Event: The Kenyon Torah (Lecture and Discussion)
Date: February 12th 2013
Location: Gund Gallery
Correspondent: Jessica Lieberman
On Tuesday, February 12th, Peter Haas, visiting professor of Jewish studies from Case Western Reserve University, presented his research on what he termed “The Mysterious Torah of Knox County, Ohio.” This discussion of the Kenyon Torah falls under the umbrella of the year-long symposium run through the Kenyon Review and the Gund Gallery, which raises questions of Art and Identity in light of the challenges of post-Holocaust cultural ownership. After being introduced by Religious Studies professor Miriam Dean-Otting, Haas outlined his approach to the Torah. An anthropologist by training, he identified the various layers of complicated symbolism which lead to the object’s unique personality.
The crux of his concerns had to with the Torah’s mysterious history. The scroll was purchased and donated to Kenyon under the assumption that it had survived the Holocaust. Although the Torah did in fact come from eastern-Europe and hence could possibly have survived the Holocaust, the specific narrative that had been connected with the scroll was invented by the scribe who restored it, Rabbi Menachem Youlus. However, apart from the legal and political complexities of this scandal, more interesting moral and symbolic ambiguities linger over the scroll. This misuse of the memory and trauma of the Holocaust raises serious questions as to how to treat both the scribe and the Torah. That is, in the Judaic tradition, the Torah scribe (the sofer) is granted great respect for his dedication to G-d and his teachings (the text of the Torah). The job is not a glamorous one, but rather a precise and arduous labor (it can take years to finish a Torah) that is undertaken for reasons of religious zeal and interest in the continuity of tradition. Therefore Youlus’ misrepresentation of the holy book has inspired a kind of cognitive dissonance (in Haas’ terms) in the Jewish community at large.
However, perhaps more pertinent to the Kenyon community is the question of the Torah itself and how, if at all, its meaning and sacrality have been altered by these events. Haas approached the question of the Torah’s nuanced meaning through a sort of stratigraphical mapping its symbolism. He began by explaining the symbolism which surrounds all Torot. The Torah is both central and essential to the Jewish tradition. The object is the most sacred in the religion and the contents of the scroll constitute the core narratives and values of Judaism. The next layer that Haas urged the audience to consider was the symbolism created by the Torah’s purchase. Despite the developments which would come out later, the Torah was purchased and received under the understanding that it had survived the Holocaust. That gesture in itself speaks volumes to the commitment of its donors to Judaic history and practice. Thus, Haas argued that rather than viewing the Torah as tainted by the profanity of human-wrong doing, we should appreciate it as having a complicated engagement with a human history that is flawed. From this perspective, Haas argued that we should approach the events surrounding the Torah as a teaching moment, a notion which couldn’t seem more appropriate to me, given that the word Torah itself is commonly translated as “teaching,” and that the text puts forth a definition of Judaism that holds the struggle for identity through narrativizing at its very core.