Menachem Wecker posted at his Iconia Blog a fascinating interview with Ari Gordon about art and interfaith.
Getting beyond the Jewish “deer in the headlights” reaction to images of Jesus
Although he grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Philadelphia and completed his undergraduate studies at the Orthodox Jewish school Yeshiva University, one of Ari Gordon’s favorite paintings is a crucifixion — Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion to be exact.
Gordon, who is special advisor for inter-religious and intergroup relations at the American Jewish Committee, sees “Jewish features” and a Jewish prayer shawl (tallit) — a stand-in for the typical loin cloth — in Chagall’s Jesus, and he says the scene is set in modern Germany, “surrounded by mini-scenes portraying the suffering of Jews in Chagall’s own time.”
“I like this painting because it crosses boundaries to great effect,” Gordon says. “Jesus has always been a point of fear and confusion for Jews; he is a suffering Jew, who somehow led to many centuries of suffering for his people. As a result, most Jews (to this day) when confronted with images of or conversations about Jesus react like a deer in headlights.”
Chagall’s work, particularly the crucifixion, draws “comfort, irony and dialogue,” according to Gordon.
“In the image of a crucified Christ, Chagall was able to find a model to best capture the Jewish martyrdom he perceived around him,” he says. “At the same time, the irony of using a Christian symbol that had been the cause of much Jewish persecution over the years was not lost on the artist. Chagall seems to have painted White Crucifixion as a way of crying out to Christians about the situation of Jews in Germany.”
By juxtaposing Jewish and Christian scenes, Chagall not only captured centuries of polemics, but also opened “a window for inter-religious dialogue for the painting’s viewers,” he says.
According to Gordon, who holds a master of theological studies from Harvard focused on Islamic-Jewish comparative studies, art is an “under-utilized” tool in interfaith relations, “which tends to focus more exclusively on political or theological matters.”
“Religions are cultures that cannot be restricted simply to politics and theology,” he says, “The arts — like ritual, food, language and literature — have always been essential venues for religious expression. To ignore the demonstrative and often innovative religious sentiments manifest through the arts is to lose the opportunity to understand our partners’ lives away from the negotiation table and outside of the conference room.”
Art in the service of interfaith dialogue also offers a unique scope — “simultaneously universal and particular.”
“Art can take a religion’s particular narratives, expressions and beliefs and make them universally accessible,” Gordon says. “Religious art can be a fruitful tool for dialogue that welcomes all to the table without sacrificing individual religious identities in the process.”