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Where Art and Religion Meet

October 8, 2009 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

Reinventing Ritual is another one of those colorful, compact, exquisitely produced catalogues raisonné that Yale University Press produces every year. This particular volume, like several of the previous and more notable ones, is tied to a show (with the same title) now up and running at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. The work's subtitle says it all: "Contemporary Art and Design for Jewish Life." The majority of the pieces gathered on these pages have the qualities necessary for all good art, along with some clearly definable religious aspects: These are items that can be appreciated for their color and shape and the dexterity of their making, but they have a utility, a practicality that ties them to the concept of how Jew's divide the day, the week, the year.

But why, at this time, should artists be turning their hands to the matter of ritual, which has generally been scorned by the creative community, especially throughout the 19th and 20th centuries? Arnold Eisen -- who happens to have been raised in Philadelphia, is renowned as a scholar, and is now the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York -- states it all clearly in his preface to Reinventing Ritual.

"Ritual has made a comeback of late," explains Eisen, "after decades (indeed centuries) of denigration in the West as behavior that is hopelessly stereotyped, formulaic, repetitive, and largely boring, after unceasing put-down as rote action that stifles creativity and innovation, or as legalism that inhibits genuine feeling, or as mere 'ritualism' that stands in the way of true human relationship and blocks the way to authentic encounter with God -- after all of that, we find ourselves in 2009 at a moment when ritual is once again receiving its due as an essential element of culture."

Eisen states that he is thankful for the change since he admits that he would not know what to do without ritual, as it affects his friendships, his community, and most of his "attempts to fill [his] space and time on earth with sacredness and meaning."

"The older I get," continues Eisen, "the more I appreciate ritual performances and forms. Of course these run the risk of decline into thoughtless habit, mere routine. That is the occupational hazard of ritual, so to speak. But without the motions that ritual imposes and prescribes, I would not know moments of fulfillment that I treasure almost as much as love and life itself."

Many of my favorite pieces in the book are striking in their contours and coloration, while also having those components that make them the repositories of spirituality Eisen spoke of. A number of others are far less pragmatic, purposely pushing the envelope when it comes to actual religious use. But that's okay, too. Many of them try to shock and achieve that purpose. Others seem a bit obtuse until you're able to tease out their meaning vis-à-vis Judaism.

Of my favorites, I would have to include Dov Ganchrow and Zivia's "Netalit Yadayim," or hand-cleaning vessel from 2008 for its beautiful flow and functionality; Jonathan Adler's "Utopia Menorah" from 2006, for its shape, which winks at certain works of high modernism; Tobi Kahn's useful and fascinating "Omer Counter," which he calls "Saphyr," and which dates from 2002; and Allan Wexler's "Gardening Sukkah" from 2000, with its clean lines, and indisputably American look and pragmatism.

But there's much more to savor in Redefining Ritual, including four good-sized essays that help guide you through the history and wonders on display throughout this often pleasing, sometimes mind-bending, survey of those points where art and religion meet.

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