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Introducing Luminous: A thousand years of Hebrew manuscripts

Installation view of Luminous: A thousand years of Hebrew manuscripts at State Library Victoria. View of a gallery section with cobalt blue walls and text in white and gold about the power of letters and words. There are three glass cases with rare books and manuscripts down a corridor and framed works on the walls.
18 October 2023

State Library Victoria recently ran its Luminous: A thousand years of Hebrew manuscripts exhibition.

This exhibition concluded on 14 April 2024.

The centrepiece of the collection was 37 rarely-seen manuscripts from the British Library's 2020 Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word exhibition. Visitors were also able to see a number of never-before-displayed Hebrew manuscripts and early printed books from State Library Victoria's David Hailperin Collection, which is part of the Library's rare books and manuscripts collection.

Luminous also featured items from the Jewish Museum of Australia, as well as loans from the local Jewish community. Additionally, two contemporary commissions were developed specifically for this exhibition – an immersive audio soundscape and video portraits in which diverse Australian Jews talk about the impact of the Jewish textual tradition in their daily lives.

Beginning with a 10th-century Hebrew Bible from Egypt, the items on display span both time and place, reflecting the journeys, traditions, and experiences of Jewish people from the 11th century to the present, from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe, China, India, and Australia.

The exhibition enabled visitors to explore the significance of the written word as a foundation for the lived experience of modern-day Jewish communities and appreciate the ways that ancient Hebrew manuscripts remain integral to an ongoing, dynamic and diverse Jewish tradition and practice in contemporary Australian life.

The opening section of the exhibition focused on 'The Hebrew Bible'. A 17th-century Torah scroll from Kaifeng and beautifully adorned medieval manuscripts from Egypt, Spain, and Germany are accompanied by ritual objects that give visitors a sense of how the Bible is applied to Jewish religious life in practice.

Whilst the Bible is the starting point of Judaism, the Jewish legal system was the product of centuries upon centuries of discussion and interpretation of biblical texts. Displayed in the second section of the exhibition are foundational works of Jewish law from the David Hailperin Collection, which enable visitors to see how Judaism's legal system evolved. They will also be able to appreciate how the introduction of printing revolutionised the study of Jewish legal texts, bringing together, on a single page, discussions and debates over the centuries and in different places of Jewish religious scholars.

In the 'Living together, living apart' section of the exhibition, visitors were invited to engage with an impressive range of manuscripts that reflect the dynamics of Jewish life in the pre-modern period. During the course of these centuries, Jews lived under Christian or Muslim rule, often experiencing discrimination and persecution, examples of which are on display.

Yet there were also instances of more positive interactions. Thus, there are works that evidence collaboration with and borrowings from the dominant Christian and Muslim cultures. At the same time, 'living together' within their self-contained communities, Jews created and maintained rich, vibrant and diverse cultures that reflected the differing ethno-geographic and linguistic backgrounds of these communities.

The mystical path is an important part of all the world's major religions. The beginnings of mysticism in Judaism date back to the 1st century CE, possibly even earlier. The Jewish mystical tradition comprises three main methods or aims of mystical involvement. One seeks to understand and describe the divine realm and its connection to the human realm. The meditative or ecstatic branch focuses on the individual achieving a mystical union with God. The practical branch seeks, through magical and occult practices, to effect some change within the divine realms and the world.

In this section of the exhibition, in which all three aspects of Jewish mysticism were on display, visitors had an opportunity to experience the power of letters and words. Amongst other manuscripts and objects, visitors will see a manuscript from State Library Victoria's David Hailperin collection, which contains an assortment of magical spells and charms. A translation of this manuscript by Dr Merav Carmeli, a local scholar of Jewish mysticism, is accompanied by a series of playful illustrations by John Henry, a local Classics scholar. Visitors were able to view this material on an interactive screen.

The documents in the section on science and scholarship highlight the vast array of pursuits that occupied the minds and talents of Jews in the pre-modern world: medicine, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, linguistics, music and philosophy. What emerges from the works on display is that although Jews at this time lived in self-contained communities, they nonetheless borrowed from and contributed to the scientific, intellectual and cultural heritage of the dominant Christian and Muslim societies amongst which they lived.

The final section of the exhibition contained the video portraits commissioned especially for this exhibition, 'People of the Book'. In a certain sense, it is the most important section. A key message the curatorial team wanted to convey is that the magnificent array of manuscripts and books on display is far more than just that. They are, in fact, the foundations for Judaism as a living tradition in the here and now.

Interpretations of Judaism's textual traditions continue to be part of everyday life and are manifest in the daily decisions Jews make about how they observe the religion and identify with Jewish culture. In the video portraits, visitors could see a few of the ways in which Australian Jews engage with Hebrew texts as part of their lived experience as Jews.

– Paul Forgasz, Cultural Consultant for Luminous: A thousand years of Hebrew manuscripts

Luminous: A thousand years of Hebrew manuscripts concluded on 14 April 2024.

Learn more about the exhibition.