An old joke: A man asks his rabbi, "Why do Jews always answer a question with a question?" And the rabbi replies, "How should we answer?" This is the humorous and engaging premise behind Are We There Yet?: 5000 Years of Answering Questions With Questions, the recently opened exhibition in the Yud gallery of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Arising from both religious and cultural tradition, Judaism prompts and encourages curiosity and debate. (This phenomenon is one that I have no problem vouching for; I can't ask my grandmother what she is making for dinner without her replying, "What do you want for dinner?" There has never been a straight answer.) Beyond the playfulness of such back-and-forth dialogue, a deeper mode of questioning characterizes the intellectual tradition within Judaism and Jewishness. Scholars have argued that after losing the Temple and being forced into Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE, Jews found a way to sustain their ritual: They became a people of the text. Later came the Talmudic era, when rabbis spent hundreds of years basically debating the meaning of that text. These are a few of the underpinnings that set the stage for endless probing of meaning, a ceaselessly thoughtful and striving religion in which nothing is infallible, everything is up for debate, and questions (naturally) can only lead to more questions. It's a near 5000-year old inheritance.
In the case of Are We There Yet?, artists Ken Goldberg and Gil Gershoni have created a visually simple show, installing over twenty small speakers around the edges of the vast gallery space, all of which take turn voicing questions. The prompts range from playful (What where you expecting?), to serious (Do you love me? Are you happy?), to spiritual (Have you been to Israel? Why are we here?). The voices themselves are young and old, male and female. While the voices often overlap, it never feels like cacophonic onslaught, and there are moments of total silence in the gallery.
But let's get to the real catch of the show: Sensors around the gallery determine when a visitor is nearby, triggering a particular question. This response to the visitor's movement is a nod toward intimacy, or at least some personal connection with the visitor. Text versions of the questions are projected on the walls, echoing the spoken prompts. Again, there is a nod toward dialogue: using the show's only non-audio component, viewers can input their own query, large or small.
Are We There Yet starts with an interesting and funny concept, and taps into an element of Judaism and Jewishness not often considered in the public sphere. Still, is the format a bit arbitrary? Is this the most effective way to investigate the subject? The idea of a personalized interaction with the space is an interesting one, but how far does it go in stimulating new insights into the meaning of questioning itself? Do Goldberg and Gershoni have a clear stake in the topic, or is it more of a reiteration? The museum is also encouraging participants to contribute their questions over Facebook and Twitter, but then, why not just have an online forum? Okay, the irony here is that the best exhibitions are always the ones that provoke the most questions. Reader, what do you think?