Ki Tissa -- Exodus 30:11-34:35

CoverDesign_KiTissaIn Ki Tissa, design of the Tabernacle is assigned to the wise-hearted artisans, Bezalel and Aholiav. We hear the echo of their influence in Israel even today.

For example, the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, established in 1906 by artist Boris Schatz, has evolved into one of the world's most prestigious art schools. We learn this week why the name Bezalel is synonymous with more than a century of Israeli art, innovation, and academic excellence. Bezalel’s namesake shines -- the school is responsible for producing numerous artistic breakthroughs and has demonstrated a remarkable ability to respond and adapt to cultural changes. If its numerous generations of graduates – the vanguard of Israeli artists, designers, and architects, both in Israel and around the globe – is any indication, then Bezalel remains as strong an influence as ever in Israeli society.

But how does Moses relate to the innovations of Bezalel’s design? Acting as the communal leader, Moses seems to have missed the deadline, and does not return from atop Mount Sinai exactly when expected (32:1). This leads the Israelites to sculpt a molten calf of gold and worship it (32:6). When he finally returns, Moses sees his people dancing around this idol and smashes the first set of tablets, destroys the molten calf, and executes the culprits behind this moment of grave idolatry. Then, in a moment of great empathic compassion, Moses turns to God and says: “If You do not forgive them, then blot me out of the book that You have written!” (32:32)

Perhaps this eruption of empathic compassion is what allows Moses to formulate a second set of tablets upon his next ascent to Sinai. When Moses is able to be truly present to the others in his community, no matter how errant, he is then granted a vision of the divine, through the thirteen attributes of mercy.

After Auschwitz, the great French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) took this remarkable moment of Moses’ request for a complete encounter with the divine “face” (33:20) only to be granted a view of “the other side” (33:23) to teach us that every human encounter with "the other" presents us with a trace of the divine.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: Another in our series of original illustrations inspired by mid-20th century graphic design. Although the artwork specifically depicts the Israelites' worship of the golden calf in this week's parsha, it is more generally inspired by the relationship between fear, ecstasy, resignation, and faith (of a certain kind) -- think Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling or, if you prefer the philosophy of another brilliant anti-Semite, think of Arthur Schopenhauer's notion of the sublime providing supreme liberation through self-negation. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

"Current Dilemmas In Exhibiting Art In Israel"

This past Thursday evening, the Achshav Yisrael committee of CBS presented its third program, "Current Dilemmas In Exhibiting Art In Israel," in Koret Hall.

Dr. Noam Gal, the Horace and Grace Goldsmith Curator of Photography and the Head of the Noel and Harriette Levine Photography Department at the Israel Museum (in Jerusalem, Israel), provided an enthusiastic group of congregants and members of the general community with an engaging and occasionally provocative survey of some of his recent curatorial efforts for the museum.

In addition to his Bachelor’s degree in Visual Communication (Bezalel Academy of Art and Design) and Master's in Cultural Studies (The Hebrew University), Dr. Gal received a doctorate in Comparative Literature from Yale University. Perhaps he was drawn to comparative literature because of his special affinity for documentary photography, which is a highly narrative art form and one plainly informed by and connected to other spheres of human activity, including history, politics, philosophy, and science -- just consider the prominent social role of contemporary photojournalism.

Yet, although documentary photography is among the most obviously socially-oriented mediums, Dr. Gal insisted that "all art is necessarily political" because of what we, the viewers, bring to it. We're all political animals -- even those of us who like to claim otherwise! -- and we automatically bring our experience and ideologies to bear on any artwork we view. When an audience member asked if politics could be "taken out" of art (a question that resonates especially in the context of contemporary Israel society), Dr. Gal replied that it would be "blasphemous" to do so. All art is part of our visual culture, he insisted, and should therefore be considered through the lens of critical cultural theory.

Dr. Gal is dedicated to educating the public -- especially younger audiences -- about photography's political and social significance, and his curatorial choices reflect this commitment. For example, in order to enhance the resonance of artifacts and artworks in the permanent collection of the Israel Museum, Dr. Gal made what could be described as a series of curatorial interventions. A particularly compelling instance of such an intervention was his installation of four photographs from the turn of the 20th century, two by Russian-born Israeli photographer Yaakov Ben Dov (1882-1968) and two by Khalil Raad (1854–1957), known as "Palestine's first Arab photographer." These four photos were hung nearby iconic Israeli painter Reuven Rubin's "First Fruits" (1923). "First Fruits" famously depicts Israel's "new kind of Jew" -- in Rubin's words, "the halutzim with their bronzed faces and open shirts." Ben Dov's photographs of Jewish pioneers engaged in agricultural activities in Palestine ("Planting young citrus trees" and "Youngsters carrying saplings," circa 1910) echo Rubin's early Zionist imagery, whereas Raad's photos of Palestine's Arabs ("Olive harvest" and "Picking oranges," 1910) highlight another, soon-to-be-competing national narrative that was taking root in the land.

Following the screening and lecture, some of the guests gathered in a small group for an intimate discussion of the photography and ideas presented by Dr. Gal.

CBS gives a hearty todah rabbah to Dr. Gal for his time and insight, the Achshav Yisrael committee for its work on this program, and congregant Gary Sokol for greasing the wheels that made last night's program possible! Thanks, too, to the Israel Museum for letting us borrow Dr. Gal, and for donating copies of the Israel Museum magazine for program guests to take home.

Check out some photos from the program below.

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ABOUT ACHSHAV YISRAEL: Achshav Yisrael’s mission is to provide quality programming about Israel to Congregation Beth Sholom and the broader community. Achshav Yisrael programs are open to all age groups and will occur on a regular basis. We intend to create a safe space at CBS for community exploration of Israel.

Achshav Yisrael Steering Committee Members: Eileen Auerbach, Alex Bernstein, Becky Buckwald, Sandra Cohen, Betsy Eckstein, Eva-Lynne Leibman, Ephraim Margolin, Lucia Sommers

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