Although the quote “a picture is worth a thousand words” is well known, Dikla did well when she decided to include in her wonderful photographs various kinds of texts. The first, of course, are the biblical verses in which the women are mentioned, whose impressions are in the photograph she wished to share with the viewer, but that was not enough. Viewers of the book will immediately notice that alongside the verses of the Bible, quotations from sources throughout Jewish creativity since the completion of the Bible, sometime in the first centuries CE, and close to the present day have been added. And the photograph conveyed to the viewer is charming in its diversity in every possible way.
The Hellenistic Jewish writer Josephus and the ancient book “Divrei Ayub”, the Zohar, the Book of Jewish Mysteries, the work of Chaim Nachman Bialik, and this is only a partial list. But it is enough to present the magnificent variety, the heart and soul of sources from their periods, their linguistics (some of the sources were translated from Aramaic or Greek), and their literary genres.
Indeed, it was the right thing to do. It is impossible to be engrossed in the Bible without knowing the many textual works that followed it, as well as countless visual sources: mosaics and sculptures, pictures and photographs (spectacular as in the present book), coins and films – all these added to texts written in order to teach about “the inverse pyramid” that the Biblical traditions of Israel developed, its characters, languages and ideas. Generation after generation, they return again and again to this one text and find in it an abundance of ideas that have not been formulated before, and these are displayed in text, music (this is also a way to produce biblical characters: operas, ballads, light vocals and advertisements) and in a photograph – for the eyes and ears of the admiring reader.
In order to illustrate the importance of engaging with all the sources in order to get a full picture of Jewish work based on the Bible, I will mention only one of the characters that Dikla engages. She is the wife of Lot, to whom the Bible dedicates a single verse: “And his wife looked behind him, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26).
Of the many sources dealing with this unknown woman, Dikla chose to bring a seventh-century midrash, the chapters of Rabbi Eliezer, who tells us that “Idit, Lot’s wife, took pity on her married daughters who had remained in Sodom and looked behind her. As soon as she looked back at the Shekhinah (Divine Presence), she was transformed into a pillar of salt: she still stands in her place; every day passing oxen lick her feet and every morning she rises once again to her previous shape as a pillar of salt”. The selection of this passage points to one of the tendencies that characterize Dikla’s works. It is a search for a line of affirmation and kindness in biblical figures as they appear in post-biblical traditions. After all, it is a popular opinion – and the book before us contributes to its shattering – that the attitude of the Sages and those who follow them towards women is contemptuous and offensive. This is not true in itself, although it is possible, of course, to bring articles that speak out against women, since the sources present a varied and complex picture, and it will suffice if we mention such an article, “Teaches that the Holy One, blessed be he, gave wisdom to a woman more than a man” (Talmud Bavli, Niddah, 45: 72), or the words of the Midrash about “It is not good for man to be alone”: ” Anyone (man) that has no woman lives without good, without help, without happiness, without a blessing, without atonement, without goodness … and is therefore not a whole person”(Bereshit Rabba 17: 2). The picture is probably even more complex.
It should be noted that the Midrash cited above already names the woman, Idit in the sense of testimony, because the Pillar of Salt is evidence of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Midrash also provides an explanation as to why Lot’s wife turned back, even though Lot, she and their daughters were explicitly forbidden to do so: Mercy on the daughters who remained in the city (Lot apparently had four daughters, two married women who remained in Sodom and two virgins who had fled with him). When she looked back she saw the Shekhinah (Divine Presence), that is, God who had descended to destroy the city. And gazing upon God is a sin that has no atonement “for man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20). The Midrash also tells us that this Pillar of Salt still exists at the time, and that it exhibits a supernatural phenomenon: During the day the oxen, in need of salt, lick it, and at night it grows back again.
It turns out that the various traditions about Lot’s wife, such as the Pillar of Salt, grew and developed over the generations, and it is possible to bring several sources which provide various explanations to the story of the Salt Pillar and to the image of Lot’s wife.
One of the ancient sources discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating back to the destruction of the Second Temple, states that Lot’s wife was an Egyptian, whom Lot had married while he was with Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (Genesis 12). Joseph ben Matityahu, in the first century CE, recounts that Lot’s wife looked back because of her curiosity, and perhaps there is a note of criticism (only against women?) about curiosity that is not always a good thing. And Joseph continues to say – hundreds of years before the chapters of Rabbi Eliezer – “because I saw it and it still exists today,” so we have evidence that here and there throughout history there were those who identified one of the salt cliffs at ancient Sodom as Lot’s wife. (To this day, there is a sign that directs visitors to a block of salt, which reminds anyone who wants to see a woman of the biblical figure.) Midrash Bereshit Rabba, from the fifth century, explains that Lot’s wife’s punishment came because of her stinginess: She refused to give Lot’s guests a little salt, so she was punished and turned into a pillar of salt. According to this tradition, Lot’s wife was a Sodomite woman, and the Sodomites were known for not welcoming guests. And here we can add a Christian tradition, from the New Testament in the first century, according to which Lot’s wife looked back sadly because her heart ached for her possessions that were left behind. Not longing for her daughters, not because of curiosity, but greed was the sin for which she was punished. And we have brought here only a few examples from the many traditions concerning Idit, as have been accepted, in the Jewish tradition.
Note how many sources could have been brought for the forty works in this book. There are probably hundreds more, for if a minor figure such as Lot’s wife produced (and maybe we should say delivered) such a large number of traditions, what would we say about Eve, Sarah, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, and Dvora?
Here, a current contemporary Israeli artist, Dikla Laor, joins the chain of artists who have taken on the Biblical figure of Lot’s wife. She is described in her work as a relatively young woman, her two daughters to her side and in front of her, hugging, backs turned to us, marching towards a fate unknown to them and to their parents. Lot’s image is absent from the work, since we are interested in the women, and the tranquility on the face of Lot’s wife does not hint at the disaster that will affect Sodom, her family who remained in the city, and especially her own fate. This is a moment of grace, nostalgia for what has been, and uncertainty as to what will happen.
The fact that Dikla speaks in the language of photography and not in words does not matter one bit, and her creation deserves to come to the interpretive community and biblical commentators from a position of security in its interpretation and understanding. And the same can and should be said about each and every one of the miraculous photographs that merge the landscape of the land, the biblical story, the sources that followed, and the discerning eye and unique interpretation of an exceptional artist.
Prof. Avigdor Shinan.