Threshold to the Sacred: Ark Door of the Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo
Yeshiva University Museum – Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street, New York, N.Y.; (212) 294 8330
Until February 23, 2014
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Between Two Worlds: Alan Falk: The Song of Songs and The Dybbuk
Jewish Religious Center at Williams College, 24 Stetson Court, Williamstown, MA
Until November 30, 2013
Unconditional love is a concept that sets the bar of human conduct and forgiveness at a dizzying height, challenging the very fabric of human credulity. The same stress exists when applied in a religious context, fueling extreme expectations of the Divine/Human relationship. In a rather curious and unexpected parallelism two current exhibitions express and explore aspects of unconditional love, each with surprising results. While Yeshiva University Museum’s exhibition of the Ark Door from the Ben Ezra Synagogue reflects that community’s steadfast loyalty to living in the “forbidden” country of Egypt, so too does Alan Falk’s pictorial exploration of the Song of Songs and the Dybbuk proclaim it’s respective unconditional and undying love.
“Threshold to the Sacred,” curated by Dr. Jacob Wisse (Yeshiva University Museum, Director), is ostensibly about the historically remarkable wooden Torah Ark door that has been traced to the 11th century Ark of the Cairo Ben Ezra Synagogue, likely in use when Maimonides frequented that house of worship. However in reality the exhibition examines the larger Jewish community of Fustat, now known as the medieval center of old Cairo. The diverse complexity of this Jewish community is brought to life by a host of ancient objects and documents, many of which were retrieved from the famous geniza found within the Ben Ezra Synagogue walls. Their place in Jewish history is unique in its halachic tension, achingly poised between cultural diversity, transgression and praise of Hashem.
The community of Fustat, which dates from the 7th century C.E., (the beginning of the Islamic presence in Egypt), proudly associates itself with the Exilarchs of the Jewish Diaspora as evidenced by a detailed genealogy from the Cairo geniza tracing their lineage back to King David and Adam, the first man. Perhaps equally significant is the persistent notion that the Jews who lived in Egypt were proud to be living at the site of the great miracles of the Egyptian exodus, an idea expressed in the poetry of Yehuda haLevi. (Could this have required them to recite the special blessing for seeing a place where our ancestors were blessed with a miracle?) In our twice-daily remembrance of the Egyptian exodus in the Shema, conceivably we should fondly remember Fustat where our brethren lived on the shores of the Nile for close to 800 years. Of course there is a serious flaw in these splendid notions.
The Torah explicitly prohibits returning to Egypt in three verses: Exodus 14:13; Deuteronomy 17:16 and 25:65 – “You shall not see Egypt again.” The Gemara (Sukkah 51b) recounts the terrible consequences of one such communal transgression: the annihilation of the Alexandrian Jewish community by the Roman Emperor Trajan in 116 CE. In spite of the many attempts at explaining how Torah giants such as the Rambam and the Radbaz could in good conscience reside in Egypt, the tension between the reality and the halacha remains. It was expressed by the Rambam himself (1138-1204), who spent the last 40 years of his life in Fustat and who allegedly signed his name, “Moshe ben Maimon, he who transgresses the prohibition ‘You shall not return on that way anymore.’”
Notwithstanding the Torah injunction, the Egyptian community thrived and became an international center of trade, especially under the Fatimid period (909-1171). The diversity and excitement of that period is revealed in documents from the treasure-trove geniza itself. Both the Rabbanite (reflecting the Talmudic rabbis) and the Karaite (rejecting the normative authority of the rabbis) factions of the Fustat Jewish community are well represented in geniza documents, reflecting a united Jewish community that nevertheless maintained separate synagogues. Additionally, the Rabbanite community was composed of Jews who followed the customs of Babylonia and those who followed the customs of Palestine (such as the Ben Ezra), each with their own synagogues. Even a casual perusal of these incomparable documents reflects the permeability of a highly diverse Jewish community. Proudly positioned in the midst of this Jewish diversity stands the Ark Door itself.