Jewish Artist Of The Week: Tobi Kahn

March 6th – 12th  2022
כ”ו-ב’ אדר ב’ תשפ״ב
Parshat Vayikra ויקרא
                                                                              Study for DYNH                                                                                            LLHY                                                  Study for FAEN      

                                      Study for GHYN                                                                     TYMH, STYRH, YNI
                                           Study for IADH
                                                        Study of DJYN
Piece Description:

In this series, Embodied Atonement: Reinterpreting the Sacrifices of Transgression and Thanksgiving, Tobi Kahn describes Korbanot from the perspective of the plants and animals being sacrificed. These images look at the souls of the offerings as they ascend up to heaven, and mourns that which is left behind.

The flailing appendages and skeletal forms of these creatures, acknowledge the humanity of these organisms and provides a place to grieve for those lost lives. Concurrently, the agrarian tools, and fruit baring depictions remind us of the altruism and nurturing relationship that fuels our encounter with nature. In aggregate, these nine images accentuate all beings’ desire to connect with the divine while rooting our interlocking stories within a context of both the uplift and tragedy of a tellurian experience. 

 Discussion Questions:

1. Though the series starts and ends with the weightless flitter of a graceful celestial climb, the pieces in between feature the earthbound groundedness of the corporeal form. How is the space of the canvas filled differently in these bookending images contrasted with the others? What differentiates the color palette and composition of the first from the last piece? How is the narrative of this series affected by the order in which these pieces are presented? 

2. Each image in this series was photographed and researched extensively before ultimately being sculpted/painted. However, none of the depictions are realist representations. What do you think motivated Tobi Kahn’s abstract reimagined version of these images when investigating the Levitical offerings? What elements from the original forms are indispensable to these figurative images?

3. It is not immediately obvious to investigate sacrifices through the eyes of the animal, in the religious context, rabbis have usually explored this topic in relation to the human’s reaction to these rituals. As a person of faith, and after having studied this Parasha alongside Rabbi Ysoscher Katz,  Tobi Kahn has decidedly chosen to approach this topic in a novel way. What tensions, do you think compelled this innovative interpretation? Does this reframing alter your connection to these texts? Before observing these pieces, how did you relate to the temple sacrifices and how did they make you feel? Why do these passages remain so central in our tradition despite the 2000 year gap since they were last practiced?

4. Embodied Atonement: Reinterpreting the Sacrifices of Transgression and Thanksgiving, sensitively explores the emotional and spiritual undertones of these ancient rituals. It brings the unspoken, internal world of nature out and it keeps the outer shell of them present on our minds. Does this expression make you feel more connected or more distant from nature? Do you read urgency into this piece when looking at it in the context of global warming, Shmitta, the war in Ukraine and the pandemic?

Artist Bio:

Tobi Kahn is a painter and sculptor whose art has been shown in over 70 solo museum exhibitions. Works by Kahn are in major museum collections, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NYC; the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, TX; The Phillips Collection, DC; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN; Yale University Art Gallery, CT; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA; and The Jewish Museum, NYC. His traveling museum exhibitions include Tobi Kahn: Metamorphoses; Avoda: Objects of the Spirit; Microcosmos; Tobi Kahn: Sky & Water; and Tobi Kahn: Sacred Spaces for the 21st Century. 

Kahn’s commissioned installations include “Shalev,” an outdoor sculpture, New Harmony, IN; “Emet,” a meditative space for the HealthCare Chaplaincy, NYC; two Holocaust memorial gardens, La Jolla, CA, and Tenafly, NJ; the sanctuary ark doors, murals, and ceremonial objects for Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, Milwaukee, WI; “M’AHL,” a floor installation in the exhibition Rendering the Unthinkable, 9/11 Memorial Museum, NYC; a meditative space for Auburn Theological Seminary, NYC; and an installation of paintings and outdoor sculpture for the campuses of Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA. 

Kahn also communicates his vision through his passion for teaching. For over 30 years, he has taught fine arts at the School of Visual Arts, NYC and is the Artist-in-Residence at Kivunim. He is the co-founder and facilitator of the Artists’ Beit Midrash at Temple Emanu-El’s Steicker Center. Kahn lectures extensively at universities and public forums internationally on the importance of visual language and on art as healing.

To see more art by Tobi Kahn:

Artist-Rabbi Chevrutah Pair:
Ysoscher Katz
New York, United States

Rabbi Bio:  Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmer. Rabbi Katz studied in Brisk and in Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok for over ten years. A graduate of the HaSha’ar Program for Jewish Educators, Rabbi Katz has taught at the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls and SAR High School. He was a leading teacher of a daf yomi class in Boro Park for over eight years. He was also the Rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn, New York.

Sermon of Rabbi: The Torah portions we have been reading the last few weeks are out of order and misleading. The way we encounter them gives the impression that building the elaborate Temple, which we have read about the last few weeks, was the means, and korbanot (sacrifices), which we are going to read about this week, are the end. God made us build a temple so that there is a place where we can offer sacrifices. I argue that such an understanding is incorrect (at least according to Maimonides, Guide 3:47). The sacrifices, in fact, are the means; humankind dwelling in the Temple is the end. The encounter at Sinai was a moment of Supernal bliss: lover and beloved intertwined. Then we had to part ways. God, however, strongly desired to continue the relationship, to be able to cavort with humankind on a regular basis. To achieve that, God had us design an ornate abode, decorated with precious metals and beautiful tapestries; artworks whose aesthetic perfection has the power to induce radical amazement. Radical amazement is transcendent. Transcendence is godly. When we are overwhelmed by the ineffable to the point that we feel our senses shutting down and our minds soaring upward and outward, that is when we have penetrated the divine realm. When our minds are enmeshed in the godliness of the ineffable, lover and beloved become one and the same. These intimate moments are essential; they provide both parties (kiveyachol) with spiritual sustenance and metaphysical nourishment. In order to entice us to make frequent pilgrimages to the divine abode, God designated this art emporium as the venue for sacrifices of expiation or peace offerings. This would incentivize the beloved to frequent the home of the divine lover. Ultimately, though, the goal is to have us be there. The sacrifices are merely the means to get us there. This week’s Torah portion, therefore, is about the means. The detailed descriptions we read about leading up to this week—they are the end. The ornate temple enabled us to recreate the blissful spiritual intimacy we experienced at Sinai.  However, with the Temple gone, it behooves us to create alternative venues where our reciprocal love can continue to be nourished. We need to frequent spaces and pursue experiences that induce in us radical amazement, which in turn will catapult us into that transcendent zone where mankind and divinity intersect. That, however, is not the only reason the religious seeker should pursue art exploration. In addition to creating moments of transcendence, the arts (writ large—music, theater, cinema, etc.) are a rich and largely untapped exegetical resource. They provide new meanings of age-old texts, oftentimes highlighting aspects of biblical tales we otherwise might not have noticed.    Finally, art also can be a religious tool to help an individual pursue religious growth and spiritual edification, since artists, oftentimes, ask the same questions philosophers and theologians ask: Where does one find meaning? What’s the purpose of life? Art appreciation, therefore, when done well, can be a powerful religious experience. While there are many examples that illustrate the above-mentioned usages of art, allow me to share one example of each. 


The Book of Mormon 1) Art as Exegesis: Megillat Esther and The Book of Mormon Canonical texts are multivocal. The religious message they attempt to impart is contingent on variables of time, place, and, perhaps most importantly, the people who encounter them. The story of Esther is a case in point. The contrast between the simple pshat of Megillat Esther’s message and the way Chazal understood it is epic and a perfect illustration of a canonical text’s multivocality.This idea of interpretive multivocality, where the same story can mean vastly different things to different audiences, is aptly articulated by the musical The Book of Mormon. The provocative musical illustrates the relationship between foundational myths and those who are meant to internalize the message those myths attempt to convey. It, like what happens to the Esther story in Tractate Megillah, is an example of the way in which a community’s foundational narrative evolves and adapts, adjusting the particulars of its religious message to its readers. (I mean “myth” in the Joseph Campbell sense, whereby foundational legends are internal and self-contained truths. They describe events that are true—within themselves.)The musical no doubt has a sacrilegious veneer, but beneath the subversive surface, once you get past the repulsive obscenities, lies a profound religious message. It celebrates the way Mormonism’s credal narrative, with its obvious Christian-American roots, is transformed by its encounter with a foreign African culture—the Ugandans. As is, the Mormon weltanschauung cannot resonate with the Ugandans because it does not speak to their culture’s religious or spiritual needs. The tale it tells is too white and too Christian. It tells the wrong story and speaks about the wrong people. In order for the story to do what religious myths are supposed to do—to vivify and inspire—it needs to be retold in a manner that corresponds with their African reality. The musical does that ingeniously. It retells the Latter Day Saints’ credal story through an African prism. While the core ingredients of the narrative remain the same, the narrational (metaphorical) colors and fragrances change drastically, thereby making the story relevant and contemporary. That change allows the Ugandans to be spiritually nourished by Mormonism’s foundational myth, by interpretively making it their own. The result: a myth that was destined to wither in the scorching African climate was instead given new life.True, the revised credal narrative became unrecognizable to the traditionalists, who were initially appalled. Ultimately, though, creativity and adaptability prevailed—for obvious reasons. Because it is the only way the Mormon myth could be further perpetuated outside the confines of its Utah cradle—by constantly fine-tuning the religious message it is trying to convey.The same happens to the Purim story in Tractate Megillah.For the superficial reader, the book tells a very “goyish” tale of integration and assimilation. It recounts the tale of an immigrant minority that manages to infiltrate the upper echelons of the host culture, triumph over the marauding masses, and ultimately gain positions of power in their adoptive home. That is the story the Megillah tells when read unadorned by external interpretive interpolations.But that narrative was incompatible with the Rabbis’ own cultural reality and also anathema to their innate anti-assimilationist value system. Therefore, in Tractate Megillah, this very story is turned on its head. According to Chazal and Judaism’s interpretive tradition, Megillat Esther is conveying the opposite message than what the pshat seems to suggest. In this read of the story, the hero is Mordechai the isolationist, not the assimilationist masses. From the Talmud’s perspective, the transgressive desire of the masses to assimilate actually boomeranged by bringing the community to the brink of annihilation. They were only saved because Mordechai, whom the Rabbis portray as a radical isolationist, with the help of his niece Esther, swooped in at the last minute to save them. According to their interpretation, the Megillah is an anti-assimilation creed, condemning acculturation, not condoning it. In this way, Tractate Megillah echoes The Book of Mormon.

Michelangelo: Creation of Adam

2) Spiritually Edifying Art. Michelangelo and HalakhaMichelangelo’s Creation is an artistic masterpiece that also packs a powerful theological punch. The Italian master is obviously celebrating the religious enormity of creation, but is at the same time also bemoaning its theological tragedy. It is hard to ignore the sad aura that permeates the entire scene. The background is dark, perhaps cloudy, and the characters’ facial expressions seem to convey doubt, fear, and hesitation. Adam in particular seems overwhelmed by the experience; he looks sad, lonely, and forlorn. All the pathos Michelangelo is depicting seems to coalesce in the evocative focal point at its center: the empty space between Adam’s and God’s outstretched fingers. God and Adam are seemingly reaching out to each other, desperately trying to touch and connect, but they cannot; an unbridgeable gulf, Michelangelo seems to imply, separates them from one another.

Michelangelo’s message essentially seems to be one of defeat and despair. He ultimately believed that God and humanity are destined to hover perpetually in an estranged state, separate and distant from one another, their craving for intimacy never fully satisfied.He was wrong, though. Humankind did develop a medium that allows it to surmount what Michelangelo assumed to be an unbridgeable gulf: the creation of halakha! The gap he so aptly illustrated dissipates in the halakhic arena. God and humanity are in each other’s grip in that space, not at all distant from one another. That is where we hold on tightly to one another, swirling in a loving embrace of mutual dependence, because halakhic jurisprudence is a dialogical and interactive process whose success is predicated on an assumption of (metaphorical) intellectual intimacy and destinational mutuality between God and us. God provides halakha’s mandate; humankind chaperones its application. Law without a divine mandate lacks transcendental significance, while halakha without human input is destined to wither and disappear.As a matter of fact, the Psalmist says as much in his brief thesis on the theological foundation of halakhic jurisprudence. “God stands in the midst of the judiciary; He adjudicates alongside the judges,” he proclaims in Psalm 82:1, placing the divine at the center of judicial adjudication. One cannot help but hear in these words a Psalmist (albeit anachronistic) rejection of Michelangelo’s depiction of humankind’s tragic state of perpetual spiritual loneliness. He is refuting the Italian master’s pessimistic outlook by describing halakhic production as a place where God and humanity are linked and intertwined with one another. Humanity is not spiritually doomed, he says.The Sages spoke about religious law in a similar vein. When they famously proclaimed (Bava Metzia 59B) that “Torah is not in heaven,” they were, counter to conventional interpretation, integrating God into the judicial process, not excluding Him. They did not write God out of the proceedings but instead activated their part in the mutually agreed-upon judicial partnership. They were actually saying: “Torah is not [ONLY] in heaven;” its success is also dependent on the judicial creativity of humankind.Applied Torah hovers in that blank space Michelangelo portrayed, where the Lawgiver and lawmakers reach out to each other. But, counter to his portrayal, in the halakhic arena these two actors in the divine drama of creation and creativity actually touch—metaphorically. God and humanity dialogue and intersect in a mode of interdependence. When the Sages made their emphatic proclamation (“Torah is not in heaven”) they were, therefore, being celebratory, not triumphant. They were celebrating a mutually fulfilling partnership between God and us that is multifaceted, one that satisfies our spiritual aspirations and at the same time also enhances our social interactions. 

(Some of the ideas discussed herein have been first published on my Times of Israel blog.) 

AMEN Institute Happenings
Jewish Artist of the Week Next Week:
Next week we will be featuring Olesya Volk, who studied Parshat Tzav with Rabbi Leibish Hundert.

Creative Articulation Featuring Tobi Kahn and Rabbi Ysocher Katz
On Sunday March 6th, we heard from Tobi Kahn and Rabbi Ysoscher Katz about their studies on Parashat Vayikra.It was an impassioned and insightful conversation probing beyond the superficial and arrived at profound meanings to the embodied nature of atonement in the book of Vayikra. Here is the link to the articulation: 

Yetzirah Circles
The Yetzirah Circle is a monthly gathering where we open up an online zoom room for Jewish artists to work on their crafts in a shared virtual space. Join us on March 22nd at 7 pm EST to meet kindred spirits and to partake in this Amen activity. Here’s the link:

 Heal Over Head Retreat:
We hosted a Jewish experiential weekend of healing, growth, introspection and creativity for young adults. Participants ventured to a paradisiacal estate in the scenic backdrop of the Pocono Mountains to gain access to deep healing, clarity and self expression through workshops led by skilled facilitators. Stay tuned for updates on when our next retreat will be.                 

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