By Timna Burston, BIMA Community Educator
As I began to explore different sources on creation this summer, I became drawn to those sources that had to do with creating humanity – what does it take to create a human being? What separates us from other forms of life? Through the course of the Artists’ Beit Midrash, I became fascinated with a number of sources that deal with these questions.
The first is a quote from the Book of Genesis: “נעשה אדם בצלמנו, כדמותנו” – often translated as G-d saying “we shall make man in our image, in our likeness”. The Torah tends to be succinct when describing a situation, so this duplicity is rather confusing: Why say in our image AND in our likeness? The word “דמות” in Hebrew means character – so I like to read this phrase as “in our image, with our character” – G-d intended for man to be godlike in two ways – both in appearance and in character. Thus, right from the start there seem to be two components of humanity – the physical and biological creature, and some sort of soul (or, if you like me are not comfortable with this word, personality) – an inner self that is separate from the outward one. From this point forward, I fell in love with certain Jewish and non-Jewish sources that deal with man’s (largely failed) attempts to be godlike, and specifically, to become a creator in his own right. I was particularly drawn to the story of the Golem, a medieval Jewish tale about a famous rabbi who attempted to create a man to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitism. The rabbi, known as the Maharal of Prague, succeeded in creating the form of a man, but could not create the soul (for this was something only G-d could do). Thus, he created a human devoid of all of the human being’s inner characteristics – hope, love, aspirations, compassion. The result was that he had effectively “created a monster.” This monster was the inspiration for countless works of art, from Mary Shelley’s brilliant novel, Frankenstein, to the films that were inspired by it, as well as works of visual art by Niki De Saint Phalle, to name just a few. Throughout the ages, the question – what makes us human and how can we bring out the humanity of another person, has excited and troubled artists.
This is also probably the most potent question an educator can ask herself. If we have one job in the world, it is seeing the humanity in our students and allowing them to bring out the best version of themselves. When we are doing our job poorly, we might treat the student as a “golem”, fumbling through the world with no mind of its own, a creature for us to mold. Sometimes, our students also do not recognize our humanity as educators and see us as the empty shells of authoritarian institutions, or do not see us at all. In the worst of times, both sides can give up hope and wait like mere meat puppets for the other to take some sort of step forward. But in those beautiful times when we truly see the humanity and inherent value of each other, we can both become creators, inspiring each other to become the most human, and therefore the most godlike.
These different scenarios were the inspiration for a series of paintings I created in my ArtsCE project: They depict four different situations: Educator as creator/ Student as golem; Educator as golem/Student as creator; Educator and student as creator; Educator and student as golem. In each image, the relationship between the two is depicted through bodily gestures. Which one best reflects your experience of the summer?
Timna Burston has been a community educator at BIMA in 2009, 2010, and 2011. She is currently studying art at Hunter College in New York City. Timna grew up in Jerusalem, where she painted and taught Art and Art History. Born in Israel to American immigrants, she began her art studies at an early age and is a graduate of the Charles E. Smith School for the Arts in Jerusalem. Following her service in the Israeli Defense Forces, Timna began her studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a B.A. in Art History and a teaching certificate in Art and Art History. Timna moved to New York in the fall of 2010 and works as a Youth Director at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains.