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Janet Shafner’s Biblical Women

By the Bible’s own admission, the laws and procedures pertaining to the red heifer constitute some of the greatest chukot, or mysteries, of the entire scriptures. PerNumbers 19, an unblemished, never-been-harnessed red heifer, if slaughtered by a priest outside of the camp in the proper way – which includes the following ingredients: a piece of cedar wood, hyssop and crimson wool – can purify someone who has touched something unholy. The great mystery of the red heifer, the para adumah, though, is that the very object that purifies the ritually unclean also makes all the priests who come in contact with it unclean. It is the original double-edged sword.

Although the red heifer ought to be a gold mine for artistic inspiration – Chagall could have found a way to render it green – it has been represented surprisingly few times. There is an illustration in a 15th century Bible in the collection of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague by the so-called Alexander Master (French) titled “Eleazar sprinkles the unclean with hyssop,” but other depictions of the scene are hard to come by. That’s one reason why Janet Shafner’s Hukkat is so special – simply because it exists. But it does more than just that.



Hukkat. Oil on cowhide parchment. 19″ x 27″. 2008


The rectangular painting, which appropriately is on cowhide parchment, is split in half, with each of the two central figures – Miriam and a red heifer – circumscribed in a triangle. Miriam’s triangle resembles a shower, as water pours over her, cascading like a waterfall over a platter she carries in her hands. While Miriam’s triangle is cold and wet, the cow’s triangle is aflame. In between the smoldering and freezing figures is a red serpent, which seems to be affixed to a pole of some sort.

According to the artist’s website, the work is based on the Torah portion by the same name, Chukat, which outlines not only the ritual of the red heifer, but also the death of Miriam and the subsequent disappearance of her well, which helped hydrate the Israelites in the desert. The biblical passage also explains the serpent, which, rather than being an Edenic reference, depicts the copper serpent Moshe placed on a stick to direct the eyes (and prayers) of the Israelites, who were bitten by snakes, heavenward.



“The Daughters of Zelophehad.” Oil on canvas.

Three panels, 48″ x 84″. 2006


Writing in the catalog for a memorial exhibit of Shafner’s work (the artist passed away Aug. 2 of this year) scheduled to open at the Hebrew Union College Museum on Sept. 14, Richard McBee notes that two other subjects of Shafner’s – Serach the daughter of Asher and the daughters of Tzelofchad – are often neglected subjects. “As far as I am aware, neither Serach nor the daughters have ever been seriously depicted in the history of Western Art,” McBee writes. “That is because for most artists, Christian and Jewish alike, many Biblical women are invisible even though they are textually present for all to see. Shafner’s work opens our eyes.”

Although the Alexander Master’s repertoire includes a miniature, “Moses is petitioned by the daughters of Zelophehad” (also at The Hague), McBee is definitely on to something. Shafner’s work focuses on the women of the Bible, whom McBee notes are alleged to be easy to miss, though in reality rabbinic commentaries actually prop them up as some of the most important figures in the Bible. “For the last 20 years, Janet Shafner’s paintings have critically explored the role of Biblical women, finding their stories to be at the very core of Biblical creativity,” McBee writes. “Under her scathing gaze and forceful brush they are revealed to be no less than the dynamic engines of Jewish history and destiny.”



The Wise Woman of Tekoa/The Death of Absalom.

Oil on canvas. 60″ x 56″


McBee doesn’t address the work in his essay, but though Avshalom dangles from a tree by his hair in The Wise Woman of Tekoa/The Death of Absalom, he and his donkey blend into the background, whereas the wise woman stands out as the most arresting visual element.
Strictly speaking, 2 Samuel 14 refers to simply a woman of Tekoa (not a wise one) who outsmarts David with a parable, but unlike Natan, who accomplishes the same feat, the Tekoan woman is fed her narrative by Yoav. In the literal sense, the woman of Tekoa plays the same role as Bilaam does when God puts a bit in his mouth and turns his curses into blessings. To Shafner, though, the woman is not only wise, she also seems to drive the narrative. With a cloak over her head, the wise woman looks down on the tragic scene below. The tree covered with Avshalom’s blood also evokes a burning bush – in which case the wise woman is playing the divine role – as well as a body, with the tree branches becoming nerves and the wise woman cast as the brain.

The content of the work, which shows Avshalom after Yoav has assassinated him (seeming poetic justice for the rebel, who has narcissistically let his hair grow long and now suffers the consequence of that vanity), is grim, aided by the inscription Shafner painted into the background, but the wise woman resists pigeonholing as an agent of evil. One cannot deny Shafner’s vision wherein this woman has played a major role in the development of the plot – the woman gets the better part of a chapter in 2 Samuel, far more than the daughters of Tzelofchad receive – but she also looks like she is mourning the very eventuality she helped orchestrate.



Detail of “‘May You Live Forever’: The Assumption of Serach Bat Asher.”

Oil on canvas. 50″ x 50″. 2010


The wise woman is also frozen in just the right pose to complicate whether she is in the process of shielding herself and covering herself up with her cloak, or whether she is removing the cloak to reveal herself. At the risk of being reductionist, that’s not a bad pose for depicting biblical women, who might not have been the kinds of public heroes that Pinchas and Yehoshua were when they led the Israelites in battle, but who acted privately to help shape the unfolding of history. (Think Yael and Sisra.)

McBee put it best: “It is as if we had never really understood their role in our understanding of Jewish texts, but now we can’t take our eyes and minds away from their determination, courage and creativity.”

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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