Mezuzah: Aesthetics and Politics

(Uta Barth, Ground #38 [1994]) (http://www.tanyabonakdargallery.com/artist.php?art_name=Uta%20Barth)

I started working on this post, writing about the first two images in high aesthetic dudgeon. Then I got stuck on a political problem.

Trying to sort this out, I decided to flip the intellectual contents. I decided to present the political part first and the aesthetic part second.  This was a conscious decision that came after the initial and more naïve drafting of the aesthetic comments.

POLITICAL: In itself, the act of marking involved when affixing a mezuzah on a door is a beautiful way to orient attention and perception in space. The performance of the mitzvah is primarily visual and tactile, although they also make reference to sound. The keywords relating to the mezuzah are identified by their repetition in the text of the mezuzah, which is slipped into the mezuzah-case. The key-nouns are: arm, children, door, eyes, gates, God, heart, house, ornament, sign, you. The key-verbs are active: bind, go, lie, rise, sit, speak, teach, write. Placed between God and “door,” the mezuzah binds up the most intangible presence of all with tangible, ordinary objects.

The political problem is that no thing is only “in itself.” The moral and political weight of a mezuzah lies in the key-verbs. The mezuzah is there when you “rise up” and “go” to do what to whom and for what purpose –to go about in the world with humility and circumspection or as a violent act of aggression intruding on the rights and even homes of others? A simple Google search (mezuzah AND “Sheikh Jarrah,”) (mezuzah AND “East Jerusalem”) is enough to demonstrate that there are wrong ways to put up a mezuzah. This iron mezuzah on the Old City gates of Jerusalem looks like it’s going to blow something up (http://calevbenyefuneh.blogspot.com/2011/01/israeli-arab-leader-demands-remove-old.html). On a Google image-search for “mezuzah” you’ll find objects that look like sharp, metallic darts.

These days, I’m not sure how exactly to parse out the aesthetic and the political on this or anything relating to contemporary Judaism. All I know is that there are better ways for a mezuzah to signal, lest the politics of mitzvah overwhelm the beauty of the thing, its act and thought. For now, I’m pretty sure there’s no way to “resolve” the tension between religion, aesthetics, and the political.

AESTHETIC: For the blurring of objects and spaces in contemporary art-photography, Uta Barth’s work is exemplary. I loved her work the first time I stumbled upon it one day on gallery-walk through Chelsea. Her works are bright, blurry pictures of interior places. Sometimes you can make out objects. In other pictures, there is nothing to look at except empty space. As Greg Fallis comments, “Barth’s photography isn’t about what is seen in the photograph; its about the very act of seeing” (http://www.utata.org/salon/20484.php). Since there’s nothing to see, you focus on the seeing.

In selecting to write about the two pictures above, my initial thought had been to convey the juxtaposition of more solid urban space and the blurry image of the mezuzah-case. The mitzvah of mezuzah demands a kind of placing. Words of scripture are inscribed in ink on a small parchment, rolled up in a case, hung on the doorframe from which they are suspended in space. What kind of seeing does this placing invite? I would like to think that the blurry focus allows the thing to lose something of its hard object-character. Religion should be this gentle.

These were my first thoughts. Wandering around the internet in this vein, I then found the pictures at: http://riowang.blogspot.com/2011/12/mezuzah.html. While I found the text pedestrian, the images are great! These include images of mezuzah-cases weathered and beaten into its material support; images of blank voids on the door frame where now absent object was once placed.

Was my first impulse to blur the mezuzah already political? The act of blurring in this post reflects one way to live in the world. My attraction to the blurred image was meant to keep to an appearance of the object in its simple, unadorned beauty as it hangs between two different spaces. At the same time, I want to blunt and soften the rough material and political edges.

Does the instantiation of the object necessarily entail its ultimate reification? As a description it’s probably not true, but I’d like to think that kindnesss belong to the aesthetic and moral “essence” of religion.

 

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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