The eclectic “Secular by Halacha” exhibition at the Nahum Gutman Museum in Tel Aviv opened on January 23 and will run until May 5. The exhibition, which focuses on Jewish learning within the secular public, is inspired by the Jewish world and responds to it through reinterpretation, gesture and criticism.
“Secular by Halacha” consists of a collection of paintings, photographs, movie clips, speeches, poems and Talmudic texts depicted by 24 artists. Each presents its own dialogue about the renewal of the Jewish spirit and the changes in the definitions of the self within the secular public.
On a tour of the exhibition, Noam Wenkert, one of the 24 artists, highlighted one of the exhibits: texts by Haim Nachman Bialik and Yosef Chaim Brenner, in which they argue about the meaning of Jewish culture. Wenkert explained that she had studied at Bina, a secular Torahlearning center, where she was exposed to texts she had never heard of before. The learning at Bina was not systematic but eclectic, she said.
One of the stories that struck her was about Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai. He and his son hid from the Romans in a cave in the Galilee for four years, buried up to their necks, eating only the fruit from a carob tree. This story was the inspiration behind the large gouache and pastel portrait of herself as the bearded rabbi that is on exhibit.
“I reflected the story in a few other works I did, which dealt with the decision to become an artist,” she told The Jerusalem Post
. “The choice to become an artist comes from the tension between being someone who does and changes things and someone who decides to retreat and observe from the sidelines.”
Wenkert pointed out that “There are some important things in the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai.”
She was impressed by his decision to retreat from the world and submerge himself in a spiritual existence. Wenkert also referred to “the matter of burying one’s self.” She explained that in the cave, Bar- Yochai was said to have buried himself up to his neck in order to preserve his clothes for prayer. “But there is also the aspect of someone who disconnects from the body,” she added.
“It is also said that he could burn things with his eyes. The eyes are a passive tool, yet the idea that eyes can burn something is a fantasy for an artist. I tried to paint the body in such a way that although covered, it would have life and fire,” she said.
Curator Monica Lavi was inspired to create the exhibition through her own experiences at the secular beit midrash Kolot, where she studied five years ago.
“It was my first acquaintance with the phenomenon of secular Torah learning. It was during the 2011 social justice protests on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv,” she explained.
Lavi said that the conversations that took place when people gathered to talk about the protest felt like the discussions in a beit midrash. She said the people were not arguing but listening to one another “without trying to win or be smarter or more just.” Something about the setting, she said, enabled a different way of speaking.
“Unfortunately, it quickly changed; but for a while, it felt like a new type of dialogue in Israel,” she said.
The curation process for the exhibition took about a year and a half, “and it evolved and changed,” she said.
At first, Lavi wanted to create an exhibition “that dealt with faith, society and art.” But then “I chose one of the many ideas I had and concentrated on the way the secular beit midrash has changed society in 25 years,” she explained.
Lavi said she was “looking for the secular perspective on Jewish culture.” An examination of Judaism she said, reveals that it belongs to every Jew.
“I think that today we can look back at our ancestors in the Diaspora without fear. Judaism is not what it was two centuries ago. Now we can look at the texts without being afraid of being obligated to observe the Torah entirely,” she said. “We are not afraid anymore because we have our own identity. Therefore, we can once again examine texts and not be afraid that it is about becoming religious. Identities are evolving.”
Lavi compared the craftsmanship of the painted wooden synagogues in Poland to her work curating today. “The way the painting went together with the practice in the synagogue,” she said.
The writer is a graduate of London´s Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design and curator at Marrache Fine Art Jerusalem.