When I undertook the task of cross-stitching 4 verses from the Book of Leviticus for the Torah Stitch by Stitch project conceived by textile artist Temma Gentles, I knew it might be a bit of a challenge to mine these particular 4 verses for some deeper theological or even spiritual meaning. What profound message from the divine was there in the short litany of insects that are ok to eat? How did it nourish my soul in any way to know that I could eat a grasshopper (especially as I have never had a wish to eat a grasshopper, not even when they are presented in lollipops)?
20 “‘All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be regarded as unclean by you. 21 There are, however, some flying insects that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. 22 Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. 23 But all other flying insects that have four legs you are to regard as unclean.
I studied what commentary I could find, to see if perhaps I was missing something that would’ve been obvious to another theologian, and without exception, commentators explained (in rather less detail than commentators often use) what the text already said: here are the insects you may eat, and here are the insects you may not eat. This couldn’t be the point, surely.
Leviticus is a book full of laws – thou shalt and thou shalt not, verse after verse, chapter after chapter. So what was the point of the laws, then? Well… they could have been intended as a test of our obedience (though we didn’t prove ourselves so attentive with that apple…). They might have been intended to teach self-denial (you’ll note that escargot, even sautéed in butter and tucked into mushroom caps, are not on the approved list!). Perhaps this list, like many such lists, was to ensure that the Israelites remained a distinct nation – Jews have also been taught to make distinctions between what we call the sacred and the profane, the holy and the unholy, and it may well be that this list of insects was another exercise in this differentiation.
And while this makes some sense, it didn’t really lead me to the spiritual enlightenment for which I had hoped. Was I expecting too much from this project? Recalling the work in embroidering my tallit, I remember well the constant feeling that each stitch was, in a sense, a prayer. I remember the surprising joy that accompanied the tying of the tzitzit. These things weren’t happening with my 4 Levitical verses.
Would I have felt different if I’d been cross-stitching a different verse? What if I’d been embroidering the Shema? And if that could be the case, then did I mean to suggest that these verses weren’t as important? They are part of the canon – we’ve kept them for millennia, and so they must still count.
I wasn’t coming up with any definitive answer, so I simply continued to work at my verses, and in July, something began to happen. I was on vacation, needlework often in hand, and I discovered that cross-stitching the Torah makes for an interesting conversation. In fact, it makes for many interesting conversations.
Sitting in the sun in the Public Gardens in Halifax, NS, sipping coffee, listening to the hum of conversation around me, the laughter of children, the letters seemed to be stitching themselves. I was kind of in a cross-stitch zone and really enjoying the work.
Then one day, I realised that someone was watching me. I glanced up, and a woman said, “That’s really beautiful! What is it you’re making?” So I told her about the project, and about my verses. I told her about the challenge I’d been experiencing in that I’d thought that this might be a valuable spiritual exercise, as I got to work intimately with the verses – kind of the way a Torah scribe might do. She had done some needlepoint in the past but hadn’t done any for a while – still, she knew the technique and the work involved. There are things you just don’t have to explain to someone who knows how to do cross-stitch! Her husband was interested in the letters – “Hebrew, obviously,” he observed. He wasn’t Jewish, but rather, Muslim, so it’s not such a great surprise that he’d recognised the lettering. “What are your verses about?” he asked. Who could have imagined when I told him that he would find it quite as interesting as he did? Well, when you talk to an entomologist about insects in the Torah, you will find that he is interested! (I even wrote down the passage reference for him to look up at home!)
Another day, but still in the Gardens… a woman sitting across the patio from me came over and excusing the interruption, asked what I was working on. Again, I explained the project, and again we talked about why I was doing it, and whether it was having the effect I had anticipated when I undertook the project. She told me that her late mother had done a lot of cross-stitch – “Between the 5 children, and my dad, and her projects,” she said, “her hands were always flying.” I knew that feeling myself – right down to being one of 5 children! My own mother had been an embroiderer, a smocker, and a knitter, and children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and friends all benefitted from her talent.
The next conversation was with a woman visiting from Australia, who’d also been watching me work and finally came over to take a look and to talk stitchery. She was equally fascinated by the project – this seemed a universal response whenever I shared it with anybody – and told me that she also enjoyed cross-stitching. (She is currently working on family trees – one for each of 5 grandchildren!) We talked about the challenges of making round letters look round when cross-stitching. And I explained to her about the challenge I found in cross-stitching Hebrew – we read and write Hebrew from right to left, precisely the opposite to writing English, and I found that if I were stitching from left to right, as I did at the start of a new line in a new section, the zen of my work was abrupted, because I knew I was doing it backwards! If I didn’t know any Hebrew, it probably wouldn’t have mattered, because the characters would simply have been characters that had no particular meaning to me as letters.
And now I think I’ve got it. I think I know what it’s about. The spiritual connection here is perhaps not precisely with the text, but with the conversations that the work has encouraged! I’ve gotten to share my work, and Temma’s awesome project, with people from several countries. And while it may be that not one of them will decide to sign on for a passage themselves, the conversations about the project have taken place with people who were genuinely interested and who learned something new. There have been conversations with people who probably didn’t ever think of Torah (and why should they, really, if they’re not Jewish themselves?), and with people who didn’t necessarily believe in God at all. Despite the many differences between us, there was space for common ground, for learning, and for connection. And maybe that is the point. And it’s a pretty good one.