This article is the fourth of a series in The Times of Israel that explores the interface between art, Zionism, and identity in a networked world. In addition to discussing how art engages the Torah in a playful spirit, it explores art educating through visual midrash and community involvement, art revealing beauty in processes of liberation and creation, and art expressing love for the Land of Israel.
The full series can be accessed at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/.
The photo above of my grandson Razel playing with the waters of the Sea of Galilee was taken by his professional photographer brother Or Alexenberg of Oralex Photography.
Torah teaches us to approach it through creative play
As an artist, I engage the Torah in creative play through both my conceptual and aesthetic explorations. The Torah itself teaches us to approach it in a playful spirit. In Psalm 119:174, we read: “Your Torah is my plaything (sha’ashua).” Sha’ashua is a toy to engage children in play. In Proverbs 8:30, 31, King Solomon speaks in the voice of the Torah: “I [the Torah] was the artist’s plan. I was His [God’s] delight every day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the inhabited areas of His earth, my delights are with human beings.” This translation from the Hebrew original is based on the ancient wisdom on the first page of Midrash Rabba. God as the master artist played creatively with the Torah, His plan for creating the universe. Midrash Rabba uses these two verses from Proverbs to explain the first words of the Torah, “In the beginning God created.” God first created “Beginning” referring to the Torah as an open-ended blueprint for creating the world. We learn this from an earlier verse, Proverbs 8:22, “God made me [the Torah] as the beginning of His way, before His deeds of yore.” In human emulation of God’s delight, we are invited to play with the Torah as we create new worlds.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote a letter of congratulations on the founding of the Betzalel Art School in Jerusalem in 1906. By way of allegory, he refers to the revival of Jewish art and aesthetics after two thousand years of exile as a child in a coma who awakes calling for her doll.
“The pleasant and beloved child, the delightful daughter, after a long and forlorn illness, with a face as pallid as plaster, bluish lips, fever burning like a fiery furnace, and convulsive shaking and trembling, behold! She has opened her eyes and her tightly sealed lips, her little hands move with renewed life, her thin pure fingers wander hither and thither, seeking their purpose; her lips move and almost revert to their normal color, and as if through a medium a voice is heard: “Mother, Mother, the doll, give me the doll, the dear doll, which I have not seen for so long.” A voice of mirth and a voice of gladness, all are joyous, the father, the mother, the brothers and sisters, even the elderly man and woman who, because of their many years, have forgotten their children’s games.”
Rabbi Kook saw artists at work as a clear sign of the rebirth of the Jewish people in its homeland. Their playful spirit nurturing sensitivity for beauty “will uplift depressed souls, giving them a clear and illuminating view of the beauty of life, nature, and work.”
Art educating through visual midrash
Not only are the Hebrew words for ‘artist’ and ‘educating’ related, but the Torah teaches that Betzalel and Oholiav are divinely endowed with artistic talent coupled with the talent to teach (Exodus 35:30-34). Creating art can be an alternative method of Torah study that beautifies the mitzvah of study through creating visual midrash. Midrash is the unique Jewish literary form that combines commentary, legend, and narrative explanations of biblical texts. In a sense, midrash fills the spaces between the written words to reveal deeper meanings of scriptural passages. Art as visual midrash provides fresh commentaries on biblical texts through multimedia experiences that extend the verbal exploration of text into visual realms. Arthur C. Danto writes in his book Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-historical Perspective that ‘context’ in its primal meaning is ‘with text’while context is the defining characteristic of postmodern art.
In order to better understand the cultural context of my values as a Zionist artist in an era of globalization, I invited renowned art educators worldwide to redefine art and art education at the interdisciplinary interface where scientific inquiry and new technologies shape aesthetic and cultural values – local and global. This inquiry resulted in my book Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology, and Culture (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press).
Art educating through community involvement
The Torah describes two prototypic Jewish artists – Betzalel and Oholiav. “See, I have called by name: Betzalel ben Uri ben Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with a divine spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, and with the talent for all types of craftsmanship” (Exodus 31:2). The literal translation of this artist’s name is: “In the Divine Shadow son of Fiery Light son of Freedom.” It honors the artist’s passion and freedom of expression. The Torah describes Betzalel’s partner, “I have assigned with him Oholiav ben Ahisamakh of the tribe of Dan, and I have placed wisdom in the heart of every naturally talented person” (Exodus 31:6). Oholiav’s full name means “My Tent of Reliance on Father, Son, and My Brother,” integrating the contemporary with its past and future. Father, son, and brother stand together with the artist in a common tent in mutual support of one another. Betzalel represents the psychological power of the artist and Oholiav the sociological impact on community. Working together, they create a shared environment of spiritual power.
My wife, artist Miriam Benjamin, and I collaborated with elders and youth from the Miami Jewish, Hispanic, and African-American communities in creating Legacy Thrones, monumental works of public art facing Biscayne Bay. In Israel, we created an Institute for Arts and Jewish Life in the Negev desert town of Yeroham to educate art teachers for community centers. We lived in Yeroham for seven years where we taught students from throughout Israel and the Diaspora to integrate the creative energies of Betzalel with the impact on community of Oholiav.
Art revealing beauty in processes of liberation and creation
Zionism and the visual arts interface as they emerge from the core values of Judaism as expressed in the Ten Commandments, which begins: “I am YHVH (Was-Is-Will Be), your God, who has taken you out of the Land of Egypt (Narrow Straits), out of the House of Slavery. Do not have any other gods before Me. You shall not make yourself any carved statue or picture of anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or the water beneath the land.” (Exodus 20:1-14, repeated in Deuteronomy 5:6-18)
The biblical divine name YHVH is associated with beauty (tiferet) and the historic process of attaining freedom from slavery. YHVH is a verb, not a noun, combining the Hebrew words for was, is and will be, a process in time. YHVH is both the Liberator from narrowness and the Creator of the heaven, earth, and water. The biblical name for Egypt, mitzrayim, literally means from narrow straits, to teach that national liberation is the process of attaining independence from narrow-mindedness to experiencing expansive freedom in the Land of Israel. Indeed, when Moses sent scouts to explore the Land of Israel from the wilderness of Tzin to Rehov (Numbers 13:21). Joshua sent scouts four decades later who arrived at the house of Rahav (Joshua 1:1). Rahav and Rehov mean wide expanses. Having left slavery in the narrow straits the Israelites headed toward the freedom of wide expanses in their own land.
God is One, both Liberator from narrow straits and Creator of the wide expanses of heaven, earth, and water. Was-Is-Will Be is the Liberator from ancient Egypt’s cult of the dead and the Creator of a world overflowing with vibrant life. As a Jewish artist, I avoid creating art that freezes the lively process of creation and the dynamic process of liberation, arresting them in fixed images. I avoid stilling life meant to flow freely or solidifying in stone that which is in flux.
The Israelites exodus from Egypt’s narrow straits, from the land of the Book of the Dead and its immovable pyramids led to a process of liberation in the wide expanse of the desert, where they received of the Book of Life (torat chaim), and built a Lego-like moveable mishkan deconstructed and reconstructed numerous times during their four-decade journey. The Zionist challenge then as now is to settle in the Land of Israel with the expansive viewpoint of movement in the open desert without regressing to the narrow viewpoint engendered by a sedentary mentality. It is a land that devourers yoshveha, its inhabitants who sit still (Numbers 13:32) rather than those who are on the go (Genesis 12:1). Those residents of the Land of Israel who are not passive, but actively create movement, growth, and change are not in danger of being consumed.
An authentic Zionist arts movement encourages artists to create transformative artworks and adventuresome artforms that not only explore the intersections of Zionism and the arts, but reveal beauty in the dynamic processes of liberation and creation. Theodor Herzl wrote in his visionary Zionist novel Altneuland (Old-New Land):
“Beauty and wisdom do not die because their creators die. Just as the conservation of energy is self-evident, so must we infer that there is conservation of beauty and wisdom…. Have the sayings of our ancient sages perished? No, their flame burns brightly, even if in happy times it is less clearly visible than in dark days, like all flames. And what should we learn from this? That we should strive to increase beauty and wisdom in this earth, as long as we live.”
Art expressing love for the land of Israel
Rabbi Kook stresses in his book Orot and in Selected Letters that the intrinsic bond between the Land of Israel and the Jewish People that extends to a call to delight and rejoice in the beauty of the land:
“The Land of Israel is not something external, not an external national asset, a means to the end of collective solidarity and the strengthening of the nation’s existence, physical or even spiritual. The Land of Israel is an essential unit bound by the bond-of-life to the People, united by inner characteristics to its existence.”
“See the splendor of an attractive land, the splendor of the Carmel and the Sharon, the splendor of the pleasant and beautiful azure skies, the magnificence of the clear, pure, temperate air that reigns in its majesty and glory. Delight and rejoice in this desirable, fair and pleasing land, a land of life, a land whose air is the wellspring of the spirit. How beautiful and how graceful she is!”
Some of my earliest memories from the beginnings of my education as a Zionist artist. I remember sitting on the counter in my grandfather’s Hebrew bookshop on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn in the 1940’s surrounded by images of the Land of Israel in the calendars, postcards, posters, and metal relief pictures from the Bezalel workshops in Jerusalem that he sold. I would often watch him carving mezuzot from mother-of-pearl and olive wood imported from Israel. My grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Kahn, left the Telz Yeshiva in Lithuania in 1900 to participate in the 4th Zionist Congress in London never to return. He settled to Boston where he was married and my mother was born. When he passed away four years before his Zionist dream was realized in 1948, my grandmother came to live with us. When I came home from school, she spread out the Yiddish newspaper on the kitchen table for us to sit together and search for pictures of Israel which we would cut out and paste in scrap books. On quiet Shabbat afternoons, we would often sit together immersed in a virtual journey to the Land of Israel through our scrap books.
When I first came to live in Israel in 1969, I sensed I had been there many times before. I had fallen in love years before in New York with Israel’s diverse landscape, from the green hills of the Galilee to the Negev desert where my son and his family now live, from Ra’anana where I live to Jerusalem where I worked, from the Dead Sea to the coral reefs of Eilat, from the surf at the Tel Aviv beach to the Western Wall, and from mountainous Tzfat to the Ramon Crater. This love of the land urges Zionist artists to explore, articulate, express, and document the landscape, from its gentle beauty to its overwhelming magnificence, and to create earth art and ecological artworks to honor the land.
Negev artist Ezra Orion organized an environmental art event in which ten Israeli artists were invited to create works of earth art at Sodom at the southern end of the Dead Sea on Purim 5744/1984. I appropriated a hill blocking the wadi between the mountain ranges of Moab and Edom to create an earth artwork relating Sodom to Purim: http://www.melalexenberg.com/artworks/Sodom.doc.