It takes some kind of chutzpah to announce at your wedding that you’re going to rewrite Deuteronomy because you find it offensive. But what kind of person turns such a wedding proclamation into an art exhibit?
Melissa Shiff — a postmodern Canadian Jewish performance artist who was married by a secular humanist rabbi at a Toronto distillery — is all about rewrites, specializing in “reinventing and reinvigorating Jewish ritual for the modern-day world.”
Shiff is in Prague to debut her “Reframing Ritual: Postmodern Jewish Wedding” to a generally conservative Czech audience.
Her wedding video has been installed on the bimah of Prague’s 19th-century Moor-inspired Spanish Synagogue.
The 24-minute video of Shiff’s 2003 marriage features numerous moments of reinventing, such as the image of the bride covered in Hebrew sentences flowing from a projector, spelling out the Torah portion in which Rebecca veils herself in front of Isaac.
Shiff then turns to the audience and unveils herself, an act paired with words from Genesis displayed on the chupah-cum-movie screen: “She took the veil and covered herself.”
Footage of wedding scenes from Yiddish films of the 1920s and ’30s flashes around the room, accompanied by remixed klezmer music.
Shiff tells the audience that it’s “very important to transform aspects of our Jewish inheritance that are based on patriarchal rule and oppression of women. That is why we have decided to rewrite the following offensive passage in Deuteronomy concerning marriage.”
The verses in question state: “If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her (Deuteronomy 22:13)… and say: I took this woman and when I came near to her, I found no tokens of virginity in her (part of Deuteronomy 22:14) … If this thing was true, [and] there have not been found tokens of virginity in the damsel: then shall they lead out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die (Deuteronomy 22:21).”
The piece, to be shown as part of the centennial program at Prague’s Jewish Museum through June 4, along with more familiar Jewish wedding paraphernalia from the Czech lands, left the large crowd assembled for Shiff’s Prague debut in deep if puzzled reflection. Those not disposed to reinterpreting the Old Testament might misconstrue Shiff as a shrill, antagonistic feminist bent on crossing out every “he” in the prayer book.
Asked what gives her the right to rework Deuteronomy, Shiff responds: “We all already have done the reinterpretation, even if we haven’t changed the text. Women are not stoned to death for not being virgins. Change is a part of every living culture. We’re supposed to respond to the gift of the Torah, and what I do is in the tradition of the Mishnah and the Gemara.”
Shiff, who describes herself as “post-denominational,” said that she’s not out to destroy tradition. Instead, she said, she “uses tools from the Electric Age so that ritual is not mired in the Stone Age.”
Trained at Tufts University and at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Shiff is committed to making Jewish-themed art that combats injustice.
In 2002 she created an “Elijah Chair” with an inset video monitor showing endless doors opening, equating Judaism with hospitality. That piece is in the permanent collection of The Jewish Museum.
Her most recent project, “Gender Cuts/The Jew Under the Knife,” a commentary on circumcision, was featured October 2005 at a University of Toronto cultural festival.
As images of a bris are projected repeatedly over a pillow in an “Abrahamic” tent, audio commentaries on the male initiation range from a fervently Orthodox rabbi to a radical feminist who advocates replacing circumcision with painless rite-of-passage ceremonies for both girls and boys.
“Gender Cuts” argues that women are “cut out” of the covenant between God and his people, beginning with circumcision.
“Some mothers came out of the tent in tears,” Shiff said. In what easily could be understood as a reference to all her work, she added: “People don’t look during the brith milah, so I am making them look.”