Current controversy around a work of art has me asking this question: what is our obligation to respect what is sacred to others, especially if it has no such significance to ourselves? In this story, four different notions of the sacred have come into conflict. Talk about a teachable moment! What can be learned from it?
First, the story:
Richard Kamler, a visual artist whose approach is strongly grounded in social issues, is charging that his artwork has been censored by the organizers of a show at the John Ely Center for Contemporary Art in New Haven, an exhibit sponsored by the Orchard Street Shul Cultural Heritage Artists Project, focused on saving an old synagogue building designated as a historic site. In the words of the organizers,
The Cultural Heritage Project brings together a diverse group of regionally and nationally noted professionals working with a trans-disciplinary methodology, whose work is inspired by community, neighborhood, history, architecture, and cultural tradition. Collectively and individually, the group is creating visual, written and sound works exploring and engaging with the history and changes of the OSS, contributing to its heritage and furthering a dialogue on its cultural relevance and role in an evolving urban community.
In an email conversation with other activist artists, Kamler described his piece as follows:
I’ve taken pages from the Koran and the Bible and sections from these pages and “woven” them together to create a 4′ x 6′ paper table cloth. The common ground. Because the sections are about 1″ wide, there is still a readable narrative, tho, somewhat disjointed. It is placed on a middle eastern looking piece of fabric and in the center is a bowl and the two books are resting in the bowl, corners touching. As in much of my work I contextualize it with series of Community Conversations, a performance event, if you will, that bring together, in this case, two voices from the Muslim community, a scholar and a member of the community, and two voices from the Jewish community, a member of the Shul and a scholar to dialogue round the table, the common ground, the context for communication to occur.
Here’s a link to a story about the controversy from the New Haven Register.
So what might it mean?
The first sacred thing: holy books. In what I have read about the controversy, no one has fully explained what it is about cutting sacred texts into strips that is perceived as giving offense. Orthodox (and many other) Jews and Muslims regard their sacred texts as repositories of holiness, and therefore to be treated very differently from ordinary books. Both religions prescribe ways of disposing of damaged copies of the Torah or Qur’an, usually by burning or burying in a ritual manner with appropriate prayers and blessings. Even in our own time, incidents of perceived desecration have caused riots, creating headlines.
In the online discussion of the controversy around his artwork, Kamler suggests that the fact that he did not use an actual Torah scroll or an all-Arabic Qu’ran mitigates this quality of sacredness, but for believers in these principles, the paper and language make no difference. For Jewish strict constructionists, in fact, any page that contains a divine name must be treated in the same fashion. The other night, I printed out a Web page of Hanukkah blessings for candle-lighting. At the bottom of the screen was this legend: “Please note that this page contain the name of G-d. If you print it out, please treat it with appropriate respect.”
The second sacred thing: freedom of choice. Years ago, I was privileged to study briefly with a wonderful teacher: Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, whose memory is cherished by all who knew him. As a young man, he studied in a Hassidic world that was bounded by strong imperatives and prohibitions. Anyone who has read the Hebrew bible knows that the prohibition against idolatry pervades every book. In a literal sense, this refers to making images that purport to represent the divine and are invested with spiritual power. A classic text is in Isaiah 44, which highlights the perceived absurdity of hewing wood that is used both for cooking and to fashion a god:
16. Half of it he burnt with fire, on half of it he ate meat, he roasted a roast and became sated; he even warmed himself and said, “Aha, I am warm, I see fire.”
17. And what is left over from it he made for a god, for his graven image; he kneels to it and prostrates himself and prays to it, and he says, “Save me, for you are my god.”
In an important midrash, Abraham demonstrates the absurdity of idolatry when put in care of the shop of his father, an idol-seller. He smashes all but the largest of the idols, in whose hand he places the hammer. He tells his father the idols got into a fight, and the largest destroyed the others. Of course, the father doesn’t buy the story. And thus the son refutes idol-worship.
The political intention of these passages is to exalt belief in a unified divine force unlimited by body or image, setting believers apart from those who practice sacrifices and make obeisances to idols. The larger interpretation, the one that goes to essence and removes the condemnation of idolatry from a specific historical reference, is to see it as a prohibition against worshipping our own creations—which seems to me a salutary message in a culture that prostrates itself before money and power.
But in between those poles of interpretation is a story Reb David told (please excuse my mistakes in retelling it, memory being fallible). Venturing out from the circumscribed world of his youth, he visited a Zen monastery. There he found himself drawn to many of the practices he encountered, but something repelled him. Speaking with the abbot, who had been raised as a Jew, he gestured at the many images of the Buddha, the statues and scrolls and shrines in the zendo, saying he could not worship idols. The abbot arose, grasped one of the Buddha figures, and smashed it to bits on the floor. Then he turned to ask David this: “Could you do that with your Torah?”
I have thought many times about this story. My world is full of symbolic objects I would not dream of smashing. I cannot speak for Richard Kamler or any other artist, but I’m guessing that if the paper that was cut into strips to make someone’s work of art depicted something or someone I cherish above all else, I would have to struggle with my discomfort, and perhaps even stronger feelings than discomfort. I would try, because I am a civil libertarian: many of us bristle at absolute prohibitions grounded in religious practice because they seem to preclude freedom of choice, the freedom to assign value as we choose without constraint. When ideas of the sacred come into conflict with that prized freedom, we choose what we perceive as a greater good. But what about whatever we hold sacred? How does it feel when those idols are smashed?
The third sacred thing: freedom of expression. Virtually all artists see as sacrosanct the right to uncensored freedom of expression. This feels so fundamental, so important, and so much a sacred donnée that an entire contest of basic values can unfold without the artists involved recognizing that they are enmeshed in a clash of first principles, rather than a war between simple ignorance and simple virtue. When push comes to shove, we all recognize some limit on freedom of expression—”Fire!” in a crowded theater. But it becomes most important to clearly perceive the complexities when the conflict is your sacred versus mine, and easy assumptions of virtue no longer apply.
The fourth sacred thing: true collaboration. I have thought and written a great deal about arts work that touches on social issues, helping to create real dialogue and participation in making meaning and making beauty. My conclusion is that to be of most value, the dialogue must precede the making (and ideally, continue long after). I don’t know if Richard Kamler, obviously a caring and thoughtful artist, would have made this piece in the same way if he had engaged with community members in a deeper, real-time investigation of the sacred in their lives. If the strips of paper that formed the ground of his piece had been imprinted with other symbols of each culture and belief-system, rather than taken from sacred texts, it is almost certain the outcome would have been different. Artists who are most adept at this type of collaboration are generally aware that their work lives or dies on what is most meaningful to their partners. When sufficient time and effort are invested to learn that, and when what is learned is respected, this type of conflict rarely ensues.
This controversy is a virtual onion of irony, layer upon layer to be unpeeled. Perhaps the greatest irony is this: that the artist’s stated intention was to create “common ground” between members of the Orchard Street Shul (and others like them) on the one hand, and members (and others like them) of the mosque around the corner. Insofar as they might respond with identical shock and outrage to the perceived desecration of their respective sacred texts, this intention succeeded. But finding common ground with the artist, not so much.
What is our obligation to respect what is sacred to others, especially if it has no such significance to ourselves? In Jewish teaching, we have the famous story of Rabbi Hillel, who was born in Babylon 2000 years ago. He was challenged to explain the whole of the Torah to a non-Jew during the space of time the man could stand on one foot. Hillel said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary; now, go and learn.” In contrast, Shammai, his Talmudic debating partner, dismissed the request, finding it unworthy of respect. I’m with the house of Hillel on this one.