Religion, Art, and History
“Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’
‘Here I am,’ he replied.
He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go the land of Mori’ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon on of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’” —Genesis 22:1-2
Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway’s exhibition “Obedience” (“Gehorsam” in German) at the Jewish Museum Berlin does not just come with a poster; it comes with a trailer giving potential visitors a first impression of the multimedia installation. In the Book of Genesis, the initial interaction between Abraham and God leads to the event at the heart of both the biblical narrative and this exhibition, which launched in May and runs through November 15th: Abraham’s obedience.
Abraham’s will to obey eventually suffices as proof of his fear of God; Isaac’s life is saved and a ram sacrificed instead. However, the story of a father’s willingness to sacrifice his son is as drastic as it is central to all three monotheistic world religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (where the story focuses on Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son with the slave Hagar). In their exploration of the religious narrative’s contemporary significance, Boddeke and Greenaway want to encourage visitors to go beyond a purely intellectual engagement.
The exhibition is about “feeling first, then thinking,” Greenaway summarizes in an interview for “Aus der jüdischen Welt” (“From the Jewish World”), a Jewish radio program on German public radio. To create this kind of experience, Boddeke and Greenaway have included art from different time periods and of different kinds, including visual, mixed media, film, and sound. The result is an exhibition, which allows visitors to explore the content and significance of the story not only by watching, reading, and listening, but also through touch, smell, and participation.
I was intrigued by the exhibition’s variety of historical, artistic, and religious components and by the intellectual—and emotional—challenges for the visitor. Considering I am a graduate student in history with a keen interest in museum work, this fascination may not come as a surprise. But it was more than that. Even though I am not religious, I believe that religious texts provide important food for thought. They challenge us to consider the historical context in which they were written, while at the same time providing a way of thinking more thoroughly about the challenges of our own time.
Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway’s exhibition presents its visitors with an opportunity for this kind reflection. At the same time, the exhibition is not simply a “tool” for visitors to explore their own realities. A wide variety of additional and mostly free events surrounding the exhibition allow visitors from different walks of life to engage with the story of Abraham and Isaac/Ishmael from a religious, artistic, and art historical perspective.