24 July 2017

Artwork Highlights King Solomon’s Formula for Jewish Unity

by Mel Alexenberg

The Israel rabbinate’s blacklist of 160 rabbis in the Diaspora on top of the Kotel and conversion fiascos is the newest act designed to alienate the majority of the Jewish People. What next? 

I created an environmental artwork at Sodom that presents a formula proposed by King Solomon for achieving Jewish unity.  Solomon’s formula is desperately needed today to prevent the Jewish people from tearing itself apart.  It proposes that creating community that honors differences evokes a Divine voice expressing great joy (Babylonian Talmud: Eruvin 21b and Shabbat 14b). 

The wisdom of King Solomon provides an authentic Jewish response to the unwise actions of what Jerusalem Post columnist Gil Troy calls “the haredi my-way-or-the-highway bullies.”  Rabbi David Stav states that since Judaism is inclusive and welcoming, the rabbinate is not representative of Judaism but, rather an arm of haredi political parties. 

Solomon’s formula links an easement permitting carrying on the Sabbath (eruv) and ritual hand washing (n’tilat yadayim).  Building an eruv is a collective act that creates community while n’tilat yadaim is the private act that highlights differences by holding up hands to view fingerprints. Twice in the Talmud we are told that this linkage evoked a heavenly voice expressing great joy at King Solomon’s wise action. Solomon’s formula teaches that community symbolized by eruv coupled with individuality symbolized by n’tilat yadayim leads to the highest good when human beings create community that honors what is unique in each individual.

What is so significant about laws relating to carrying on Shabbat and ritual hand-washing that taken together elicit the highest level of Divine rejoicing?  If one were to choose two laws to express the central values of Judaism, it would seem that others would have been singled out.

The response to this question came as a sudden insight while I was standing at the lowest spot on Planet Earth, at Sodom, the desolate site of the notorious biblical city of ill fame that brought down God’s great wrath.  Rather than a verbal response, my response as an artist appeared to me in visual and spacial form.  It set in motion the creation of an environmental artwork with the involvement of my wife Miriam, my art students, and Israel’s telephone company.  

I worked with my students to surround a hill at the site with an eruv constructed with seven telephone poles connected by rope lintels. My wife Miriam worked with her ceramics students in Yeroham to create hand-washing vessels, each reflecting the distinctive vision of each student. They crowned ten short poles that followed the natural ridgeline of the hill.  From a distance, the vessel-topped poles looked like a minyan of people, the quorum needed to create a community of worshippers. (See photo above.) 

An eruv demarcates a time-activated boundary around a community within which observant Jews can carry between their homes and the street on the Sabbath day. The concept of eruv makes life more pleasant on Shabbat.  An eruv permits a Jew to observe the law with comfort by expanding the boundaries around one’s homestead.  It is commonly constructed with a series of poles connected on the top by a cord in a post and lintel form known as tzurat hapetah, “the form of the opening.” It is instructive that the open-ended thought patterns of Jewish consciousness are reflected in the structure of the eruv, a fence built of open forms. Today, most villages, towns, and cities in Israel have constructed an eruv as have hundreds of communities in the Diaspora.  Entering the word “eruv” in Google yields 334,000 sites (July 11, 2017). 

N’tilat yadaim, meaning “raising of hands,” is a hand-washing ceremony performed on waking in the morning to celebrate the wonder of wakefulness. It is the first religious act of the day that is repeated throughout the day before meals and after using the toilet to sanctify one’s everyday actions.  It is a private act after which our two hands are raised revealing the uniqueness of our fingerprints while reciting a blessing linking this mundane act to Divine infinitude. Fingerprints symbolize individual differences; no two people have the same fingerprint patterns.

As I stood before the hill while constructing the eruv, I focused on two purple mountain ranges on the other side of the Dead Sea that emerged in a haze like two wings. The mountain range in to the south of my Sodom hill is Edom, the biblical home of Amalek who attacked and murdered the straggling Israelites, weak from their slavery, as they trekked through the desert. The range to the north is Moav, the birthplace of Ruth, progenitor of kings David and Solomon, whose conversion would not be recognized by today’s rabbinate.  

The two mountain ranges look alike on the surface, mirror images masking differences between evil and goodness.  Sodom is known for its bureaucratic idol of standardization that denies individuality. The Midrash tells us that when a traveler was unfortunate enough to seek hospitality among the Sodomites, official policy prohibited turning him away to spend the night in a forbidding wasteland. That would have been patently unforgivable. He was invited instead to enter the city and spend the night in a bed – a standard bed. If the guest chanced to be taller than average, his obliging hosts resolved the dilemma of long legs by cutting them off to fit the length of the bed. If he was too short, his arms and legs would be tied to a torturous mechanism that would stretch him until he fit.  What was intolerable to the Dead Sea denizens was deviation from their arbitrary norm.  It is this behavior in which the letter of the law is fulfilled while ignoring its true intentions and spiritual worth that the Talmud refers to as “acting in the manner of Sodom.”   

Walking up the hill in the heat of the day, visitors looked down at the blue sky shimmering on the surface of the water in the vessels. They were pleasantly surprised when they dipped their fingers into the water and found that the water had been kept cool by its evaporation through the semi-porous unglazed pottery.  I felt that my artwork at Sodom had created a symbolic field of energy that could disarm contemporary reincarnations of the Sodom mentality by teaching that the highest good is reached when we create community that honors what is unique in each person. Creating community that pays tribute to the emergence of multiple viewpoints and facilitates its free expression invites God’s greatest joy. 

This past Shabbat, when the Torah scroll was placed in the ark, I joined the congregation is singing “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.”  These words from Proverbs teach about ‘ways’ and ‘paths,’ not about the singular ‘way’ and ‘path.’  I then took three steps into a new reality to quietly daven the Mussaf service.  In the congregation’s silence, I could hear God weeping.

The author is professor emeritus of art and Jewish thought at Ariel University, former professor at Columbia University, and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  He is author of The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press).    

From The Jerusalem Post, July 16, 2017

No comments: