Avi West reflects on PANGS OF THE MESSIAH

Our Program Committee Chair, Stephen Stern, moderated a wonderful panel last month which allowed for members of the religious Jewish community to respond to Motti Lerner’s provocative and moving play. Stephen will soon be writing much more about the range and depth of responses to PANGS OF THE MESSIAH from its first run at Theater J. As you know, PANGS will be coming back August 28-September 16 and we hope to bring many more curious theatergoers from the religious community into dialogue with this play.

Avi West, Educational Director of the The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning (PJLL), spoke on a panel with Dr. Erica Brown and translator Michael Taub on July 8th for a panel discussion looking at “Religious Life on the West Bank: Values, Tradition, and Ideology.” Below are some of Avi’s penetrating insights.

    Notes on Pangs of the Messiah

    “Pangs” comes from a long line of Jewish literature that was to serve as a head’s up and warning. The months of Tamuz and Av have a three week period that is filled with head’s up readings from Jeremiah, and the social concerns and consequences of behavior voiced by the prophet are equal if not greater than the political statements.

    Note the narrative root of the word Yisrael (Israel, the people and the land). It comes from the episode of Jacob, who must WRESTLE with an angel/God/his brother/his conscience in order to grow. His name is then changed to Yisrael, embodying struggle as tool for growth.

    Two texts from “Pirkei Avot” come to mind: keep reading
    1. Chachamim, hizaharu b’divreichem– Wise people… be aware of the power of words and sacred quoting. The play points to a dramatic turn to “the right” from the parents generation to the children’s. Different generational understandings of quotes and hints and motivations may lead to unforeseen consequences.

    2. Eizehu chacham? Haroeh et hanolad– Wise people foresee the consequences of their actions, even implied. Educators, parents, clergy, and political or military leaders must watch their words.

    Pinchas of the Bible was the zealot, but not a good leader. His impetuous reaction may have accomplished an immediate goal, but his was not the characteristic needed to lead the people into a strange land, going to war and later ending conflict. Moshe wanted a replacement who “goes out in front; takes them out AND brings them back!” Joshua was chosen for his stability vs. fanaticism.

    The importance of this play and other literature, especially Israeli, is that our people have been given permission to talk, dialogue, and even disagree. Good texts were always a spark to learn and struggle with ideas. “Pangs of the Messiah” is an apt name: the traditional Hebrew phrase for an argument without resolution is “teiku”- which in modern Hbrew means tie, but in Talmudic Hebrew stands for “Tishbi [Elijah the harbinger of Messianic times] will clarify the answers to these questions.” Messianic questions must sometimes be resolved only at the messianic times, and diverse opinions are preserved as possible truths.

    Land purchase as Jewish precedent – Avraham purchases land as a burial plot in public with contract and international monetary coinage, preserving dignity on both sides.

    Land separation as Jewish precedent – Avraham and Lot agree to separate when the land seems too small for their combined flocks. The phrase used in the Bible points to compromise for the sake of peace.

    The play predicted many events accurately, but could not have foreseen the agony of uprooting Jewish settlements and the financial and psychic costs to the people. Government policies, political false starts and broken promises lead to human suffering. Past evacuations have not led to peace. Extremists on all sides become emboldened when policies, motives, and consequences are unclear.

    Kids used in demonstrations + “kids” in army + no clear policies and poor supervision= formula for chaos and miss-steps.

    Millions siphoned from needed social service programs to subsidize housing and protection. Settlers were encouraged by most governments to continue to expand areas, and the “friendly” politicians were those who “turned a blind eye so we could build the settlements.” On the other hand, Arab building is often done without permits. There is a race to establish “facts on the ground.”

    “Yisrael nikneit b’yisurim” “The land of Israel is acquired through suffering” – gray rhetoric can be dangerous. What may have been composed as nechama , comfort, for a “bide’avad” situation already in progress, may not be used as a mitzvah or permission for a “l’chatchila” new situation.

    “Seeds of Peace” and other co-existence initiatives are failing as kids return to be re-immersed in old culture with no buffers. Without continued local support for coexistence activities, education can not be a change agent. Part of Jewish Messianism is an Isaiah universalistic message – and we need to put some ritual time and effort in supporting that (spill off wine from glass at mention of plagues—sensitizes while not disputing the need to gain escape from slavery—but at what human cost?)

    Use of water and changing clothes reminds me of the high priest’s obligation to constantly wash and dip and change clothes to keep on task.

    Bringing redemption (geulah shleima-pangs of messiah) even more radical than redeeming land tracts (geulat karka). Unified field theory= messiah will straighten out all the problems and details. Judaism has become infected with Christian triumphalism in its Messianic visions.

    Kippah as uniform= a reminder for me, not necessarily a badge of party line politics., but color and size are now symbolic of politics as well. Tzitzit are fringes that are supposed to be personal ritual reminders, and are often now worn outside as a uniform of the fringe. As play develops, the use of orange clothing, the color of support for settlers, becomes more stated.

    Names of women are important. Amalya (work of God) supports her husband even when she feels that things are spiraling down. Chava (mother of life) is pregnant but has been both willing and fearful of her husband’s radicalization. She has no problem using 1st graders for demonstrations and puts them in possible danger- but claims the Arabs her husband killed hid behind women and children. Tirza, is truly full of “desire” for a child, and is the one most horrified by the unfolding events.

    Zionism was a revolution against odds – is the settler movement or the desire for a “greater Israel” the next phase of this same revolution, one that will lead to redemption? The ending with a religious man committing suicide recalls martyrs who died for causes, but also Massada myths of fighting at all costs until death with dubious results (compared to the negotiated solution of Yavneh).

– Avi West