The Icons of Just-Is

Pucker Gallery
Aug 13, 2016 5:38PM

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” With these iconic words, Martin Luther King, Jr., expresses confidence in the moral trajectory of life. In the moral universe justice exerts a gravitational pull that secures human experience. The celestial imagery evokes the Hebrew Bible prophets and the assurance of God’s universal justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tzedekah). Envisioned is a time of peace when all violence and oppression will be displaced, when “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). King’s moral universe is further secured by a Western legal tradition grounded in the rule of law and constitutional principles that ensure justice will be neither delayed nor denied: “No one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice,” the Magna Carta of 1215 promises.

See No Evil, 2015   

In Samuel Bak’s Just-Is series we encounter an alternative universe where the promise of divine justice and assurance of the rule of law, and the culturally familiar icons that symbolize both, are reprised through the lens of the Holocaust world. In place of the moral universe, Bak pictures the atrocity universe in which the sanctity of individual and communal life is violated, and violence, not justice, structures human time and space: The arc of the atrocity universe bends not toward justice but the gates of Auschwitz. In his familiar artistic style Bak interrogates and reanimates iconic images and principles of justice to refract the reality of the death camps and his experience as a survivor of the Vilna ghetto liquidation. Previous series featured revision of iconic images such as the photo of the Warsaw Ghetto Boy, Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia I angel, and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Bak now adds to that group ubiquitous Lady Justice and the lex talionis, the biblical legal principle commonly expressed as “an eye for an eye.” By transforming the standard icons of justice, Bak presses his viewers to consider the status of founding legal symbols and principles and their implications for life after the Holocaust. What is justice for the six million Jews murdered and those who survived? What weight do the Nuremberg Trials, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights carry? What force can the promise of biblical law exert to constrain violence, defend the innocent, and restore balance to life? In the Holocaust world human and divine sanctioned justice was refused, and the adequacy of that justice remains in doubt today. In an age of on-going genocide and mass murder, after Rwanda and Darfur, Srebrenica and Breslan, Paris and Orlando, is any icon or principle of universal justice meaningful and durable? Bak’s Just-Is images raise, but do not answer, these vexing questions.    

Eye for Eye, 2015   

In Western iconography justice is traditionally figured as a young, vital woman crowned with plant sprigs, draped in flowing robes, and, since the sixteenth century, frequently blindfolded. In her left hand she grips a balance scale and in her right a double-edged sword. The balance scales and sword link Lady Justice to her Near Eastern and Greco-Roman sister goddesses of justice and morality, notably Egyptian Ma’at’, Greek Themis, and Roman Justitia. The balance scales also serve as a potent symbol of biblical justice – “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight” (Proverbs 11:1). – and of prophetic assurance that divine action will make whole the trampling of the poor and needy. The lex talionis, considered a principle of retaliation or retribution, appears in multiple forms in ancient legal systems and in the biblical books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and the Gospel of Matthew. Combinations of eyes, teeth, hands, feet, lives, burns, wounds, and stripes are weighed, measured, and balanced. But it is the eye that captures the biblical – and here Bak’s – metaphorical and moral imagination. Interpreted as a limit upon literal reprisal, the plain meaning of the alliterative “an eye in place of an eye” (ayin tachat ayin) in the rabbinic legal view is financial, not corporal: A person who causes injury makes financial restitution to the injured party, thus making whole what is broken, restoring peace or shalom to situations of conflict. The weighing of one eye against another, the effort to achieve equipoise, affirms the moral responsibility to rebalance the scales and make life whole again.

But what is balance, wholeness, and moral responsibility for life in an atrocity universe untethered to justice? Bak gives us entry into that world through the icons of Just-Is. Across this arresting series Bak presents Lady Justice in varying conditions, poses, and garbs juxtaposed to familiar biblical symbols of covenant, law, and justice. Noachic rainbows, Mosaic tablets of the law, talionic eyes, and Hebrew letters engage female figures and balance scales, blindfolds and swords interrupt our perceptual and conceptual expectations of justice. Bak’s broken and modified bodies, defunct and imbalanced scales, and ever-present stony eyes peer out onto a Holocaust landscape that is anything but whole and upon justice that is barely recognizable.

By Hook, 2015


In By Hook (BK1939), we see Lady Justice in pieces, her body a diminished version of her iconic self. She no longer stands in her expected place atop the courthouse dome; instead, we find her fragmented upper torso precariously balanced atop a stone heap. Even with an arm broken at the elbow, she manages by hook or by crook to keep the balance handle upright. The configuration gives an ironic twist to a variant of King’s maxim – “The moral arc of the universe bends at the elbow of justice.” Our attention is drawn to multiple eyes on the canvas. The slipped blindfold exposes Lady Justice’s eye inviting our reflection on the perception of justice’s impartiality and independence. A lone balance pan holds a second eye, and yet a third peeks out from a half-lidded box. Are they, and we, eye-witnesses to miscarried justice or, more hopefully perhaps, to a damaged, yet determined, justice who is herself a casualty of the catastrophe? A hook/question mark atop the balance handle, framed by yet another eye partially obscuring blank tablets of the law, stares back at the viewer searching for an answer.

Full-bodied Lady Justice appears elsewhere situated amidst wholesale destruction but unable to distance herself from the damage. In Inadmissible (BK1931), two smoking chimneys, bound up in the wreckage of civilized life, hang suspended above a debris field. They mimic and mock the scales of justice and the very idea of measure and balance of human life in the Holocaust world: Death, not life, is the painful unit of measure in this balancing act. One ghetto, one shtetl, one death camp for another? How do we weigh the loss of two thirds of European Jewry and its vibrant culture? In what court of law would such horrific evidence be admissible, who would be charged with a crime of this magnitude, and how would damages for victims be assessed? Are the categories of retaliation, retribution, or restoration appropriate in considering justice after genocide? On a distant promontory Lady Justice stands alone with her traditions, principles, and categories, surrounded by scaffolding hinting at possible refurbishment underway. Is justice undergoing restoration in an effort to recapture, if that were even possible, her lost stature and gravitas? Lady Justice faces away from the scene leaving us to wonder whether, like the legal system, we too have turned our backs on victims for whom justice, life, and death hang in the balance.    

Inadmissible, 2015      

Confronting the reality of the Bak’s Holocaust world tests the limits of legal and moral comprehension. Because such atrocity is unfathomable, understanding requires dropping all blindfolds and abandoning any pretense of impartiality toward the victims who suffer. In Taking Off (BK1936), Bak positions Lady Justice in the balance pan with her stony-eyed companion. She peers across a flooded chasm with mask in hand suggesting that the masquerade of innocent justice is over. The paired matching pan before her contains the remains of civilized life that Lady Justice was incapable of protecting. It is a graphic reminder that purported forces for good can become indifferent to, or even complicit in, the worst atrocities as the German legal system and the German Christian movement demonstrated by advancing Nazi genocidal goals. A take-off on the biblical flood story, we witness the aftermath of a deluge. Receding waters have grounded two ships on distant peaks, one with its stacks streaming smoke. Two near-extinction events – the one Noachic and the other Nazi-inspired – improbably coincide producing an unsettling association. The Noachic ark signifies God’s covenantal promise to every living creature to restrain violence against creation, while the Nazi transport signaled Hitler’s commitment of unrestrained violence against creation by erasing all things Jewish from the face of the earth. In the foreground a balance hook asks us to consider the moral nature of catastrophic violence and the contortions required to justify it to ourselves and others. Do those who suffer cataclysm differentiate between divine- and human-inspired violence? What is our responsibility to unmask social and personal complicity in injustice?

Taking Off, 2015


Nap, 2015


In Nap (BK1929), Lady Justice seeks respite from this harsh reality and its implications. Exhausted by what she sees around her, a situation she has had a hand in creating, the idea of shut-eye is inviting to us as well. She stretches out beneath a severed tree improbably propped up with wooden staves. Balance scales hang empty from the tree rather than from her hands. Out of her hands, the broken scales invite us to consider whether justice before and after the wholesale excision of Jewish life and culture amounts to a make-shift balancing act explicable as much by natural as human factors. The notion of sleeping justice runs deeply counter to the legal expectations of an ever-vigilant Lady Justice, constantly protective of those in her charge. But as Bak shows, the innocent can no longer count on justice as protector or its icons as assuring. We recall that the biblical corpus preserves its own memories of past Jewish experiences of a sleeping protector. The Psalmist charges Yahweh, who supposedly never slumbers or rests, with sleeping though the oppression and affliction of his people (44:23-5). Where is covenantal protection when Jews most need it? If divine justice fails can we expect any system of protection to ensure justice?

In By Law (BK1930), Lady Justice holds the Hebrew letter tsade – in Yiddish tzadik for “righteous person” – in one hand and in the other a rainbow-colored Noachic arch beneath which hang suspended incomplete and fractured tablets of the law. Her wooden sword is sheathed in a pan holding one of two Mosaic tablets. The letter vav, the sixth letter/commandment signifying the prohibition against murder, is riveted through the sword handle, inviting us to ask about the jarring connection between the biblical law and mass murder. Behind Lady Justice our eye catches sight of two pristine tablets blindfolded by a cloth-draped broken rainbow, the intersection of two covenantal symbols of promise that the atrocity universe now vacates. Perched on a distant mountain peak we make out the shape of yet another ship, the SS St. Louis we might imagine, that modern Jewish ark that failed to deliver to safety its cargo of 937 Jewish children and adults seeking escape from the Nazi calamity. The double smokestacks are a sobering reminder that Sobibór and Auschwitz, not Havana and Miami, were the final ports of call for many of the St. Louis’s murdered. By international standards, the refusal of entry may have been legal, but by what moral law and in what moral universe could we consider it just? Who finally stands up for righteousness and justice for those least able to secure it for themselves?    

By Law, 2015      

Across multiple canvases Bak richly exploits biblical language, symbols, and experiences of covenant to fashion his alternative icons of Just-Is. Even-Handed (BK1928) pictures Lady Justice holding a stone inscribed with the letter tsade in a balance pan; in Scripture (BK1938) she holds the letter ayin (literally “eye”) written on a page in Hebrew cursive and Phoenician pictograph; and in Ever Ready (BK1942) she is outsized by tablets of the law inscribed with the familiar double yods, the unpronounceable name of God, that can also be read here as double vavs, the repeated sixth letter/commandment prohibiting murder. Bak doubles up other elements on his canvases: the figure of Lady Justice, letters, eyes, tablets, covenants, balance scales, boats, carts, faces, and masks. These repetitions, not unlike the numerous appearances of Lady Justice and the lex talionis across multiple cultures, legal systems, and texts, insist that we look for justice not once but repeatedly and from a perspective of loss to which the traditional figure of justice no longer adequately speaks. Bak resolves to keep the figure of justice before us not as it once was but as it just-is now configured by and for a Holocaust world where the promises of justice are yet to be realized. 

Even-Handed, 2015


Scripture, 2015


Ever Ready, 2015      

We catch a panoramic view of this Just-is world in Long Lasting (BK1941). Retrieving a favored image, Bak fashions the world as a pear pealed apart to expose the collapse of human community at its core. The hoped-for restoration of peace is a distant dream, the long-lasting rupture the present reality. Positioned before a belching crematory chimney, a down-sized Lady Justice stands un-blindfolded surrounded by an imploded universe. In this arid setting the rolling waters and ever-flowing stream of divine justice are a dream and nowhere to be found. Lady Justice may have once commanded an elevated place in a moral universe anchored by mishpat and tzedekah, but no longer so in the atrocity universe. She is about to descend a flight of stairs headed toward repositioned tablets of the law. Are they merely inert and propped up against the landing, or are they being readied for work of a different sort that Lady Justice is about to initiate? We are unsure.

After genocide and mass murder we live with unsurety. Is justice possible? What form might it take? What role will the legal tradition of the rule of law and the biblical demand for justice and shalom play? And, importantly, what will we do? With peace in tatters, are pieces all that can be imagined in a world shattered by unspeakable violence and driven by injustice on a scale heretofore unthinkable? Or, alternatively, is some semblance of wholeness yet to be imagined?


Samuel Bak’s artwork prompts these and other difficult questions about the nature and work of justice after atrocity that are not satisfied by univocal answers. The density and complexity of the realities Bak paints in this series encourages us to hear and to see the familiar and the given in unconventional terms. The effect is an increased aural, visual, and moral acuity. When we now hear the word “justice” as “just-is” and see Lady Justice in altered terms do we then resign ourselves to the fact that justice’s promises can only be empty? Or, following Bak’s artistic and moral lead, do we engage in the constructive work of imagining alternative ways to convey understandings of justice that better equip us to restore shalom to this, not some fabulous yonder, world? With eyes wide open and icons provisionally refashioned for the difficult work at hand, Bak places the burden of repair of this world, of tikkun olam, before our eyes and in our hands.

Long Lasting, 2015


Gary A. Phillips is the Edgar H. Evans Professor of Religion and Dean of the College Emeritus at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. His research and teaching interests focus on the Bible and its relationship to Western art and culture, issues of violence and religion, and the reading and teaching of the Bible by Jews and Christian after the Shoah. Phillips has published numerous edited and co-edited volumes including: The Postmodern Bible (Yale University Press, 1995), Reading Community Reading Scripture with Nicole Duran (Trinity Press International, 2002), Levinas and Biblical Studies with David Jobling and Tamara Eskenazi (Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), Representing the Irreparable: The Shoah, the Bible, and the Art of Samuel Bak with Danna Nolan Fewell and Yvonne Sherwood (Pucker Art Publications, 2008), and Icon of Loss: Recent Paintings by Samuel Bak with Danna Nolan Fewell (Pucker Art Publications, 2009).

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