Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sacred Spaces for the 21st Century

On our sabbatical road trip we’ve done cities: Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philly and our hometown New York City. Well, we’ve done as much of each as possible with limited time and limited bodies.

It only took us a day to discover that we could only really do one big thing a day—one art museum, one tourist event, one 20-block walk, one history museum or one zoo, the latter a necessary antidote to too much past and too many people.

Standing, staring and shuffling by wonders brings awe as well as neck and back aches—to say nothing of jostling on subways and trains, finding a bathroom and a Starbucks fort the late afternoon treat.

One of the most fascinating small museums we visited is moBia, the Museum of Biblical Art in New York It is a small space upstairs from the American Bible Society store and learning center. This museum offers regular special exhibits, lectures, concerts and workshops.

There was an engaging photographic exhibit of a recent visit to NYC of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, head of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He has been traveling to promote the green agenda, sparing no words to tell the faithful and any who will listen that any act that harms natural resources like water, air, earth counts as a sin against the deity, no exceptions.

The Patriarch claims to trace his apostolic authority to St. Andrew one of Christ’s original biblical disciples. I thought it might have been Bartholomew like his name, but such authenticating details matter little to me.

Bartholomew is a handsome, white-bearded elderly man with an air of dignity and a twinkle in his eye. Particularly engaging was a picture of him laughing as he alighted from a buggie after a horse and buggie ride around Central Park. The ride is one of New York’s famous attractions. I’m quite sure that this green man of God would never have gone on such a ride had he not been assured that the scandal not long ago exposed of abuse of the poor horses had not been corrected. Which it has been.

The main exhibition just now is the work of artist Tobi Kahn. It contains many ceremonial objects for synagogue worship. They combine the symbolism of Jewish rites with functionality and a unique artistic voice—very contemporary, simple lines, using many geometric shapes arranged in patterns that suggest deeper spiritual meaning.

For example, the Torah breastplate which protects the scroll, the law of God so central to Jewish life and religious formation, is a large wooden square composed of many different shapes in relief and arranged in such a way that I at least couldn’t make it conform to something manageable or replicable. Very bold, tangible and made from earthbound material yet mysterious and transcendent.

Where my heart stopped and stayed for some time in spite of my tired feet was to behold what Kahn calls AHMA, four Shalom Bat chairs acrylic on wood creatd in 2008. The chairs are high backed and represent four biblical matriarchs, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and Leah, women without whom there would be no biblical patriarchs, in fact no story at all. But women nonetheless who have been overshadowed by their male counterparts, mentioned yes but not given full honor.

The very tall chair backs are painted with abstract but strongly suggestive patterns of feminine imagery, biology and shape—ova, blood red slashes of color, breasts and roundedness. There isn’t a squared-off shape on any chair.

Kahn made the chairs along with other works in commemoration of his mother. They connect with the ritual ceremony of welcoming and naming a baby girl into a Jewish family. Mothers and grandmothers, maybe even stepmothers or mentor mothers, sit in the chairs during the ceremony. On the back of each chair is space for each girl’s name and the date of her naming to be engraved. A beautiful gift of wholeness (shalom) for the daughers (bat)of Israel and all women, ancient and modern.

Kahn leads workshops for families in which they create their own miniature Shalom Bat chair to commemorate a significant family event or honor the life of a loved one, of either gender I assume and hope. since it would not do for any of us women, no matter how zealous we are to bring women into their rightful places in history and contemporary life, to be exclusive. Women and men and contribute equally and indispensably to every aspect of communal life religious and secular.

I’m grateful for Tobi Kahn’s art for its own beauty’s sake. I’m also grateful that his work serves a politics of justice, inclusion and freedom for humanity.
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I serve as a trustee of the Massachusetts Bible Society (MBS), an organization whose original mission was the distribution of bibles. We wanted people to have them. Our mission today is to promote biblical literacy. We want people not only to have access to bibles but also to to read and interpret biblical wisdom as it enhances everyday living toward a world governed by justice, peace and compassion—central biblical themes.

The MBS motto is "One Book, Many voices" meaning the bible is composed of many voices and also that it takes many voices to participate in biblical study to keep this book alive for every culture and person.

Just as every age develops it own aesthetic, so very era must find spiritual wisdom appropriate to its particular situation and a message of liberation for its day.

The bible is a vast and supple library of resources for this endeavor. Such amplitude is why many call this book holy and why biblical word, theme and insight continue to flavor literature as well as the secret desires of every longing heart.