D’var Torah (noun; plural: Divrei Torah): Literally “word(s) of Torah,” learnings and reflections on the weekly Torah portion (there are 54 portions).
Art d’var: Commentary on Torah through a related work of art.
Just as Torah is a framework for Jewish life that must be unpacked and investigated from many angles to understand the depth of its content and applicability to our own lives, so is great art. This blog series illuminates works of art that help contemporize the ancient text of the old testament.
24th/25th weekly portion in the Book of Leviticus
5,096 Hebrew letters
1,353 Hebrew words
Parshat Tzav, which literally means “command,” is all about korbanot, sacrifices. Half of the portion uses great detail to describe the multiple types of korbanot, burnt offerings that the cohanim, high priests, are commanded to keep burning in the Temple at all times.
When I first envisioned burnt offerings, the whole concept felt unrelatable and antiquated. So, to get into it, I started with the Hebrew root of the word korbanot. I found that the root is karov, which means “close.” Not exactly the first thing I think of when I picture the flames and burning animal carcasses.
Imagining the overpowering visual and waft of smoke, the warmth and sparks of the fire, the smell of the meat sacrifices and the physical act of burning a large animal engages all five of our senses.
I realized this multi-sensory experience is about bringing us close—to one another, to tradition, to community and to our own sense of self. I believe the Torah focuses on these korbanot both to further elevate the important role that the cohanim play in keeping the community connected and to specifically call out that this must be a large-scale, visible, public act designed to connect through all our senses.
These korbanot are performative, meant to physically connect us to one another as a community through the shared smell of the smoke, and individually and spiritually as members of this tradition.
Really, the Torah has designed sacrifices to be multi-sensory performative art.
So, as I see it, sacrifices are art, performed by the cohanim to draw in the community, to physically display tradition, commitment to God and the marking of time.
Artist Julie Weitz embodies this concept with “Golem v. Golem,” a two-part project that speaks to modern plagues through an IGTV series and art installation on the Vilna Shul in Boston’s historic Beacon Hill neighborhood. This piece, which in person includes two 8×10-foot striking photos of the golem on the facade of the historic synagogue and two biblical verses on the gates, and online is an evocative eight-part IGTV series and is in its own way a modern-day sacrifice.
The golem is Julie’s alter ego, a character she created in 2017 in response to the Charlottesville riots. In Jewish mysticism, the original golem was made of clay by Prague’s Chief Rabbi Bazalel in the 16th century—created to defend the people of Prague from antisemitism. With varying myths as to why the golem turned from good to evil, suffice it to say the golem became evil, had to be destroyed and is now a symbol for all that is good and bad in creation.
In “Golem v. Golem,” Julie goes face to face with her golem for the first time to talk about antisemitism. In the photographs featured on the Vilna Shul’s historic brick facade, the golem wears a full body tallit, drawing the tzitzit, tassels, out of the water. In a color counterpoint, the other image is of the golem dressed as a forest ranger, blowing a huge shofar into the trees, highlighting the importance of the ram’s horn as a metaphorical wake-up call and physical, audial community gathering tool for the Jewish tradition.
In these photo and quote banners and IGTV videos, Julie uses the golem, this mythical creature, to delve into the important issues she wants us to actively grapple with: inequity, antisemitism, racism and climate change. She brings us close to the issues by making it impossible to look away. Posters on a historic building, an IGTV series, it’s in your face, accessible and created to make you look. The full costume and body paint, the scenes and possibly inappropriate feeling positions can feel jarring. This is the power of the golem.
Julie, and the golem, are forcing us to look—and, in turn, to discuss—these issues that Julie seeks to raise. As much as a rabbi would look to educate and inspire congregants from the pulpit on Shabbat morning, Julie/the golem lead us by preaching from Instagram—by putting this sacrifice on the front of the Vilna Shul.
As many people find guidance, inspiration and learning with rabbis from a pulpit, I believe that just as many of us will find meaning in the words that the golem so boldly declares in this modern-day sacrifice.
If you’re in Boston, get out to the Vilna Shul for the in-person experience by April 3.
Until the next portion, shavua tov, have a great week.
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