Maimonides and Method Acting
It was a typical “night seder” in Yeshiva, the last period of a long day. I stood with one foot on the floor and the other on the footrest of my shtender, rocking back and forth as my elbows pressed down on my gemara and my hands held up my head. On my shtender lay tractate Gittin and our subject of study was the oft-quoted passage of Maimonides in the Mishne Torah on the topic of “Koifen oisoi ad sheyoimar roitzeh ani.”
The Talmudic quandary is over how to solicit a writ of divorce from a man unwilling to give one. The man cannot be made to do so against his will, but a court may find it necessary to compel him. The Talmud provides the solution: the court may beat him “until he declares ‘I am willing.’” About which Maimonides explains that within each to Jew there is an inherent desire to behave according to God’s will; he may just not allow himself to do that which he himself desires. Therefore, the court can compel him to realize his own desire, and ergo, the get, hence, will be valid.
When people repeat this in yeshiva, it is usually followed by tilting the head backward, as if this logic is an inspirational homerun. It is used for forced divorces, for forced sacrifices, hell, I don’t know why they don’t just use it at Bar Mitzvahs and we would all be done with it. And when they say it, all people say is “The Rambam” and everybody starts swaying back and forth, folding their eyebrows into a concave line.
Maimonides disappointed me this time. How could he simplify something so complex? Can one be made to want something? Amongst us rebels in Yeshiva, Maimonides was supposed to be one of “our guys,” the über-rationalist. Whenever he would be mentioned, we would think, “If only they knew.” But what was he saying? Do we not know our own desires? Do I know if I want to be in Yeshiva? Do I know if I don’t want to? No beating could sort this out. My partner noticed that my mind was no longer on the subject, but I couldn’t help it; my mind was spiraling down a pathway I generally avoided.
I went to get my hat and jacket to prepare for the evening services. The noises in my head were still screaming. They were louder than the room full of Litvaks screaming Shema; the hissing was louder than the Chassidim murmuring Boruch Sheim.
“You shall love the Lord,” I recited, “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” That’s an interesting passage, I thought, since at any one point in my life I had only offered God one of those. At times I loved him with my heart, I couldn’t explain what I liked about him, but I liked him; it was an emotional attachment. When that failed I loved him with my soul; the emotional part might have escaped me, but I achieved a level of theological sophistication that made me fond of him. But now all I had left for him was my “might;” my heart didn’t love him, my soul didn’t recognize him, but I was still his in action and behavior. The fact that I was still sitting on the Yeshiva bench and leaning on its shtenders must’ve counted for something. I was like the man beaten by the court to say, “I am willing.” I functioned like one who is willing. I sat there swaying to the words of the Shema, even while my mind was dizzyingly displaced. Is that what Maimonides calls having desire, doing that which you don’t believe you want?
Two years passed, and I was no longer forced to sit on a Yeshiva bench or lean over a shtender. I was taking a playwriting class at school. My professor was a student of Lee Strasberg, the famous proponent of method acting, whereby an actor embodies his or her character mentally as much as physically. My professor was a method actor, when he spoke his eyebrows moved as much as his lips and his hands always pointed to some reality only he was able to see.
Across from me sat Andy. Her play was about a priest who solved crossword puzzles while listening to people’s confessions. Andy was sweet and tomboyish with just enough of a feminine touch to save her. Next to her sat Beth. Beth was a maternal kind, she always dressed warm and cuddly and would give you a beaming smile when you presented your work. She was the kind that would refer to a group of guys as “boys,” as in “See you, boys,” and “Take care, boys.” Not surprisingly, her play was about a helpless guy in a coma surrounded by the women in his life. The rest of the plays were mostly about relationships and jealousy. More precisely, they were about jealousy of other relationships, you know, college stuff. My play was about a guy who struggles whether to introduce his terminally ill daughter to faith and the afterlife, even though he doesn’t believe in any of it. My play had no romance, only confusion and defiance.
My professor began to talk about writing. “In theater,” he said, “we only know what your character says and does. The character’s personality must be concretized through action and speech. I won’t know that a character is a ghost unless someone tells me he’s a ghost or he acts ghost-like.” When he spoke he looked at the wall as if there was some kind of stage there. A method actor always calls on his own personal memories to vitalize his or her character. Yet, every actor needs to hear and see his character. What defines the character are his actions and words, not the playwright’s idea of him. The problem with most of our plays, my professor explained, was that we didn’t give our protagonists sufficient words and behaviors to define their personalities. Even a great method actor can only tell his role by the words he hears and the actions he does
I left the class thinking about the disconnect between what I think and what I do. Why can’t I be like Andy or Beth? Why can’t I just be the college kid, why must my mind hammer with questions no one else can feel? I want to be just a college kid, and at the same time I would never want to be something else than what I am now. I want to be so many things and I haven’t even sorted them out. I should have approached Andy and told her I liked her play, she would have liked that. Maybe I should have said something to Beth. Beth is sweet and so is Andy, but in a different kind of way. Which one should I have approached? I asked myself. I didn’t know the answer. I did the only thing I knew to do, go to the library.
I opened my book and bent over it pressing my elbows to the pages. I thought back to that passage in the Shema, “With all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” It’s so rare that we want something with all three of those. With my heart, my emotional being, I wanted to be a college kid; with my soul, my intellectual inclination, I wanted to be anything but; and my might, my behavior, was just a safe compromise. With my heart I would have liked to approach Andy, my soul preferred Beth, but my might did nothing, my might was too scared.
God is the inverse of the real world. With God, loving with your might is easy; you just do what you have to do, it’s your heart and soul that struggle to comply. With God, your heart and soul can never seem to align themselves with the minutia of the clearly defined ways you behave. In the real world, on the other hand, your heart and soul run wild, so many things to want and lust for. It is actually doing it that is so difficult. Maybe that’s why so many people live between those two worlds, their hearts and souls exploring the mundane, while with their actions they serve God. Maybe that’s why we love ideologies so much, they help us with the most difficult parts of our identity. They tell us what to do.
Maimonides was right. It doesn’t matter what we really want. It’s either you do it or you don’t. It’s possible that the guy beaten by the court to give a get really wanted to give one; it is also possible that he really didn’t. The character in my play might really long for the comforts of faith, or he might not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is if we act on it, if we say we want that which we pine for, and if we actively pursue it. No method acting can make a character if your character doesn’t say who he is, or behaves as she does. The disconnect between our thoughts and actions is enormous. Our desires are too multiple, varied and contradictory, the only unifying part of ourselves is that which we choose to act on, and that is the most difficult choice of all.
From the corner of my eye I saw Andy walk in. She waved, I waved back. She lingered for a second to see if I’ll come over, I remained still and she moved along. I looked down at my feet, I noticed I was leaning over my book in the exact same position that I would lean over that shtender back in Yeshiva. Pressing down on the book, my hands touching the place where my side curls used to be. I was standing the same way I used to stand back in that Yeshiva hall.Printable Version