Contact firstname.lastname@example.org From North America: (510) 550 1173 In Israel: (077) 662 1230
Nava Levine-Coren, USA/Israel
The underlying concept for my piece is based on something that I read in the introduction to Dr. Avivah Zornberg's book Exodus: The Particulars of Rapture. Avivah describes the role that Midrash plays in telling the separate history of the women in the desert that goes unrecorded in the text of the Torah itself. She calls the women's stories "the repressed narrative of the biblical text," revealed to us in part by the Midrash. With this in mind, one of my goals in illustrating Parshat Korach was to tell the story of the wife of Ohn ben Pelet — a woman who plays a role in the parsha, but is not mentioned by the text. Her story is told in the Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 109b-110a.
Ohn's name is mentioned in the very first verse of the parsha, together with Korach, Datan and Aviram — the key figures in the rebellion against Moshe. The others are mentioned throughout the parsha, but Ohn is not mentioned again. The Talmud explains that we don't hear about Ohn anymore because his wife saved him from taking part in the rebellion. She (we do not know her name) tries to talk her husband out of joining Korach. When he tells her that he wants to back out but can't, having already pledged his allegiance to Korach, she tells him "sit and I will save you." She gives him wine to drink, gets him drunk and puts him to sleep inside their tent. She then sits at the entrance of her tent and unbraids her hair. She relies on the sense of modesty of the Jewish people, and she succeeds — anyone who approaches, upon seeing her unbound hair, quickly runs the other way… including the men who are sent to collect Ohn. In this way Ohn's wife saves him from involvement in the rebellion, and subsequent death.
The image of Ohn's wife, sitting resolutely in front of her tent with her hair all around her as the feet of the men who were sent to collect her husband quickly rush away, is printed over the text of the parsha. The parsha text has been scribed in four columns, as if the sheet of parchment were a section of an actual Torah scroll. The text is partly seen, partly covered by the image of Ohn's wife, so that she merges with or can be seen as emerging from the text itself. Although her story is not written in the text of the Torah, it is a part of the history of the women in the desert and emerges from the "white fire" — the spaces in between the letters — the gaps in the story that are filled in by midrashic and talmudic accounts.
The pink text and the flowering wreath have to do with another theme in this parsha: the struggle to find a balance between equality and hierarchy, as is expressed in Korach's argument and God's response. Korach argues "kol ha'edah kulam kedoshim" — "the whole nation is holy," we all experienced the revelation at Sinai, why do we need a group of priests who are holier than the rest of the nation? This seems to be an argument for equality. One of God's responses in this parsha is to have Moshe gather the staffs of the princes of each tribe, labeled with their names, and place them in the Mishkan. God causes Aharon's staff to blossom, proving that he is the one chosen by God to be high priest. Moshe is commanded to keep Aharon's blossoming staff in the mishkan as a constant reminder to the people that there is a hierarchy mandated by God. This affirmation of the reality of hierarchy and separation is God's answer to the state of equality that Korach seemed to be arguing for. It is not clear that Korach's motivations were pure — many early commentators say that he was acting out of personal jealousy. However, the Mei Shiloach (Ishbitzer Rebbe) quotes the gemara in Ta'anit in his commentary on Parshat Korach — "In the future God will make a machol — a circle dance for the righteous." In a circle dance, everyone is equidistant from the center. This seems to imply that Korach's vision of equality has a place — maybe only in the world to come? The Mei Shiloach concludes that while Korach's protest is valid — indeed, is a plea for a "world-to-come" reality — it did not come from an entirely pure place. He states that Moshe prayed that God grant Korach bina (insight, understanding) to "overcome his desire" — perhaps because his desire for equality was rooted in jealousy.
I chose to write the words of Korach's complaint and God's response in pink ink because when I first read Korach's words in researching this piece, they resonated with me as an Orthodox Jewish woman. Korach's desire for equality is one that I identify with, and his dream of a world of equality is one that many women in Judaism are striving for today — a reality where there is equal access for both men and women to "the center" — whether that be Torah learning, ritual practice, or any other aspect of Jewish life. Just as Moshe prayed for Korach to have bina, I too pray for deeper insight and understanding regarding the role of women in Judaism.
When Aharon's staff blossomed, it brought forth almond blossoms and almonds. The blossoming staff is painted here not as a linear staff, but as a wreath — a symbol of hierarchy bent into a circle, representing a reconciliation of the notions of hierarchy and equality that is the reality of the world to come.
Nava Levine-Coren is an illustrator and scribe originally from New York, currently living and working in Jerusalem. Nava studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts in NY, and learned sofrut from scribe Dov Laimon in Jerusalem. Nava writes and illuminates custom ketubot, megillot, and other Jewish documents.
Reflections on Being a Jewish Woman Artist
The Torah reading has always been the highlight of the synagogue service for me. As a young child, I would accompany my father to shul and sit with him in the men's section. My strongest memories from that time are those of following the Torah reading with him. I would be seated, the chumash in front of me, and my father would stand behind me, his arm over my shoulder as he pointed to the place with his finger. When he had an aliyah, I would go up to the bima with him. When I grew too old to sit in the men's section, I moved to the other side of the mechitza and sat by myself in the women's section. Although I could no longer sit together with my father I continued walking to shul with him every week for many years; we would part ways when we arrived at the shul doors.
Nava working on Korach
I had started out in the men's section with my father, close to the Sefer Torah, naturally reaching out to kiss it as it was carried from the ark to the bima and back. Once I moved to the other side of the mechitza, I could watch the men in the congregation reaching out to kiss the Torah as it passed them, and huddling around it at the bima for the Torah reading, but I could not reach out to touch it myself. My only glimpse of the actual letters on parchment came when the Sefer Torah was lifted for "v'zot haTorah" at the end of the service. My experience of having started out in close proximity to the actual Sefer Torah, and then being separated, only to watch, has heightened my attachment to and yearning to be close to the actual physical scroll. I experienced my separation in the women's section not as a separation from the men in the congregation, but as a separation from the Sefer Torah, and all that it symbolized. I began to feel that my contribution to Jewish life was valued less than the contribution of those who were permitted to be near the Sefer Torah.
The Sefer Torah, and the images of black letters with their crowns on parchment, became a symbol of something deeply beloved, holy, and at the same time mysterious; something I was separated from but yearned to be close to. The description in the Talmud of the Torah as being written in black fire on white fire; the midrashic account of the buoyant letters flying away from the Luchot HaBrit when Moses sees the Israelite people with the golden calf, leaving the tablets so heavy that they fall and shatter; the account of R' Hamnuna, who tells his students as he burns at the stake with his Torah scroll wrapped around him that he sees the letters flying to heaven; all of these accounts have contributed to my sense of the letters being "alive" somehow. I perceived the Sefer Torah, made up of living letters, as the source of vitality for the Jewish people.
As an artist, I am drawn to the work of Marc Podwal and Ben Shahn who have incorporated the letters of the Hebrew alphabet into their work. The work of Shirin Neshat, who combines Islamic calligraphy with images of women, and the work of Ghada Amer, who incorporates texts from the Koran that deal with women in her work, resonate with me deeply. The work of Neshat and Amer embodies, for me, an expression of my struggle to incorporate the sacred texts of my religion into my experience as a woman within my religion. In my own work I have given expression to my desire to be close to the actual scrolls in two prints; one depicts two women with the scroll of Esther, and the other is an image of a woman (me? or Queen Esther herself?) writing the scroll of Esther. For the many years I wrote and illuminated custom ketubot; my favorite part of the process was always writing the text, although it was always been in a calligraphic Hebrew script, and not Ktav Ashurit (the script used for sacred scrolls). A few years ago I realized a long time dream and learned sofrut, or scribal arts. For my piece for Women of the Book, I scribed my Parsha onto the parchment in four columns, then did the artwork on top, as if it were done on a section from an actual Torah scroll. The experience of forming my own Ktav Ashurit letters on parchment has been deeply fulfilling.
At the end of Parshat Nitzavim the Torah states: "lo niflait he mimcha v'lo rechoka he... ki karov elecha hadavar me'od..." "It is not hidden from you and it is not distant... for it is very close to you..." (Devarim 30:11-14) These verses are referring to the actual mitzvot in the Torah. When I read them now, however, they speak to my own experience of having felt that my access to the Torah was denied; that although it was deeply beloved to me it was "hidden" from me and "distant." I finally feel that the Sefer Torah and the other holy scrolls, and all that they symbolize, are not beyond my reach.