Q. Is it true that some rabbis ban theatre-going? I can understand not attending plays with a sexual theme – but theatre in general?
A. A major concern is bittul z’man, wasting time. If time is available for theatre-going, the argument runs, it is better to spend it on Torah learning and doing good deeds. Everything a person does is meant to be a Divine service (Maimonides, Hilchot De’ot 3:3). The sages say, “Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven” (Avot 2:17). Solomon says, “Acknowledge Him in all your ways and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:6). Everything should be judged in terms of whether it serves a spiritual and moral purpose.
A well-known Talmudic view is that the theatres and circuses of the heathens worked against Judaism by means of their frivolous or pornographic themes and the pagan and immoral practices that accompanied them. Not only stage performances were opposed but also inappropriate literature.
The Shulchan Aruch (Hilchot Shabbat 307) rules that “profane parables and fables, erotic literature and books of wars may not be read on Shabbat and indeed on weekdays too”. This does not mean to say that all types of leisure pursuits are forbidden. Even in the worst periods of the ghetto there were dances, musical performances and plays (see Israel Abrahams, “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages”). Jewish weddings were given a lift by entertainers and comedians. Itinerant preachers (maggidim) were story tellers who knew how to work an audience. Even serious-minded Maimonides acknowledged the value of music and art as a means of calming the soul and improving one’s mood (“Eight Chapters on Ethics”, ch. 5).
There is hardly an area of culture that has not been enriched or moulded by Jews, including religious Jews. The crucial question is not whether theatre-going is banned in itself but whether it does anything constructive or merely allows producers, promoters and performers to pander to inappropriate criteria. These criteria would be defined by Judaism in terms of the three cardinal sins which one must never commit whatever the circumstances – bloodshed, idolatry and immorality.