Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Visit to San Francisco's Contemporary Jewish Museum: 'Are we there Yet,' an Exhibit
by Peter Menkin

Daniel_Libeskind_Design_Concept_Drawing, Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

In the classic joke, a man asks a rabbi: “Why do Jews always answer a question with a question?” The rabbi answers: “Do we?”

The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco recently offered and continues to offer a unique show that explores in audio alone asking a question with a question, titled, “Are We There Yet?” In an effort to find out about the pretty and uniquely special, creative museum that is known in San Francisco, but not even as far away as Los Angeles, let alone the rest of the world, this writer asked a Jewish Law Legal Expert what is meant by asking a question with a question. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Loyola Law School, Los Angeles who is an adjunct teacher made these remarks, provided in a paraphrase of his answer:
The Talmud has been a kind of constitution of Jewish living … and the Talmud is neither a code nor a commentary on the Bible. It is a combination of both, including lots of argumentation in support of different arguments. Very often in the Talmud you may get a question answered with a question. Is A not true; What do you think?
There are good questions and not so good questions. When someone asks a question Talmud {study requires] that everything be a good question, not a shot in the dark. A way of questing the seriousness of a question.
The Rabbi, who it is said of by “Atlanta Jewish Life magazine [is] ‘the go-to guy for the media . . . looking for a sane Orthodox voice for comment.’ His reasoned approach to issues of faith and life qualify him to be the Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and of Project Next Step at Yeshiva of Los Angeles. He holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School, and serves as a faculty member at Yeshiva of Los Angeles in its secondary education… [Answering a question with a question is] meant as an analysis of very sophisticated legal thinking.
In Orthodox life, Talmud study is usually important and started at an early age. It is taught at day one that Torah study is important. Almost everything a child learns is to be put in front of the Talmud. [And this is] for most everyone. Everybody gets a good dose of it. This is generally started in fourth or fifth grade. It is very much a part of the culture. We don’t ask non-Jews to study it, and very few women study it, and many people in adulthood don’t do as much as they should. Yet all of Jewish law turns on it, so the questions that practicing Jews keep on asking all their lives get answers based upon the Talmud.

Let us not rest with the thoughts of one Rabbi when it comes to this progressive experiment in museum exhibits, a show of audio that is cutting edge technology. Let us also ask the Rabbi who consulted with the artists who created this exhibit, and briefly, ever so briefly, explore the compelling and even mystical architecture and its design by European architect Daniel Libeskind…
First, the press release that explains the exhibit, (sometimes this writer thinks of it as a show or gallery opening):
San Francisco, CA, January 6, 2011 – In the classic joke, a man asks a rabbi: “Why do Jews always answer a question with a question?” The rabbi answers: “Do we?” Bay Area artists Ken Goldberg and Gil Gershoni present a contemporary take on the inquisitive impulse with a new media installation at the Contemporary Jewish Museum March 31 through July 31, 2011. Are We There Yet? combines the latest in intelligent cameras and acoustics to create a reactive sound environment that encourages visitors to reconsider the history and future of curiosity…
The combination of cutting edge technology and Jewish ideas was appealing to Museum Director Connie Wolf. “It’s exciting to have two leading artists and thinkers using technology in new ways to explore something fundamental to Jewish identity and doing it in a way that can be experienced and appreciated by anyone – Jewish or not, young or old,” she says. “It’s particularly meaningful that this work responds directly to the symbolism of our extraordinary building. It will be a unique experience that audiences won’t soon forget.”
That is cutting edge, and seemingly unscramble able, but real stuff of a museum exhibit, so let us take it more seriously than curiously. For it is unusual and creative, call it contemporary as in Contemporary Jewish Museum.
This writer decided to ask the artists if they would answer questions in an interview. They inserted some advertising copy for readers at the end, and this writer let it stay. Are you getting the drift of this unique exhibit, so contemporary in many ways.
Here is that interview with Gil Gershoni, (founder of the San Francisco Creative Agency Gershoni), and Ken Goldberg (Professor of New Media at University of California, Berkeley):

Gil & Ken (artists)

1. When I spoke with Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein who teaches Jewish Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, CA USA, he mentioned that the form of question with a question dialogue is taught to Jewish children at a young age, less than 6 years old. It is a form of Torah study all Jews become familiar with to know their Bible. Will
you say how this thought of such dialogue in everyday life became the theme of your interesting and so-hip techno presentation of audio art? Who consulted with you in the creation of the proper forms of such dialogue, and did the Contemporary Jewish Museum select your work because of this community interest and method of Jewish dialogue and study-even in everyday discourse?
Answer: Asking questions is fundamental to Jewish culture.  Jews are encouraged — commanded! — to ask questions at a young age, for example the Four Questions at the Seder Table, asked by the youngest who is able.  The Yeshiva model is to continually ask questions, to challenge assumptions and “dogma.”
 There’s a Yiddish proverb:  One who doesn’t ask, doesn’t know.
 This installation is based on our sense that we want to re invigorate questioning.  There are some political overtones of course.  We’re very interested in the culture of questioning authority, from the Talmud to Abbie Hoffman and Bob Dylan to Jon Stewart.

How many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
How many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
We consulted with many experts, including: leading cultural, religious, and academic thinkers: Advisory Board members include Dr. Natasha Boas (Independent Curator) , Catharine Clark (Gallerist), Dr. Nathaniel Deutsch (Professor of Religion at UC Santa Cruz), Dr. Ari Kelman (Professor, UC Davis, expert on 20th century Jewish Culture), Rabbi Noa Kushner (Rabbi Noa Kushner (founder of Nita, an innovative project of Rodef Sholom in Marin County and author of essays and poetry), Amichai Lau-Lavie (Founder, Executive and Artistic director of Storahtelling, and performance artist), Dr. Perrin Meyer (Audio Engineer and Designer, Meyer Sound Labs), Dan Schifrin (Director of Public Programs and Writer-in-Residence) at the Contemporary Jewish Museum), and Tiffany Shlain (filmmaker, artist, founder of the Webby Awards and co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences).
2. From the story reported in The San Francisco Chronicle by Nirmala Nataraj in March, 2011 about the opening of the show at the Yud Room, Gallery on the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s second floor, I learned that the construct and creation of your audio show took you two artists two years. Will you tell us what some of the difficult and technological tasks of the creation of the show, physically and in its forming of questions was made, and how you went about the task?-I ask this to demonstrate how artists’ work is always of interest to most readers of Museum show reviews and articles, so I think.
Answer: It’s been a long journey.  Over two years.
 It began with an invitation from CJM’s Director Connie Wolf to propose an idea for CJM’s Yud Gallery.  As you know it was designed by Daniel Libeskind with the Second Commandment in mind: (“Thou shalt have no graven images”).  It has no parallel walls so there is no place to hang paintings.  What it does have is a dramatic architecture and 36 skylights.  We wanted to “activate” the space using sound.
 The 2nd Commandment is a fascinating restriction.  It let us focus on the role of the Audible in Jewish Culture, where G-d is never seen, only heard.  and where a fundamental prayer is the Shma, which begins “Hear o Israel….”
 We wanted the installation to evoke an early stage in Jewish history when the open desert created opportunity for revelation….
 We started working with Meyer Sound Laboratories (who did the sound for the Beijing Olympics and Circe de Soleil).  They agreed to loan us 14 additional speakers and their latest spatial sound electronics, then we flew two members of our team to Las Vegas to learn how to program it…We also developed new software for the camera based on statistical robot learning…we designed new social media interfaces for web and iphone and spent thousands of hours on all the computing. We also spent about as much time culling sources from the Torah, Talmud, Jewish Literature, and Pop Culture for questions.  Then we had hundreds of hours in the studio to record and tune the voices.
3. Did you both meet up together for this particular exhibition, for it is a kind of exhibit, and do you find people understood the show’s intent and concept, given its high tech and social media slant? Please tell us a little about audience interest as gauged by the questions asked by your man at the opening and videotaped, and your own observations? How do you two talented men in San Francisco’s Bay Area view the exhibit, and if there is a particular theme you want visitors or even readers of this interview to leave with, what are they?
Answer: We’ve been friends for years, and have collaborated on other projects in the past, including a piece for the Whitney Biennial in 2000 and on a short documentary film called The Tribe, directed by Tiffany Shlain.
 Reactions: Tom Marioni, the legendary conceptual artist, said it was “the best use of the space since the museum opened.”  One of my students burst into tears, saying she suddenly remembered her grandmother.
Online, we’ve collected over 3000 questions so far.  We’ve incorporated about 300 of them into the wall display, and will be doing more recordings in May.
4. Does one have to be Jewish to enjoy the show and its spare exhibit of small speakers and bare walls? Would someone of say, Christian persuasion and even religious faith find the exhibit educational or even high tech in the global sense of appeal to aesthetics? When this writer spoke with the two of you on background earlier, before the art show opening, you both offered the universal and cross cultural nature of the appeal and message of the “performance” art exhibit. Will you say something about this sensibility and its appeal?
Answer: The installation is more broadly about audio and architecture. We’re already thinking about other projects for other architectural spaces.
We definitely don’t claim that Jews have cornered the market on questioning!  We are against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that is implicit in so many situations in government, economics, healthcare, etc…
We want to encourage the inquisitive impulse for everyone today who is deluged in data.
As James Baldwin said, “The purpose of Art is to lay bare the Questions that have been hidden by the Answers.”
5. This kind of exhibit must be a difficult and even expensive one to present. Neither of you are the proverbial starving artist. Can you say something about the physical costs of the exhibit, as in the fee the museum paid in ballpark figures to give us an idea of what technical and modern, 21st Century statements of this kind can cost. It is not a paint brush and canvas job? And also, tell us a little of your own background, for one of you is a Professor at University of California at Berkeley, and the other a principal in a small, boutique advertising agency with prime major corporate clients. How did you both get involved in a Jewish Community Museum event that reflects the attitude and tastes of the Jewish community, even towards the larger community? Would you say this is a San Francisco vision of work, and the world, or one that would be appealing to America at large-Europe, the world, too?
Answer: Right: we both have “day jobs”.  In those jobs, we encourage questions among those we work with: students for Ken, clients for Gil.
The project reflects the work we do.  We both are developing new interfaces for social media; I work with robots and statistical methods, etc. Gil focuses on experience design and branding. Our work inspires our art and our art inspires our work.
6. Please let me know if there is something this writer has missed in this interview, or if there is something you want to add or say.Answer: Thank you!  These are great questions!
 Artist notes: We welcome your readers to participate by proposing questions for the exhibition at the project website and/or by downloading the iphone app which will remain active throughout the course of the exhibition:


Major support for this project provided by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Creative Work Fund, a program of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund supported by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support generously provided by Meyer Sound Laboratories.

Notes to follow interview: The reader can see that the artists and the museum wish to bring into play the contemporary world of social media. In their fact sheet they offer:
We invite the community to participate by proposing questions for the installation via a special internet interface, Facebook, and Twitter.  The project is also inspired by the Talmud’s representation of multi-layered Jewish intellectual discourse. The Talmud is a surprisingly contemporary model for communal conversation in the digital age. Rather than resolving each issue with an authoritative unified “answer,” each page of the Talmud reflects the spiraling layers of debate and celebrates the dissent at the heart of Jewish thought and tradition.  Open inquiry is fundamental to electronic connectivity and social media:  the culture of new media encourages participation and a natural skepticism about the authenticity and authority of information. 
In looking at the technology alone, there is an interesting statement provided in the museum and the artists’ face sheet. This is what is said of the technology:
Picasso said: “Computers are useless; All they can do is ‘answer’ questions.” The custom website interface and iPad app will remain online throughout the exhibit. We also developed a state-of-the-art computer vision system for the installation based on emerging research in robotics. It uses statistical machine learning to predict the motion of visitors in the space to activate the audio. To address the challenges of constantly changing lighting conditions, the system maintains an evolving statistical model of each pixel and uses Kalman filtering11 to minimize false positives.
The D-MITRI sound system from Meyer Labs12 takes inputs from both the vision and audio systems to index audio from a database of thousands of vocalized questions. We designed custom space maps, trajectories and audio workflow to create a fluid auditory user experience.
Where can we expect to see this sort of technology? And, what are some real-world applications of it?
The Meyer digital sound system is being used by Cirque du Soleil and in concert halls around the world. Statistical machine learning is mostly in research labs but it played a key role in IBM’s Jeopardy Challenge and is being used at Google and Amazon to predict user interests and to steer driverless vehicles. These systems constantly revise their own confidence in their predictions which is not to say they’re infallible.
The major spokesman for the museum answered some basic questions about the museum itself and its mission. This is the interview:
The mission of the museum in the Jewish Community…please let me know some thoughts and statements on this, and if possible a quote from a Board Member or the Director…(None was available at the time of this interview.)
Answer: The mission of the museum in the Jewish Community goes back to the mission of making the Jewish experience relevant to the 21st Century. We don’t just serve the Jewish Community. We are always thinking about the And Jewish and non-Jewish.
Is there a policy regarding the kinds of exhibits the museum offers?
Answer: Because we have contemporary in the name it is always going to guide our principals. {There is one exhibit that shows] the artwork is from the 16th and 17thcentury, the story is from the 20th century. It is the diversity of the Jewish experience. We always have one exhibit that is core and communicates the Jewish Community. We just had a Torah exhibit that shows it is accomplished by scribes. We had the only 2ndknown woman to do so and she did it on site.

[There is also the] Called As it is Written: Project 34805… [It is about a creation that makes the letters that are]  in the Torah. [This was done by] the scribe Soferet, [who] is a professionally trained female scribe. Julie Feltzer. That was a really traditional [project], but a very contemporary and innovative idea. [The scribe is female, not male as is the tradition.] {Essentially, the exhibit demonstrates] someone created a Torah in a museum and had a woman do it. [This demonstrates] such a long and varied tradition that goes on.
Who are the key Board Members, and where may I find some information or biographical material about them?
Answer: David Levine is our current Board President and our past President Roselyne Swig. (A note on David Levine: Mr. Levine has nearly twenty years of experience in both the securities and commercial finance fields, having worked in the affordable housing group at Fannie Mae, and at UBS and Prudential Securities as a mortgage-backed securities trader.
David is a regular contributing columnist on commercial property financing for the Bay Area’s Commercial Property Guide and his articles have appeared in national magazines such as Urban Land, the respected monthly publication of the Urban Land Institute.)

Is there a permanent collection?
Answer: [Exhibits are] made up by the Museum Director and Curators, because there is not a permanent collection here. For instance Gertude Stein with National Gertrude Stein guest curator from Stanford Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin, Professor Emerita in Art History Stanford University and Tirza True Latimer Associate Professor, Chair of Graduate Program Visual and Critical Studies, California College of the Arts, San Francisco. Keep in mind because there is no permanent collection here, they are guest curated or travelling shows. So all have different ways in which they are presented. Connie Walsh and our territorial team makes those decisions.
Some people believe the Jewish faith is a series of viewpoints, like Orthodox, Conservative, etc. What groups does the Museum serve, and how does it do this?
Answer: Something of similar themes that will appeal to a broad Jewish audience. And not Jewish artist. There are exhibits subject matter the museum covers is necessarily for Jews only. It’s particularly unique to see a Jewish museum open to all the public with even secular material, like Gertrude Stein. She was raised Jewish, but not by any definition of the word would consider herself Jewish. The museum is very very different in its offering.

An official statement reads this way, so let us end the interview with these next two quotes: With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) ushered in a new chapter in its twenty-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The new facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, is a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase “L’Chaim” (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of the CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the 21st century. 
Who is Connie Wolf, a driving force in the life of the Contemporary Jewish Museum:  Ms. Wolf was previously at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she was the Associate Director for Public Programs and Helena Rubinstein Curator of Education. In this position, she oversaw the educational and public programs, community outreach, the library and archives, the branch museums, new technology initiatives, and the Whitney’s Independent Study Program. She also was a Research Associate and Warren Weaver Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation, a Senior Research Assistant at Harvard Project Zero, and also worked at the MFA Boston and MOCA in Los Angeles. Ms. Wolf received her B.A. from Stanford University and was a graduate student in photography at the CalArts. She also is a graduate of the Executive Education program at the Harvard Business School. 
When this writer first visited the museum with photographer Terry Peck, the writer visited the attractive gift shop and came across this welcoming gift on display, a book that demonstrated by its presence the entire community was welcome at the museum, it is not solely for the Jewish Community, as it were: “What I wish my Christian Friends Knew About Judaism,” published by Loyola Press. Publisher’s Weekly says this of the book: Written in a breezy, conversational style and laced with humor, this primer on Judaism delivers precisely what the title indicates. Schoen describes himself as “a layman” and an “average Jewish American.” He is actually an accomplished musician whose compositions have been played in recital and appear on two CDs. Schoen claims that he wrote the book to present a systematic response to questions about Judaism that were posed by his Christian friends. Schoen begins his guidebook with a clear explanation of the streams of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. He then discusses what goes on inside the synagogue, followed by an examination of the Jewish holidays. The final sections deal with Jewish life cycle events, home life and beliefs and Judaism in the world. The book concludes with a plea for inter-faith cooperation. What is truly remarkable about this compendium is its thoroughness and lucidity. Schoen manages to touch briefly on practically all aspects of Judaism-from Israel, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism to the role of women, Jewish symbols, Jewish art and appropriate behavior at a bar or bat mitzvah, Jewish weddings and Jewish funerals. Although Schoen says he wrote the book as a manual for Christians, Jews can also benefit from this masterful overview of their religion, either as a refresher or as a quick source of new information.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
One could say similar things of Contemporary Jewish Museum itself.
In that visit this Spring, 2011 the Docent told this writer that the architect (Daniel Libeskind) has recently designed two Holocaust museums

The Architect
and it was believed that this weighed on his mind, for as the Docent said of him, he was, “…tired of that.” Hence he designed the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The museum has much natural light, skylights, and is very attractive and modern. One could say there is uniqueness to the structure in San Francisco. Word symbolism is used in the construction and design, a sense of Paradise itself is noted and known of this structure, built into it just as the four levels of Biblical text are part of the “hidden” and mystical sense of the building—take the Docent tour and find out more if in San Francisco. One thing sure of a statement about the building is this one, “Life is alive with light.” Biblical numerology of the Jewish kind is also part of the sensibility of this architecture. In its way, though not a worship space, per se, the structure has a holy sense to its design and construct. There is the secret.
There are many interesting figures who are part of this museum, and in particular the exhibit, Are We There Yet. The consulting Rabbi, a woman named Noa Kushner, on the clergy staff of a San Francisco Bay Area Reform Temple and active with aiding the marginalized in the Jewish Community.
A biographical section on Rodef Sholom’s website gives this information about Rabbi Noa Kushner:
Noa Rachael Kushner received her B.A. in Religious Studies from Brown University in 1992 and was ordained in New York by the Hebrew he Torah: A Women’s CommentaryChoosing a Jewish Life, and The Women’s Seder Sourcebook. Since moving to Marin County [north of San Francisco], Noa has taught and led services for Congregation Rodef Sholom and is happy to be the most recent addition to the clergy serving the Rodef Sholom community. Noa is married to Rabbi Michael Lezak and is the proud mother of three daughters, Zella, Bluma and Minna.
E-mail address for Rabbi Noa Kushner:

Rabbi Naomi
[She studied at] Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1998. While there, she taught for Kollel: A Center for Adult Jewish Study in New York City, and for the Brandeis Bardin Summer Institute in Simi Valley, California. Following ordination, Rabbi Kushner was the Hillel Rabbi and Director for Sarah Lawrence College / SUNY Purchase. She then served as the Rabbi for Stanford University Hillel (1999-2003). Her poems and essays have been published in several books.

Thank you for agreeing to this short interview of three questions, Rabbi. I am glad to make your acquaintance this way, and hopefully there will be a similar sentiment on the part of readers. Firstly, when working with artists for a museum exhibit, what is it that you must do in the relationship to get a grasp of the aesthetic at work for their audio show “Are we there Yet.” Tell us something of the question, and the dialogue of the audio presentation that intrigued you enough to want to engage in a consultation that offered a greater sense of Jewish Community and religious or spiritual attitude. In what ways does the work allow these expressions, and if you can recall specifics, please tell us something anecdotal about the work that went into making it so—including some of the questions answered-with-questions that caught your attention.
Answer: This is the first exhibit that I have advised. My role was as a rabbi, lending my understanding of text to the ideas around interactive questioning. I worked with Ken and Gil from the onset in developing the idea. The idea of creating an open space where questions would be asked (and explicitly not answered) was very interesting to me. From the beginning, it brought to mind revelation and Midrashim around the giving of Torah. (I’ll include the notes for the talk I gave at a CJM panel for this exhibit). I thought about how when we as Jews received torah, there is a tradition of the many different ways this torah or learning was received. The subjective nature of learning is captured in these midrash and was highlighted in this exhibit.

I also helped Ken and Gil come up with questions for the exhibit and reviewed questions once they had an initial list. I loved the idea of looking at all the questions in Torah in a group together. The early questions of genesis are especially moving (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Rebecca). Further, not only do we question and wrestle with our texts in Judaism, there are questions within the text which provide further starting points.

This writer has never had the opportunity to get a grasp on the Jewish artistic and expressionist aesthetic. With the proximity of your work on the “Are we there Yet” project, which consists of more than the show in the museum itself, let readers know something of the tradition in the Community’s culture that is reflected in the artistic work and even the larger “outreach” of the show’s content.
Answer: This is not my area of expertise and so I cannot comment on the Jewish artistic and expressionist aesthetic.
However, as much as questioning is a part of our tradition and way of approaching the world, the experience of the exhibit relays the Jewish openness to–and encouragement of–multiple interpretations, readings and questions on a given piece of text or ritual. In Judaism, questioning is not only allowed, it is expected, it is a part of the learning process, part of how we grow spiritually.

How did you get involved with this job of consultation, and have you been involved in other consultations on either artistic or community historic and cultural expressions. Please tell us something of them, for I want to know what contemporary Jewish Community aspects of culture are represented in this exhibit, with an emphasis on the examples of the contemporary Jewish Community aspects, rather than the exhibit in its either presentation or showmanship.
Answer: I know Ken and am his rabbi through The Kitchen ( This is my first consultation.


Rabbi Noa Kushner: Ever since I conceptualized this auditory exhibit in my mind, I have been thinking about another auditory experience: revelation (the receiving of the Torah as it is described in Torah) and all the midrashim / commentary and stories surrounding it.
There is a classic midrash that says that when it came to us hearing words of Torah for the first time at Mount Sinai, God was worried that it would be too overwhelming, too much to hear the actual divine voice. Bad pedagogy. So God designed the experience so that each person heard Torah in the voices of their parents, in the way a parent would whisper to his or her child. We each had our own interpreters.
Here too, in the exhibit, we hear the questions differently depending on where we are. Now if there were a list of questions read over on a loop on a loudspeaker, no matter how we moved and no matter whether we were in the room or not, it would have a very different effect. Something about moving through the exhibit reminds me of how personal the acts of asking and learning are. What we learn depends on “where” we are. Maybe this is why we traditionally study text in chevrutaot, in teams of two partners. So we can each have an interpreter. So that each of our places in life, our spiritual coordinates, remain central in the learning process.
Something else about this exhibit also reminded me of revelation. I imagine the questions are a person’s internal dialogue, a response to an event, only now somehow projected into common space. As if we could hear what someone is thinking. This got me wondering, what were the people thinking at Sinai?
Because I began to consider that nowhere in the whole written description of the giving of the Torah do we ask a single question. Why not? After all, people throughout Torah ask God questions, hard questions, in other places. Questions like Rebecca’s, who asks God during a brutal pregnancy, “Why do I exist?” or ethical questions, like the one Abraham asks when he challenges God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, “Would you still stamp out the righteous along with the wicked?” There are plenty of questions asked in Torah. How can it be that in the whole sequence of the giving of the Torah no one asks a single question?
Maybe it is because the questions have to come later, after we know more. In fact, in response to receiving the Torah, not only do we not question, we say, (famously) “na aseh v’nishmah” / “we will do and (then) we will hear.” Maybe we could interpret this to mean that if we “do,” that is, if we engage with Torah, we will then “hear,” we will begin to hear our own questions. Otherwise we’re stuck with the questions of the four children at Passover, entry level questions like: “what is this, anyway?” and “what are the rules?” and “why do you bother doing this?” These are the questions someone asks in the beginning. Nothing wrong with being at the beginning, however, it is only once we sign on and learn some ground rules, that we can get to the questions that can change things and change us.
Unlike at Sinai, today we don’t read Torah without questions. IN fact, we NEVER read it straight. This is epitomized in the teachings of the classic commentator Rashi. Each of his comments, each of his syntheses of rabbinic teachings, each relates back to a kushiya, a question he has raised but does not disclose, something unresolved in the text that he is trying to explain. So now we have reached the heart of the matter. What is given at Sinai is seen by the rabbis, as not the end but as the beginning. That is, the holy words, according to the rabbis are complete in every way but not completed. “Turn it, Turn it,” they teach, because “everything is within it.” However, “everything being in it” does not lead to a straightforward, plain reading. Rather, the rabbis use the perfection of Torah as a different kind of starting point: IF Torah is perfect, THEN each verse that does not make sense to us, and even some that do, each errant letter and every letter is an OPPORTUNITY to find meaning, to reconstruct, to play with the words until the of Torah “speaks” to us once again. The wholeness of Torah, its message, does NOT rely on the written words alone but on the understanding that each of us who reads a bit of Torah will have a comment and yes, a question about each verse. And in our attempt to resolve whatever is contradictory or uneven or upsetting about the verse, whether our question is grammatical, or theological or ethical in nature, as we make a resolution, we continue the revelation. So maybe there are no questions recorded in Torah at Sinai but our questions now are an inherent part of the way we receive and read every word of Torah.
But I still want to know: why doesn’t God ask us any questions at Sinai? Maybe it’s because the whole giving of the Torah, the offering of Torah is a question in itself. In fact there is another classic midrash, where God goes around to all the people asking, “will you accept my torah?” and the peoples say, “what’s in it” and one by one, dismiss Torah on its prohibitions of things they like, like stealing, adultery, etc. Finally, God gets to the rag tag group wandering in the desert. God asks if we will accept the Torah and we say, “we’ll take it.” No pre nup required. Maybe the giving of Torah is its own question: “Will you accept my Torah?” and our reading it or not is our answer.
But this doesn’t fully satisfy me. Because God DOES ask actual questions in the rest of Torah. Turns out, in keeping with Martin Buber’s essay in Ways of Man, it seems that questions from God are meant for a person to reach a higher level of self-awareness, so that they can ask themselves. In other words, when God asks Adam after he has eaten from the tree of knowledge (big no-no) and is hiding, “Where are you?” It is not because God can’t see Adam hiding behind a bush, it is because God wants Adam to come to terms with his actions. Sort of God as analyst.
And there are a few instances, like when Sarah doubts she will have a baby at her old age and God asks: “Is anything beyond me?” where the question is also rhetorical, meant to push someone through a momentary lapse of belief.
In fact, in my admittedly cursory search through Torah for divine questions, I could not find any of God’s questions that were truly of the information-gathering sort. The closest I found were a few questions said in seeming desperation to Moses: “How long will this people provoke me?” kind of thing. But even these questions seemed like more of a charge to Moses than an expression of divine curiosity. I guess that’s part of the omniscient territory.
Maybe then, the reason God does not ask us questions at Sinai is because God is already giving us enough words, enough prompts and at this point in the divine human relationship, a moment that is described like a wedding, we have to be able to come up with our own questions. Because there is something about having a question that connotes both a relationship to the material in front of you, an independence of thought, and an availability to receiving a response. So, in other parts of the Torah, God models ways of asking, models the power of questions to instigate change with the hope that in giving us Torah, our questions will follow, in waves of midrash and still later, today, in waves of sound.
*I’ll just close with the one small question that I referred to earlier, the only one I found in all the commandments (Ex. 22:26). It’s rhetorical. There’s a command that says that if you take an outer garment from a poor person (literally the jacket off his back) as a pledge, you have to give it back by night-fall. For, as the text says, “It is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin, without it, in what else will he sleep?”
Maybe it is no accident that the only question in the account of the giving of the Torah asks us to imagine the insanity of a world without Torah, a world where a poor person would go to bed with nothing to protect him and no one to protest. In the end, the only direct question God asks us is: “How can you possibly let the world be an unjust place?” It’s rhetorical and the only answer is: we can’t.

Contemporary Jewish Museum in SF from New America Media on Vimeo.

This article appeared originally in Church of England Newspaper, London.

No comments: