Yoko Ono had a famous performance artwork called ‘Cut Piece’. Sitting on a bare stage, she placed a pair of scissors before her audience and instructed them that they were to come forward and cut at her clothes.
Some were gentle and tentative, but others took the scissors to Ono’s garments in ways that were starkly violent. And through it all she sat, maintaining her invitation to an arena in which social manners and conventions were themselves cut away, revealing the currents of light and darkness beneath.
The genius of ‘Cut Piece’ is that it provoked a suspension of normal social relations, allowing the audience to step outside of themselves. The results were disturbing – disorienting. They hinted at darkness and horror.
But I want to suggest that Ono’s social-suspension technique shared much with another, different set of techniques, designed to produce a far more positive and joyous insight – the demands and prohibitions of halacha.
Performance art and religious ritual are birds of a feather. They share a concern with rendering the familiar unfamiliar, stimulating a more careful consideration of how and why we do what we do.
Both create space – both physical and psychological. Both poke holes in everyday life and allow something ineffable to shine through. They are disruptions, that take you outside of yourself, emphasise connection through disconnection, and force a discomfort that hints at transcendence.
At the heart of halacha is the notion of separation. The division between what is allowed and disallowed, sanctity and profanity. The separation of food, of individuals, of time.
Shabbat is a work of performance art. It comes with instructions – strict rules that create a disruption in quotidian reality, bringing holiness and reflection and respite.
To put on tefillin is to clear a mental space through physical distinction. To observe kashrut is to force difference and consideration – of origins, of causality.
Through following Ono’s guidelines, the audience created a space through which currents of communication could run, guided by her intentions, channeling unpredictable, unarticulated forces through a relationship that revealed to them something beyond anything they could expect.
How much more must this be so, with rules of a far more sacred kind?