self portrait as pshat

proccess art, in collaboration with Rabbi Justin Jaron Lewis

Dimensions variable.
Equipment requirements: CD player, overhead projector.

Completed with assistance from Mari Rice as well as Sara Varon, Ronit Bezalel, Stacy Goldate, Camilla Ha, Antonia, Andrea, Shauna and Gallery 2 staff who volunteered their time. Thanks also to Tony Wight, Barbara de Genevieve, Rabbi Elyse Goldstien for their encouragement. Photos by Thea Milovski.

Hypothesis: It is written in Talmud, "kish mo kayn hu"; that is to say, one's name both mirrors and shapes a person. In Zohar it is explained that the individual is not named by one's parents, and that the parents are only a conduit for this predestined information. What then, are the implications of a bi-gendered name? Given that gender is not necessarily located in the physical body, is it possible to articulate a transgendered portrait without representing a body?


The Torah study for this project is ongoing under the tutelage of Rabbi Justin Lewis. In discussions over telephone and email with Rabbi Lewis and witht the help of a Tanakh concordance, we created a text consisting of 251 verses of Torah. Included are 47 occurances of Tova as a feminine adjective, 27 as a noun; 175 direct references to Aharon (without an article). The collection of verses is projected onto the walls and windows of the gallery. The projected text is then traced by the artist in pencil onto the walls, and in conte onto the windows. This will take many hours, and consitutes the performance element of the installation. Recordings of the text chanted play continuously in the space.


I cannot offer my name, though it is a Queer locution, as a prooftext for transgender. I respect that the only prooftext for Torah is Torah. Self portrait as pshat is one step in my endeavour to create a body of work in my art practice that is informed and supported by an ongoing study of Torah.

letter from Justin

Dear Tobaron,

surprise -- "pshat" is not in Jastrow. The implication is that it doesn't occur in that form in Talmudic Hebrew. I'll give the closest relatives below.

The modern Hebrew dictionary
(Alcalay) has only "plain meaning, literally,literalness", with a cross-reference to "pardes" which
is defined as "plain, symbolic,
homiletic and esoteric (four methods
of Biblical interpretation)".

For the Aramaic
equivalent, pshata, Jastrow has:

PSHATA [peh with a dagesh and a shva, shin with a kamatz,tet with a kamatz, alef], m. (preced.) [i.e. from the preceding verb -- see below] 1) plain wording; plain sense.[Examples]: Talmud Ketuboth 111b, pshateh dikra bemai ketiv, "what does the plain text(not homiletically charged) refer to?"; Talmud Eruvin 23b, pshateh dikra etc., "what is the plain sense (not homiletically forced) of the text?" -- Talmud YerushalmiSanhedrin 18a, psuteh dikraya, "the plain sense of the text". Yerushalmi Bava Bathra 16a, ba'ei meitar pshateh etc., "wanted to give meaning(of the verse) and could not find it.

2) extension, natural course (of a river). [as in] Talmud Gittin 60b, Hullin 18b, 57a.


"preced." is the verb PASHEIT, PSHAT[peh with a dagesh and a shva, shin with a tsere, yud, tet, or peh with a dagesh and a shva shin with a patach, tet]. The meanings Jastrow lists are:

1) to stretch, stretch forth; to staighten

2) To strip, tear, flay.

3) To be stretched forth, reach out.

4) To explain, teach; to deduce.

Jastrow begins the defintion of the Aramaic verb by noting it is the same as the corresponding Hebrew verb, which is PASHAT (peh with a dagesh and a kamatz, shin with a patach, tet). The meanings he lists for PASHAT are:

[Kal conjugation]
1) To stretch, straighten.
2) To strip: to undress.
3) To make plain, to explain.
4) To spread, be published.

[Pi'el conjugation]
1) To stretch, straighten out
2) To strip, take off

[Nif'al conjugation]
1) To be straightened out, be unfolded,
become flat.
2) To be stripped.

[Hif'il conjugation]
1) To strip, flay
2) To shed the skin

[Hof'al conjugation]
To be stripped

[Hithpa'el or Nithpa'el conjugations]
To be straightened, become even ; to flatten.


[a dagesh is the dot in the middle of the letter, shva is the two vertical dots : under a letter, kamatz is the T shape under a letter, Tsere is the two dots side by side .. under a letter, patach is the srtaight line _ under a letter]


Frumspeak: The First Dictionary of Yeshivish (Chaim M. Weiser, Jason Aronson 1995) gives the following definition relating not to Torah but to Gemara study:

pshat (peh shin tet) n. 1. A manner fitting an explanation into the words of a difficult text [sic! on this whole convoluted sentence - maybe there is an "of" missing after "A manner..."]: RENDERING. "His convoluted P. in the sugya makes you wonder if he's learning the same daf as everyone else." 2. An explanation of the logic behind or the source of a passage, event, work, etc: METHOD, INTERPRETATION. "I once had a shiduch in an art museum, and I mad up P. in all the paintings to try to make an impression." 3. That which explains the rationale for something: JUSTIFICATION, REASON. "I thought they're friends, what's the P. they're fighting?" [< Heb. peh shin tet(straight).] Cf. what's pshat.]


The Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary by Alexander Harkavy(1928, reprinted YIVO 1988) has PSHAT s.(pl. PSHATIM [peh with dagesh and shva, shin with kamatz, tet, yud, mem]) meaning, sense, signification; commentary; interpretation of a text according to the plain meanings of the words.

Hope you can get something out of all this!!

Gut Chodesh, gut shabbes, break a leg


Justin Jaron Lewis
Rabbi, Congregation Iyr Ha-Melech of Kingston, Ontario
Director, Jewish Studies Programme, Queen's University