also make them our own. My Bar Mitzvah was memorable for me because I made it my own. We must also empower our communities to make Judaism their own.
Kehilla/community is strengthened when we each bring ourselves to the table and build the Jewish community we want to see. One of my favorite aspects of using improvisation is that it empowers each of us to find our voice and make ourselves heard. Improv allows us to get to know each other face to face, and to connect in a deep way. We often get too complex and overlook the simple power of greeting each other and talking together. Improvisation gives us a space to play together, laugh together, and make memories together. We are also able to learn from each other and grow stronger communities, one relationship at a time. When we see and value every member of our community, we find true wisdom and strength. “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.”
Andrew Davies is the Co-Founder of The Bible Players, a comedy team that’s improv-ing Jewish Lives, and co-founder of CharacTours, interactive walking experiences in New York City. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife Molly Wernick and his tiny dog Ducky.