Meeting with Rabbi Shai Finkelstein was an unforgettable experience. He was composed and warm. He had extreme patience and a sense of calm as he answered my queries. During our conversation he became a mentor, enlightening me on the structure of biblical and modern Hebrew. I learned that Hebrew was revived as a spoken and literary language in the 19th century, once again becoming a living language from the status of being extinct.
We talked about Christian and modern Hebrew, about how each letter in Hebrew was a symbol of the eternal. He spoke to me about the elements, including water, earth, and air and their importance in Judaism. He also explained how copper was used in the first and second temple period as a common material as it was easily available and was not as expensive as gold.
Rabbi Shai was born in Haifa to Holocaust survivors. He served as a senior rabbi in a Synagogue in Memphis, Tennessee for about ten years and has returned to Jerusalem to serve as rabbi of the Nitzanim, a kibbutz in southern Israel.

Learning from Rabbi Shai Finkelstein


Astha Butail’s winning project ‘In the Absence of Writing’ proposed to survey and research encoded memory patterns that keep ancient oral traditions alive. She selected to focus on three linguistic families and the communities that preserved them – Sanskrit, Avestan and Hebrew.

After a year of travel, to Varanasi, several towns in South India, London, Yazd and Jerusalem, and after meeting scholars and research students, spiritual teachers, and family elders. Butail’s journey has helped uncover the manner in which knowledge is not only preserved, but also performed. It brings her understanding of lived experiences full circle, where conventional formats of coding memory are researched, processed and programmed anew.

As preparation of her journey, a tent was created by the artist of fine muslin and gauze, which accompanied her on her travels. For the first leg of her journey – in Varanasi, Butail focused on sound, language and understanding memory patterns. She met with a series of gurukuls to observe the manner in which knowledge was chanted or recited, passed on from each student body to another. Three to four students were invited to recite verses within the shelter of the tent, both on land and on water. The strength of woven fabric relies on the closed space between warp and weft- material space symbolic of mental space as much as it is of soundspace. This quasi-ritual performance emphasizes the delicate preservation of the ‘word’- the tradition of oral learning, and the various slippages between recital from memory and its inherent understanding.

Sound structures and their derivative memory patterns were further explored through her travels in South India, London, Iran and Israel. The mobile tent was altered to the new environments, and employed anew in a series of recital performances. Alongside the sonic paradigm, the artist also drew attention to the written word by facilitating and initiating a collective performance in city streets strewn with books that she had arranged; the participants each one picked up and held along the way. Referencing an earlier participatory project A Story within a Story (2012- ongoing) that focused on the archiving of communal knowledge, the written and sonic templates of sharing and preserving knowledge are seen as indexing methods within the larger format of memory keeping. In these performances, the artist plays the role of a facilitator as well as a witness, while also sometimes becoming a stimulus. The performance itself alludes to the practice of memory and serves as an exercise in inner reflection.

Astha is thankful to BMW for the opportunity, the journey has allowed her to delve deeper into her practice and further enriched her ongoing research on oral traditions.

08.03.2018 It is very difficult to describe Daniel Sperber. He has amazing spontaneity, a childlike enthusiasm, immense humbleness, and an incredible willingness to share and discuss—I found him remarkable in so many ways.
I am grateful that he was so liberal with his time, and agreed to walk into my tent, which I was able to set up on one of the roads of the Jewish quarter in the old city. His sense of humor was hidden in small gestures. He was extremely open to question and shared his knowledge without any inhibition.
The time we spent in his three-story personal library was unique. I was surprised to find books from both the Hindu and Judaic traditions. It was almost dreamlike to enter such an erudite writer's world. He even shared with me the index of his new book on Hindu and Judaic thought.
There are some people you never forget. For me, Daniel Sperber is one of them.
A British-born academic and rabbi who lives in Jerusalem, Daniel Sperber is a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. His subjects include classical philology, history of Jewish customs, Jewish art history, Jewish education, and Talmudic studies. Sperber is the author of Minhagei Yisrael: Origins and History on the Character and Evolution of Jewish Customs.
Sperber is also one of the few rabbis who have called out for a greater inclusion of women in certain ritual services, including ordination.

04.03.2018 On this day I came into contact with some interesting personalities associated with Judaic culture and traditions. The first was Sarah Schneider, one of the few women who is practicing and studying Judaism in such depth.
After earning a bachelor's degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from the University of Colorado, she went on to complete the advanced learning program at Neve Yerushalayim. In 1981, she moved to Jerusalem, where she has studied with rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, one of the most respected teachers of Chassidut and Kabbala. Sarah is the founding director of A Still Small Voice, a correspondence school that provides weekly teachings in classic Jewish wisdom to subscribers around the world, and the founder of The Golden Thread, a homeopathic remedy based on Torah and Kabbalistic sources. Sarah also hosts meditation Retreats, guiding participants through traditional Jewish meditative practices and instructs them on how to harness the holy lights of Shabbat for healing and transformation.
The first thing that struck me about her was how she seemed to be brimming with joy. She was so vibrant and cheerful. Before our interaction, she called out an oral prayer to the water she was about to drink. I was surprised as I had witnessed similar water prayers in India. I was impressed with how our ancient traditions understood that water has a memory, which can be harnessed for our good—a fact which modern science is only coming to accept now.

Rabbi Kahana, the spiritual leader of Hazon Yichezkeil, a member synagogue of Young Israel (Yisrael Hatzair) in the Old City of Jerusalem, was born and raised in Brooklyn. Young Israel is a synagogue-based orthodox organization in the United States with a network of affiliated “Young Israel” synagogues.
As I entered Rabbi Kahana’s home, I saw that he was barefoot, so I asked if I should remove my shoes as well. He told me to keep them on, but added that Judaism should adopt the ritual of removing shoes before entering from India. He looked old but appeared very young in his being.
We spoke for a short time, during which he shared his knowledge about what the role of a rabbi meant in his tradition. He spoke about tradition and innovation, specifically about how innovation has the power to change rituals and thinking. I admired this forward thinking and his talk of change.

03.03.2017 The Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat, is a day for rest, prayer, and spending time with family. During Shabbat, which begins a few minutes before sunset on Friday evening and lasts until the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night, the city seems to be in hibernation. All practicing Jews refrain from activity. Currently there are 139 listed activities that must be avoided.

The word Shabbat derives from the Hebrew verb shavat (Hebrew: שָׁבַת‎), which means rest or ceasing from work. It’s interesting to observe how a culture defines rest: no use of electronic gadgets, including elevators, ovens, cars, and buses—even light switches. And it’s amusing to see how the faithful find their way around many of the do-nots. At our hotel, for instance, the lift is put in Sabbath- or slow-mode, which means it gets set to open on all floors, so no one needs to push a button. You just step inside and it waits patiently before it moves to the desired floor. There is also the concept of the Sabbath year, or sabbatical, in the Jewish tradition. Just as the Torah calls for a day of rest after six days of work, it also calls for Shmita, or a year of release for the fields after they’ve been cultivated for six years. Universally, the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle is supposed to be the resting or fallow period for the land and soil. Shmita is about more than agriculture in the Jewish tradition. It is a time to forgive debts, and to share whatever bounty comes from your land. After observing Shabbat, I started to think about how I would define rest and also whether prayer should be connected with rest. In Vedic thought, meditation implies a stillness of the being on a physical, mental, and spiritual level—it is a state of rest that creates a protective cover around us. In the Rig Veda we find the prayer, “Pari pātu viśvataḥ” (Rig Veda Hymn 10.37 lit.), which can be translated as may it protect me from all sides. The root pā, in pātu, has two meanings: one is to protect and the other is to drink. Protection can be gained in two different ways: from the outside and from within. It is by filling the being from within that the protection of the root pā is implied.

The Jewish day of rest also got me thinking about the significance of the number seven. Is there any connection between the seven specific objects used on Navruz from Persia; the seven species: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates in Judaism; the seven rivers, Sapta Sindhavah; the seven sages; and the seven tongues or flames of agni in the Indian Vedic? The number reappears across all three religions.

What is religion, after all? The term is a 19th century word that comes from the Latin root religare, which means to go on repeating. And, of course, repetition is religion’s most powerful tool—as it is for the oral tradition. Interestingly, I could not find a word for religion in any of the three traditions I visited, nor in any of the three languages, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Avestae.

02.03.2018 Qumran, the archaeological site in Israel’s West Bank from which the Dead Sea scrolls were excavated, is located on a desert plateau about 1 kilometer to the east of Jerusalem near the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. The site’s famous caves—where the ancient manuscripts were found in equally ancient vessels—are known as Wadi Qumran. They sit 70 meters above the level of the Dead Sea, which is the lowest point on Earth at 325 meters below sea level. For me, this place is a link in the continuity of faith.
I journeyed with my tent to Qumran and erected it on a flat, sandy patch of the plateau overlooking the Dead Sea on one side and the Qumran excavation site on the other.
Reciting the Shacharit or morning Jewish prayer in the tent on that spot was a magical experience. I am indebted to Zvi Geva, a modern Jew, who agreed to lend his voice for the prayers.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered between 1946 and 1956, first by Bedouin shepherds and then by teams of archaeologists. The practice of storing worn-out sacred manuscripts in earthenware vessels and then burying those vessels in the earth or in caves is related to the ancient Jewish custom of keeping a genizah, or storage space within the synagogue for tattered or spent books. All old religious texts had to be buried, since it is considered sacrilegious in the Jewish faith to discard anything that included God’s name.

Of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls have great historical, religious, and linguistic significance, because they comprise a vast collection of ancient Jewish documents written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Encompassing many subjects and literary styles, these texts include manuscripts and fragments of every book in the Hebrew Bible (except the Book of Esther), all of which were created nearly one thousand years earlier than any previously known biblical manuscripts.
A canon of scripture is a set of texts or oral transcriptions that a particular religious community regards as authoritative. The root of the word canon comes from the Greek term for rule, as in ruler or measuring stick. There are closed canons, such as the Bible or other books to which nothing may be added or removed. In contrast, an open canon permits the addition of books through the process of continuous revelation. In many ways, the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls reaffirmed the closed canon of the Jewish tradition.

01.03.2018 The Dung Gate, which provides the best access to the Western Wall, is one of the eight portals into the walled Old City of Jerusalem. When I visited this ancient site, I found a group of revelers celebrating a Bar Mitzvah.
A Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony marks the coming of age of Jewish adolescents. Boys (Bar) must be 13 years old, girls (Bat) may participate at 12. The ritual is an initiation into Jewish adulthood, a welcoming of the individual into the observation of religious precepts and a new world of public worship.

In the Old City, public Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrations may only take place on Mondays or Thursdays. I could not find a reference explaining why those two days of the week were selected and only those two. I suppose it is a matter of tradition. Sometimes rituals are carried out according to custom, almost out of convenience for those who are familiar with the rules. Other times such rituals follow a pattern. But perhaps there is a deeper, concealed meaning to the why of the when that is not shared openly with the wider, non-Jewish public.

At the celebration following the ceremony, music made with special historical drums and pipes filled the air. Any celebration is contagious, and this one was no exception. Soon, laughter filled the air, occupying the vacant space with the joy of celebration.

28.02.2018 The tomb of King David, located just outside the Old City on Mount Zion, is a rare example of a holy site that is considered to be among the most sacred for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. And the complex of rooms that comprises the tomb is shared by the three religions. On the ground level are several Jewish synagogues, and a Yeshiva. The second level is where the last supper is said to have taken place and, thus, held sacred by the Christians. The third level has a Muslim muezzin tower. In the background, perched on top of Mount Zion, one can see the Dormition Abbey, a grand German Benedictine Abbey, where the tomb of the Virgin Mary is located.

27.02.2018 The Mount of Olives, or Mount Olivet, is part of a range of mountains that sit outside of Jerusalem to the east and offer unrivaled views the Old City.
Because of its Biblical and historical significance, as well as its views, I chose it as one of the places to set up my tent structure. This tent, which I carried with me from my home in India to Jerusalem, became an integral part of my journey. Wherever I went, I used it to frame spaces that are auspicious, or the subject of a dispute, or the reason for war at several points in history. The question of what makes a site auspicious intrigues me. Do prayers on land, in the water, and out in space have the same effect? Do different types of land or water or space have the same effect on prayer?
I took this picture while constructing the tent, before having layered it completely with fine muslins panels. As an investigation of space and air and how the two connect, this composition reminds me of one of the pages from the books I create.

At 818 meters (2,684 feet), the highest point on the Mount of Olives is in a neighborhood called At-Tur, where the majority of the population is Muslim. From this peak one can see the entire Old City, including one of its most recognizable landmarks, the Dome of Rock on the Temple Mount. A Muslim shrine built atop Jewish and then Roman temples, this icon of Islamic architecture has long been a sacred site for pilgrims. To enter the famous golden dome, one needs to have been born into a Muslim family or to be a practicing Muslim. Interestingly, it was an oral prayer that served as a password—worshippers were required to chant the prayer before being allowed to enter. The power of the spoken word used as a code fascinates me. I view my frame as another sort of oral code.

26.02.2018 Upon entering the Old City of Jerusalem, I was informed by my guide that it was divided into four quarters. And as we meandered down cobbled streets and arched alleyways, he constantly pointed out when we had entered or existed a different land. The shifts happened quickly. At one moment, we were firmly in the Armenian quarter. But just a few paces forward, suddenly we were standing in the Christian quarter. Another few strides, and we were squarely in the Jewish quarter. But nowhere could I see physical boundaries. Architecturally, nothing seemed to be marked by a specific faith or culture. While these three quarters were not equally divided, they appeared to be entirely stitched together. There were Jewish houses next door to Armenian houses that were next door to Christian houses, all of them appearing quite the same.
The Muslim quarter, by contrast, was clearly separate from these three, and situated on the other side of the hill.
As we approached the Western Wall, I noticed a more formal or serious aura than I had in the other areas of town. I also noticed another division: this time of gender. Men and women were praying in their own separate areas. A real divider—in the form of a wall—marked who was allowed to pray where. As people stood facing the ancient limestone wall, praying and reading from their prayer books, I felt a reverence as I heard the hum of their words. They seemed to form a sort of spiritual library in what has long been the holiest of places for the Jews. Yet this division of the genders is not so ancient. In fact, it is as recent as the middle of the twentieth century—a result of the war Six Day War.
This is what war of any sort does, it divides and introduces an element of fear. The many ethnic and religious subgroups that exist within the Jewish community today emerged over centuries and are categorized by different names depending upon the different sects and countries in which they took root. At the Wall, Jews of every denomination and practice—from the Orthodox (ultra- or Haredi, central or modern) to Conservative to Reform, and even Reconstructionist—congregate and pray. The colors of their garments or their caps (kippas) signify their sect and make them seem superior or inferior, depending on who is looking. While these divisions are real, and often really divisive, there remains a shared culture based upon the common prayer books. And so, collectively, those who come to pray create a living prayer library.

Astha Butail in Conversation with András Szántó

AS: You were selected for the fifth BMW Art Journey after the Hong Kong Art Basel exhibition? The final decision happened in the summer of 2017. What were your thoughts when you first realized this journey might become a reality?

AB: I was at once reminded of a journey I had undertaken in 2012, when I visited twelve ritual points, some of which were still active centres of faith. My travels took me to the state of Himachal Pradesh in India, where I met and interviewed twelve purohits (high priests) who educated me on aspects of their culture that I was interested in. I was regaled with stories about the land of gods (Dev Bhumi) through many conversations with the locals. I realised that the BMW Art Journey could be an opportunity to travel to the interiors of villages and delve deeper into the methods and histories of these very rituals. Here was a chance to retrace the birth and path of oral traditions across various cultures and geographical boundaries through personal interactions and conversations. For me, this journey has endless possibilities; the wonder of what awaits me around every corner is truly compelling.

AS: You were familiar with the journeys of Samson Young, Henning and Fehr, and Max Hooper Schneider, and there are strong affinities between your journey and Abigail Reynolds’ journey along the Silk Road in search of lost libraries. How did these artists and their journeys influence your plans? Did other journeys, by artists or others, inspire you?

AB: Abigail Reynolds’ journey was all about the written word and exploring the blanks and voids of the knowledge to which we have access. My Indian roots made me realise the power of memory and the spoken word, and so my practice draws on investigating my own history and identity through Oral Traditions. These traditions of knowledge have been passed on in India since 4,500BC and continue to do so, even today. Not only are they seen in formal Sanskrit schools, but also in everyday life, where traditions such as the Gayatri Mantra are passed down through generations purely by word-of-mouth.

In an old work of mine, “A Story Within A Story“ (2012), I made a hundred books consisting of seven pages each. Every page comprised a separate form, which was an open library that aimed at establishing a dialogue on the black sun. It was an interactive project. The idea was to get people to write in continuance to my own stories and drawings. The point of constructing a live library was to emphasise the fact that oral traditions were not written, but rather passed down through generations, which involved a thorough discipline of learning. When the Nalanda university in India was burnt down by invaders, knowledge survived primarily through the oral tradition.

Through this journey I want to meet with people who are working hard to preserve their cultures using this very method. I want to study three oral tradition set ups, that of the Zoroastrians, Jews, and Indians. Studying these would help me understand their respective oral methods and document different patterns of memory techniques through interviewing scholars and masters of each tradition. My study pointed me towards India, Iran, and Jerusalem. My final destinations were selected after thorough research. In India, am visiting Varanasi, where the Gurukul system (where one learns and resides with the teacher) is still alive; along with some parts of central, west and south India. To follow the Avesta tradition, my journey will take me to Mumbai, London, and parts of Iran. As for the Torah tradition, the journey will spann across Kochi and Jerusalem.

AS: How did you become interested in memory and the schools that you are visiting? Not everyone will be familiar with these schools. Can you tell a bit more about their history, origins, and their role in the community?

AB: Through my interest in Vedic literature, I came to realise that collective memory is an extremely powerful tool due to its ability to unite people of a community through the passing down of knowledge. Once a chant would establish itself in the memory then it would be yours forever. These Gurukuls make such collective memories orderly and refined through discipline and learning. The idea that a student could learn the complete Rig-Veda (the oldest knowledge account from India comprising of 1024 hymns) by heart was difficult to fathom, but it fascinated me. This led me to learn more about the methods of learning and memorising that could survive the test of time.

The Gurukul system was the traditional way of learning, where students would live in a teacher’s residence, somewhat like a smaller and more intimate boarding school. Students joined the gurukul anywhere between the ages of 8-12 years and would remain with the guru or teacher till their learning was complete. It seemed like a utopic form of education, sacred and unmaterialistic. The only payment was in the form of a gurudakshina or offering. The form of instruction was primarily oral. During my research, I found a similar form of learning in Jerusalem, in the Yeshivas where learning takes place through a dialogue called havruta (friendship and companionship). Somehow, the feeling is such that collective memory plays an important role today in every culture of the world.

AS: I have read elsewhere an interview you with you when you described your journey as a pilgrimage.Is that how you think about it?

AB: A pilgrimage Is a journey of special significance. I aim to choose one hymn from each tradition and translate its meaning, and draw out similarities in memorising patterns within different regions. The project is an homage to the intangible living oral traditions still surviving in the world—some more active than others. I have a feeling that this journey will lead me to many interesting and significant points and help me to bind our varied cultures with the thread of learning. I think this is what makes it special. Since many years, due to my interest in learning these recitations orally, I have been drawn to memorizing a few hymns by heart in the right accents.

AS: How do you see memory, culture, and society interacting, especially in India and in the communities you will be studying?

AB: Today, such mnemonic traditions are a distant reality in contemporary India. In earlier times this tradition was more comprehensively a part of everyday life. It has been reduced to nothing more than ritualistic chanting of morning prayers before one leaves for work. What is interesting is that despite no formal training, most Indians can recite at least one or two of these ancient prayers even today. Unfortunately, even though there has been a revival of interest for old mantras and chants, there is no easily available school or institution that one can attend. There was a lot of scientific premise behind cultural practices which have been sacrificed in our pursuit of western cultures. For example, holidays were based on mathematical calculations of energy levels and not on a static weekend culture. No moon day (amavasya) was a no-work day as energy levels are low.

AS: How will you integrate yourself into these communities? What do you plan to do on site?

I plan on constructing a structure made with sheer muslin, a dwelling space or a tent that I’ll take with me. People from different cultures would be invited to talk about and conduct the oral recitations inside the tent. Conducting this in the tent would signify the act of wearing, inhabiting and containing. The embodied void becomes a symbol of “casting oneself into a mechanism.” To put on one’s self, a performance or a sheath.

AS: What do you expect to be the most challenging for a journey of this kind? Where do you hope to be surprised, for good or bad?

AB: We live in troubled times, so I hope people will be tolerant. Each culture is rich and meaningful in its own way, I want to examine how, through the evolution of mankind, we have started from the same place somewhere and evolved into different but equally beautiful cultures with an underlying unity which we need to rediscover. So I am hoping that I will be met with open arms and a willingness to share throughout this journey.

AS: An experience like this will have an impact on your own thinking. How do you think it might change you, as an artist and as a human being?

AB: Human beings are so much more than we are even aware of today. They have so many faculties that are still undiscovered within us. A project like this, I am quite confident, will expose me to so many new stimuli. This exposure to various cultures and their beginnings is bound to make me grow as a human being. I hope it will also bring to the fore the values of forgiveness and tolerance and the unity of mankind. I am seeking to look at the “universality of celebration” within all cultures.