God, Goats, and Pickup Trucks
Maurice Schmidt’s Visions of Texas
1986, Oil on Linen
“The central point of the Sabbath service is the reading of the Torah. Occurring after the high moment of its removal from its resting place inside the Ark and its slow procession amidst the congregation, the Torah comes to rest upon the reading table (bima). The bar mitzvah (who is thirteen) reads part of that week’s portion. The bar mitzvah ritual consists of chanting and reading a Sabbath service.
This series was a group of paintings I made when my son, Joshua, was bar mitzvahed. It was an essay into the combination of majesty and tenderness that suffuses much of traditional synagogue ritual. In these moments, the child is brought into formal union with ancient tradition. The informal, generally relaxed ambience of a synagogue service makes it easy to miss the majestic ritual ascent upon which it is constructed. The formal service is convened after opening prayers. From this point, there is a progression of praise and thanksgiving prayers, then the Shema: the great declaration of the oneness of God and the obedience due Him. The Amidah follows. Its eighteen benedictions combined with personal hopes, leads to the “opening of the Ark” and the processional, symbolic of the Divine Presence coming down from His heavenly abode, coming forth out of the Ark to dwell in the midst of His people.
The point of nearest contact between man and the Divine Presence is when the Torah is being read. Symbolically the Torah service resembles the ascent of the High Priest to the ancient altar, and also his implied ascent to the Holy of Holies of the ancient Tabernacle and Temple. When read by a bar mitzvah child, the high point of majesty touches the vulnerable in man in the tenderest embrace. As Jewish ritual eschews theatrics and literal reenactments, its profound symbolism is often missed. Its grandeur lies in its spiritual architecture rather than in embellished surfaces.
This Torah reading portrays my son, Joshua Jacob, at this most tender-majestic moment. He is flanked by his teacher and congregants. If the painting is turned upside down, then the viewer has the same view as the bar mitzvah, and the opening passages of his Torah portion can be read. While my painting is very much like the moment looked, elements of its color, tone, and composition reach beyond the momentary. A soft, golden light suffuses the painting; a light reflected by the whiteness of the Torah Scroll, as white as the robe of the high priest. Flashes of blue, purple, and scarlet, and gold, the colors of the curtains of the Tabernacle, energize the white surfaces of the prayer shawls worn by the worshippers.
Compositionally, the huge, unrolled Torah scroll resting on the table forms the rectangular base of a pyramid that apexes at the head of the bar mitzvah boy. This pyramid in a square composition expresses the unchanging eternal revealed in reality’s fleeting moment and binds the Torah to its young reader. Religious ritual often hides its majesty and sacrosanctness from our unalert sensors. I can only hope that some of the hidden got into my painting, and now and then can step out of its resting place and touch the viewer.”