Neve Shalom Gallery

The Circle Maker

by Rabbi James Stone Goodman

 Neve Shalom is currently featuring its fourth exhibition in its gallery, called “The Circle Maker,” featuring the mandala inspired work of Keith Raske.

As in all the shows at Neve Shalom, there is a mixture of image and text, a story told on texts hung among the pictures. There is also music, live and recorded, to accompany the show, a kind of context in which to engage the art in the deepest manner.

The gallery at Neve Shalom features new art, experimental art, visionary art, outsider art, fringe art, art that might never find its way onto the walls of another gallery or museum. We want to display the artist who is burning for his art form but has no idea how to get her work known. Or we want the artist who has never been seen, because life intervenes and changes our best intentions.

Keith Raske, for example. Keith calls himself the “circle-maker,” which is a reference to the famous Honi, the circle maker of the Mishnah (Honi HaM’agel). The traditional Honi is a mysterious figure. He was thought to have lived in the first century, B.C.E. What is the significance of circle making?

Here is a fragment of the story as it appears in the Mishnah, the early compendium of rabbinic oral wisdom (M. Ta’anit 3:8):

It once happened that they said to Honi Ham'agel (the circle maker): "Pray that rains may fall." He said to them: "Go out and bring in the ovens for the Passover sacrifices so that they will not dissolve." [They were made of clay and would deteriorate in the rain.] He prayed, but rains did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and he said before God: "Master of the Universe! Your children have turned their faces to me, for I am like a member of Your household. I swear by Your great Name that I will not move from here until You have mercy on Your children."

What happened? It rained like crazy. It would rain so hard that he would have to do something extraordinary, unintended, to stop the rain. “It wasn’t what I was praying for,” Honi said.

Note this about Honi and this story: he has a sense about prayer and a confidence that his prayers are effective. He does not, however, get what he prays for; what he does receive is a blessing, though it’s nothing like what he intended.

Note also Honi’s determination, he draws a circle and hollers, “I am not moving until You have mercy on Your children.” This is a defiant chutzpah I love.

Keith’s pieces are a sort of mandala, a sacred symbol of wholeness. They are like prayers but prayers for what I don’t think even Keith knew. They are blessings but not the kind that he asked for. Keith started making these pieces after the challenges of an injury. He drew sacred circles and colored them in, because it felt healing to him.

Keith is also, by the way, an Episcopal priest. He is a member of my musical ensemble, which I call the holy conventicle, and he has contributed to my last two CDs.

Come and enjoy the fruits, these surprise creations, these unintended blessings, the mystery out of which they arose, blessings for sure, but the nature of which remains somewhat a mystery. Behold Keith Raske, the circle maker. HaM’agel.