The animated rabbi who films the Bible

Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence gives Torah talks with a difference — they are on film


'Shalom, this is Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence," says the minister of Kinloss (Finchley United) Synagogue, who is standing by a signpost pointing to Bethlehem, while a camel in the background mooches under a palm tree.

The British-born rabbi, who returned home last year after 16 years leading communities in New Zealand and Australia, is presenting a short film about the book of Ruth. But it is not Rabbi Lawrence who appears on screen - it is his avatar, a computer-generated image.

It is an image that he introduced himself. For the past few years, he has combined an interest in computers and cartoons to create his own animated talks on the Torah, five-minute features on the weekly parashah or festivals.

"I have tried to use the cartoons to bring to life short divrei Torah and highlight text issues," he explained. "So rather than just tell a story, the cartoon is a vehicle for showing disagreements or ideas of commentators around words or verses."

There was a time when if you wanted to hear your rabbi, you had to go to listen in person. But new technology has enabled rabbis to reach those who may not get to synagogue every week as well as others beyond their own community.

Technology has enabled rabbis to reach those who may not get to synagogue

Lord Sacks, for example, when he was Chief Rabbi, was quick to see an opportunity in email, sending out his "Covenant and Conversation" electronic essays on the sidrah, which are now being collected in hard print. The Californian rabbi David Wolpe's weekly Off the Pulpit email is a masterclass in brevity, a pithy reflection in three to four paragraphs. Now digital advances open the door to other media.

"Way back when I was on the AJ6 [Association of Jewish Sixthformers] executive, I used to do cartoon strip pieces," Rabbi Lawrence said. "In the student campaign for Soviet Jewry I did the biographies of a number of refuseniks in cartoon form.

"I found the genre was a good way of getting information across. Enjoying technology as I do, when the ability to hone computer animation became available, I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to engage people and present Jewish educational ideas in a way that other people weren't doing."

In a film for Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, a bird fluttering into a garden of wild flowers contrasts with belching chimneys as he discusses the talmudic view of environmental responsibility.

In a piece for the fast of Tishah b'Av, the downcast figure of Job sits on the wall in front of the Temple ruins, illustrating a "paradox". While the rabbis attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the sins of the people, Job's suffering, on the other hand, was not a consequence of anything he had done. Rabbi Lawrence observes. So we should be careful about seeing tragedy as punishment and rushing to judgment on other people.

"I enjoy playing scriptwriter, director and producer," he said. But he does not actually draw the animation himself. The iClone programme he uses contains a large bank of images which he can adapt. He has now built up a whole cast of biblical characters and by pressing a button, can set them in motion. "Mostly, I am doing very simple things. The animations and most of the characters are developed from kits, so I am not creating stuff from scratch," he said.

"Once the dvar Torah is written, it's a couple of hours to get something up. And then as with anything else, it's tweaking. You can tweak as much as you like. If I were trying to do something that were picture perfect, it would take a long time, as Pixar and Disney would attest. If I had more time, I could put more into it. But it comes very much secondary to being rabbi of Kinloss."

He distributes the films on Youtube and is candid in acknowledging that feedback is mixed. Some people, for example, feel the avatar is a distraction. But others use his pieces as triggers in their own educational programmes. He would like to do more work with youngsters to encourage them to devise their own animated divrei Torah.

One of his most popular films features his dog Rolo, "the rabbi's canine horror", going through the rules about feeding pets on Pesach.

"I would like to find the formula that would enable a huge following," he said. "It's clear that involves trying to keep within the three-minute mark. The challenge is to find something that is both sufficiently intellectually rigorous and text-based and visually compelling."

Such is the available technology, that "if you have the time, energy and imagination, there's nothing you can't make work with it. It's more compelling than a dry text but I want to use it to get people excited in the texts, to augment mainstream learning rather than as a surrogate for real Torah study."

Watch one of Rabbi Lawrence's videos:

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