June 08, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove


Next time you enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art, keep going straight behind the information desk and continue beneath the stairs; pass the David plates to your right, and come into the Medieval Sculpture Hall. Before passing through the monumental gate that would take you to the Dutch Masters, make a left, and continue past the French Renaissance and the porcelain-mounted furniture and into the breathtaking atrium filled with European sculpture. As you hit the nineteenth-century sculpture vestibule, make another left, and enter room 556, the Iris and Gerald Cantor Gallery, filled with late nineteenth-century decorative arts. Walking counterclockwise into the room, look to your right at waist-height: there, next to a Belgian vase, a French beaker, and a Russian cigarette case, you will find an object (really two) that became a favorite discovery of mine on a recent Shabbat afternoon visit to the Met.

The objects in question are a pair of silver finials – rimonim – decorative ornaments to adorn the Torah scroll. Bells hang from these particular rimonim – just like on the ones we use here in our synagogue – a reminder of the decorative bells on the garments worn by the priests who served the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. This pair is inscribed in memory of a Michael Goralshvilli’s father Jacob, which enables us to date them to the Caucasus region in 1895. Small as they are, every panel is etched with passages from the Bible, Mishnah, and other classic Jewish texts.

Why, you may wonder, of all the objects in the Met, have these two objects caught my attention? They are beautiful, but they are not the most beautiful objects in the Museum or even in that room. They are not even most beautiful rimonim at the Met. To see those, you must go to Italian decorative arts to see a pair of ornate rimonim from Padua, prominently displayed center stage in room 508.

I think I love these rimonim so much because as a Jew, when I see them sitting there so unassumingly, I am filled with pride. Material artifacts of my people holding pride of place among the other great cultures showcased at the Met. I watch other visitors to the Met, of varied ethnicities, races, and faiths, checking out the treasures of my people. I love The Jewish Museum up the street, a subject which we will take up in just a moment, but it is nothing short of a kiddush hashem, a sanctification of God’s name, to put the material beauty of our people on display to a non-Jewish audience who would never think to step foot into a Jewish museum or into any Jewish space at all.

Upon deeper reflection, I am intrigued by these rimonim because seeing them in the Met has stirred in me all sorts of thoughts about how Judaism interacts with the broader cultures in which it functions. In the case of these particular finials, their eclectic shape reveals both Ottoman-era architectural influence and neo-Gothic – very different from the ones in the Italian room from the late Baroque and Rococo period. Their design, material, and motifs reflect an ongoing cultural exchange between the Jewish community that produced them and the Eurasian context that gave them life. It is no crime to walk around the Met smiling inwardly as you pass a Soutine, a Chagall, or a Rothko; that’s a bit like counting Jewish Nobel laureates. But the really interesting question is the question of cultural exchange. What about Chagall is distinctly Jewish and what about Chagall is just quintessentially Modernist? Is there anything actually Jewish about Rothko? What makes Jewish art “Jewish,” and what does it mean when so-called Jewish art has more in common with the non-Jewish art of its era than it does with Jewish art of another context or period? On the matter of cultural exchange between Jewish art and its non-Jewish context, the questions are as numerous as they are complex and intriguing.

Such questions, always fascinating, have taken on an heightened edge in the last few weeks in the online magazine Mosaic with regard not to the Metropolitan Museum, but The Jewish Museum, also just a few blocks from the synagogue. In a recent article entitled “The Wreck of The Jewish Museum,” the journalist Menachem Wecker takes the recently revamped Jewish Museum to task for abdicating, in his estimation, its historic mission. Wecker cites the words of past JTS Chancellor Louis Finkelstein, who declared the mission of The Jewish Museum as celebrating “the singular beauty of Jewish life…,” a mission which, in Wecker’s view, has been replaced by an effort by the Museum’s present leadership to submerge Jewish identity in a sea of “universal values.” From the Deborah Kass “OY” sculpture at the entrance to the main exhibit to the painting of an Ethiopian Israeli by the same non-Jewish artist who painted President Obama's portrait to the current multimedia celebration of the music of Leonard Cohen to a display of Hanukkah menorahs, the list of wrongs committed by The Jewish Museum as enumerated by Wecker (and a series of “amen corner” follow-up pieces) is both long and damning. For Wecker, The Jewish Museum has sold its soul; in his estimation, the new installations are a travesty for what was once the leading Jewish museum in America.

Before I weigh in with my thoughts, I must state two things. First, and I should have said this earlier, everything I say about art must be qualified with the admission that with no training other than a single art history class that turned out not to be the easy A I thought it would be, my observations are strictly amateurish. Second, and somewhat related, is that right around now many of you are undoubtedly wondering what any of this has to do with the holiday for which we have gathered this morning, Shavuot. “Last I checked, Rabbi,” you would not be wrong in thinking, “it is your insights on Torah for which we have gathered, not your ruminations on Saturday afternoons spent in museums.”

I believe that my observations about the rimonim and about the recent brouhaha surrounding The Jewish Museum are not merely about what constitutes Jewish art or what the mission of The Jewish Museum should be. The real issue on the table is the relationship of Judaism – or for the purposes of today, “Torah” – with the world in which it functions. To put it plainly, is a life of Torah meant to be one of isolation and insularity, or is the hope that the relationship between Torah and broader culture be more porous, with Torah influencing its cultural context and cultural context influencing Torah. The rimonim at the Met are instructive because they reflect borrowing, back and forth, between the Jewish community and the gentile context in which that Jewish life flourished. In truth, at the time many of these rimonim were made, Jews were forbidden from being members of silversmith guilds. Are these rimonim any less Jewish if the artisans who made them were not Jewish themselves? If so, what makes these finials more Jewish than a painting of an Ethiopian Israeli by a non-Jew? What is more Jewish: a Rothko in a room of abstract expressionists at the Met, or Rothko’s “Crucifix” at The Jewish Museum? These questions are about art, and they are also about Judaism. What is the line between Jewish and non-Jewish culture? What are the features particular and eternal to the Jewish experience, and what are the accretions, faddish or foreign, that have crept in and must be resisted? Is there a healthy model for the interface of Judaism with the broader culture in which it finds itself? And how shall we, on this festival all about Torah, go about ensuring the preservation, protection, and renewal of that which is our tree of life and the length of our days?

It was the great cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am who explored this question best. In an essay entitled “Imitation and Assimilation,” Ahad Ha’am explains that as long as human beings exist in relation to one another, as long as Jews live in dialogue with non-Jews, there will always be cultural contact, imitation, and the assimilation of ideas back and forth. The way we think, the way we dress, the art we produce, the music we sing, the language we speak – all of this necessarily exists in contact with other cultures, and it is therefore inevitable that cultural migration and appropriation will take place. Such imitation can be divided into positive and negative. Positive imitation is what Ahad Ha’am calls hikkui shel hit’harut, competitive imitation, whereby a strong Jewish identity is able to assimilate non-Jewish elements in a manner that not only does not threaten the core of Jewish life, but actually serves to renew and revitalize Jewish civilization. Be it the Hellenistic Judaism of Alexandria, the Aristotelian-infused philosophy of Maimonides, or the touches of Sufism to be found in Hasidism, the introduction of non-Jewish elements into Jewish culture has protected our tradition from becoming fossilized, something I hope we would all agree is a good thing. 

But there is another kind of imitation – the negative kind: what Ahad Ha’am calls hitbolelut, which reflects a weakened Jewish identity that is overwhelmed by the force of the dominant non-Jewish culture. In this case, the imitation is self-erasing; the “Jewish” dimension of Judaism is watered down so much that it ceases to be identifiably Jewish. Ahad Ha’am’s essay suggests that throughout Jewish history there have been examples of both kinds, the former reflected in a renaissance of Jewish life, the latter reflected in the absence of Jewish communities that exist no longer.

I think that it is this issue that is the real question in The Jewish Museum debate. Wecker would contend that The Jewish Museum has become so untethered from its Jewish roots that it falls short of the claim of being distinctly Jewish. He finds the curatorial choices of The Jewish Museum emblematic of a bigger watering down of Jewish identity writ large. Given my studied belief that Judaism has always engaged in an active exchange with surrounding cultures, I am far more suspect of the claim that there is a “singular beauty” to the Jewish experience and I am thus far more enthusiastic about The Jewish Museum. When I look at Deborah Kass’s large block letter OY sculpture (YO from the other side), modeled after Robert Indiana’s iconic and kitschy LOVE sculpture, I am forced to ask “What is Jewish art?” That strikes me as the whole point of the exercise! Is there anything Jewish about the word “Oy”? Is it more Jewish than the Hebrew ahavah version on display in Israel? For a Jew, is it significant that that Kass’s sculpture is yellow and not red like Indiana’s? What about the Sephardic experience? How does this Yiddishism find resonance with the non-Ashkenazi Jewish community? What does it say about the hyphenated nature of American Jewish identity that an OY from one direction is a YO from the other?

I can ask similar questions about everything at The Jewish Museum. What is actually Jewish about the music of Leonard Cohen? What qualifies a video clip of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (also on display at The Jewish Museum) as Jewish culture? These are all great questions, and I applaud The Jewish Museum as an educational institution for raising them in provocative ways. These are also tensions that are healthy to entertain. Echoing the language of Ahad Ha’am, the historian Simon Schama once wrote: “Jewish art – in its broadest sense of objects that tell the Jewish story – describes a famous paradox. On the one hand it has been deeply absorbent, picking up characteristics of all the cultures that it has brushed up against, or been overwhelmed by. On the other hand it has remained stubbornly true to its inner, distinctive core.” (Foreword to The Jewish Journey: 4,000Years in 22 Objects by Rebecca Abrams, 2017) When I left The Jewish Museum asking myself what constitutes the “distinctive core” of the Jewish experience and what are the “absorbed characteristics” of the cultures that it has brushed up against, it struck me that prompting those questions is exactly what a good Jewish museum should do.

Unlike on other holidays whose focus is liberation, atonement, or renewal, today we are called on to meditate on Torah itself. Today we ask ourselves what our ideal life of Torah is. We are not a museum; we are a synagogue, and as such, we are a living laboratory for the question of how Judaism should or should not assimilate elements of our wider culture. Sometimes we assimilate the music, thought, theology and art of our host culture, and sometimes we reject it as alien to the eternalities that differentiate our faith from the world at large. We may err on one side or the other, but I comfort myself in the knowledge that we are in it for the long run, and there is no one answer and no one landing place. Rather, our commitment to asking the question and to walking the middle path that signals our commitment to Torah and our people’s future. After all, unlike whatever people gave us the Temple of Dendur, the Jewish people are still here after thousands of years as a result of staying committed both to tradition and to meeting the present on its own footing. May we continue to ask, squirm, and respond to these questions, and in doing so, may we keep our Torah going strong for thousands of years to come.