Posts Tagged ‘parashah’

Sailing The Soul Of Creation: A Blessing For The Seas And Oceans

June 11, 2014

BlessingForSeas+OceansRGB15Although orbiting satellites send us spectacular images of the clouded Earth amidst its swirling seas, these views pale in comparison to our physical comprehension of their vastness and power from our perspective of dry land or from the decks of our ships that carry us over them. As we marvel at the unknown depths from where some pre-conscious form of us emerged, the magnitude of the sea speaks to the essence of what we are. The sea, if you will, is the soul of Creation.

Observing that the Earth’s waters dance on its tectonic armature in time to the moon’s allure and the mercurial winds has provoked the fear and wonder inspiring the religions and myths of many cultures whose livelihoods depend on the seas. Prayers for the safety of their fishermen, travelers and for the lands on which they live are central to these systems. Where these prayers were once directed at individual deities deemed to control our planet’s natural forces, in Judaism, such prayers are enhanced by the Birkat Ha-Yam, a special two-part blessing for the seas and oceans.

Since I have lived mostly in Mid-Atlantic cities and experienced the oceans rarely except through my travels, it is very special to me. One part acknowledges Creation as it addresses the large-scale wonders of nature while the other is directed at a specific large body of water that must have existed since the six days of Creation and must not be land-locked. It seems that no one has ever agreed upon which ocean fits this description, but according to certain rabbis* the Birkat Ha-Yam blessing was intended for the Mediterranean Sea, most likely the largest one in their own experience.

Unlike those prayers that are entreaties for divine mercy and protection from the elements, the verses of the Birkat Ha-Yam are statements that acknowledge our humility in the face of our Creator and our wonder at the constancy of Creation.

When I began to work on this blessing, I thought that a prosaic rendering of a seascape would suffice. But I soon learned that I wouldn’t get away that easily. Given our ancient and complex relationship with our aquatic ecosystem, the Birkat Ha-Yam begged for a more nuanced visual narrative.

The image that immediately came to mind was a detail from one that I’d created for Parashat Eikev (Book of Numbers/Devarim) in my previous book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). It showed a grandfather and granddaughter listening to the still, small voices in their hearts through the  metaphor of a conch seashell.

I chose this metaphor to express the subtlety of such an experience because I have a similar shell in my collection of oddities and have always imagined the sound of the seas echoing from its inner spirals. So a large conch shell became the centerpiece of my illustration, open to reveal the ‘heart of the sea’.   Within the conch is a tiny 15th century Spanish caravel sailing perhaps on a trade mission for its merchant owner. With a nod to the Biblical Leviathan, the piscine creature swims lazily in wait for the time of Messiah.
Below, the conch’s compatriots nestle among a watery scape of seaweeds. In the morning sky above, a faint moon observes the four winds competing to guide the ship to its destination as the seagulls survey their boundless territory.

At last, even when I thought the illustration was nearly done, I still couldn’t resist playing with one last image; do you see the fanciful little beast** hiding among the sea wrack?

Dear Backers: The Birkat Ha-Yam is the 31st of 36 blessings to be completed for An Illumination Of Blessings! We’re almost there! 
*******************************************************
Please Note: Even if you are not a backer on this Kickstarter-funded project, you may still pre-order your copy (ies) of An Illumination Of Blessings and/or prints from its illustrations here: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm   Also, if you visit my Kickstarter page at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com. *******************************************************  
* In the Shulchan Aruch 228:1(The Code Of Jewish Law) compiled in 15th century Safed by Rabbi Yosef Karo.
** Hippokampus (from the Greek for horse (hippo) and sea monster (kampus), named for its resemblance to a seahorse.

From House To Home: A Blessing Of Transition

January 15, 2014

Image

Last week, after completing the blessing for installing a mezuzah, I decided to follow it with the traditional blessing for the home, the Birkat HaBayit. This brief blessing is usually found on decorative plaques or hand-shaped hamsas (amulets) near the entrance to Jewish houses worldwide. It is meant to drive evil spirits (negative emotional projections) from the house and to protect the individuals residing in it. Such items are often given as gifts to one who has just moved into a new house.

Since the text of this blessing is commonly presented on a ceramic tile or other surface enhanced only by pleasant floral or geometric decorations, I wanted my interpretation to be something more; to reflect additional levels of meaning in the text.

In the initial research phase of my illustrations, I often leaf through my collections of aphorisms and quotations for my first clues in understanding the subject of my work and the direction I will take to develop it. These comments are never interpreted literally; they only serve as metaphorical touchstones, suggesting levels of meaning in that subject which invite visual interpretation.

So I turned to the Book of Proverbs which told me: “A house is built by wisdom and is established by understanding; by knowledge are its rooms filled with all precious and beautiful things.” -24:3

Ok, I thought, that’s a powerful idea; but do these qualities also define a ‘home’? Generally speaking, yes. But having visited the homes of many friends and acquaintances around the world, each with its unique flavor and ambiance, I’ve learned that the difference between a house and a home is subtle, yet tangible.

Beyond its physical structure and plain or beautiful interior surroundings, a house that can be called a home glows with an aura of peace, laughter and love. These qualities color its walls, furnishings and inhabitants in a way no skilled decorator can truly emulate.

The desire for a home of one’s own is universal to all species on this planet from the ant to the elephant. It’s first cultural documentation among humanity quite likely originated in the tale of Adam and Eve whose first ‘home’ was the Garden of Eden, the womb of our world, so to speak. Even as the story relates their shock and fear upon exile from this holy place, the budding comprehension of their newly bestowed mortality soon becomes the powerful desire for shelter and stability in the chaotic world beyond Paradise.

Though the Torah offers many other examples of our developing survival instinct from Noah’s post-diluvian resettlement to the long quest for a Jewish homeland, one of the most picturesque appears in in the Book of Exodus (Shemot Parashat T’rumah 25:8-9). Here, G-d requests that Moses establish a sanctuary of a very specific design for the Divine Presence in the earthly realm so that “I may dwell among them (you).” It would seem that even the Source of all Life has need for a place to call ‘home’!

After much consideration, I decided to model the house in this illustration as an idealized amalgam of residential architecture drawn from several areas around Jerusalem because it is the spiritual home for so many of us.

The pomegranate and etrog (citron) trees flanking the doorway are metaphors of beauty, good health, fertility and mitzvot or good deeds that one would wish for the residents of the house. A midrash or commentary suggests that the pomegranate contains 613 seeds, a number equivalent to the categories of mitzvot incumbent upon us to perform in our lifetimes. The etrog, one of the four species honored on the holiday of Sukkot, symbolizes our connection to G-d through our hearts.

The cypress trees and the doves are symbols of sacrifice, but rather than the sacrifice attributed to religious ritual, mourning or death, I included them because sacrifices must be made on many levels by all within a household to insure peace and stability.

The fish-shaped mezuzot on the doorpost and near the text symbolize blessing and abundance as drawn from the verse in Genesis (Bereshit 48:16), “And they shall multiply like fish in the midst of the earth.”

The Hebrew letter bet is included in this illustration for several reasons. First, its original form in the proto-Semitic languages of the Middle Bronze Age resembled a tent-like shelter or ‘house’. Second, it begins the Torah with the word B‘reshit (In the Beginning) and represents the dualities that define Creation (dark, light, good, evil, male, female, etc). Third, bet begins the word ‘baruch’ for blessing. I formed this letter from the leaves and fruit of the fruit trees for the same reasons the trees themselves were included, but also because in a sense, trees were the prototypes of shelter from weather and predators.

Finally, the antique bronze key is shown here because with it we enter the idea that when a house becomes a home, it also becomes a metaphor of memory; a repository of touchstones that connect us to ourselves, to each other and to the larger world beyond our doors.

On The Pragmatism Of Prayer…

April 19, 2013

TheFlightOfAPrayer

In light of the national media babbling 24/7 about the fear and trembling amidst heightened security measures that have overtaken the Boston environs in the wake of the Marathon bombing, I thought about all the prayers that go out both to comfort ourselves, each other and perhaps in attempt to stanch the rising panic over the still at-large bombing suspect. In doing so, I offer these questions for your comments:
 
1. Can prayers be understood as pleas for protection from evil, or for those more philosophically inclined, can they be seen as praise for a G-d whose will in all things is inscrutable?
2. What about the concept of prayers as a way to understand that the balance of good and evil must, however costly to life and property, be maintained for some larger cosmic purpose?
3. Could these prayers relate in some obscure way to the intent of sacrifices in ancient times? In other words, did we perform sacrifices and offer prayers as a tribute to the greatness of G-d, to assuage our fear of His/Her potential anger or a little of both?
 
In Acharey Mot, this week’s Torah reading, although the above questions are given no definitive answers, we learn how the qualities of good and evil inform a duality in our concept of G-d that inspires the custom of absolving communal sin by sacrificing two goats.
 
The illustrations below are details from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). We can see one animal lying trussed and wearing an inscribed boxwood lot dedicating it to G-d. The other, marked as an offering to ‘Azazel’ will be the scapegoat sent into the wilderness.  The term ‘Azazel’ has various connotations. Medieval commentators have referred to it as a desert cliff in the Sinai from which a goat was thrown on Yom Kippur to atone for the sins of Israel. But In his commentary on Leviticus 16:8, the Spanish Talmudist Moses Ben Nachman Gerondi (Nachmanides) described Azazel as a goat-like desert god or demon. The image of a demon has long been associated in mythology with evil, sexual misdeeds and the fearsome forces of nature. Merging the two ideas produced the portrayal of Azazel as a winged demon pictured in a barren desert setting. The string tying the lot to Azazel’s goat is partly colored scarlet to recall a custom in the Temple. A red cord was hung in the Temple porch for all to know that a goat had been sent to Azazel. The amount of time needed for the goat and its escort to reach the cliff was calculated and when the sacrifice was deemed complete, the cord allegedly turned white.
 
Perhaps this elaborate, dramatic ritual, was in itself an answer to my questions? If the Torah had not told us that we were made in “…Our Image”, how else would it be possible for us to understand that God may inspire both joy and
heartbreak?
Imaginarius-AchareyMot

Parsing Passover…

March 15, 2013

ImageSince beginning this blog in conjunction with the publication of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) I have presented many of its illustrations along with new insights that have grown from the traditional readings and from your questions and comments.

Sometimes, the illustrations themselves have been tweaked to reflect these changes, making my book a continual work in progress.Though I can not pretend to their scholarly stature, I like to imagine this process akin to the conversations and Torah insights of the great 2nd century rabbis and scholars (Amoraim) that were gathered to comprise the Talmud. Accordingly, the illustrations are structured so that each element’s story and symbolism for a parashah enhance each other on its page.

So, in this week preceding Pesach/Passover, as we begin the Book of Leviticus with Parasha Vayikra, I was thinking about the concept of sacrifice as more than the ritual slaughter of animals and other material offerings. Sacrifice can also be considered as a tenet of mindfulness.

While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, animal sacrifice was at the core of Judaism’s complex practices; fulfilling G-d’s commandments and providing nourishment for the priests. Yet, the parashah also reminds us of its more subtle purpose; to learn the difference between our animal and divinely-based natures and to gain mastery over them so that we may evolve culturally and spiritually.

A slight digression: metaphorically, the body of esoteric knowledge of kabbalah understands Creation as a process of ‘tzimtsum’, where G-d contracts/withdraws His/Her Essence to allow all that we know to exist.

That said, each time we perform a mitzvah (a commandment or good deed for the benefit of another), we can think of this process as our own microcosmic ‘tzimtsum’.  In this way, we are setting aside our ‘animal’ nature (which is characterized by instinctive actions for self-preservation) in favor of our divinely based nature (marked by our mindfulness as a human being  and a responsible member of the larger community).

Often, there is great pain associated with a transition from one nature to the other, as in the time of the Exodus when the Hebrew slaves coming out of Egypt made the agonizing 40-year transition to becoming Israelites. Though we are many generations removed, we are reminded of that learning process each year when we remove the masks of our animal natures to allow our divinely-based essences to commemorate and celebrate Passover.

**********************************************************************************************************************

Signed copies of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary ($36.00+Shipping) may be ordered at: http://www.winnlederer.com or by email from: ilene@winnlederer.com. Allow up to one week for delivery in the US; if required sooner for a gift or special event, express services are available. For organizations, the author is available for on-site presentations of the book’s creative process and book signings.

Parashat T’rumah: Mirroring Heaven

February 15, 2013

Imaginarius-T'rumahAlthough each of the Torah’s fifty-four parashiyot contain stories and precepts that are meant to guide us in living and working towards our spiritual and cultural fullfilment, it is this week’s reading, Parashat T’rumah with its intricate, symbol-laden descriptions of the desert tabernacle that resonates with especial clarity for me as a visual artist.

In my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), Parashat T’rumah is illustrated with a double page spread depicting the various implements and ritual objects prescribed for use in the sanctuary. The images shown here are selected details from that illustration which appears on pages 54-55. Entitled, ‘As Above, So Below’ it draws inspiration from the eponymous alchemical maxim referring to the dual concepts of the heavenly sanctuary shown to Moses on Mt. Sinai and the earthly sanctuary that the people were required to build so that God would have a place to ‘appear’ among them. A detailed description with footnoted references may be found in the AfterImages section of the book on pages 149-150.

Signed copies of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary ($36.00+Shipping) may be ordered at: http://www.winnlederer.com or by email from: ilene@winnlederer.com. Allow up to one week for delivery in the US; if required sooner for a gift or special event, express services are available. For organizations, the author is available for on-site presentations of the book’s creative process and book signings.

Between The Lines: A Conversation Both Holy And Profane

February 11, 2013

Imaginarius-2013-Mishpatim

When we are told a story, whether true or fictional, we hear and feel it in the words and body language of the speaker.  Yet even as the experience provokes a direct reaction, we may be thinking of how we can share it with others. Except for people with eidetic memory skills, a story is rarely remembered verbatim. Rather, it is verbally and physically paraphrased to fit the recipient and the circumstances of its retelling.

Whenever I read last week’s Parashah Yitro and the current Parashah Mispatim, in which Moses receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, it is difficult not to picture these scenes as portrayed in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic 1954 film of The Ten Commandments. Having seen the film’s premiere as an impressionable child, I barely appreciated the enormous implications of that divine event beyond the ‘silver screen’ until many years later. When the heavenly fireworks that accompany the giving of the Torah terrifies everyone gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai and Moses ascends to the summit to accept it as an intermediary for his people, the idea that Moses was to make this vast trove of information accessible to them in a language and form they could comprehend was stunning.

There has been much speculation as to the form of that divine transmission, from questions concerning the original ‘language’ to the method of delivery to the mental and physical qualities that distinguished Moses for this task. Popular writers and university scholars have collaborated and done well promoting the idea of ‘bible codes’, prophetic information encoded in strings of letters. Yet, scintillating as this notion is, solid proof remains elusive. And perhaps it should be, if faith is to flourish in the face of scientific scrutiny.

Considering Moses’ pivotal role in this dramatic narrative, a few questions arise. Was Moses chosen for this task because of a natural ability for opening his mind and heart to this divine body of knowledge, or were these qualities acquired from his early experience as a prince of Egypt and subsequent discovery of his true identity as an adult? Perhaps it was a combination of both, but until someone invents time travel, these arguments remain philosophical conjecture. From a slightly different perspective, I like to imagine that Moses’ ability to receive G-d’s transmission is a metaphor of ‘tzimtzum’, G-d’s contraction of His Essence, permitting Creation to occur from the dark void. My logic may be fuzzy, but when Moses becomes instrumental in the creation of the nation of Israel out of a nation of slaves, he seems to mirror that ‘tzimtzum’ on a micro-level.

Designing the illustrations to embody these ideas for my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), brought me to a major contextual impasse. Representing G-d in any form is prohibited in the second commandment, but I intended no offense when I drew upon the kabbalistic idea that Hidden One may only be perceived behind an ethereal mask. I imagined Him emerging from between veils of light and darkness with the intention of letting Himself be known to us, but shielding us from a force that we, in our frail forms could not endure ‘face to face’. Consequently, in the illustration above, I have portrayed Moses as a sofer, a Torah scribe in an intimate conversation with G-d through His Mask*. Wielding a reed pen, Moses is writing the word ‘Amalek’ a great enemy of Israel, then crossing it out three times. This part of the transcription process has since become the traditional first step a Torah scribe takes when beginning to write a new scroll. In this way we are meant to understand our history; to do good and not evil.

And now we understand that Moses is also more than just an ‘envelope’, so to speak, for the divine message. As ‘Moshe Rabbeinu’, Moses our teacher, he has becomes a timeless example of how the we and the Torah must become one in both spirit and practice.

*A more detailed explanation of the four-pronged letter ‘shin’ is found in the AfterImages section of my book on pp. 148-149

Signed copies of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary ($36.00+Shipping) may be ordered at: http://www.winnlederer.com

Parashat Bo: The Masks Of Light And Darkness

January 24, 2013

Exodus-Bo1AS I reflected on Bo, this past week’s parashah in The Book of Exodus, its lurid descriptions of the final three plagues inflicted on the Egyptians (locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn among the Egyptians) caused me to wonder about our perception of the nature of good and evil. When we blithely attribute occurrences of good or evil to forces beyond ourselves and therefore beyond our control, are we forgetting our innate capability to influence them from our miniscule place in the tapestry of humanity?

The creation stories of each major religion maintain that we are modeled after One Who ’embodies’ good and evil among myriad other attributes and has called us into existence. If so, then we too are creatures that embody these attributes to some lesser degree. And if we accept this idea, then we must shoulder our part of this great responsibility. We cannot entirely shifted it onto our Creator without denying the autonomy of free choice, a trope hotly debated, but never resolved over the centuries by religious scholars.

When I first read the phrase in which G-d tells Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount to your sons and to your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them — in order that you may know that I am the Lord.”, I was cynically inclined to see the players in this epic drama as pathetic puppets whose human frailties were being manipulated by unseen forces as an end to their own means. Was this part of some vast cosmic game played by said entity (ies) for their own amusement? If so, then who was playing whom’? Could the players in the epic drama of the Exodus be archetypes meant to teach us that we and the ‘One’ mirror each other?

Or, were these events but a series of horrific natural phenomena occurring within the Earth’s evolving biosphere as scientific researchers have attempted to demonstrate? Are the scientific and religious interpretations (as cause and effect punishments for human misbehavior) of these natural phenomena mutually exclusive? What a classic illustration of  ‘right brain vs. left brain’ thinking!

Given our distant remove from these events and the effects of diaspora living, perhaps the above questions are clues to their own answers. If we believe that ‘the devil made me do it’ excuses evil behavior or if we insist that we are but victims of natural disasters, then our human frailties can become excuses for despair and inaction. In which case, we are denying our true capabilities as the ‘crown of creation’ and stewards of this planet as evidenced by the plethora of blogs out there.

In sum, I prefer to think that both sides are a kind of duality; dependent on their discrete functions to validate each other. In the way that we wouldn’t understand the properties of good and evil if they didn’t exist to define each other.  So, I’m inclined to believe that if the story of Moses’ righteous deeds and Pharaoh’s intractable stubbornness was intended to inform the metaphorical book of our spiritual and cultural development, then we ought not stop at any of these interpretations. The mystery of it all is too vast to comprehend in thousands of lifetimes, but each lifetime grants us more clues to its solution.

Our sages agree that Torah is to be viewed as the blueprint of creation, its stories as instructions for living with each other on this planet. And as we continue to interpret the dualities (multiplicities) embedded in its intricate diagrams, we will comprehend more of how they apply to us individually and as a nation. And in this evolving understanding of our humanity and spiritual mandate will the true nature of our power be made clear.

The Grudge Report: A Genesis Of Angst

October 27, 2012

After reading Lekh Lekha, this week’s Torah portion, I was of two minds regarding the outcomes of the story. On the one hand, I appreciated Abraham’s generosity towards his heavenly visitors and G-d’s miraculous blessings as evinced in Sarah’s late but welcome conception of Isaac. On the other, I was reacquainted with Hagar’s emotional dilemma and subservient travails in this dramatic power-play between two iconic women and the man they both depended upon for survival.  The genesis of toxic chin-wagging and posturing they established was a commonality that has defined and plagued human history. Simply stated, the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and the sons thereof, provides poignant illustrations of an ancient angst whose consequences shadow us today, 2,000+ years later. It encompasses the psychological agony of unquestioning obedience to an immaterial God, the bitterness of infertility coupled with tainted altruism, and the rivalry over an inheritance that would become a cultural grudge match of epic proportions, evidenced by the uprising and continuing effects of the Arab Spring in our generation. Closer to home, its echoes are currently characterizing our presidential election campaign as well as our efforts to maintain the quality of long vaunted living standards in the US.

From the AfterImages chapter in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary, here are my interpretations for the illustrations shown above (design of these images has been modified from the originals to accommodate this post):

In The Conversation, Abraham, alone with God and his knife (based on a Canaanite model from Hebron ca.1900BCE) cuts a frightened yet courageous figure. Challenged to circumcise himself in order to preserve life for future generations, Abraham seems to sense this demonstration is only the beginning of his obedience to God. As if portending the sacrifice of Isaac his future son, Abraham’s shadow extends beyond our view leaving behind long pagan traditions as he stands at the forefront of monotheism.

 In the Prophecy At Mamre, three angelic visitors are spectators to the results of the prophecy they delivered in the previous year to Abraham and Sarah. Despite legends that describe Sarah as eternally youthful, I’ve chosen to portray our ancient mother-to-be caressing her pregnancy, a secretive smile on her wrinkled old mouth. Is her smile one of satisfaction at having banished Hagar and Ishmael in favor of the son she will bear to Abraham, or could she be experiencing a twinge of guilt despite her blessed event? Either way, a young Ishmael who also casts a long shadow to the future, appears poised for his inevitable revenge.

In sum, Lekh Lekha can be seen as more than a Bible story or just another chapter in the playbook of partisan politics; it foreshadows the continuing global saga of the struggle for survival by the disenfranchised, for the rights of women to their own bodies and to the amoral actions of men with too much money, too much power lust and willful ignorance of social/biological facts. Whether or not we take these stories literally or as metaphors of human behavior, to continually ignore their lessons is to do so at our own peril and that of our descendants.

The Price Of Posterity

August 31, 2012

Among the many laws regarding moral and ethical behavior within interpersonal relationships, this week’s reading of Parashah KiTetse’ includes an ancient but striking solution to the preservation of a family name in the event of untimely death; levirate marriage . Although this practice was common among many tribal cultures to preserve their autonomy, it is codified in a formal ceremony for the first time in the Torah. In essence, the custom centers on the widow of a man who has died without leaving a male heir. It then becomes incumbent upon her brother-in-law, if he is able and willing, to marry her so that she might produce a son to perpetuate her husband’s name, assets and spiritual legacy. If this levirate union cannot be assured, a ceremony called ‘halitzah’ is arranged to disengage the man and woman from their obligation. Halitzah takes place within a synagogue following the morning service when a number of witnesses would be present. From these witnesses, three judges and two assistants are appointed, the ‘judges’ are seated on one bench, and the assistants are seated on a second bench beside it. The brother-in-law (yabam) and the widow (yebamah) stand between them. Their case that includes certain criteria for eligibility in this rite such as the state of their mental and physical health is presented to the ‘court’. The brother-in-law asserts that he is present of his own free will and the proceedings begin. A special leather shoe (made from the hide of a kosher animal) that is the property of the community is then tied to his right leg. The lead judge makes the following statement which the widow repeats three times: “My brother-in-law refuses to raise unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not marry me.” The brother-in-law is required to repeat: “I do not wish to take her.” He holds his foot to the floor while his sister-in-law loosens the shoe and tosses it to the side of the court. She then faces her brother-in-law, spits on the floor in front of him and repeats three times the following statement after the judge: “So shall it be done unto that man who will not build up his brother’s house, and his name shall be called in Israel, ‘the house of him that hath his shoe loosed.” The widow is now free to marry whomever she wishes after the proper mourning period has ended. However, a question remained; what if the brother-in-law attempted to extort money from the widow in exchange for releasing her from the levirate obligation? Eventually, medieval Polish rabbis created a document called the “shetar halitzah” which all the brothers of the groom in a marriage were made to sign. This ensured that they would submit to ‘halitzah’ if their brother died childless without making any financial claims on his widow.

It should be noted here that in the 1,500 years since Talmudic times, when polygamy was outlawed from marriage practices, the halitzah ritual became the preferred alternative to levirate marriage. This ceremony is shown across two pages because its ramifications extend from generation to generation. In addition to the images on these pages that depict the players in this ritual, I have included the leather halitzah shoe (based on one in the collection of Congregation Mikve Israel in Philadelphia), a ceremonial wedding ring and a parchment held by the brother-in-law representing the assets and nullified obligations of halitzah. I’ve portrayed the widow, having removed the shoe as she is preparing to spit and seal the ceremony.

Is she wearing an expression of regret or relief?

 

The illustrations above may be found along with additional footnotes in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).The book is distributed internationally and may be purchased directly from the publisher by calling: 1-800-227-1428 (US), {+44} 0 1926 430111(UK) or visiting http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html.

 

The Evolution Of Choice: Tattoo Or Not To?

August 16, 2012

This week, in our reading of Parashah Re’eh in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) we discover a complex chapter that addresses the Israelites’ approaching settlement of Canaan. It is filled with cultural admonishments and exhortations designed to preserve the relatively fledging concept of monotheism. Because so much of the text recaps stories and strong points of the first four books of the Torah, I chose to focus on the brief section (14:1-14:3) that seemed pointedly relevant to contemporary life; the section that addresses choice in individual holiness.

As an illustrator and graphic designer, it is necessary to establish a unique brand identity within an extremely competitive market. This logo, or mark that represents our professional achievements and aspirations, though it may take the form of a simple graphic or phrase requires much thought. It becomes the face you present to the world. Though I have experimented with several designs over the years, a sun and moon motif remains my favorite, since it speaks to the timelessness of creative spirit.

A little story: Once, years ago at a neighborhood shop I purchased some stones and beads that I could fashion into a necklace. As I reached into my purse to pay for these items, one of my business cards inadvertently fell onto the counter. A young patron behind me caught a glimpse of it and immediately inquired if she might have one so that she could copy the design for a tattoo. For a moment I was flattered and somewhat amused, but my inner ‘Nitzotz Ha-Yehudi‘ quietly nudged me. “This tattoo (K’tovet Ka’aka) would be so not kosher!” it seemed to say. I offered a crooked smile and told her, “It’s nice that you like my work; thanks. Maybe you are not Jewish, but I’m afraid my religion doesn’t permit tattoos and I would not feel good about letting my work be used for them.” The young woman stared at me. “Oh,” she said with a frown. “Too bad, it’s a great design.” Something about her narrowed eyes told me she would have some version of it made anyway. Oh well.

Though tattoos are as old as the history of many cultures (full body coverage is a fine art in Japan called horimono), they’ve become ubiquitous in our urban landscape with less clothing worn in public being the norm. I began to pay special attention to the numerous young people sporting a variety of tattoos and body piercings when I left the shop. At that time, I hadn’t seen any tattooed Jews, but maybe they weren’t as bold about them as they are today given the caché of magen-david studded tabloid celebrities who profess to be ‘into’ kabbalah.

Anyway, I found some of the wide array of designs interesting, even technically brilliant from an artistic perspective, but deeply disturbing otherwise. Perhaps it was their aura of permanence (though removal is easier these days), but in retrospect I think that my fickle artistic sensibilities would soon grow weary of any design I chose despite my passion for it at the time. Not to mention how age and wrinkles would distort it.

I was prompted to check out the Torah to verify this prohibition. Though the Torah views tattooing, body piercing and shaving portions of the head as evidence of ancient cultic death rituals and a form of idolatry (Avodah Zarah), other subtle issues around it such as cosmetic tattooing are addressed in rabbinic discourse. Rabbi Chaim Jachter, faculty advisor at The Torah Academy of Bergen County, NJ suggests that our bodies do not belong to us, but are loaned to us that we may perform mitzvot; not to do whatever we wish with them. There are some who scoff at the law barring Jews with tattoos from burial in a Jewish cemetery and by extension at that law requiring that only Jews of good conscience belong in such hallowed ground. No one is perfect, they say. Saints and liars may not be kosher fellow dirt-nappers but who’s going to argue after the funeral? I don’t know the technicalities, but that argument sounds pretty disingenuous to me while it attempts to sanction undesirable behavior.

The young Goth woman about to eat a scorpion kebab accompanies the quotation on the opposite page to demonstrate another important prohibition of this parashah; polluting our inner purity with forbidden foods. The grid below her displays a selection of animals that permitted (full color) and forbidden (mauve color). As world travelers  know, these foods (scorpion kebabs are a common street food in Beijing) are readily available and many find them appetizing. But again, eating such things raises the question of choice. Are she and the tattooed man with the skull Jews? Hard to tell, but for my purposes, they are, since they might easily reflect the growing trend among young Jews to adopt this form of body modification. Nevermind that we have always been a people apart; is it really necessary to blatantly remind the world of that fact? What Holocaust survivor still alive wouldn’t shudder at the sight of a young tattooed Jew? Even if said tattooed Jew loudly proclaims that he/she is proud of their Jewishness and wishes the rest of the world to know it?

That is why I’ve placed a Holocaust witness in the background; for perspective. He might be their ancestor observing their assimilation into our surrounding culture. Yet he seems to say that as much as we try to disguise our ‘Nitzotz Ha-Yehudi’ or even to silence it with sheer rebellion, such choices may again become our undoing.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that being ‘cool’ is knowing you don’t need to be.

The illustrations above may be found along with additional footnotes in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).The book is distributed internationally and may be purchased directly from the publisher by calling: 1-800-227-1428 (US), {+44} 0 1926 430111(UK) or visiting http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html.