The Center for Jewish History is a hidden treasure buried in the secular haven of New York City’s West Village. With an intellectually pleasing symmetry, Yeshiva University Museum (housed at the Center) is hosting a profoundly religious exhibit from an extremely secular town. San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum organized In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis. Currently, the center offers a small taste, in Manhattan, of the complete exhibit’s contemplative depth.
In this exhibit, modern artists consider the text of Genesis, particularly as it deals with the creation of the world. For the most part, their ruminations are not particularly textual. Indeed, the exhibit deliberately plays upon the contrast between the textual and the actual. Before entering the main rooms of the exhibit, viewers can examine an “Old World” of text-based contemplations of Genesis in illuminated manuscripts hundreds of years old. Also on display is a Torah scroll in which the first word, “ Bereshit ,” is written in a different hand from the rest of the scroll; the handwriting is reputedly that of the scroll’s owner, the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidism. In these examples of early contemplations of Genesis, the text is at the focal point: Everything else by way of art, as they say, is commentary.
On the wall opposite the manuscripts is technology toying with text: accompanied by a film, a recording plays verses from Genesis, read by Apollo astronauts as they examined the surface of the moon. The deliberate shift to tape from text, and going from the earth-bound imagination of the manuscripts to a new reality no longer circumscribed by terrestrial horizons, epitomizes the exhibit as a whole. Genesis is not something that happened once, the juxtaposition implicitly contends: Creation is something that is happening and continues to happen, as people create their own presents and futures.
This anteroom is deceptive. The exhibit isn’t really about the book of Genesis — instead, it’s actually about what happened before and during the first few chapters of that book. One could even say that it’s really about what happens in the spaces between the words, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” — or, even in the silent space before the first letter was written at all.
By contemplating creation, in short, the exhibit and its artists inevitably tangle with creation’s long-stretching shadow, existence. In doing so, it toys with modernity, in terms of both science and self-perception.
Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s piece examines the idea of tsimtsum and shevirat hakelim , the contraction and shattering of the vessels. Accord-ing to kabbalistic teachings, God contracted in order to make room for the creation of the universe. In doing so, the world order was shattered, leaving humanity to pick up the proverbial pieces and repair the world, or engage in what we know as tikkun olam .
Ukeles’s piece brings together three disparate components of text (the Torah being chanted by three different people), history (her explanation of kabbalist tradition) and individuality. The art demands that viewers participate by signing a covenant of how they will embark on a course of tikkun olam ; the covenants, themselves acts of reparation and creation, are subsequently to be incorporated into the exhibit.
Matthew Ritchie’s “Day One” is an interactive digital animation that attempts to contemplate the role of free will in a created universe by showing pictures of bugs and plants. In contrast, Shirley Shor’s 2008 work, “The Well,” is a swirling digital display of words. The viewer peers down into the dark to see the emerging words contemplating the beginning of salt, or China — disparate triggers to different kinds of histories. What, Shor appears to ask, is the beginning, and to what extent are we as people handicapped by our ability to only contemplate it through the paltry mechanism of language?
Some of the exhibits are done with a deliberate wink and nod to debates on creationism. Alan Berliner’s “Playing God” is a series of digital screens that reduces (or perhaps glorifies) the act of creating the world to a video game, where participants can press red and green buttons upon seeing quotes from Genesis flash on the screen, administering thunder-accompanied lightning bolts in the process. One of the most successfully engaging works in the exhibit is Ben Rubin’s “God’s Breath Hovering Over the Waters (His Master’s Voice),” which allows visitors to listen to remnant sounds from the Big Bang, ears cocked to the side like the RCA Victor dog listening to the gramophone.
This exhibit is an open-minded and egalitarian one — perhaps not so surprising, given its provenance. But I found myself wondering just how reconcilable some of these ideas would be, both to those of a skeptical stripe and those on the more religious end of the spectrum. But skeptics will probably not find their way to this exhibit, sadly enough, and the more religious may find themselves cowed by its deliberate challenges (women reading Torah, for example) and irreverence.
The film “Genesis Now,” a compilation of opinions on Genesis from sources ranging from physics professors to rabbis to authors, is well worth the 35 minutes of screening time. For true contemplation of Genesis, the exhibit suggests both explicitly and implicitly, can no longer be just about the words on the page in the modern age. It’s the conversation this exhibit embodies, and seeks to engender, that itself is the essence of creation.
In the Beginning: Artists Respond to Genesis, presented by the Yeshiva University Museum, will be on view at the Center for Jewish History in New York through February 28.
Jordana Horn is a lawyer and writer at work on her first novel.