web analytics
July 29, 2014 / 2 Av, 5774
Israel at War: Operation Protective Edge
 
 
Sections
Sponsored Post
IDC Advocacy Room IDC Fights War on Another Front

Student Union opens ‘hasbara’ room in effort to fill public diplomacy vacuum.



Home » Sections » Arts »

Bezalel’s Legacy Commentary on Jewish Craft and Art: Shabbos Parah: Ki Sisa; Exodus 30:11 – 34:35


Spice Box for Havdalah (1998) by Malka Kohavi
Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

Spice Box for Havdalah (1998) by Malka Kohavi Courtesy Yeshiva University Museum

Bezalel, oh Bezalel, what company you keep!  Your parsha, Ki Sisa, takes us from humble devotion to God’s commandments to the utter collapse of Israel’s faith.  God-inspired creativity morphs into pernicious communal idolatry that expresses gnawing doubt and a desperate need for the mechanics of teshuvah.   Yet in the midst of tragedy, drama and redemption, one quiet man and his assistant, Bezalel and Oholiab, were chosen by God to become the alleged ancestors of all Jewish artists.

So let’s get one thing straight.  Bezalel and Oholiab are not the first Jewish artists. As the Torah describes Bezalel he was a craftsman filled with God-given wisdom to learn from others, understanding of his own, and knowledge of Divine inspiration (Rashi) whom God directed to create the objects of the Tabernacle.  So far sounds like an ideal artist.  But the catch is that neither of them made art.  They were inspired Jewish craftsmen who made objects that had specific functions and uses.  True, there can be great artistry involved in the beauty, design and cleverness of functional objects.  But it is not Art.  So what we need to address is the nature of Art and, more specifically, Jewish Art.

Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph (1656) by RembrandtCourtesy Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Germany

Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph (1656) by Rembrandt
Courtesy Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Germany

Art is by its nature contemplative and contentious.  Its primary purpose is to stimulate the viewer to think about something beyond the art object itself.  Art is a medium to pass through.  Rembrandt’s iconic Jacob Blessing the Children of Joseph (1656) reinterprets the text, showing only the blessing of Ephraim, the younger son. But even more exceptional is Rembrandt’s inclusion of Joseph’s wife, Asnath, who is not found anywhere in this passage.  Her role here is a revelation.  According to the Midrash (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 38), Asnath is the daughter Dinah bore after the incident with Shechem.  The family’s shame was so great that Jacob sent her away and she was eventually adopted in Egypt by Potiphar and his wife.  In Rembrandt’s image she stands before Jacob, her grandfather, and her mother’s tragedy is somehow allieviated; now she returns to her family with the blessing of her children, the future of the Jewish people.  This powerful interpretative role of art is equally true of narrative representations, abstractions and conceptual works that evoke emotions and stimulate intellectual engagement.  Craft is different.

A beautiful kiddush cup is a wonder in itself, calling attention to the object and its ritual use.  The same was true of the objects Bezalel made for the Mishkan: the physical structure, the Aron, the Showbread Table, the Menorah and even the Priestly garments.  From architecture to sacred fashion these ritual objects were participants in the Avodah whose primary meaning rested in the ritual, not in what was used to perform it.  Central to the worship of God they took on an aspect of sanctity unimaginable for a work of art.  So it is true with the objects of Jewish craft we use today. A similar transformative effect is felt in the 1998 Spice Box for Havdalah by Malka Kohavi.  This witty design blends the functionality of a stem pierced with dozens of holes and the metaphor to stop and smell the rose, to ponder the passing of Shabbos and the beginning of the workweek. Torah mantles or Ark Curtains have sanctity in themselves by virtue of their use and proximity to the Torah scroll.  Once worn out or damaged they must be buried with a same respect as a Torah.  Art has another agenda.

Akeidah (ca 235 CE) Dura Europos Synagogue Courtesy Damascus National Museum, Syria

Akeidah (ca 235 CE) Dura Europos Synagogue
Courtesy Damascus National Museum, Syria

Art does not come naturally to Judaism; rather it is almost certainly adopted from the Greco-Roman world.  The decorations in early synagogues evidenced by the Dura Europos murals (235 CE) or the Beit Alpha mosaics (518 CE) are cultural imports.  But as such they were totally Judaized.  The images produced are obsessed with meaning and not ritual.  And while initially decorative, they refer to the undercurrent of textual commentary and midrashim that were forever heard in the background and that always inform our sacred texts.  The Akeida found above the Torah niche at Dura Europos, the very earliest image we have of the subject, mysteriously presents a figure in the tent doorway in the upper right.  Who is it: Sarah, Eliezar, Ishmael?  This foreign element forces us to reconsider what we always assumed about the Akeida and come away with an alternative meaning.   Art is a gateway into intense textual analysis and emotional involvement in narrative and meaning. The images of Jewish Art are not expressions of the will of God, rather they are our attempt to understand the complexities and contradictions of Divine command.  Jewish Art in this context is Talmud Torah, a visual Midrash whose purpose is to pose questions and raise issues.  Conversely ritual and its beautiful ritual objects must provide certainty.

Nonetheless, there is much to be learned from our parsha about Jewish Art.  The ideal ethical and spiritual qualities of Jewish Art and Jewish Craft are identical because we hope for equal refinement and intention in our ritual objects and in our art.  We want the best whether the purpose is to worship or study.  Since the Torah knows this, why should it juxtapose the elevated mission of Bezalel with the most grievous sin of the Golden Calf?  There’s the rub.

The warning that Ki Sisa presents is about the nature of objects, ritual objects that we invest with too much meaning, in fact fall in love with and forget the ultimate incorporeal reality of our God.

God Passes By (2006) by Richard McBeeCourtesy Private Collection

God Passes By (2006) by Richard McBee
Courtesy Private Collection

When we doubt the verity of Divine promise and command, we second-guess the existence of our Creator.  And the first thing we make is an alternative ritual object as a way to serve the transcendental God concretely.  Our desire for God to be manifest became an idol in the form of the Golden Calf.  We fashioned it as a way to certainty.  And looking for an assurance of faith, a comfort of that which is substantive, we erred in fact, we sinned.  It becomes Bezalel perverted. It is the sin of the object.

As Rashi tells us (Exodus 31:18), there is no necessary chronology in the Torah, and actually the incident of the Golden Calf preceded the work of the Tabernacle done by Bezalel.  Therefore God’s command to Bezalel can be seen as a response to our deep need for some kind of objective certainty.  God tells us to make ritual objects that will be used to serve Him.  That is permitted.  But when our doubt and fear about the absent God and his servant Moshe provoked the creation of the Golden Calf,God gave us the tools to do teshuvah in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.  Each attribute is a revelation into the mysterious nature of the unseen God.  Even here Jewish Art can provide insight.  Right before this, Moses boldly asks to see God’s Glory and God places him in a cleft of the rock as He passes by.  My 2006 painting God Passes By captures the moment after the miraculous event.  While Moses could not have survived seeing God’s Glory, a glimpse of His “Back” was sufficient to inspire him for the rest of his life.  Our God demands faith and yet provides us with precious concrete hints as how to serve Him and how to know Him.  Jewish Craft and Jewish Art have a hand in both.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Bezalel’s Legacy Commentary on Jewish Craft and Art: Shabbos Parah: Ki Sisa; Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Bibi: ‘Death From Above, Death From Below’ Will Not Continue
Latest Sections Stories
Teens-Twenties-logo

What Hashem desires most is that we learn to connect with each other as children in the same family.

Jerusalem to Jericho Road: photograph by Chanan Getraide
“Chanan Getraide Photographs”: 2004 exhibition at Hebrew Union College Museum

“We are living in a Golden Age of Jewish Art, but don’t know it.”

Respler-072514

The real solution to bullying is to empower the bullied child.

Time outs increases compliance and positive behavior far more than other forms of discipline

Interestingly, sometimes people who have a very high self-awareness may experience intense reactions to circumstances that others might respond to more mildly.

“You Touro graduates are automatically soldiers in [Israel’s] struggle, and we count on you,” Rothstein told the graduates.

The lemonana was something else. Never had we seen a green drink look so enticing.

On his marriage, he wrote: “This is what I believe: something of the core, of the essence of this meaningful and life-affirming Judaism will not be absent from our home” (1882).

With the recent kidnapping by the Hamas and the barbaric murder of three children – Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Frankel, we believe that the best answer to honor the memory of those murdered is to continue building those very communities – large and small – that our enemies are trying to destroy.

Written entirely through Frayda’s eyes, the reader is drawn by her unassuming personality.

Adopting an ancient exegetical approach that is based on midrashic readings of the text, thematic connections that span between various books of the Bible are revealed.

While Lipman comes from an ultra-Orthodox background and is an Orthodox rabbi, he offers a breath of fresh air when he suggests that “polarization caused by extremism and isolationism in the religious community may be the greatest internal threat to the future of the Jewish people”

More Articles from Richard McBee
Jerusalem to Jericho Road: photograph by Chanan Getraide
“Chanan Getraide Photographs”: 2004 exhibition at Hebrew Union College Museum

“We are living in a Golden Age of Jewish Art, but don’t know it.”

McBee-062014-Outside

He refuses to flinch from our painful history, perhaps finding a kind of solace in the consistency of irrational enmity directed against us.

“Vidduy: The Musical” breaks through the formidable barrier of repetitive confession to allow us to begin to understand what is at the heart of this fundamental religious act.

A fascinating glimpse into the rich complexity of medieval Jewish life and its contemporary relevance had intriguingly emerged.

Silverstein’s work has long concerned itself with the intersection between the personal and Jewish Biblical narrative, significantly explored in this column in “Brighton Beach Bible” (July 27, 2009).

Not surprisingly the guardians of synagogue tradition is male dominated in both Moses Abraham, Cantor and Mohel and Synagogue Lamp Lighters.

Neither helpless victims nor able to escape the killer’s clutches, the leaders had to make impossible choices on a daily basis in a never-ending dance with the devil.

Bradford has opted to fully exploit the diverse possibilities of the physical surface by concentrating on the three-dimensional application of paint (impasto) and other material.

    Latest Poll

    Do you think the FAA ban on US flights to Israel is political?






    View Results

    Loading ... Loading ...

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts/bezalels-legacy-commentary-on-jewish-craft-and-art-shabbos-parah-ki-sisa-exodus-3011-3435/2013/03/01/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: