One of the gallery highlights during the Museum of Fine Arts' celebration of Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, on Wednesday is a pair of handcrafted Colonial-era silver adornments for a Torah scroll.
The rare pieces, called Torah finials, made by artisan Myer Myers, have been on loan to the MFA from the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, since late 2010 — and are at the center of a high-stakes intra-religious legal battle between two centuries-old Jewish congregations.
The dispute over ownership between a Rhode Island and a New York congregation, which began in late 2012, is now before the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. The court's decision could bear on whether these artifacts remain on public view in the MFA's Art of the Americas wing.
Historic Legal Debate
New York City's Congregation Shearith Israel, founded in 1654, is the oldest Jewish congregation in the nation. Newport's Congregation Jeshuat Israel worships at the Touro Synagogue, which was built in 1763 and is the country's oldest synagogue and now a national historic landmark.
From the earliest days, there were close relations between the two congregations. After Newport's Jews fled the town during the Revolutionary War, Shearith Israel became trustee of the Touro Synagogue and held its Torah scrolls and finials in safekeeping. Decades later, as Jews returned to Newport, the religious items were returned. The Newport Jewish congregation, rechartered in 1894, resumed worship in the Touro Synagogue.
The current acrimonious legal tussle began when the Rhode Island congregation, in need of financial security, planned to sell the Torah finials to the MFA, which offered more than $7 million for the set. The MFA withdrew its offer after Shearith Israel filed suit to block the sale, arguing, in part, that it is the rightful owner of the Touro Synagogue and its possessions. The New York congregation also argued that the finials, used in sacred worship, should not be sold.
In August, Associate Judge David Souter, writing for the First Circuit, agreed that Shearith Israel is the rightful owner, overturning a ruling by U.S. District Judge Jack McConnell in Providence. In September, Congregation Jeshuat Israel filed a request for a rehearing, a move backed by the Rhode Island Attorney General, according to a spokesperson for the First Circuit. The case is now before the First Circuit Court of Appeals.
Myer Myers' Silver Torah Adornments
The rare Torah finials (also called rimonim) at the center of this debate were created between 1766 and 1776 by Myer Myers.
The artisan, a slightly-older contemporary of Paul Revere, was born in 1723 in New York City to Jewish immigrants. He learned and mastered his craft in a formal seven-year apprenticeship becoming the first formally trained Jewish silver artisan in the British empire, according to David L. Barquist, author of “Myer Myers: Jewish Silversmith in Colonial New York.” At the time, Jews in Europe were not allowed in the silversmith guild.
Over his lifetime, he was closely connected with New York's Congregation Shearith Israel, where he became a leader and served as its president.
Myers distinguished himself as a noted silversmith with a wide range of prominent clients and patrons in and out of the Jewish community and from both sides of the political divide. He went on to be among the period's most prominent and productive silversmiths, with some 380 surviving objects, according to Barquist.
The Touro rimonim measure 14 ½ inches high and sparkle from inside a glass display at the entrance to the MFA's Marilyn and John F. Keane Family Gallery that features furniture and decorative arts from 18th century Newport. Each finial has three intricately cut spheres with six small delicate brass bells dangling from curved brackets. A delicately decorated gilt silver crown graces the top.
Myers based his design on European Torah finials, “creating among the earliest and rarest examples of Jewish ceremonial art in America,” according to one of two display case labels. The design recalls the biblical temple of Jerusalem, which was decorated with pomegranates, an ancient Jewish symbol of fruitfulness.
“These rimonim are among the most beautiful pieces of Judaica, and are exceedingly rare examples from the Colonial period,” said Marietta Cambareri, the MFA's senior curator of European sculpture and the Jetskalina H. Phillips Curator of Judaica.
“You have to imagine that making them, for Myers, as a practicing Jew, had to have had particular and personal meaning,” Cambareri said. The MFA owns several other pieces of Myer Myers' silver including a coffee pot given to the museum in 2012.
“He brought his best stuff as a craftsman to these objects, even within the body of his work,” Cambareri said.
American Jewish historian Jonathan D. Sarna agrees. “It's clear that … Myer Myers [spent] a lot of time studying the [biblical] verses,” that are the inspiration for his bells and pomegranates,” said the noted Brandeis University professor.
The Torah finials at the MFA are one of five surviving pairs by Myers, all in different styles.
“The rimonim don't look like anything else in the gallery,” but they fit in the display that showcases Newport's unique and influential status in the world of furniture and decorative arts of the period," Cambareri said.
A Place Among Colonial Art
Newport, an important port with a lot of trade through the Caribbean, had one of the most vibrant communities of craftsmen in colonial America, according to Dennis Carr, a scholar of Newport's 18th century woodworkers and the MFA's Carolyn and Peter Lynch curator of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture.
“Displaying these spectacular silver rimonim adds a whole new dimension to the material culture of colonial Rhode Island,” Carr said. Myers' Touro rimonim may have originally been a private commission that were then loaned or donated to the congregation, according to Barquist.
Cambareri said the rimonim open an understanding of Jewish life in the city, that dates back to the mid-17th century, when Jews of Spanish-Portuguese ancestry arrived at the port city.
Rather than displaying the rimonim among other Judaica objects, the MFA has positioned them among American works of the same period.
"At the MFA, we feel that integrating these objects across the collection is a very good approach to show how cultures were integrated across time,” Cambareri said.
While there's clearly an important place for Judaica in Jewish museums and institutions, historian Sarna applauds the MFA's approach, one that was novel at the time, he said. “They are putting Jewish materials in conversation with the art of the period,” Sarna said.
No decision has been issued by the court yet, so for now, Myers' silver rimonim stand in splendid view in the MFA's Colonial gallery.