‘Pushing boundaries’ in interpreting Torah

‘Pushing boundaries’ in interpreting Torah

Montclair artist among contributors to global art project

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Benjamin incorporates her Indian background in her work as a Jewish artist. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
Benjamin incorporates her Indian background in her work as a Jewish artist. Photo by Johanna Ginsberg

The biblical women depicted in Siona Benjamin’s work are strong, grounded, and not easily intimidated by men’s attempts to keep them down. They are also almost always blue and reminiscent of Hindu iconography.

They have won Benjamin acclaim as a master of artistic midrash — biblical interpretation — as well as solo shows and a Fulbright fellowship

They also earned the Montclair artist the first invitation to apply to Women of the Book, a project bringing together 54 Jewish women artists and their interpretations of the weekly Torah portions. Conceived by Israeli artist and scribe Shoshana Gugenheim and launched in 2007, the project will culminate in a visual Torah scroll featuring the artists’ interpretations.

Benjamin’s contribution will be a reflection on the Sotah, the woman accused of adultery in parshat Naso, in Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers.

Both the artwork already completed for the project — including Benjamin’s — and the artists’ descriptions of their work are featured at womenofthebook.org.

Since the project launched, Gugenheim and a small team of colleagues have selected 44 artists after reviewing 200 applications.

“I thought it would be easier to find 54 artists, but I guess this is a narrow category; we want Jewish women with a very high level of artistry and an interest in this subject. That’s made it difficult,” said Gugenheim in a phone interview from Belchertown, Mass., where she is vacationing.

She said that what she is looking for is not only high quality art but work from artists from a variety of backgrounds and countries. She wants Jewish women from “across the spectrum to participate, even women who so far do not have a connection to Torah in their art, or even not at all,” said Gugenheim. “This project will give them a doorway into Judaism they did not have before.”

The project has already created an informal international community for Jewish women artists.

Gugenheim is working on the project mostly on her own, with a few colleagues who are volunteering their time. To complete the project, Gugenheim acknowledged, she’s going to have to find financial support to the tune of about $300,000. The funds would cover publication of a book as well as reproductions and finishing the scroll.

Breaking taboos

Benjamin’s interpretation of the Sotah aims to rise above the murkiness of the accusations in the text and the bizarre ordeal the accused must endure. According to the Torah, the woman is suspected of adultery by her jealous husband, though no witnesses can be produced. She must drink a concoction of bitter waters. If she is guilty, “her belly will swell and her thigh will rupture.” If she is not guilty, “she will be exempted and bear seed.”

Benjamin, who belongs to Bnai Keshet in Montclair, had never heard of the Sotah when Rabbi Burton Visotzky, with whom she was studying midrash, suggested it for the project. Visotzky teaches midrash and interreligious studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Commenting on her “militant feminism,” he told her, “I think you’ll have a ball with this one. It will rile you up nicely,” she recalled.

In her work, the Sotah holds herself together and comes through the ordeal whole. So rooted is she that one leg is a tree. She wears tefillin whose strands wind their way into a tallit. The strings “represent the authorities questioning her,” she said. “Sotah is not intimidated; rather, she takes it on, literally, by putting the tallit on her head.”

“It was extremely brave to choose Naso, said Gugenheim. “It’s a very difficult parsha. But that’s Siona, always pushing boundaries.”

Benjamin grew up in Bombay, India, part of the Bene Israel community. She now works in the basement studio of her home in Montclair.

She has always been a feminist, she said. Even in the Orthodox synagogue she attended growing up, she said, when people started leaving for Israel in the 1970s and the rules relaxed, she loved sitting with her father in the men’s section and wearing his kipa. “At that time, it wasn’t done,” she said.

Her artwork is full of images that break taboos, from women in tefillin and tallitot to figures that borrow from Hindu iconography, like a woman whose multiple arms suggest both a seven-branched menora and the multi-armed Hindu goddess Kali.

“The influence is there but I’m not worshiping; I’m using them as people, as characters in my work who act out a story,” Benjamin said. “Nowhere does it say that I can’t do figurative art. That she does not have to be a god in my work makes a big difference.”

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