Artist Tobi Kahn receives ‘chaver’ honor, an ancient tradition with a modern twist

(RNS) — “Chaver,” an honorific with origins in ancient Jewish history, has traditionally been awarded to rabbinical scholars and pillars of the religious community. But the title has evolved over the centuries, and on June 30, it was settled on Tobi Kahn, an Orthodox Jewish artist, at the Museum at Eldridge Street, in Manhattan.

Kahn’s ceremony coincided with the unveiling of “Memory & Inheritance: Paintings and Ceremonial Objects,” a solo exhibition of Kahn’s art, which draws modern imagery from deep-rooted tradition.

Rabbi Saul Berman, professor of Jewish studies and Talmudic law at Yeshiva University and Columbia University, said the mix is exactly why Kahn was awarded the honor: “Each person who is awarded the title,” said Berman, “is recognized for a different kind of leadership, but all were recognized for a kind of lay leadership that encompassed spirituality, a sense of unity and a sense of responsibility.” 

Kahn’s career has long focused on fusing art, Jewish spirituality and healing. A teacher at the School of Visual Arts in New York, he helped to found the Jewish arts organizations Artist Beit Midrash, a community of writers, painters, singers and other artists who gather to study ancient and contemporary texts, and the Jewish art collective Avodah Arts. 

Tobi Kahn. (Courtesy photo)

“My being an artist, to me, is a religious act,” Kahn told Religion News Service. “I believe I was put on this planet to make art, to look at art as healing. I am an artist who is very proud to be a person of faith, who is Jewish, but I am an artist first. So to be accepted from the world I come from as an artist is so meaningful to me.”

Berman said of Kahn, “Tobi grants a gift of vision, of experiencing the presence of God through his art, of being able to see spirituality and holiness in people, spaces, and nature,” adding, “That gift is really one that can unite all of mankind.”

Kahn accepted a title with ancient roots. The term “chaver” is derived from the three letter Hebrew root חבר — Chet, Vet, Resh. In the Torah, it is found primary in Exodus, where it means “to attach” or “to unite” and describes the completion of the sanctuary of the Tabernacle in the desert, the temporary structure that housed the Ten Commandments that was taken apart for travel and rebuilt from its many parts.

“The many parts were reattached to form a single structure for the Tabernacle to become one,” explained Berman. 

RELATED: As Jews celebrate the creation of the world, some are celebrating creativity itself

The term appears again in the books of the Hebrew prophets. Ezekiel borrows the term to speak of attachment — specifically, to describe a vision of the Messianic period and a Jewish people uniting from its fragmented state. “It is clear that he is borrowing from the description of the Tabernacle: that the holiness of the Jewish people will become one,” said Berman. 

In the Talmudic period, “chaver” was substituted for “rea” רע, the biblical word for “friend.” The term began to encompass a sense of mutual responsibility, of caring and loving for a friend. “Chaver” again transitioned to describe a member of the pharisaic community, referring to the spiritual unity of the community. Later, “chaver” came to be used as a reference to a Torah study partner, or to a study group, and in medieval times shifted further to refer to lay leaders of a Jewish community.

But as autonomous Jewish communities gradually dissolved, the term began to be used as an honorific for those who contributed their wealth or were models of spiritual and material responsibility. This tradition was particularly upheld in German-Jewish communities, which have preserved the title from medieval to modern times. 

An individual views the “Memory & Inheritance: Paintings and Ceremonial Objects” exhibition by Tobi Kahn at the Museum on Eldridge Street, in Manhattan, New York. (Courtesy photo)

An individual views the “Memory & Inheritance: Paintings and Ceremonial Objects” exhibition by Tobi Kahn at the Museum on Eldridge Street, in Manhattan, N.Y. (Courtesy photo)

When a community member displayed those qualities, a “beth din” — a rabbinical court of three observant Jewish men — would consider the individual’s contributions to the community and grant the title. Often, the title is granted at the age of 70, the aspirational age of an elder in Judaism which represents a lifetime and wisdom.

For Kahn, the title is part of his personal history. Both of his great-grandfathers, his maternal grandfather, as well as his father, received the title in recognition for their contributions in leadership and scholarship to their communities in Frankfurt, Germany, and Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan. Now, he joins them each time he is called up to the Torah with “ha-chaver” preceding his Hebrew name. 

“I think that some of my paintings are the most religious thing I’ve done. So this is very meaningful to me, not only that I am getting the honor, but that I am getting it after so many generations in my family.” 

Both the term “chaver” and the title have become increasingly expansive over time, encompassing new visions for unity, oneness, friendship and leadership. Kahn hopes that his work continues to exemplify these values: “I am trying hard to be an artist for the community now, rather than that of 20 or a hundred years ago,” he said.

RELATED: Princeton University scraps exhibit of Jewish American artists with Confederate ties

Previous ArticleNext Article