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Unconditional Love


Torah Ark Door (back); Egypt, 11th century with later carving and paint; Wood (walnut) with traces of paint and brass; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (64.181) and Yeshiva University Museum (2000.231)

Torah Ark Door (back); Egypt, 11th century with later carving and paint; Wood (walnut) with traces of paint and brass; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (64.181) and Yeshiva University Museum (2000.231)

The wooden door, the only one surviving from a pair, measures 34” x 14” x 1” and has been scientifically dated to the 11th century when the synagogue underwent a major renovation. Based on visitors’ descriptions, this specific door was in use well into the 19th century. It was jointly acquired by Yeshiva University Museum and the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore in 2000 and has been under conservation and research at the Walters Art Museum since then. The verses carved on top and bottom from Psalm 118 – “Open to me the gates of righteousness,” and “This is the gate of the Lord” – also likely date from the 11th century (based on the particular abbreviation of God’s name used here), while the central abstract design was almost certainly created hundreds of years later from 14th century Islamic book design.

Another fascinating detail is the back of the door, also elaborately carved with a “spinning” decorative design, but here adorned top and bottom with Birkat Kohanim. Evidently there is a Sephardi minhag of allowing the Aron doors to remain open during Birkat Kohanim: thereby in this scenario allowing the verse to face the congregation when the Kohanim are actively blessing them. This detail suddenly brings us into the actual use of the Ark door and, with a little bit of imagination, into the middle of a morning service.

The objects and documents of this exhibition, a small selection reviewed here, convincingly bring alive the Fustat community and its larger environs. They express their unconditional love of serving God and His people; forever reminded, no matter how harsh the current conditions were, of Egyptian bondage and ancient Exodus that occurred in their hometown.

Alan Falk has a significantly different understanding of unconditional love in his current exhibition of paintings and watercolors depicting the “Song of Songs” and the “Dybbuk” currently at the Jewish Religious Center at Williams College. His approach to Song of Songs concerns the “romantic and magical aspects of love” that he finds in the fabled poem that is “a universal love story about the awakening and consummation of love between a youthful shepherd and a young Shulamite woman.” (All quotes are from the artist’s catalogue introduction). This of course flies in the face of Rabi Akiva’s injunction that while: “The entire universe is unworthy of the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. All the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies (Yadaiim 3:5),” Therefore, “One who recites a verse of the Song of Songs and renders it a kind of [ordinary] song…brings misfortune to the world” (Sanhedrin 101a). Rashi went so far as to translate the Song in totally allegorical terms, solely expressing the constant and undying love of God for Israel.

Nonetheless Falk has based his illustrations on a contemporary secular translation by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch, striving to evoke a vision of “unconditional love and a harmonious relationship between us and the natural world…[that] can be a holistic path to healing our world.” While the twelve watercolors he shows are but a selection from an ongoing series illustrating the entire poem, I would imagine they are representative of his goals. Both the shepherd and the Shulamite are featured together in all but three of the images, almost always locked in variations of a loving embrace. While this might be expected, the theme of longing, so dominant in the poem, seems missing. When the Shulamite is featured alone, she is a direct reflection of the poetic verses: “Who is that rising from the desert like a pillar of smoke…” shows the female figure encircled by smoke rising from the sandy desert; “An enclosed garden is my sister, my bride…” shows a modest woman kneeling in an orchard. This reflects the fundamental problem of attempting to make art from already existing art, i.e. the inherent poetry of the Song itself.

The Dybbuk: Leah and Channon, 42 x 36, oil on canvas by Alan Falk Courtesy the artist

The Dybbuk: Leah and Channon, 42 x 36, oil on canvas by Alan Falk
Courtesy the artist

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


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