Centuries later, Nahmanides’ medieval drama plays out on stage

Centuries later, Nahmanides’ medieval drama plays out on stage

In play based on 1263 disputation, rabbis, theologians and actors in Jerusalem breathe new life into old argument between Christians and Jews

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

At a dress rehearsal of 'Divine Right,' Rabbi David Golinkin (right, in green robes), holds forth as Nahmanides (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
At a dress rehearsal of 'Divine Right,' Rabbi David Golinkin (right, in green robes), holds forth as Nahmanides (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

A four-day argument between a rabbi and a priest over the merits of their religions might not sound like a blockbuster, but for playwright Roy Doliner, the action doesn’t get much more dramatic.

More than 20 years ago, Doliner, an historian and art investigator as well as playwright and screenwriter, started to dig into a disputation between Moses Nahmanides and the Inquisitorial Church in Barcelona in 1263 and created “Divine Right,” an original play.

Unlike other arguments over the merit of Judaism foisted upon rabbis, in Barcelona, Nahmanides was allowed to answer back, simply because of his own incredible status.

“The language was amazing because the head of the Jewish people and the representatives of the Catholic world were squaring off without any censorship, telling exactly what they thought of each other,” he said. “I said, ‘This is theater.'”

Theater it may be, but finding a theater to put on the play proved nearly as difficult as winning one of those disputations, and it’s taken until this month for the production to finally make it to the stage for the first time, in Jerusalem.

The cast has some well-known faces from Jerusalem community theater productions, as well as four rabbis, including Shechter Institutes president Rabbi David Golikin, who plays the leading role of Nahmanides.

It makes sense that rabbis make for good actors, said director Yael Valier.

“If they have theology in them, and they’re teachers, then this is the perfect creative outlet,” she said. “Rabbis can be super actors, and they’ll use the platform when it’s an appropriate but meaningful opportunity.”

“Divine Right” portrays the desperate position of Nahmanides, also known as Rabbi Moses Ben Nahman or the Ramban, who knew that the fate of the Jewish community of Barcelona and Spain hung on his defense.

There’s also a secondary story thread, showing the struggle of the Franciscan and Dominican sects for power over the burgeoning Inquisition. The English production will run on five dates in May, at Jerusalem’s Khan Theater.

The play is heavily based on Nahmanides’ own report of the groundbreaking trial, and follows his defense of Judaism while examining his and other characters’ attitudes toward belief, truth, and conscience.

For director Valier, this play — the first of her Theater and Theology productions, which bring together her love of theater and philosophy — is an opportunity to bring the distant past to the stage, humanizing a significant piece of Jewish and Christian history.

“We learn things in history books and don’t realize when we read them that it’s talking about real people,” said Valier. “Maybe Ramban’s big toe hurt when he woke up that morning, and once you realize that, you realize that everything’s a real story.”

The full cast of 'Divine Right' during a recent dress rehearsal (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The full cast of ‘Divine Right’ during a recent dress rehearsal (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Valier, a drama teacher and fellow at Jerusalem’s David Cardozo Think Tank, said she can’t help putting the two realms together.

“When I listen to a lecture, I automatically begin to stage it,” she said. “I think, ‘How could this be portrayed?'”

It’s a similar question to the one Doliner asked himself when he came up with the concept for the play while he was still living in New York, more than 20 years ago. He was co-hosting a Jewish radio show and at the time there was a noticeable influx of Jews for Jesus evangelists on the streets of New York City, trying to attract and convert pedestrians.

“We had disputations going on on many street corners,” said Doliner. “It was insulting to Jews and Christians.”

He interviewed a British professor for his radio show, an academic who had found original transcripts of the Inquisition trials.

Playwright Roy Doliner wrote 'Divine Right' more than 20 years ago, and is finally having it staged in Jerusalem (Courtesy Roy Doliner)
Playwright Roy Doliner wrote ‘Divine Right’ more than 20 years ago, and is finally having it staged in Jerusalem (Courtesy Roy Doliner)

Doliner wrote “Divine Right” based on the transcripts, and had readings of it in New York, but never a full production.

“I kept getting close,” he said. “I guess I was waiting to do it in Jerusalem.”

Valier said it felt particularly fitting that the production found a home in the Khan Theater, a unique space built on the ruins of an ancient inn from the Crusader period. Each production will be followed by a talk with Doliner and a Christian or Jewish expert, bringing some theological perspective to the topic.

“I like that the show is nuanced,” said Valier. “It’s told from the Jewish perspective but the narrative thread and arc of character also has Christian characters that have a much more nuanced attitude toward the Jews.”

That said, she has been treading carefully with certain details of the production. The a cappella music is somber, in keeping with the custom of some observant Jews to avoid listening to music between Passover and Shavuot. The choral music is also sung only by men, avoiding any issues for religious audience members who won’t listen to women sing.

The poster from 'Divine Right,' the first production from Theater and Theology (Courtesy Theater and Theology)
The poster from ‘Divine Right,’ the first production from Theater and Theology (Courtesy Theater and Theology)

Even the play’s posters had to be carefully designed, because of the presence of a cross, which is a sign of mercy and grace for Christians, said Valier, but of Inquisition and Crusades for Jews. She added a blurb alerting prospective audience members that there would be large Christian icons onstage.

Valier plans on staging the play again in September, and Doliner, a former New Yorker who spent 20 years living in Italy before moving to Israel two years ago, wants to have it translated into Hebrew.

“I want it to reach the majority Israeli audience,” he said. “It’s an incredible turning point in history when relations got really bad, and a lot of people don’t even know about it.”

The NIS 85 tickets are available through the Khan Theater box office.

Each evening’s performance will be followed by a discussion led by the playwright and a Jewish or Christian scholar:

    • May 9 and 10, Dr. Hannah Davidson
    • May 16 and 17, Father Martin Kleespies
    • May 18, play to be staged at Matnas Gush Etzion
    • May 23, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo
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