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Shakespeare Protest


Here’s a report that has recently hit the headlines:

Teenagers at a Jewish comprehensive school have refused to sit a Shakespeare test because they believe the Bard is anti-Semitic. Nine students at the single-sex Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in Hackney, east London, took their stance as part of a protest against the portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. As a result, they were stripped of their marks for the English national curriculum test for 14-year-olds – and their school plummeted from top of the league tables to 274th.

The girls, supported by their parents, refused to answer any questions on Shakespeare or even write their names on the top of the paper, even though the play they were studying was The Tempest – not The Merchant of Venice.

There are so many questions unanswered here! Why did the girls refuse to sign their names? How come it was the parents taking the initiative to protest and not the school? Why did Rabbi Pinter not seem to know what was going on; isn’t it the school’s responsibility to protest if it feels there is a problem? Is this a case of the tail wagging the dog? Why did the girls refuse to answer questions about The Tempest which was their text, while The Merchant of Venice was not in the curriculum? Isn’t it better to protest expressing exactly what is one objects to, instead of a blind refusal to respond? No wonder their points were deducted.

There are wider issues here. One is the refusal to deal with secular culture, warts and all, reflecting a certain ideology. Virtually all Western Culture is infected with Christian anti-Semitism. Of course William Shakespeare, like all Christian Englishman of his day, regarded Jews as subhuman, in league with the devil, and cursed for rejecting their saviour. It is only amazing that he is so critical of Christian hypocrisy. If one refuses to deal with anti-Semitism in English literature and culture, then one might as well stop trying to pretend one is giving a secular education that conforms to the law in order to garner state financial support. Better to be honest and refuse the pact with the devil altogether.

There is a current climate in Europe so willing to allow any minority to demand what should or should not be taught, that governments and authorities are scared to take a stand, so simply appease aggressive, evangelical monoculturalists.

If Britain is now so frightened of offending religious extremists that it removes anything from the press or the school curriculum that upsets them, or allows some doctors to refuse to do anything professionally that they do not religiously approve of, like treating alcoholics or sexual diseases, or makes concessions to religious rules on bigamy, female circumcision and abuse, then why should ultra-Orthodox Jews not demand concessions on what they find offensive?

7 thoughts on “Shakespeare Protest

  1. Over twenty years ago I saw Anthony Sher in Stratford playing Shylock. Apart from the play boasting a brilliant cast in support his superb interpretation of the role shifted the whole balance of the play away from the character of “The Merchant” Antonio ( I think) towards Shylock himself as both victiom and hero. Shakespeare’s words were not changed to fit this interpretation. I if, had the girls’ parents seen this version they may have changed their views on Shakespeare’s alleged anti-semitism. Had they seen any play they would realise that a good director can bring out whatever message he or she wants within a play, unless the play is overtly bad or wicked, which the “Merchant” clearly isn’t. My concern is, did the parents get their views by reading or seeing the play. In which case as good Chareidim what business have they to do so. On the otherhand if as good Charaidim they have’nt how can they proclaim its anti-semitism? Is it the same process that bans Rabbi Slifkin from our bookshelves or relegates Rav Kook to the Nationalists. I was once told not to read the latter,in case he influences me unduly. It is this fear of ” influence ” which creates two kinds of frum youngster, one who is ignorant and intellectually narrow and therefore unable to deal with life’s problems and one that hungers for the forbidden, finds it and because responsible people do not approve and refuse to discuss and interpret the offending material such as literature, ideas etc forces the youngster to explore them on their own in secret or with friends. It then weirdly becomes a secret desire, a form of pornography, making it more dangerous and desirable than it needs to be. That our kids read Shakespeare, so that they can realise that despite his obvious greatness with language when compared to Torah, the secular world offers us fleeting stimulation but nothing more.

  2. What an impressive post; thank you for gracing my blog with it!

    You are underlining the intellectual bankruptcy that afflicts what otherwise would be a magnificent and unprecedented case of spiritual resurrection!

    Is one the inevitable result of the other? I hope not.

  3. Dear Rabbi Rosen,

    Your question has opened more questions for me since writing my post yesterday. Are the leaders of the Chareidi world really concerned about spiritual resurrection, or are they more concerned about containing it. The Baal Teshuva movement in the shape of Ohr Semayach, Aish, Chabad etc encourage thought and creativity, but outside of this part of the frum world I have only experienced suspicion and dislike such ” cosmopolitanism”.

  4. And I have to add that even the movements you refer to still tow the party line and limit the free range of their thought. Look at how quickly Aish initially pulled Rabbi Slifkin from their site. Look at how Ohr Somayach still hold to essentially a fundamentalist line. however much they try to disguise it.

    What do I mean by the ‘Party Line’? Slavish obedience to the official declarations of the so-called Gedolim. And I say ‘so called’ for two reasons. One is that the real giants usually get their information in and their responses out through a filter of so many gabbaim that you no longer know what the real Gadol actually heard, was told, and then really said. Secondly, anyone one of the political parties sets up as a Gadol becomes a Gadol? That can’t be right!

  5. Perhaps a true Godal is someone who is prepared to go against the party line if he knows something is right or believes it is right in accordance with Torah, witness Rav Stienman’s reputed endorsement of Chareidim joining the IDF or the Bostoner’s visit to and comfort for the settlers at Gush Katif two years ago. In many ways both of these acts were against the ” party-line” but because of their standing no one would dare challenge them except a few mavericks. What they did do on those occasions was to show genuine leadership.

  6. Indeed! But then on political issues in Israel the Gedoloim are seriously divided on principle and policy. This means Gedolim are not necessarily infallible–another very touchy issue.

  7. It dependson who you follow. If you read the stories by and about the Bostoner Rebbe and listen to his tapes, you do not get the impression of a man or a movement promoting his infallibility. What you get is an amusing, wise man, full of humility and love for his fellow Jew. But he is an exception. Hubris is a frightening process within every nation, but should have no place in Judaism. I also get bothered sometimes by Godal worship, and wonder, going back to the original blog, if it might be better to focus more on frum pop stars in that way, if people need to idolize and instead, learn from our leaders in an undiluted and pure way through their speeches and writings and acts of chesed, and not by their mere presence. But I am very English.

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