There is not much ambiguity in the 14-line Talmudic story known as “Sota.” As a parable about adultery, the tale is pretty straightforward: a husband accuses his wife of cheating on him, and then orders her to drink from a special fountain with “bitter water.” If she’s guilty, she’ll die; if she’s innocent she’ll be blessed with fertility.
But the accused wife — Sota — plots with her similar-looking sister to take her place. They nearly pull off the ruse, until Sota, overcome with joy, rushes to greet her returning sister and kisses her on the mouth. “And with the kiss,” the tale ends, “the accused imbibed the bitter water and thereupon died.”
In the hands of most rabbis, the text has not been especially important, as it seems merely to add a male-centered twist on the original commandment against adultery. But in the hands of the Israeli artist Ofri Cnaani, “Sota” has become fodder for an ambitious work of art.
“The Sota Project,” which recently opened at the Kunsthalle Galapagos gallery in Brooklyn, includes a 22-minute film that challenges the text’s patriarchic assumptions.
“We all know [‘Sota’] is written from a male perspective,” Cnaani, 35, said in an interview at the exhibit. “For me, though, it’s a story about sisterhood.”
To emphasize that point, Cnaani focused on Sota and her sister, Bekhorah. For the dialogue, Cnaani used text found only in the original 14-line story or in later rabbinical commentary. But she added provocative silent scenes not mentioned anywhere in the traditional texts that undermine the story’s male-centered view.
“If the text does violence to me, why can’t I do violence to the text?” Cnaani asked in the interview.
For instance, upon returning to Sota’s husband after drinking the water, Bekhorah rapes him in order to impregnate herself, even though she has a husband. Cnaani also ends the film with sweeping panoramic footage of the two sisters kissing — but without letting the viewer know if either of them dies.
“In a way, they make the system work against itself,” Cnaani said.
But if “The Sota Project” is deliberately feminist, it does not sanctify women either. “I changed the dynamics between them,” she said, referring to the sisters. “They both have something to gain and something to lose.”
Cnaani said viewers could readily image one of the sister’s dying after the kiss, even if Cnaani doesn’t show it. After all, when Bekhorah rapes her sister’s husband, she is also committing adultery, and there is nothing in the film to suggest this is just.
For that matter, Bekhorah’s motives are not entirely pure either. Even if she wants to protect her sister, Cnaani suggests that Bekhorah’s infertility is another possible motive for her decision to help Sota. Cnaani said these added wrinkles are as much about restoring agency to the sisters as they are about alerting viewers to the ambiguity of traditional Jewish texts. “It’s the doubt,” she said, “that’s what I wanted to show.”
Doubt and ambiguity have been hallmarks of Cnaani’s work since she moved to New York nine years ago. In 2002 she enrolled in Hunter’s MFA program, and since then has shown at prominent museums like MoMA/P.S.1, and with the Chelsea gallery owner Andrea Meislin.
“Her work is often unstable,” said Nuit Banai, a professor of art history at Tufts University who has written about Cnaani’s work. “But it’s also the way she makes images — [her videos] are flickering, they’re moving, so that the image itself is unstable.”
Older Cnaani videos like “Patrol” (2003) projected shadowy figures on a screen hung just beneath the gallery ceiling. Viewers had to crane their necks and were kept guessing what exactly it was they were watching.
“I usually say that my mother is a dancer and my father is an architect, so everything I do deals with movement and space,” Cnaani said, adding that she tries to make her viewers move through her artworks, and make them active participants.
In another film, “Manja” (2010), Cnaani created a slideshow out of grainy photos taken from the early kibbutz movement, which she herself grew up in. But Cnaani manipulated the slides — blocking out faces with red dots, black glass, and purple spray paint — to make them less clear. The point was to challenge any stereotypes the viewers might have, and force them to imagine new meanings behind the blurred or blotted out space.
Cnaani sees in all of her work an impulse to breath new life into old tales, usually by transforming a found object — be it a photograph, Talmudic text or ancient Greek myth. “In a way, it’s the same interest I have: the politics of retelling,” she said.
In a quick clip, Cnaani has caught the attention of an international audience. In addition to her representation by Meislin, New York’s leading gallery of contemporary Israeli art, she is now represented by the prominent Tel Aviv Braverman Gallery. Her work has recently been shown in Venice, Vienna, Mexico City and Madrid.
“I’ve been working with Ofri for years,” said Elizabeth Grady, director of the Kunsthalle Gallery, noting past exhibitions in which she’s included Cnaani’s work, like the recent Moscow Triennial.
Grady said one of the things she liked most about “The Sota Project” was how it reimagined two ancient practices — the art of Greek and Renaissance narrative murals, and Jewish Talmudic learning. “She’s opened [these practices] back up again by putting them in a contemporary context,” Grady said.
For Cnaani, the decision to include explicitly Jewish content in her art was not easy. She was raised by adamantly secular parents on a kibbutz founded by one of her grandparents.
But as a teenager, she began studying religious texts in what was, in the 1990s, a common practice among young Israelis. Most were not looking to become religious, but simply to reengage with the religious tradition. Cnaani remembers taking flak from both of her grandfathers: “One didn’t really like it, and the other one asked if I was becoming religious. I said, ‘No,’ and he was okay with it.”
Though Cnaani is still secular — “I’ve been to shul maybe three times in my life,” she says — she’s been a longtime student of the liberal Jewish scholar and feminist Ruth Calderon. When Calderon moved to New York for a brief period in 2002 to set up a branch of her ALMA Institute, which promotes a secular brand of traditional Jewish study, Cnaani began studying with her more closely.
It was Calderon who introduced Cnaani to the “Sota” story, and prompted her think about incorporating Jewish content into her art. “She said, ‘When will be the time when you connect your Jewish side and your art side?’ My response was, ‘No, never.’” But Cnaani soon changed her mind, and by 2006 she had hatched an elaborate idea for a work that would become “The Sota Project.”
It took her several years, though, to get the funding. “I almost stopped at some point,” she said, noting that she had two daughters and a host of other projects she was working on. “But then I saw the Six Points Fellowship” — a lucrative if competitive fund for artists making explicitly Jewish work — “and I felt it was a perfect fit.”
She won the two-year, $40,000 grant, which in addition to other funding, helped pay for the handsome catalogue that accompanies the show — it features commentary by Calderon — as well as a limited edition of gold-plated objects that are part of the work.
Both Cnaani and Calderon were quick to note that their personal reinterpretations of the original “Sota” text were often at odds. In a book Calderon wrote that discusses the “Sota” story, she offers her own alternative ending. “I did not want to kill [Sota] in the book, so I stopped just before the kiss,” Calderon said in an interview from Tel Aviv. “I felt [the kiss] victimized her.”
Calderon argued with Cnaani over her decision to include the kiss, which she felt left the door open to the possibility of Sota’s, or even Bekhorah’s, culpability. “I think Ofri’s decision was to interpret [either of the] sisters’ death as a choice. But I didn’t buy into that.” Still, Calderon added, “The fact that we disagree is the way this text lives. Dispute is a serious way of studying.”
Cnaani said she cherished the disagreement with her teacher too. And like Calderon, she found reinterpreting the ending was both a way to challenge Jewish tradition and to embrace it. After all, she made sure viewers knew exactly what the original 14-line story says, by printing it in full on the entrance to the gallery. The original “Sota” text is allowed to speak for itself, and so is “The Sota Project.”
“The Sota Project” is on view at Kunsthalle Galapagos, 16 Main St. Dumbo, Brooklyn. (718) 222-8500. Through April 23.