Arts & Culture

Mixing Heresy and High Fashion, Levi Okunov Dresses Women Up as Torahs

Last night's hottie-filled fashion show debuting Hasidic Levi Okunov's spring collection was, despite the shvitzing of a hundred Heebs packed into an auditorium, very cool. Kudos to Andy Ingall and the JuMu staff for turning what is often a highly … Read More

By / March 31, 2008

Last night's hottie-filled fashion show debuting Hasidic Levi Okunov's spring collection was, despite the shvitzing of a hundred Heebs packed into an auditorium, very cool. Kudos to Andy Ingall and the JuMu staff for turning what is often a highly un-cool space into a place where it seemed like something new and sexy was actually happening in real time. Kudos to Melissa Shiff for trancing us out to digital mandalas made of Hebrew letters and sacred objects. And kudos to whoever bought the free vodka.

But mostly, kudos to Levi Okunov himself, interviewed elsewhere on this site, and ably profiled by Jennifer Bleyer on Nextbook, who fused his Hasidic background and his audo-didactic fashion sensibility to create work that could've been novelty, could've been irony, but actually was art. Would that the vanity projects of some absurdly-funded Jewish narcissists were as careful to avoid the easy temptations of kitsch. What's the difference? Whereas aint-it-cool cultural kitsch is just a snide in-joke, Levi Okunov is actually trying to say something, to make something new.

To back up a little — the Sabbatean heresy, which lasted from about 1665 to around 1820 (though there are still hidden Sabbateans today, some of whom are on Facebook) — was, in large part, a secret mystical movement which laid the groundwork for Hasidism and preserved the antinomian ecstasy of Jewish messianism for over a century and a half. As the name implies, their central object of devotion was Sabbetai Sevi, who in 1666 counted 1/3 of all European Jews as his followers — but who lost most of them when he converted to Islam rather than die at the hands of the Turkish sultan.

Remember the Sevi But devotion to Sabbetai was not the only point of the movement, especially after Sevi's death. Many Sabbateans believed that the redemption had come, and our job was to experience it now, by deliberately transgressing the laws of the old regime — especially regarding sex. One of their notorious rituals involved having a young girl dress as the Torah, her breasts exposed, while (male) devotees danced around her kissing her breasts. This was, in a sense, a recorporealization. The Torah is itself a stand in for the Shechinah, the feminine aspect of God (a/k/a the Goddess): She wears a beautiful velour dress and a crown, and then at a special time, we take the dress off, open her parchment legs, and with our phallic pointer open her to reveal the secrets that lie between them.

Many of Okunov's designs are quite similar, placing the garments of the Torah upon a (half-undressed) beautiful woman. I know that Okunov isn't deliberately referencing the Sabbatean ritual (he told me so last night), but I'm struck by the similarity of inspiration. In a sense, both Okunov and the Sabbateans are simply responding to the feminine iconography of the Torah H/herself. But I think there is something more interesting going on in both cases, which is the re-universalizing of the particular, the transcription of the mythic into a realm that is deeper than myth and which underlies the Torah, the Sabbateans, contemporary fashion, and all the other iterations of eros which spiritual and aesthetic souls have devised.

Sabbateans, after all, are not just finding excuses to have sex; like all heretics, they are believers. Like Okunov, they are moved by beauty and eroticism, see them as gifts from God no less holy than the Torah itself. Okunov's post-Hasidic theology finds God everywhere (he told me that too), not just within the bounds of orthodoxy, and indeed, quite often in exactly those places which traditional law is so afraid of. In the hands of a lesser artist, dressing a woman up in the Torah's clothes would be an act of puerile rebellion. Oh boy, what a thrill, a woman in a Torah crown. But in the hands of a mystic, it is to take seriously the power of sexuality that makes religion worth doing in the first place — and worth stealing back from the pious. (Not coincidentally, Sabbateanism extended its defiance of gender roles well beyond sexuality; women were in positions of leadership and power in the movement, and were as learned as men, even in the 18th century. Mysticism and liberation don't always go together, but here they did.)

In an essay called "Renewal is not Heresy," Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, like Okunov a renegade ex-Chabadnik, tried to explain why his form of de-orthodoxed Hasidism was not Sabbateanism. To many of us, he never quite succeeded. Who knows, maybe a kind of neo-Sabbateanism — here as a stand-in for celebrating the erotic, visceral essence of true religion outside the bounds of traditional law — is the Jewish renewal that many of us have been looking for. If so, I hope Levi Okunov's designing the costumes. Or lack thereof.