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Why did you choose the subject of the messiah?
I think if I had understood what it was that I was starting to research when I started to research, I'm not sure I would have done it. I picked Judaism for very specific reasons, but there are tons of concepts within Judaism that I could have worked with, but why the messiah? I was reading through this book What the Jews Believe, and there was a chapter on the messiah. And at the time I didn't think the Jews believed in the messiah, which I think is a pretty common misperception, which grows out of the ramifications of trying to deal with Jesus, he brings a lot of complications with him. But there was a Jewish messiah in the 17th century, Sabbatai Zevi, who depending on which meta-narrative you believe in Jewish history, a large percentage of Jews—some would say most—believed that this was it. The messiah had come, the world was going to be different, and then he converted to Islam. He was forced by the Turkish sultan to either die, or convert to Islam. So he converted to Islam and all these subsequent scholars were dealing with the fall-out of Sabbatai Zevi converting to Islam. There was such a powerful force happening in that moment in time with this guy that if he had chosen death, which we have a long history of martyrdom and how to deal with that—we've got narratives to put over the top of that that make it easy to move forward; Sabbatai Zevi chose a narrative that we have no prehistory for, I'm not aware of any other messiah who has ever chosen to convert to another faith. There were people in the early 1900s who still believed that Sabbatai Zevi was the messiah, and there were Jews living as either Christians or Muslims, leading these dualistic lifestyles. For two-hundred years there were Jews living in very isolated communities, being Muslim when they're out in the street and being Jews, not by force, by choice, to live a philosophy that was a result of Sabbatai Zevi converting to Islam. And these Jews were some of the founders of Reform Judaism. So the Judaism we have today is, to a large extent, a result of the fall-out from Sabbatai Zevi.
The one thing I am worried about is that I've never gone after a topic that was controversial at all—nobody's going to get upset over a sculpture of the Minneapolis-St. Paul bus system. But this is my first piece where I'm engaging with information that is slightly volatile, and I'm a little bit nervous about what that's going to be like. People do weird stuff about religion. But looking at this piece, all these people throughout history, they're all Jewish, or they influence Judaism somehow, and they believe very different things at different points in time, and I don't think there's a right. You can say you believe this guy more than this guy, but they were all Jewish scholars at different points in time, you're just picking. And I'm not picking, I'm giving you all of them that I've found and I learned about, but I'm not saying any of them are right, they're just all here and related to each other.
But some of my favorite things I discovered while working on the project are these really weird things, like, how will god bring back the dead in the resurrection? There's an idea that he will do it from the dew that falls from his hair, which I think is a fairly early idea. And then later comes that god actually gathers the spit that pours out of the mouths of rabbis who are studying when they fall asleep on the book, god is gathering that dew and that is the spittle that he's going to use to resurrect the dead. Awesome! Who thinks of that?!
Another of my favorites is about the utopian ideas of what the next world will look like, because there really isn't much in the Torah about the next world and what it would be like, so some people are just making it up. One of my favorites is that women will pursue men. This is old, from the 9th century or the 5th century, way back, which I just love because a lot of the things you realize are that these issues we're dealing with today in social interaction, they've been the same way since the beginning of time; men have always been dealing with this issue of trying to talk to a woman, and so this rabbi sitting there is like, I got it, in paradise the women go after the men! Those are some of the elements that, in the research, I found kind of beautiful and amazing, and that talked more about humanness. I think with the 2012 stuff that is coming up I think there's a lot of messianic kind of interest and talk—which I wasn't thinking about at all when I started this because I started in 2009—it's actually perfect timing. The world is hard; people are suffering, it's a difficult world that most people live in, and they're looking for something better, and there's such a universal idea and hope that the world is going to get better, or there'll be a rupture, or there's something to look forward to. A major takeaway from all of this is that that is a hope that's been there; that's what the messiah is, in a very vague and un-nuanced sense, it's a hope that someone will come along and make my world a better place. Is it someone? Is it people in general? What is it? Who knows. But people really want it to be better.