Releasing the Sword in the Stone: September 15, 2013

Gottlieb's Jews Praying in the Synagogue
This is the time of the high Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  According to Jewish lore, on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, God inscribes in the Book of Life who shall live and who shall die, who shall wax and who shall wane. Then, on Yom Kippur he seals the book and, consequently, your fate. It is a time of judgment as well as of atonement.

After Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, the feast of the tabernacles. In preparation for it Jews everywhere erect sukkahs, flimsy, vine-roofed booths noted for their purposeful decrepitude. The sukkah is meant to remind Jews of the hardships of the Exodus. Since there is no solid archeological evidence that there ever was an Exodus, I take Sukkot and sukkahs with a grain of salt. Still, ghettoes are justification enough for a holiday that requires a meal and an overnight in a flimsy structure by way of remembrance.

Why am I going on about this? I am not an observant Jew. But I am an observant walker.  Today my walk took me back to my favorite spot, the one in the Harvard Law School quadrangle that holds the Safer sculpture, Judgment.  When I reached the sculpture, I found that someone, most likely a band of law school students, had raised a sukkah next to Safer’s Judgment? Did they do this deliberately? I doubt it. On the many days that I sit for a few minutes to admire the sculpture, dozens of people walk by as if the space were empty. One woman who has worked in the building since 2001 told me she had never even seen it until I called it to her attention. There is no reason to suppose the sukkoteers are any different.

                  Before                                        After
But whether they knew what they were doing or not, I am delighted that they chose to put the sukkah next to Judgment. Aside from the obvious biblical implications--judgment following humility--the arrangement affords a special perspective on the sculpture.

It is a familiar enough image to describe a sculptor as someone who does not put a figure into a block of marble but releases it from the stone. That is, the sculptor carves away all the unnecessary bits, leaving the figure behind.

The juxtaposition of the Harvard Law School quadrangle’s sukkah with Safer’s Judgment gives special meaning to that description. I look at the blunt squareness of the sukkah and then the power and brutal finality of Judgment and imagine Safer doing just that, releasing the sword in the stone.