Woman of Valour: An Evolving View of the Jewish Body
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As Old As The World
The term Sanhedrin refers to the Great Court of ancient Israel During the Second Temple Period. It was composed of 71 men, one chief justice referred to as the Nasi (prince) one assistant chief justice, the Av Beit Din (Patriarch of the rabbinic court) and 69 general members. This judicial body made binding decisions about all aspects of Jewish life in and beyond Jerusalem. The Great Sanhedrin is a prime example of an exclusively male space- not only in its physical gathering of 71 men, but in the scope of influence these men had in making decisions that ruled over all bodies.

We learn about the Sanhedrin in the Talmud, an elaborate six volume documentation of laws derived from interpretations of the Bible. The Talmud is a dynamic document, begun with a text called the Mishnah, an explicit Biblical interpretation, followed by Gemara, which is a commentary on the Mishnah. The Talmud records discussions and debates of many rabbis over the course of three centuries. These intergenerational discussions dissect the Mishnah’s meaning and application.

In one section, titled Tractate Sanhedrin, 36b-37a, the Talmud poses an explicit and surprising connection between the female form and the architectural arrangement of the Great Sanhedrin. In those pages, the description of the physical structure of the Sanhedrin is derived from a passage in The Song of Songs 7:3; “Thy navel is like a round goblet, wherein no mingled wine is wanting; thy belly is like a heap of wheat set about with lilies.” Why would the Great Sanhedrin reflect the shape and sensuality of a woman's body, and specifically her navel? What does it mean that the foundational structure of justice was envisioned using the female body as passive poetic metaphor? Why is justice tucked into folds of the flesh?

The As Old as the World Photographs engages in dialogues with those questions, physically juxtaposing the corporal with the Talmudic. Through collaboration with two contemporary women struggling to find their places within Judaism; one who was going through an orthodox conversion process with a beit din and one who was contemplating taking leave from rabbinical school; the ancient text is realized against the backdrop of these women’s personal struggles between the space of contemporary rabbinic justice and justice prescribed in the ancient text. Their narratives become instrumental in revealing the space for personal agency between the Hebrew letters on the page and introduce the active feminine subject into the Sanhedrinic structure.