A Hands-On Approach to Torah

Courtesy of Contemporary Jewish Museum

By Ruth Abusch-Magder

Published January 06, 2010, issue of January 15, 2010.
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San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum is taking a hands-on approach to learning Torah. Literally. Set to open on January 24, the exhibition From Verse to Universe: Reading the People’s Torah provides a unique opportunity for individuals to put their personal stamp on a letter of a Torah for the digital age.

Created by New York-based interactive studios Cabengo LLC and Studio Mobile, the exhibition is the concluding exhibit in part of a yearlong show that also involves a traditional scribe. A collaboration among Hillary Leone, Mirek Nisenbaum, Fred Fauquette and Juan Sarria, the People’s Torah pushes the edge of technology while engaging tradition.

In its most static form, the People’s Torah is a video screen with a verse of the Torah floating in the middle. The interactive exhibit invites visitors to scan in an image of their hand, which is projected onto a screen. The literal vision of the hand is then abstracted into a multitude of small dots, which are subsequently reconstituted into a letter of a verse, so that each hand scan corresponds to one letter in the Torah. Each new hand scan adds the next letter to that verse, until the entire Five Books of Moses have been compiled.

In the traditional Torah scroll, each letter, while precise and clearly distinguished, blends together with other letters in the sea of verses that sit snuggly, line after line, column after column. In the People’s Torah, only a single verse is visible at a time, and our attention is focused not on the words, but on each individual letter, which is revealed and added, one by one. Promoting the rabbinic concept that each letter of the Torah corresponds to a soul, the installation focuses attention on the individual and the letter that he or she creates.

The effect of the modern white Hebrew script on a black background provides a contrast to the traditional Torah scroll, whose black letters jump out from pale, creamy parchment. This play on colors recalls the rabbinic understanding that the Torah was written “black fire on white fire” — black fire referring to the actual letters, the literal text, and white fire referring to the space between the letters, the many possibilities for interpreting the text. According to Leone, “the People’s Torah emerges from this conversation — between the letters and the white space, between the text that is written and the text to be written.”

More than 300,000 people — roughly the number of letters that comprises a Torah — can participate in the exhibition, which allows people to “join hands” in the creation of this communal, virtual rendering of the Torah.

Pushing the boundaries of space, as well as imagination, visitors need not come to San Francisco to participate in or experience this work of Torah interpretation. The People’s Torah exists on the Web, as well as on the wall of the museum. Members of the public can submit the scans of their hands either at the museum or on its Web site at www.peoplestorah.org.

All participants, regardless of location, can then access and engage with the shape and form of their letter with a unique cyberlink to a virtual image. Others can explore this interactive collaborative Torah at the exhibition’s Web site.

The People’s Torah is the finale in a show called As It Is Written, Project 304,805, a live exhibit centered on Julie Seltzer, the scribe, who is writing out the entire text of the Torah while on public view. Seen in context, it is a fascinating commentary on what it means to write a Torah — an accomplishment traditionally reserved for men. The hallway that welcomes visitors is lined with wallpaper that uses symbols to codify each of the 613 mitzvahs found in the Torah. Jumping out from the wash of mitzvahs along the wall are brown stickers that periodically draw our attention to the 613th commandment, which states that each Jew must take it upon himself or herself to write a Torah.

The museum is the first public institution to reveal this private process, and entering the gallery, we come to learn just how challenging it is to fulfill this obligation. The detailed rules and precise tools of Torah writing are on display, and at the center sits Seltzer, writing a scroll with painstaking precision and spiritual intent. Experiencing the show not only creates a deep understanding of the traditional process, but also fosters an appreciation of the intentionality of this ancient, sacred act.

The juxtaposition of these two very different approaches to writing a Torah is at once jarring and inspiring. Both are highly sophisticated undertakings — one unchanged for thousands of years, the other so clearly of the 21st century. While some might be tempted to dismiss the People’s Torah as gimmicky in comparison to the traditional writing of a Torah, the show suggests quite the opposite. As It Is Written provides those who enter the exhibition with a challenging narrative. Appraised of the obligation to write a Torah, provided with an understanding of the seriousness with which such an undertaking takes place, the exhibit brings us through a gallery that showcases the works of artists who have themselves been commissioned to interpret through a visual modality one of the weekly Torah portions. Even these modern and less conventional acts of Torah commentary are textured and refined. Torah is a serious business, but it is an obligation not only upon each of us, but also accessible to each of us.

It is into this narrative, then, that the public is invited to place their imprint on the Torah. Our hands are markers of individuality: the lines that make up our fingerprints, the relative size, the length and grooming of our nails, and the shape we choose to make when we place them on the scan. This hands-on Torah allows people around to world to add their imprint to a timeless conversation with ancient Jewish text and tradition, and, in his/her own way, “write” a portion of Torah.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder is Director of Continuing Alumni Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is a scholar of Jewish food and customs who lives and cooks in San Francisco.

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