Our Hasidic masters tell us that each month of the calendar is a z’man, an invitation to focus on an aspect of our lives with a view to improvement. For the month of Tevet the invitation is to focus on anger. In our tradition, nearly all texts and commentary cast anger as negative. But my own experience has shown me the ways anger can be useful.
During a recent Tevet mini-retreat, Rabbi Daniel Silverstein presented a variety of texts dealing with anger, many of which could be understood as suggesting this emotion needed to be repressed, even uprooted. As the text study continued, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. As a former therapist and a continuing participant in social justice issues, I knew that anger was often a necessary pre-condition to action whether personal (e.g.,a battered woman leaving her abuser) or social (e.g., a driving force in the struggle for lesbian and gay rights).
The final text was a teaching by Rav Kook, the early 20th century rabbi of Jerusalem.
His words, like many of his teachings, were radical and unique:
The inner meaning of anger derives from the absence of spiritual creativity. The assemblage of spiritual forces, waiting to realize themselves in distinct form and beauty, press the soul and wound her with inner agitation. And the more spiritual creativity expands, the more the pools of expansive mindfulness branch out in their vigorous strength, the more the Torah expands in majesty, peace is multiplied in the world.
Shemonah Kevatzim 8:251 (tr. R' Yehudah Mirsky)
Rav Kook didn’t call for repressing or uprooting anger. Rather, he saw anger as pent-up energy that needed release in “form and beauty.” As a visual artist, this made perfect sense to me. My own experience provided a proof text for Kook’s claim, although I didn’t have his profound words for it at the time.
In 2010, the legislature of New York State (where I live) was fiercely debating marriage equality. My life partner, Lois, and I had been together for 30 years, wishing for the moral and legal protection of marriage. Every day I was infuriated to hear married male legislators, some accused of sexual harassment and others of extra-marital affairs, opine self-righteously about defending marriage from people like Lois and me!
In what felt like grace, I received an opportunity to transform my anger using my artistic and spiritual creativity. Laura Kruger, then curator of the Heller Museum of Hebrew Union College in downtown Manhattan, was mounting a new show entitled The Sexuality Spectrum. She invited me to submit artwork. I knew right away that I wanted to deal with Acharei Mot (Leviticus 18:22). This is the torah portion that condemns a man who is sexual with another man as an “abomination,” thus laying the foundation for centuries of homophobia in Judaism. How many painful repetitions had I endured hearing these words, which are included in the afternoon torah reading for Yom Kippur? How many times, sitting with my partner and gay friends in shul, had I felt these words press on and wound my soul?
I asked myself a therapist’s question: how does hearing or reading this make me feel? “Dead,” was my immediate answer. This came from deep inside me, a place much deeper than where anger resides. Immediately, I began making associations to the ritual of tahara, in which I’d participated numerous times through my local synagogue. Tahara involves cleaning and washing the dead body, dressing it in handmade white linen shrouds (tachrichim), placing it in the coffin and sprinkling earth from the Mount of Olives over it.
I secured a large print of the relevant talmud page (Sanhedrin 54b) and marked the rabbinic repetitions of the words to-evah (abomination) with earth from the Mt. of Olives (supplied by a local funeral chapel). Next I had the talmud text printed on burial white linen and hand sewed the cloth into the form of traditional shrouds. As soon as I’d made a full set of tachrichim, I had an irresistible urge to put them on. I engaged photographer Trix Rosen, z”l, to document my exploration of being enclosed in the garments carrying their painful text.
In total, I spent several hours inside the shrouds, feeling trapped and claustrophobic. It was all I could do to stop myself from ripping my way out. A view of Trix’s images brought to mind Jacob wrestling with the angel. Like my ancestor, I was struggling with tradition to find a new way. This gave me the title for the installation: Wrestling with Leviticus 18:22.
But what to do with the shrouds? I didn’t want to show my rejection in any way that damaged them. After all, they contained the name of God, which we are instructed to never harm or throw away. I was sitting with Trix, looking at the images on her computer, when I thought: “A geniza!” This is the traditional repository for texts and objects which have outlived their ritual use. I found an appropriate box and laid the garments in it.
My installation made a strong impression. It was written up in Lilith and the Forward and other Jewish venues. It traveled around the country. Thus encouraged, I had many plans for additional work on this subject. But I never made anything more. I’d often wondered why until I read Rav Kook’s teaching: my spiritual and artistic creativity had transformed my anger into beauty and form. No need for more.
Susan Kaplow is a visual artist. Her work, much of it inspired by Jewish tradition, can be seen on her website: susankaplow.com.