Tanach as a therapy tool

A drama therapist uses the narratives in the Bible to help elicit insight and self-awareness.

The Hebrew Bible has been around for millennia and has filled many purposes: as a historical document, legal and moral code, and narrative of human dramas. Now the timeless text is being used as a psychological tool in the field of drama therapy, which sees patients acting out roles in an attempt to gain insight into their problems. In a course entitled "The Tanach and I," high school Tanach teacher-turned-drama therapist Ronit Cohen uses the Bible to help groups of up to 14 adults understand themselves better. "If you ask someone directly about their problems, they often respond that everything is fine, or they don't know where to begin. Acting out a role in psychodrama provides a trigger," explains Cohen, adding that the Tanach is a wonderful tool because it contains so many stories about people with real problems. "In the Tanach, you can see problems between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters," she says. "The Tanach has great depth and says a lot in very few words. By this I mean that it says what happened and who said what to whom, but it says very little about the emotions the people involved might have felt. That is the great thing about it as a psychodrama tool. The players can dress the naked sentences with what suits them." In each session, Cohen and her group first study a particular story. Then she asks each participant to act out the role with which he or she most identifies. "Take the story of Jacob and Esau, for example. If you remember, Esau was the eldest and was supposed to receive his father's blessing, but his mother manipulated things so that Jacob, who was younger, got the blessing instead. When the group starts acting out the roles, in the beginning they stick closely to the text, and so you mostly see Esau's pain. Then you start to realize that the parents were probably in pain too because what they did broke up the family; and then you see that Jacob is also suffering because he ends up having to go away by himself," she says. "The conversations develop spontaneously and the actors begin to speak less from the text and more about themselves, and we go on from there," continues Cohen. "You realize that no one chooses his or her role randomly. Often people are very surprised that they can gain a real understanding of themselves from this kind of role-playing." Cohen, 43, says her work combines her two great loves - Tanach and psychology. As a child growing up in Tel Aviv, she had always loved studying the Bible and went on to become a high school Tanach teacher. When the eldest of her four children was found to have learning difficulties, she discovered her second great interest, psychology. One of the tools that helped her son most was drama therapy, so she began studying the field. Eventually, she left teaching to work at a psychiatric hospital as a drama therapist. Cohen says that the idea of using biblical stories as a psychodrama tool developed during this period. "The psychiatric patients had a lot of different problems, but the Tanach proved to be a good tool because the stories are universal and everyone knew them and could relate to them," she explains. After several years at the hospital, she opened the Bitui Aher (different expression) Center for Therapy through the Arts in a quiet corner of Hod Hasharon three years ago. In its clean rooms decorated in minimalist style, the center offers therapeutic courses for children and adults through music, drama, movement and the plastic arts, all with qualified teachers. Cohen herself runs two adult psychodrama groups and two hobby Tanach study groups, which she describes as her "release" from the intense therapeutic work. Sitting in on one of her Tanach study groups on a quiet Monday morning, it is clear that Cohen enjoys her work. She reads out loud to the half-dozen women seated around a table poring over pages photocopied from the Bible. Today's topic is the second chapter of Genesis, which tells the fateful story of Adam and Eve and their misadventures with the forbidden fruit. "I don't get what's up with Adam," interrupts one woman irritably. "He gets created and then just sits there like a block of wood without saying a word. Even when Eve gives him the apple, he just takes it and eats it without saying anything. But when they get into trouble, he suddenly opens his mouth and blames her." "That's a typical man - he just goes along with her to keep her quiet, but then he blames her when things go wrong," chimes in another woman, to all-round laughter. Cohen presides over the meeting like the schoolteacher she once was, listening carefully as the women interject comments or ask questions. She offers them insights from the Jewish sages and ideas from Greek mythology and modern psychology, steering everyone back to the text when they become sidetracked. The session is supposed to run for 90 minutes but ends up going on some 20 minutes longer. Cohen says that despite the preponderance of women - and despite their occasionally acerbic comments about the opposite sex - hers is not a feminist group, nor does it have any particular religious bent. "I take a modern Israeli approach to the Tanach," she says. "I don't get involved in religion or opinion. I take a story from the text and relate to the characters as real people made of flesh and blood. This is not a traditional approach - the sages always preferred to see the characters as heroic, as above us. But when we look at them as real people with strong points and weak points, we can glean information that explains something in our own lives. These stories are relevant and can influence our actions even today." The women assembled for the class are a mixed bunch, some Sephardi and some Ashkenazi, ranging in age from their 30s to their 50s and in their religious orientation from formerly Orthodox to traditional to entirely secular. They all expressed a recent interest in studying the Bible, either because they rebelled against it when they were youngsters at school and now would like to catch up on lost knowledge or because in the hustle and bustle of adult life they have forgotten much of what they learned. "I'm here because I have a young child now, and I think it would be really good to tell her these stories, but I can't remember much," confesses one woman. "I came out of curiosity - I haven't opened a Tanach in years," says another. Cohen says that the women in her study group are part of the renewed - and, from her perspective, welcome - interest in Judaism and spirituality that has crossed Israel in recent years and has seen study groups of every stripe and color spring up around the country, from traditional heder-style groups to New-Age Kabbala gatherings. "People these days have become distanced from the Tanach," she says. "The Tanach has stories about real people who have problems with their spouses or siblings; it has history and laws that influence our society. People who come to a study group learn about themselves, and this is what I am trying to achieve. I am not Chabad, which helps people get closer to religion - I aim to help people become closer to themselves." For more information, call Bitui Aher at (09) 740-1848 or visit www.bituy.co.il