Jewish Artist of the Week: Beth Achenbach

 June 5-11 2022
Parshat Nasso נשא
ו’ – י”ב סיון תשפ״ב

Piece Description:
This artwork touches on the grandness and oddities that were the massive travelling tribes of Israel. From the roles of the men building a giant tent wherever they camped, to executing the rituals, spells and sacrifices according to law, it would have been a spectacle. It also shines a spotlight on our own curiosity, or even lack of curiosity, to understand what all those sounds, smoke, fire, blood and magic was like for the people that it was performed for…or on!

Discussion Questions:
1. Beth connects the scene at the tent of meeting with that of a circus. What is your initial response to this comparison? In what ways are the environments of these two settings parallel and in which ways do you see limitations in the juxtaposition?
2. What are some elements that stand out to you in the “Amazing Wandering Israelites Poster” that stand out to you. The three figures represent the individuals found in Parshat Naso reimagined in a circus context. What other individuals from this week’s portion can be “circus-ified”?

3. The hand at the center of the image is cautiously pulling back the curtain of the circus tent. What is this supposed to signify? Inside it is pitch black with some faint smoke. Why do you think Beth chose to prevent the spectator from peering through the gap? If it were illuminated, what do you imagine is on the other side?

4.  Imagine an alternate universe, in which the temple practices occured in a circus tent. What would it be like growing up in such a culture? What would be different about it? What does the circus tent represent for you in your own life?

Artist Bio:

Beth Achenbach is an artist living in Jersey City, New Jersey. She is well known for her still life photography but Beth also creates digital and multi-media art as well. Her work has been exhibited in solo and group art events throughout New Jersey and New York over the past twenty years. In 2014 she was honored by Hudson County for her work in the arts and LGBTQ communities. Beth was featured in GLAAD’s 100 top emerging artists event in NYC and her work has been published in Out In Jersey Magazine, GO NYC Magazine, The Washington Blade, The Jersey Journal, Asbury Park Press, and she was a featured artist on

To see more art by Beth:

Artist-Rabbi Chevrutah Pair:
Bronwen Mullin
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 

Rabbi Bio:  Rabbi Bronwen Mullin, a Philadelphia native, received Rabbinic Ordination from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America. R’ Bronwen served as the first-ever appointed Rabbinic Artist-in-Residence at both the Jewish Theological Seminary and Town & Village Synagogue, creating diverse cultural events for and cultivating artistic community within the larger Jewish community.  R’ Bronwen is also the co-founder of Meta-Phys Ed, a multidisciplinary performance group wrestling with religious texts.

Sermon of Rabbi: The Book of Numbers, which features the Israelites in the Wilderness, has a lot of parshiyot about various censuses. There are a few narrative sections, including the story of the spies, the rebel Korach, and Bilaam and his talking donkey, but generally, The Book of Numbers (or ‘Ba-Midbar’ in Hebrew which means ‘In-the-Wilderness’) is a bit of a wilderness in and of itself when it comes to sermon-writing. An insider fact: just as much as you, fellow Jew-in-the-pew, might dread going to shul to read through these chapters, your rabbis are often dreading what the heck kind of sermon they’re going to be able to write from these chapters too. 

So when I had the very fortunate opportunity to collaborate with Beth Achenbach, an artist and friend whom I highly admire, on parashot Naso in The Book of Numbers, I was thrilled! In this parasha we have the truly confounding case of the Sotah, the woman who is accused of infidelity by her husband and made to undergo a kind of magical water ritual (some have called this a ‘witch trial’) to prove her innocence or guilt. Not only that, we have the introduction of the figure of the Nazir, a rare example in Judaism in which a person voluntarily living a life of ascetism, including refraining from wine, cutting the hair or shaving, and engaging in sexual relations, is lauded. Both cases bare their own deep questions in terms of human psychology and our tendency to look to extremes. Laden in these cases are also questions about the roles of our spiritual, ethical and social structures in creating, critiquing, and reimagining the core value systems that are the foundation for these cases. Although not narrative in nature, the descriptions of the Sotah and the Nazir serve as excellent grounding for most rabbis to weave together a thought-provoking Dvar Torah, and I was certain that all the more so would this be a rich opportunity for an artist like Beth, a photographer and performance artist, to lean into the messiness and sacredness that are deeply intertwined in these texts. 

I was confused, then, when Beth was most fascinated by the census at the beginning of parashat Naso. In the opening verses we read:

G!D spoke to Moses: Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans. Record them from the age of thirty years up to the age of fifty, all who are subject to service in the performance of tasks for the Tent of Meeting. These are the duties of the Gershonite clans as to labor and porterage: they shall carry the cloths of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting with its covering, the covering of dolphin skin that is on top of it, and the screen for the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; the hangings of the enclosure, the screen at the entrance of the gate of the enclosure that surrounds the Tabernacle, the cords thereof, and the altar, and all their service equipment and all their accessories; and they shall perform the service. All the duties of the Gershonites, all their porterage and all their service, shall be performed on orders from Aaron and his sons; you shall make them responsible for attending to all their porterage. Those are the duties of the Gershonite clans for the Tent of Meeting; they shall attend to them under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron the priest. (Numbers 4:21-28)

The parasha continues in this manner with an accounting of the other family clans among the Levites. All of the equipment for the Tent of Meeting and the Mishkan is specified along with who is responsible for setting it up, dismantling and carrying it through the wilderness to the different locations of the Israelites’ encampments. Beth was riveted by these descriptions and at first I was a bit panicked. I wondered to myself, “Why this? Everyone knows this is the most boring part! Who cares about just how many people there were and who carried what?” Well, if you’re an artist who has set up pop-up gallery spaces, who has balanced pins and wires and suspensions to mount her own work and others, who has long been a community organizer and knows deeply the significance of the human capital it takes to truly make a space buzz with excitement and intention, then these kinds of details in the opening of parashat Naso might really catch your attention, as they did Beth. And this is just one of the reasons why visual artists’ insights are pivotal into reading Jewish texts- sometimes we get so used to reading the words on the page that we forget to use our imaginations and our own muscle-memory of lived experience to really try to see what the Torah is teaching us. 

Muscle-memory, as it turned out, ended up being the key to entering this text in a whole new light. In our hevruta (learning partnership) Beth and I began exploring images generated by Bible scholars and archaeologists of what the Tent of Meeting (Heb.- Ohel Mo’ed) and Tabernacle (Heb.- Mishkan) may have looked like. What we noticed was a space that resembled a playing area with several stages—one for sacrifices and burnt offerings, another area for special Levitical/priestly worship, another area for consult with the elders of the clans, another courtyard area for gathering, another area for water immersions after contact with impurities and yet another area for the most Divine and esoteric meetings between G!D and Moses (this being the Tabernacle/Mishkan itself). Beth looked at these images and said, “I know these kinds of spaces. This is just like a circus. Think of all the people, all the animals, all the different elements on display, the curtains hiding and revealing, enticing people to come closer. The spectacle of it all. And imagine how much labor it must have taken to build! I can feel it!”

Now look, I have a background in theater too and I’ve done plenty of set builds and takedowns, but I didn’t feel it the way Beth felt it. I felt something different, though—I felt discomfort. Something bristled in me at the thought that this holy space, this movable sanctuary and meeting place between the Israelites and the Divine, could be likened to a circus, a place of performativity and entertainment, of superficial spectacle, and often the objectification of animals and humans alike. But something very important that I’ve learned over the years in studying the rabbinic tradition is that there’s often something uniquely rich to glean from allowing ourselves to feel discomfort. If not for the rabbis’ own discomfort with the limits of the Torah itself we would never have the Talmud, or the various commentaries that created the blueprint for Jews today to reimagine themselves and their own unique experiences in a dynamic dialogue and exchange with the wisdom of the ancestors.  So in that vein, I went on a journey with my discomfort to discover what might lie within.

On that journey I found out that I was not alone in my feelings of discomfort. In the rabbinic tradition there is a great skepticism around the circus. The Talmud and Midrash have a number of negative associations with the circus as a location for idol worship (BT Avodah Zarah 18b), frivolity and the antithesis of Torah study and the performance of mitzvot (Bereishit Rabbah 67:3) and generally as a place of violence, specifically gladiators, and a place where slavery and human trafficking are a regular part of business operations (BT Gittin 46b-47a). It should be noted that broadly the “circus” that these rabbinic ancestors referred to was the Roman circus, and has little to do with the circus or traveling tent-theaters that one might think of from the last 18th century onward in Europe and elsewhere. 

Suffice it to say that among these sources I found myself satisfied that my discomfort with the comparison of the sacred encampment of the Israelites in the Wilderness to a circus. It was then, however, that I found this unique excerpt from Rabbeinu Bachya (Bachya ben Asher ibn Halawa, 14th century Spain) in his commentary on Exodus 38:21. In this verse, the beginning of parashat Pekudei, Rabbeinu Bachya notices that the word “Mishkan” (Tabernacle) is repeated twice in the Torah’s description of the materials that went into the building of the Mishkan. For many rabbinic commentaries, the seemingly unnecessary doubling of words is a veritable invitation into creative interpretation about the secrets that lie within the words. Not only is there often a double meaning of the words, according to the rabbis, but sometimes multiple double meanings, which again shows the incredible tradition of creative associations that Judaism has outlined for us, today, to continue. 

Rabbeinu Bachya goes through several interpretations of this doubling of Mishkan, until he comes to the following possibility—that the double Mishkan referred to here in Exodus is actually an illusion to the future First and Second Temples in Jerusalem that will eventually be destroyed. He then goes off on a bit of a tangent and asks a painful question— why is it that the Temple is the locus for the destruction of the Jewish people? Why is it that different occupying powers have always sought to destroy this house of worship? He then offers the following explanation:

To what can this be compared to? To a man who hates his ruler and would like to engage him in combat but is unable to do so. What does such a disgruntled subject of the ruler do? He goes to the circus which the ruler is visiting and attempts to undermine the structure. Seeing that he is afraid of being discovered by the ruler and executed for his attempt to harm him, he introduces a digging tool under the main pillar of the circus hoping to thereby bring about the collapse of the structure which would kill the ruler while collapsing.” This is how and why the hostile enemies attack the Jews. They realize that we are crucial to G’d’s universe. By destroying us they hope to discredit Him.

Effectively Rabbeinu Bachya argues that not only is the Temple (and effectively the Mishkan/Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting) G!D’s circus but the Jewish people as well! Furthermore Rabbeinu Bachya argues that the circus is a crucial element to a flesh-and-blood king’s dominion just as the Jewish people are crucial to G!D’s universe. Rabbeinu Bachya introduces a possibility that up until this point I had not considered—in what ways is spectacle crucial to society building, or even community building? Perhaps a circus might seem superficial from an external vantage point, but is there something significant in the catharsis it releases? Communal pleasure? Camaraderie? 

The problematics of the Roman circus are not neutralized by Rabbeinu Bachya’s commentary, but rather raise new questions—if the morally questionable circus of the Roman Empire was viewed as representative of Roman values by our rabbinic ancestors, in what ways is the “circus” of our holy spaces, ancient and modern, representative of our values? What does it mean to perform our values, and are there ways that we can perform our values that are not purely about entertainment but rather about transformation? 

Beth’s piece put these questions unabashedly front and center for me.  Her picture and graphic display the mysterion of a red velvet circus curtain being opened by a disembodied, choreographed hand alongside a classical circus poster replete with a tightrope walking Sotah and a fire-breathing Nazir. The work is provocative and demands that we examine the intentions with which we create and dismantle sacred space. It forces us to wonder about the voyeurism and judgment that might intermingle with our best intentions of generating communities of shared morality, responsibility and holiness. While this process has left me with more questions than answers, one of the biggest takeaways for me has been the importance of not taking any part of these texts for granted. What artists of all genres bring to the table is a unique ability to see something new in what has always been there. Let’s just say that because of this learning and collaboration with Beth, The Book of Numbers with all of its censuses will never be boring to me again. Sometimes we rabbis just need more artists to be the ringleader.  

AMEN Institute Happenings
Next Jewish Artist of the Week:
Next week, we will be featuring Siona Benjamin, who studied Parshat Behalotcha with
Rabbi Alicia Magal. Catch their live articulation on Sunday June 13th at 7 pm ET!

Creative Articulation Featuring Beth Achenbach and Rabbi Bronwen Mullin
On Tuesday June 7th at 7 pm ET, Beth Achenbach and Rabbi Bronwen Mullin illuminated us with a unique read on the temple tumult found in Parshat Nasso. When we pull back the curtain on the light and smoke show of temple practice what is left? These are but a few ideas articulated in this week’s articulation. Relive their dynamic conversation using this link:

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 June 27th 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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