In Israel, a new five month scholarship program being offered to young aspiring athletes – one of them could be you.
At the risk of being crude, the narrative in Numbers 5 of the Sotah, the so-called “wayward wife,” ought to be a goldmine for biblical painters. It is hard to imagine a biblical punishment more vivid and aesthetically fertile than the adulterous woman’s belly bursting after she drinks the “bitter waters” into which the priest has erased the Divine Name – a violation of the third commandment so reprehensible it is clear how serious the Torah sees this issue. Forget the shyness of Esther before Ahasuerus, which has so fascinated artists for centuries. The Sotah is on trial for her life, literally exposed and alone in front of a host of men in the holy Temple. Numbers 5 devotes 21 verses to the Sotah; by comparison, Numbers 20 only gives 13 verses to Moses’ sin of striking the rock, which prevents him from entering the Holy Land.
But the only representation I knew of the episode (until recently) is disappointingly tame. There are no bloated bellies, and barely even an action shot. The miniature comes from a Christian book — a History Bible from Utrecht dated 1443, in the collection of The Hague. In the miniature, the suspected wife kneels before the priest, as another man – her jealous husband? – looks on. The priest hands the Sotah a golden vessel (though Numbers 5:17 prescribes earthenware), which surely holds the bitter waters with the Divine Name. Ironically, whereas Numbers 5: 18, where the priest uncovers the woman’s hair, is one of the sources for the practice of women modestly covering their hair, the miniaturist depicts the Sotah with a veil (or wimple) over her head.
Richard McBee. “The Sotah Exposed” (2009).
Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion and Jewish Studies at Vassar College, shared another image with me from Christian Hebrew scholar Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s 1674 Latin translation of the Mishnaic tractate of Sotah. In the image, two groups of observers watch as three priests restrain a woman under an arch, adorned with the Hebrew inscription, “This is the gate of the Lord; pure women might pass through it” (a feminized adaptation of Psalms 118:20). On the floor in front of the woman, lie a jug and a piece of paper, presumably the cup of bitter waters and the scroll with the divine name. Through the gate, the temple is clearly visible. The woman’s hair is bare, and she is partially unclothed.
Richard McBee. “The Sotah Drinks the Bitter Waters” (2009).
Why have Jewish artists entirely neglected this important biblical episode, and why have Christian artists nearly avoided it altogether? It is hard to imagine that they were aware that the episode might never have been enacted. (See for example Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s article on Sotah at MyJewishLearning.com.) And even if Numbers 5 is meant to put forth a law that was never practiced, why should that have stopped artists?
I will save speculations about why artists avoided this narrative for other venues. Instead, it is worth examining a new series on the Sotah by Richard McBee, co-author of this column. In my opinion (and it is incumbent upon me to disclose that Richard has been a colleague and great friend for six years), McBee’s series is nothing short of revolutionary.
Richard McBee. “The Sin” (2009).
All images oil on canvas, 24 x 24, and courtesy of Richard McBee.
The four paintings (each 24 inches squared) in the series show the sin (here seclusion, not the actual obscene act), the exposure in the Temple (where the Mishnah in Sotah 1:5 says the woman is actually unclothed by the priest), the drinking of the waters and the woman’s return home with her husband after she is found to be innocent.
McBee sets the ancient narrative in a contemporary urban setting. The “Temple” where the Sotah is charged and tried becomes McBee’s own synagogue on the Lower East Side, and the Sotah and her husband’s apartment is part of a building that could be just about anywhere in a major city. The characters wear contemporary Orthodox and Chassidic garb – black hats, coats, shtreimels and dresses.
In the series, McBee manages to represent the narrative in an almost theatrical or cinematic manner, and it is easy to imagine his designs working for an operatic set. Although the palette is overwhelmingly dark and ominous – as is to be expected given the grave plot of the material – the divine presence, which is so apparent in the narrative, can be sensed in areas of intense light in each painting.
Although each of the four paintings merits careful examination, the final image, The Sotah Returns Home, is perhaps the most provocative. All the biblical narrative offers by way of resolution to the story is that if innocent, the woman, who nonetheless undergoes a humiliating public trial, is blessed with a son. “And the husband shall be clean from sin,” declares verse 31, “and the woman shall bear her sin.”
In McBee’s painting, the man and wife sit in opposite rooms in an apartment, the only lit room in an otherwise dark, cityscape at night. The woman sits on a bed in the dark, looking back over her shoulder at her husband. The man sits on a chair under a light, which passes through a curtain and shines a spotlight on the woman. The woman looks shy and helpless, while the man holds up his hand, as if explaining himself for his jealousy that subjected her to humiliation.
Richard McBee. “The Sotah Returns Home” (2009).
McBee’s painting overwhelms the viewer with the realization that life will never be the same for the man and woman, who will have to get to know each other all over again. Perhaps there is an occurrence of PTSD – post-traumatic Sotah disorder.
I’m not sure why artists have shied away from the Sotah as if she were the plague. Maybe the story is so intense that it is hard not to caricature it. Maybe Christian artists found new episodes in their scripture that conveyed the same messages, and they chose to represent those narratives rather than Numbers 5.
Either way, McBee’s series not only tackles a long-neglected motif, but also examines it through very modern eyes. When private sins are so regularly broadcast publically on the news and on YouTube, contemporary bible readers might be equipped in an unprecedented way to grasp the statement of Rabi Yochanan the son of B’rokah in Avot 4:5, “Whoever desecrates the divine name in private is punished publically.” McBee has the brilliant insight to realize the desecration and the public humiliation is not the end of the story. In many ways, the reconstruction and the rebuilding that must follow the calm after the storm is the most interesting element of the narrative.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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Leah Katz, a TeenZone camper at Oorah’s TheZone summer camp and an 11th grader at Midwood High School, read her winning essay about how TheZone changed her views on Judaism at the Jewish Heritage Awards Ceremony held at Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes’s office in April. The purpose of the Jewish Heritage Essay Contest is to acquaint public school students with Jewish history and customs and to help foster a deeper understanding of Jewish culture. The contest is open to students of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. Leah’s essay is reproduced in full below.
Moshe Sharett, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, visited Egypt in 1945. In Cairo he met a most remarkable young woman, a beautiful journalist who was the darling of Egyptian high society – from high-ranking military brass, to culture icons and Muslim sheikhs, to the court of King Faruk.
The two proceeded to talk about everyday things and surprisingly her mother-in-law did not find anything else to criticize. This occurred a few more times, with my client changing the topic every time by complimenting her mother-in-law or mentioning something positive about her.
There is always a lot of confusion surrounding sensory processing disorder – mainly because there are many different diagnoses that fall under the catch-all phrase sensory processing disorder (SPD). Among them are three specific subcategories:
The doctor had warned us that even if we did everything right and followed the protocol after the follicle was of the right size, there was no guarantee of success. Fertilization still had to occur, and just like couples do not necessarily become pregnant every month, we had no way to know if we were actually expecting for two full weeks.
The next chapter of the award-winning novel.
Jewish Press columnist Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, founder and president of Hineni, the international Torah outreach organization, recently addressed an overflowing audience at the Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine in southern California. Rebbetzin Jungreis’s address theme, “Making a Good Relationship Magical,” was apropos for the evening’s main mission: raising funds for the Irvine community’s mikveh.
You have probably been planning your marriage since you were about three. Let’s fast-forward to a big milestone– your twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. (Don’t worry, you don’t look a day over twenty one!) Now, would you appreciate your husband buying you a dozen roses that some florist recommended?
As I mentioned in my earlier articles about our family trip to Israel, our night flight went pretty smooth, thanks to my children’s willingness to sleep throughout the flight. I, on the other hand, didn’t sleep a wink and I wasn’t feeling too great by the time we landed. But we were finally in Israel, and just being in the beautifully renovated Ben Gurion airport and hearing all the Hebrew around us was exciting enough.
While all the flowers that grace your Shavuos table will surely be a delight to your eye, these will be a delight for your palette as well. Create them at any level, simple or sophisticated; any way you make them they’re sure to be a sensation.
Welcome back to “You’re Asking Me?” where we attempt to answer questions sent in by people who fortunately have fake names, so they won’t be embarrassed. I don’t know how they got through school, though.
Speechless wonder is the reaction to the beautiful vision seen though the Arch of the Keshet Cave at the Adamit Park in the Galilee. One of the most amazing natural wonders in Eretz Yisrael, the Me’arat Hakeshet — also known as the Rainbow Cave or Arch Cave — can be found up against the Israel-Lebanon border just a few kilometers from Rosh Hanikra and the sparkling blue Mediterranean Sea. It is situated amid the wild scenery on the cliffs of Nachal Betzet and Nachal Namer, on the Adamit Ridge.
It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.
One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)
Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.
It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.
Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.
The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?
Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.
Red By John Logan; directed by Robert Falls; starring Edward Gero and Patrick Andrews Jan. 20 – March 11, 2012 Arena Stage, 1101 6th Street, SW, Washington, D.C. http://www.arenastage.org One morning, Ken, Mark Rothko’s studio assistant, comes into the studio to fulfill his daily duties of stretching and priming his employer’s canvases. When he [...]
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