Lipstick on Torah Scroll Part 3

4 Feb

By David Sperber |

27 Ken Goldman, Torah Mantle, 2006, mixed media

Well-versed yet subversive

It is interesting to observe how the “Judaica Twist” draws contemporary Jewish art closer to themes and patterns of thought already familiar to us from modern Jewish literature, cinema and theater. Scholars have pointed out that modern Jewish creativity – from “Mendele Mokher Seforim” to Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer to Woody Allen and the Coen brothers – is often critical and even subversive, frequently employing comic elements and self-humor. Use of humor can also be found in Jewish sources from the more distant past: the Babylonian Talmud tells us that the sage Rabba would begin his lectures in the academy with “words of levity.” Kabbalah scholar Yehuda Liebes has demonstrated the function of humor and comedy in the Zohar literature as well; the task of the Levites in the Temple was not limited to the singing of psalms, according to the Zohar: they were also “the king’s jester,” that is, they were charged with amusing God, King of the Universe. Even the Binding of Isaac, that deathly serious episode in the Jewish constitutive myth, has a grain of humor in it, in the Zohar’s reading, according to Liebes’s interpretation: “In the Binding of Isaac, Abraham had to prove that he possessed a sense of humor. Anyone with a sense of humor would have understood immediately that all would end well. The tragic, terrible Binding, when awe and trembling reach a climax […[ therefore becomes in the Zohar a kind of gag, a prank of decidedly macabre humor […].”

The works of Ken Goldman, an industrial designer who is also an artist, also manifest this approach. His pieces connect various ends not usually perceived as constituting a harmonious whole. His lighthearted approach trains an amused gaze on the subjects treated and, at the same time, maintains a running dialogue with the multilayered world of Jewish tradition. The critical gaze doesn’t hold back: it is inquisitive, subversive and irreverent. In this way, issues of identity, gender, and ritual are all subjected to renewed scrutiny.

Goldman’s Torah mantle imprinted with kisses of red lipstick alludes to the custom of kissing the Torah scroll in the synagogue, as it is carried from the pulpit, past the congregants and back again (see fig. 27). The comic aspect of the artistic act is clear, but beyond that, it also recalls to us that in the traditional synagogue, women’s yearning for the Torah scroll remains permanently unsatisfied, since they are permitted only to peek at it, from behind the partition. The erotic aspect of imprinting lipstick kisses, while evoking the familiar metaphor of the love-relationship between the Torah and the Jewish people, refers also to traditional realia in which ceremonial textiles for the synagogue (ark cover curtains, Torah scroll mantles, etc.) were made by women, often from the women’s own worn-out garments. Goldman thus introduces the latent eroticism of ceremonial objects into halakhic discourse. This very issue was already addressed in a responsum by one of the most prominent Ashkenazi halakhic authorities in the sixteenth century: “A woman’s colored garments inflame men’s imagination and provoke carnal thoughts; therefore, they are not appropriate for use in ceremonial objects.”

– Translated from the Hebrew by Sara Friedman

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