Thursday, May 9, 2013

Shiur Theatre: Claiming Jerusalem, Acts Three and Four

And here are the last two acts of this Shiur Theatre performance. We needed to oversimplify some issues for both Islam and Judaism in the interest of the medium; I'm not happy about that, but I think we were on the mark:


Marty and Mahmoud walk into the room, talking

MAHMOUD: Of course Jerusalem is holy! Why is this "religious meaning" even a question?

MARTY: I don't know; I dreamed about it last night, so I'm asking.

MAHMOUD: It is holy; we call it Al-Quds, the holy site, do we not? We have also called it the home of holiness, Bayt al-Maqdis –

Ghost appears in the room, looking like a denizen of 100 CE trying to appear modern and failing

GHOST: Bayt al-Maqdis, yeah, that's real creative naming. Rip off  more of our religion, why don't you?

MAHMOUD (startled and offended): What- What is this?

MARTY: Oh, errrrr – this is the Ghost of Jerusalem past – or present – or, well, I'm not really sure what era that outfit represents, actually.

GHOST: You can just call me Ghost of Jerusalem, that's fine. Sorry to interrupt, but I just really want to hear about  the religious meaning of this city in Islam.

MAHMOUD (regaining equilibrium): It is holy, it is the site of Haram Ash-Sharif, it is most holy!

GHOST (mock-impressed): Really – that mountain is holy?

MAHMOUD: Yes, holy.

GHOST: So holy your kids play soccer and volleyball on the mountain?

MAHMOUD: Hey, your adults do shots of whiskey and talk about sports in the synagogue.

GHOST (concedes the point): Touche. Okay, let's go back to talking about the city.

MAHMOUD: The city is holy, it is the home of Haram Ash-Sharif, our most sacred location!

GHOST (skeptical): Most sacred?

MAHMOUD: Well, third-most sacred.

GHOST: That's if you’re a Sunni, right? What about Shiites, where is Haram Ash-Sharif on their Top Ten list? Is it even in their top ten? Wikipedia didn't seem to know.

MAHMOUD (mumbling): That's actually not so clear.

GHOST: Excuse me?

MAHMOUD: It is not important – all Muslims recognize this city as sacred. We even believe that before the great Day of Judgment, the mahdi will conquer the city and rule over it for seven years.

GHOST: Understood, but I mean more than that, Mahmoud, when I say "religious meaning". Look: Do Muslims bury people in Jerusalem?

MAHMOUD: Certainly, that is considered a great merit in Islam! Thousands, perhaps millions of Muslims have been buried in Jerusalem!

GHOST: So you use the city as a cemetery for every commoner; in Judaism, we consider Jerusalem special, and only Kings from the line of King David may be buried in the Old City.. But let's try something else – do you have tithing in Islam?

MAHMOUD: Certainly; we give zaqat to the needy.

GHOST: Very nice – but in Judaism we also have maaser sheni, a tithe we bring to Jerusalem and eat there. Do you have any tithes to bring to Jerusalem?

MAHMOUD (under his breath): No.

GHOST: I see; a holy city, indeed. And your practice of animal sacrifice to mark the end of Eid al-Adha – is that something you do in Jerusalem, at Haram Ash-Sharif?


GHOST: I see; because, you know, in Judaism we bring korbanot on Har haBayit, that place where you've built that temporary structure (points), and the entire city is so holy that one may eat portions from many of these sacred korbanot throughout the city. One more question: Is a Muslim instructed to live in Jerusalem?

MAHMOUD: We have no obligation to live anywhere in particular; all the world belongs to Allah.

GHOST: Actually, King David said Gd gives the world to us… but no matter. We have a mitzvah of living in Jerusalem, so much so that a woman who wishes to live there can compel her husband to move there with her.

Ghost turns to Marty

GHOST: Marty, I think you see what I'm getting at here. To Muslims, the mountain is the key, and the city is the place where the mountain is. To Jews, the city is not only about that mountain, it has religious meaning of its own, because Gd is in the whole city. The Torah[1] identifies the city itself as the place of Gd's choosing. Gd tells King Solomon that He has chosen the city.[2] King Solomon[3] quotes Gd as saying, "I never chose a city but this one." Gd declares that He will never leave the city of Jerusalem.[4] And Daniel, in his exile in Babylon, prayed toward Jerusalem despite his exile, and so all Jews have prayed toward Jerusalem down through the ages.[5]

MAHMOUD: That may be so, Mister Ghost, but don't deny that Muslims consider Jerusalem glorious.

GHOST: That's an excellent point, Mahmoud, thank you for stating it. Tell me, if you will, about the fadha'il al-Quds, please.

MAHMOUD (smiling broadly): This is a literary tradition that goes back to the early days of Islam, of writing pamphlets praising the glory of this city you call Jerusalem. These include stories of people from the Quran and their association with Jerusalem. The rewards of those who are buried in this city. Traditions of Muhammad's visit to this place. Reward for prayer here. The glories of a holy city!

GHOST: Glorious indeed, Mahmoud, and I won't deny it – but we Jews have a different way to glorify this city, with its special religious meaning.

MAHMOUD: Huh? What is that supposed to mean?

GHOST: I do not devalue your perspective, but to Jews this city is glorious as a city of justice – this is also a part of its religious meaning.
  • The prophet Yeshayah said, "Zion will be redeemed with justice, and her returnees with righteousness."
  • The first king we associate with Jerusalem in the Bible  is named Malki Tzedek, meaning, "My king is righteousness."
  • Jerusalem is the seat of the Sanhedrin, the great home of justice.
  • The greatest criticism of Jerusalem in the Bible is ir hadamim, and the commentator Radak there[6] explained, "Even though it was a city of idols and other abhorrent practices, the great sin identified is the harming of innocent people."
Our vision of a holy Jerusalem is not just about the relationship between Man and Gd, but also the relationship between Man and Man.

MAHMOUD tries to get a word in, but Marty is ahead of him-

MARTY: Hey - doesn't Jerusalem also mean "City of Peace"?

MAHMOUD tries again, but is overridden; Marty and the Ghost are too engrossed in conversation.

GHOST: Quite possibly – and Jerusalem is meant to be a city of peace. Some sages said that it was never divided among the tribes of Israel, because it wasfor all.[7] When King David purchased it, he did so with shekalim collected from the entire nation.[8] Also, the Sages say the city represents the whole of Jewish society, one camp, as one unity.[9]

MAHMOUD tries a third time, but can't get a word in-

MARTY: Kind of like Washington DC?

MAHMOUD stalks off.

GHOST: Except for the peace and unity part, sure. (pause) In fact, one of the puzzles for Jews for centuries has been why the Bible does not clearly name Jerusalem as the site of the Temple until the time of King David, and Maimonides[10] writes that this was to keep the tribes from quarreling over the site – because the city is meant to be a city of peace. Of course, Mahmoud – (looks around) Mahmoud? Mahmoud?

Marty looks around, can't find him either.

GHOST: Looks like he didn't last much longer than the Jordanians in '67. Pity; I wanted to point out that Muslims also have a city called,"City of Peace", "Madinat as-Salam." They built it in the 8th century.

MARTY: Where is it?

GHOST: Baghdad.[11] (pause) That hasn't exactly worked out as planned…

MARTY: Oh. (pause) So, you are saying that Jerusalem itself is holy in Judaism because there are all sorts of laws governing what Jews do there, and because sacrifices may be eaten there. I get that. And Jews consider Jerusalem "the city of justice and righteousness and peace."

GHOST: Yes, you've got it.

MARTY: I have one more question. Mahmoud mentioned that a mahdi will reign in Jerusalem for several years before Judgment Day, but what does Judaism say will happen in Jerusalem in the time of the messiah? I know there is belief in a Messiah – I have a Lubavitch neighbour, he has a flag and a picture of the Messiah and everything – but is Jerusalem going to be central to Judaism in the future, too?

GHOST: Excellent question; let me get back to you tonight, as the Ghost of Jerusalem Future.

Exit stage left

ACT FOUR: The Future of Jerusalem

Marty is sitting in his chair, thumbing through pictures on his phone. Ghost enters, wearing an unusual hybrid of ancient and contemporary garb.

GHOST: So! Ready to go?

MARTY: Go where?

GHOST: To the future, Marty! Strap in, we're in for a ride!

MARTY: But where?

Diana Christensen walks on to the opposite side of the stage and sits down at a table

GHOST: Jerusalem – of the future! You asked me whether Jerusalem will be important for Jews when the Messiah comes, well, I'm going to show you! Do you see that woman over there? (points) That's Diane Christensen, she's about to become the unluckiest newscaster in the world.

MARTY: Unlucky why?

GHOST: You're about to find out – she is the anchor for Union Broadcasting Service's midday news on the day that Mashiach arrives. Just watch.

DIANA: And here's our sports reporter, Woodrow Paige, to talk about the NHL playoffs and the latest on the Leafs – Wait, something's coming in! (listens to her earpiece, half-rises in shock, then speaks to the air) The end of the world? What are you talking about? (listens again) Amos? Okay! Amos, what do you have for us?

One actor will play all of the various prophets. He will stand behind a pillar, acting as an audio correspondent.

AMOS (ADAM): (out of breath) Prepare to meet your Gd, Israel![12]

DIANA: What are you talking about? I don't understand!

AMOS (ADAM): You are fulfilling my prophecy! As Gd has declared, "I will send a hunger in the land – not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but to hear the word of Gd![13]"

DIANA: I'm not getting any of this. Yoel, could you help me out please?

YOEL (TORCZYNER): Yoel here. Sorry, I'm having a hard time hearing you; there's a shofar blowing in Zion, a trumpeting on Gd's holy mountain. Everyone is trembling – and now it's hard to see, there's cloud and darkness over the mountains – no, wait, it's an invasion of an army of locusts![14]

DIANA: Shofar? Locusts? Malachi, I can trust you to be sane - help me out!

MALACHI (ADAM): Malachi here. Gd just sent me a message, hold on, I'll read it to you: "Behold, I send My agent, and he will clear a path before Me – et cetera, et cetera – and who can bear the day of His arrival? He is like a purifying fire![15]"

DIANA: Okay, someone's putting me on. April first is long over guys, and it's not funny. Chavakuk, restore some sanity, please.

CHAVAKUK (TORCZYNER): Sure, Diana; not to worry, sanity is coming soon – the land will be filled with knowledge of Gd, like water covering the sea.[16]

DIANA: You too, huh? Isn't there anyone who can speak clearly?

TZEFANIAH (ADAM): Tzefaniah reporting for duty, Diana. This just in from Gd, in response to your request: I will give all of the nations clear speech.[17]

DIANA: Okay, fine. Clear speech. So what exactly is happening?

YOEL (TORCZYNER): Yoel speaking from the Valley of Yehoshaphat in the vicinity of Jerusalem, and there seems to be some kind of trial taking place, a trial of nations.

DIANA: Trial of the nations for what? What are the charges?

YOEL (TORCZYNER): The press release says it is, "For My nation and My lot, Israel… They sold off My children and took My treasures for their palaces.[18]"

DIANA: So this is a trial in Jerusalem of nations who harmed the Jews? Who announced this?

MALACHI (ADAM): Malachi here, Diana. A fellow named Elijah came around yesterday trying to tell me about this, but I thought he was just a crank. I gave him a cup of wine and some afikoman and sent him on his way.[19] I last saw him talking to some guy on a donkey.[20]

DIANA: What's at stake in this trial? What sort of penalties could the nations receive?

OVADIAH (EZRA): Ovadiah here, Diana. Gd has declared, "The house of Yaakov will be fire, and the house of Yosef flame, and the house of Esav will be straw – they will be consumed.[21]"

DIANA: A burning fire? But didn't Maimonides say that there is no difference between this world and the next, except the end of tyranny?[22]

AMOS (ADAM): Diana, it's Amos - The sun is setting and it's only midday! It's total night here – and the ground itself is shaking![23]

DIANA: Is it an earthquake?

ZECHARIAH (EZRA): Worse than that, Diana. It's me, Zechariah speaking now, and I'm seeing – well, I don't know what I'm seeing, but it looks like Gd is actually standing astride the Mount of Olives, and – yes, the mountain itself is splitting, half moving north and half moving south, and there's a great body of water coming out from within![24]

DIANA: What about the other mountains in the area?

ZECHARIAH (EZRA): Gone, Diana – just gone, from Geva to Rimon, flattened![25]

DIANA: Oh, my – is there anything to be done? Where are the world's militaries? Rabbi Malbim, you're our expert on the Bible, tell me what's going on!

Malbim enters the scene, muttering "Gog and Magog" repeatedly and stroking his beard

MALBIM: I have already explained in my commentary to Yechezkel that in the future the nations of Edom will be roused to conquer the land. They will slaughter many Egyptians… The Ishmaelites will then avenge their brothers from the Edomites… Then the Edomites will return to battle the Ishmaelites… These three battles will be the war of Gog and Magog at the end of days.[26]

Malbim wanders off

DIANA (getting more lost by the minute): Oh. Gog and Magog. Um. Zechariah – Can you tell me about anything besides the earthquakes?

ZECHARIAH (EZRA): How about this direct quote from Gd: "And on that day I will seek to destroy all those who invade Jerusalem.[27]" He's also said something about a general of His, Mashiach ben Yosef, who was killed in a battle – I get the distinct impression that this made Him mad.

DIANA: What's the endgame here? Michah, tell me: Is Jerusalem fated to be a city of death and destruction?

MICHAH (TORCZYNER): Far from it, Diana, based on what I'm seeing. I see the mountain of the House of Gd elevated above other mountains, and nations streaming there, saying, "Let us ascend to the mountain of Gd and the house of the Gd of Yaakov, and He will teach us, for Torah will come from Zion and the word of Gd from Jerusalem!" I see them beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks - whatever those are. Yes, it looks like nation will not raise up sword against nation.[28]

DIANA (confused): But how will all of these streaming nations fit into Jerusalem?

ZECHARIAH (EZRA): It's Zechariah here, and I think I can answer that. It appears that Jerusalem is now expanding! Its stone walls have suddenly disintegrated, and new houses are appearing as I speak to you – all protected by a wall of fire which is expanding as the city expands![29]

DIANA (flustered): I see – and the centre of all of this justice will be where?

ZECHARIAH (EZRA): The palace of Gd in Jerusalem, it appears. There will be a king and a priest, and they will be at peace with each other, working together to lead.[30]


TZEFANIAH (ADAM): Tzefaniah here; Gd has told me, in an exclusive interview, that great righteousness will prevail; the remnant of Israel shall do nothing corrupt and no trickery will be upon their lips. And there will be some kind of medical tent, I think; Gd has told me that all of the lame will be healed![31]


MICHAH (TORCZYNER): Michah here, and yes, that's correct; I'm hearing the same thing![32]


ZECHARIAH (EZRA): Zechariah again - There will be sacrifices from the nations, according to what I'm hearing – and huts, apparently. Yes, all of them coming to Jerusalem every year to build these "succah" booths and pray for rain.[33]

DIANA (turrning back to viewers): Well, there you have it, the latest from Jerusalem. Lots of noise, shofar, earthquake, fire, hunger for the word of Gd, a war, someone riding a donkey, Gd on a mountain, free medical treatment, an expansion of the city, nations streaming in and bringing offerings, and a celebration of Succot – all that, from a range of prophets and correspondents, happening in Jerusalem… Now, where were we? Oh, yes, the Stanley Cup Finals.

GHOST: I think we have seen enough, Marty – does that give you something of a picture of how central Jerusalem is to the Jewish vision of Mashiach?

MARTY: The Bible certainly has a lot to say about it, and many different things to say about it. I hear that, loud and clear. But I still have a question.

GHOST: Of course; those prophecies were a lot to absorb. What's your question?

MARTY: Did the Leafs win the Cup?

GHOST: Sorry, Marty; I didn't hear any of those correspondents talk about Gehennom freezing over.

MARTY: Darn. Is there anything we can do about it?

GHOST: Sorry, Marty – You can't change the future!

Exit stage left

[1] Devarim 12:6-7
[2] Melachim I 8:16
[3] Divrei haYamim II 6:5-6
[4] Tehillim 132:14; Zevachim 119a; Rambam to Mishnah Zevachim 14:8; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Beit haBechirah 6:14-16
[5] Melachim I 8:44; Daniel 6
[6] Radak to Yechezkel 22:2. And see Melachim II 21:16, as Radak notes.
[7] See Yoma 12a
[8] Sifri Devarim 352
[9] Zevachim 116b; Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Beit haBechirah 7:11
[10] Moreh haNevuchim 3:45
[12] Amos 4:12-13
[13] Amos 8:11-13
[14] Yoel 2
[15] Malachi 3:1-2
[16] Chavakuk 2:14
[17] Tzefaniah 3:9
[18] Yoel 4:1-6
[19] Malachi 3:23
[20] Zechariah 9:9
[21] Ovadia 1:15-21
[22] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 12:2, from Berachot 34b
[23] Amos 8:8-9
[24] Zechariah 14:4
[25] Zechariah 14:10
[26] Malbim to Yoel 4:9
[27] Zechariah 12:9
[28] Michah 4:1-3
[29] Zechariah 2:8-10
[30] Zechariah 6:12-13
[31] Tzefaniah 3
[32] Michah 4:7
[33] Zechariah 14:16-21


  1. A decade ago, when I was studying the Crusades at university, I came across a book which noted that historically Jerusalem has only been of extreme importance to Muslims when not actually held by Muslims. The conquest of Jerusalem by the crusaders was ignored by most Muslim theologians and political leaders for about fifty years. In recent decades, of course, Islamic propaganda has drawn deeply on crusade imagery to 'explain' both Israel and western intervention in the Middle East in general.

    That said, I feel a bit uncomfortable with this instalment of Shiur Theatre. I think the best previous playlets have focussed on a matter of genuine halakhic debate and attempted to dramatize them (I particularly remember the one on Judaism and capitalism vs market intervention).

    Here I feel that the conclusion is obvious and, unless this was performed before a much wider audience than the previous ones, there is a danger of preaching to the converted and appearing like pure propaganda. As I said, historically Jerusalem has not been particularly important to Islam, but from a practical point of view, what does knowing that achieve?

    I did like the final act, though - it suggests to me possibilities for a future Shiur Theatre play, a more detailed piece about how we view the Wars of Gog and Magog and the era of Mashiach (what happens according to different viewpoints: how peaceful or bloody will the redemption be, will wolves and lambs literally lie down together afterwards, the questions raised by passages in Yechezkel that seem to contradict accepted halakha regarding sacrifices etc.).

  2. Hi Daniel,

    I'm quite in agreement with you. We tried to avoid the us-vs-them, but ultimately, we needed some kind of tension in order to avoid being pure exposition, and we did want to show the holes. We did not go looking for holes in the Jewish narrative, and I think that gives it the propaganda feel.

    Re: Final act - yes, I enjoyed writing that one. Much more potential there.