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Posts Tagged ‘Marc Michael Epstein’

Have Artists Condemned The “Wayward Wife” To Oblivion? Richard McBee’s new Sotah series

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

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.

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Kestenbaum Auction Includes Several Hebrew Books With Decidedly un-Hebraic Iconography

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Sale of Fine Judaica

Kestenbaum & Company

April 2, 2009

12 West 27th Street, N.Y.

13th Floor



The title page to a 1610 edition of 12th-century poet and legal scholar, Eliezer ben Nathan’s “Even Ha’ezer” (“Stone of Salvation,” per I Samuel 7:12) features a woodcut that looks fairly standard at first glance. Two pillars flank the central alignment of the Hebrew text, and two birds perch atop the columns. Beneath the pillars are two lions and two hands, configured in the manner of the priestly blessing, with a gap between the joined index and middle fingers and the ring and small fingers. This combination of hands and lions constitutes the printing mark of Moses ben Bezalel Katz of Prague, who was a Kohen.



Prague, Moses ben Bezalel Katz, 1610: Eliezer ben Nathan’s “Even Ha’ezer.” First edition. Courtesy of Kestenbaum & Company.


But the image on the bottom of the page is problematic. Two angels, with wings typically associated with birds of prey, carry an image of a bearded man with a hat, perhaps Katz. Some readers may recognize the motif as a knock-off of German artist Albrecht D?rer’s engraving, “Sudarium Displayed by Two Angels,” created nearly 100 years earlier. D?rer’s angels, positioned almost exactly like Katz’s, also carry an image of bearded man, but this one wears a crown of thorns. The sudarium, from the Latin for “sweat,” was believed by some Christians to be the cloth used to wipe Jesus’ face before the crucifixion. Since the cloth allegedly touched Jesus’ face directly and still held its impression in the fabric, it was considered a holy relic. There is no doubt that D?rer’s work was very well known in Prague at the time, which begs the question how and why Jewish scholars allowed Christological iconography in their books.



Albrecht D?rer, “Sudarium Displayed by Two Angels” (1513), Engraving on cream laid paper.



            Not only is the importing of Christian motifs into Jewish book art common, “Even Ha’ezer” was also one of several such examples in a recent auction at Kestenbaum & Company. The title page to Hans Jacob Hanau’s 1610 edition of Jacob ben Asher’s (also known as the Baal ha-Turim) “Arbah Turim” includes representations of Moses, Aaron, and the sacrifice of Isaac. In the illustration of Moses, the prophet’s head has sprouted horns, adopting an interpretation generally identified with anti-Semitic mistranslations of Exodus 34:30, which tells of Moses returning from Mount Sinai with a glowing face (literally “the skin of his face glowed”). But many Christian translations mistook “karan” for another form of the word, which means horn (as with the ram of Genesis 22:13, caught by its horns, “karnav,” in the brush).


This anti-Semitic reference found its way into yet another Jewish halachic book at the Kestenbaum auction, a 17th century work called “Sefer Pesach Me’ubin,” with commentary on the Haggadah by Chaim Benveniste (1603-1673), the chief rabbi of Izmir, Turkey.


            But Benveniste’s Passover work is hardly the most bizarre work in the auction. The so-called Prague Haggadah, which contains about 50 woodcuts, dates from 1526, and has its own redemption story. A Swiss businessman found a copy in an Italian antique shop in 1946 and purchased it. He died two years later and the book remained with his widow until she died recently in Switzerland. The man’s daughter inherited the work, and decided to research it, which led her to Daniel Kestenbaum.


            Prague Haggadahs are rare enough (five known complete copies exist) that Kestenbaum flew to California the next day. However, upon arriving, he was not able to get to the house, as access was blocked by military officials investigating the crash of an F-18 jet three doors away. No doubt, after surviving World War II Italy, withstanding a fighter jet crash down the street did not faze the book.


            The Haggadah’s fascinating illustrations include Pharaoh’s army skewering firstborn children like shish kabob as Pharaoh bathes in their blood, and some very Dutch-looking Egyptian soldiers drowning in the Red Sea. A page devoted to the prayer recited upon opening the door for Elijah “Shefoch chamatcha,” (“Pour out Your anger upon the Gentiles who do not know You,”) contains another reference to the sudarium, this time two men holding a lion’s image (perhaps for the tribe of Judah, but the catalog calls it the “Bohemian coat of arms”). The page also includes the Messiah riding what the catalog calls a donkey, but more closely resembles a horse; Adam and Eve bearing apples; Judith carrying Holophernes’ severed head; and a scene the catalog identifies not entirely convincingly as “the mighty Samson grasping the Gates of Gaza.”



Rabbit hunt from Prague Haggadah, Gershom Cohen, 1526.



            Another page of the Haggadah features a contested element of the Passover repertoire: a rabbit hunt. An armor-clad man on horseback blows a horn, as three dogs chase two rabbits. One wonders why the rabbits cannot turn on their assailants, as they are quite muscular and about the same size as the dogs, and it remains ambiguous whether the rabbits have managed to penetrate a net and are running to freedom or whether the net is about to ensnare them. Either way, rabbits have nothing to do with Passover and are not even kosher (per Leviticus 11:6).


            The rabbits are a phenomenon that extends beyond the Prague Haggadah, most notably to the c. 1490 German Haggadah by Meir Jaffe. Rabbinic interpretations have tended to adopt one of two trajectories. Either the rabbits symbolize the Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, or they are a pun (“jag den Has” is German for rabbit hunt) on the mnemonic “Yaknehaz,” which explains the proper order of the Passover Seder for Saturday night, when it must incorporate the Havdalah service.


            Both interpretations are problematic. The former may be refuted insofar as any animal would do to symbolize the Jews as hunted prey, so why the rabbit? The second theory might be questioned insofar as the motif does not first surface in German-speaking areas, and also since the mid-14th century Barcelona Haggadah includes very different images: dogs pouring wine into glasses held by the hares, as the hares disrobe. A very good argument can be made that the hare hunt is borrowed from medieval Christian manuscripts, in which the hare symbolizes fertility and promiscuity (thus “multiplying like rabbits”).


            But such interpretations are dangerous and should be carefully analyzed, according to Marc Michael Epstein, director of the Jewish studies program at Vassar College. In his fantastic book, Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature, Epstein notes that the hare also mysteriously surfaces in Jewish images of Esau returning from the hunt. In fact, Epstein observes, non-Jewish illustrations of the episode always cast Esau’s prey as kosher, while Jewish artistic depictions opt for the non-kosher hare. To further complicate matters, Epstein notes that halachah tends to frown upon hunting to begin with.


Epstein argues instead that Jews embraced the symbol of the hare for its speed and ability to flee danger. “Christians, who were the hunters, had defined the Jews, their quarry, as hares: the majority culture imposed the symbol upon the minority,” he writes in Dreams. “Once branded with this sign of calumny, Jews set about, very matter-of-factly to redeem it and transform it from an emblem of infamy to a superlative metaphor for Jewish self-definition.”


            Epstein concludes that Jewish books adopted the hare hunt as an attempt to rescue it from its anti-Semitic context and to embrace it as a symbol of Jewish courage. Once it was already incorporated into the Jewish canon, it was re-employed in the Haggadah (including the Prague Haggadah) due to its relevance to the Yaknehaz pun.


Epstein’s scholarship is particularly important in its insistence that we not take Christian motifs which surface in Jewish art for granted. There is surely borrowing, and Christian artists often drew from Jewish texts and artistic motifs. But in the cases of the sudarium, Moses’ horns, and the hare hunt, the borrowing might have also involved sly efforts by Jewish artists or patrons to re-package and to “own” the images.


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.


I encourage everyone who is further interested in this topic to read Marc Michael Epstein’s entire book, which is accessible online for free, http://vassar.academia.edu/documents/0008/6587/Dreams_of_SubversionAE.pdf.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts//2009/04/14/

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