A modern midrash on the Tamar – Yehuda prostitution story is offered by artist Chani Cohen-Zada in her sparse, emotional painting ‘Recognize These’. Here, Schechter’s Dr. Ronit Steinberg, department head and academic advisor for the Jewish Art History and the Gender and Feminism tracks, finds provocative parallels to the Biblical story in this week’s Torah portion: Va’yeshev.
One of the many topics presented in Parshat Va’yeshev is the story of Yehuda and Tamar. This story is described in many different ways throughout art history, and I chose to present here a contemporary work by the artist Chani Cohen-Zada. As you can see, Cohen-Zada’s artistic style is figurative, such, that one can clearly identify, what is depicted, and understand that the painting transfers the biblical story to the present day:
A young pregnant woman is sitting in the corner of a room with one hand on her lap, and a thick ring on the tip of her finger. She is leaning on her other hand, which rests on a Tzitzit and next to a tie, that lay on a table. The room and its furniture are dark and simple. There is a light penetrating the painting from the side, which relieves a little of the darkness, but at the same time, casts the figure’s black shadow on the opposite wall. The whole image creates an impression of heaviness and mystery.
This is a recognizable biblical scene of Tamar sitting in her house with Judah’s belongings. According to the story, Tamar disgַuised herself as a prostitute and was imprַegnֶated by Yehuda, her father-in-law. She did this in order to establish a linׅeage from her dead husband , after realizing that she had no other options left.
This is a critical moment of great tension for Tamar. Yehuda had the ability to sentence her to death, as he declared, “Take her out to be burned.” The story ends with Tamar presenting Yehuda with the belongings that he had given to her when she was dressed as the prostitute. The text says, “As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, ‘I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she adds, ‘Recognize These, Haker Na, whose seal and cord and staff are these?’” Tamar is saved and Yehuda acknowledges the validity of her clֶaim.
The three identifying signs that Tamar sent to Yehuda were the belongings that he left with her: a seal, a cord, and a staff. The classical biblical commentֶators tended to interpret the word seal as a signֶet ring, which can be seen in the painting on the woman’s finger. The fact that the ring is not hers, is evident from its position on the top of the finger, positioned as an object to be handed over, in the future. Regarding the cord and the staff, the commentators were divided: some thought that it was his belt or his clothes, and some raised the possibility that it was a taַssel – Tzizit.
The two objects in the painting, the Tzitzit and the tie, represent contemporary clothing that symbolizes a combination of religion and modernity. The Tzitzit, worn under the garment, symbolizes adhׅerence to a religious lifestyle, and the tie tied above it, is part of the Western official dress code. Both can represent, to a large extent, the autࣤhoritative figure of Yehuda as it is described in the text.
The artist Chani Cohen-Zada chose an imaginary moment, which on the suֶrface has a great degree of stillness. But it contains within it, an emotional storm. Unlike other works that describe the encounter between Tamar and Yehuda with much sexual tension, Cohen-Zada chose to depict Tamar, alone, at home, lost in thought.
Only viewers familiar with the story, with the lifestyle of the characters in the Bible and with the lifestyle of religious women today, will be able to understand the strength of Tamar’s faith – which is, apparently, the main theme of the work. This is how the artist described her intention: “On the one hand, Tamar commits an act that breaks with the accepted social order, and on the other hand, she is the one who gets to establish the dynasty from which King David will be born in the future.” The contemporary art world in Israel contains more and more works created by religious artists. This work is an example of this, and testifies to the gradual acceptance of the field of visual art, in the Orthodox religious society in Israel.
Dr. Ronit Steinberg is a Lecturer in Art History, Modern and Jewish Art. She is the department head and academic advisor for the Jewish Art History and the Gender and Feminism tracks. Dr. Steinberg completed her PhD in the art history department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her joint book with Prof. Katrin Kogman-Appel, The Visual Arts in Jewish Society, a publication of The Open University of Israel, will soon be published.