My Rabbi at NYU recently responded to my request and sent me copies of some lectures he gave and articles he used to a Jewish artist fellowship. Writing out my email in response to his articles gave me some clarity about the issues on my mind in the arena of Judaism and art, so I thought I'd share them here...
While I am interested in all aspects of the art world, the bulk of my experience is with acting and the issues with Jewish arts are distinct in this case. So while my personal questions relate also to directing and writing, I'm mainly focused here on the issues that present the Jewish actor.
Rav Feinstein's tshuva was the hardest to read of all the articles I received. (Rav Feinstein writes that it's a problem to be in a play as they often portray illicit relationships or take acts like murder lightly.) While it seems pretty far-fetched to say that if I play a murderer I'm going to think that that's okay and go out and murder, what he says has a foundation in (of course) Judaism and (perhaps more surprisingly) acting theory.
In our Mussar class we are studying Rambam's writings on Mussar (I need to find out exactly where this comes from). Recently we read his idea that to change our bad middos (character traits) we need to practice the other extreme, many times, over a long period of time. The example given is that a miserly person should give a bit too much until they have balanced out and are generous, but neither miserly nor a spendthrift.
In my training I heard over and over that action begets feeling and feeling begets personality. Be on time. Always be on time. Even for things that really don't matter--because it will help you to become--to change into--a punctual person. On stage, we see the same idea. Isn't the classic director's line, "again"? There's good reason for that. Repetition of a phrase and gesture internalize the feeling until the feeling comes freely with the action (hopefully in time for performance). Very Pavlovian. So my biggest issue with the concept of a Jewish actor playing in a show that defies Torah values is that I've seen no logical argument that can "disprove" this concept that the repetition of this part won't have a bad impact on the character of the actor.
My second question is the issue of priorities. Am I a Jewish actor or a Jew who acts? (Or directs, writes...) Do I take what I have learned from Judaism and bring this fresh perspective back to my stage, or do I re-learn to view the stage from this new perspective of a religious Jew? Priorities state the latter, but I'm unsure if that's the best use of me. Perhaps, as a religious Jew, I find a religious obligation to engage in "secular" theater (I don't really think such a thing exists... artists are avidly religious in their own way). This needs more thinking.
My final problem is the position of theater artist within a community. Community is very important in Judaism. As an artist, my learning always showed me that the artist/storyteller/clown was the position of the outsider or "other." The artist is in the classic position of just beyond the walls of the home, looking in on the family. Or in our case, just outside the eruv, looking in at the community :) Does this unique position afford the artist the "luxury" of maintaining absolute purity, avoiding the stage and it's inherent grime? If our position is to reflect back truth to others, then when it's not a nice truth we maintain our obligation to reflect. This makes us a vehicle of something base... and if actions beget feelings and feelings personality... it follows that we then become base. I have met some very unhealthy actors who always chose to play unhealthy characters. There's no coincidence there. It seems to me that Hashem chooses His artists carefully. (While everyone is artistic to some degree, not everyone is the Artist/the outsider/the Enneagram Type 4... whichever label works.) He knows that this makes us somehow different, impatient with the status quo. Again, if we are designed differently, where does this leave us in terms of the community?
In response to the NYU Rabbi's ideas about the need for Jewish organizations to provide a substantial link between Judaism and art... for sure there is something much richer in Judaism than Jewish a-capella will ever provide, as nice as it is. Jewish art has more potential than an event of a group of Jews who happen to be doing art together. And I think the students must know that. I recently told my Rosh Midrasha in a meeting that I had trouble thinking of leaving theater because, before I got to Israel, actors were the most spiritual, searching people I'd ever met. The issue arises, I think, when you find one truth conflicting so drastically to another. I see "truth" in Shakespeare. And I think it conflicts with the truth I see in Torah (this needs more thought, also).
Probably good to go to bed now. Just a few thoughts that need to be muddled through. Wish me luck!