By Dr. Shaina Trapedo
Straus Center Resident Scholar
Straus Center Communications and Program Officer
On Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, gave a guest lecture in Stern College for Women’s Shakespeare and the Talmud course, which was offered in collaboration with the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought in fall 2021. The class was co-taught by Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, Straus Center director, and Dr. Shaina Trapedo, Straus Center resident scholar .
After getting to know each student by name, hometown, and favorite Shakespeare character, Dr. Berman addressed the unique opportunity and value of studying Shakespeare at Yeshiva University.
Fascinating similarities and differences emerge when the same concerns and complexities of the human experience that Shakespeare addresses in his works are studied in conversation with biblical narratives and Torah tradition. What relationships matter? How should we prioritize personal and communal interests and obligations? Who deserves authority and leadership?
Among the breadth and depth of Shakespeare’s canon, Dr. Berman shared that Hamlet is his favorite play, in part, because of its focus on the relationship between elocution and action, and the pleasure and purpose that comes with the ability to “unpack [the] heart with words.”
Dr. Berman invited students to bring the page to life with an enlivened reading of an understudied and often-trimmed scene in modern productions. In Act 4, Scene 4, as Hamlet departs for England by the king’s commission, he sees Fortinbras of Norway leading his army (“over the stage”) through Denmark on their way to attack Poland. In questioning the captain, Hamlet learns that thousands of men are marching into battle to gain “a little patch of ground that hath in it no profit but the name.” Fortinbras, driven by honor code and courage, spurs Hamlet to reflect on his own failure to avenge his father’s murder and finally resolves that “from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.”
Guiding the class through a careful close-reading of this scene and the play’s dramatic conclusion, Dr. Berman noted that Hamlet and Fortinbras have been understood as foils for centuries—the former a man of words and the later a man of action—and while Fortinbras emerges as the ostensible hero who gains property and power by the end of the play, it is Hamlet’s story that we are obliged to tell, forcing us to re-evaluate which stories endure and why.
Turning to Tanakh, Dr. Berman invited the students to consider another case of contrasts. Using classical commentaries and Midrash, Dr. Berman demonstrated that the Patriarchs were either shepherds (like Abraham and Jacob, who spent time engaged in reflective isolation) or farmers (like Isaac, who favored his son, Esau, also a man of the field).
Yet in Joseph, we find a remarkable synthesis. While Shakespeare presents and preserves a dialectic between Hamlet and Fortinbras—noble intellect in pursuit of truth against steadfast worldly engagement—Joseph, driven by faith and service to God, directs his wisdom and skills toward the well-being of society, offering a powerful paradigm for Jewish leadership today. The story of the Jewish people, Dr. Berman emphasized, is still being written, and Yeshiva University students have an active role to play in the collective betterment of humanity and moving history forward.