Construction has begun on the tallest building in Israel that will tower over the other high-rise buildings shaping Tel Aviv’s skyline. The 91 story skyscraper will grow up like a living form that expresses the spiral structure of Jewish consciousness. It is being built by the Azrieli Group next to its well-known circular, square and triangular towers in the heart of Tel Aviv.
Dana Azrieli, chairwoman of the Azrieli Group, described the concept of the building’s architecture as an expression of values of Judaism coupled with aesthetics of nature. She said, “We looked at a range of sources of inspiration for the design, including our history, nature, culture and values. We looked at Jewish tradition, and we saw the Jewish people as the ‘People of the Book.’ We considered the curving shape of the megillah and the Torah, in addition to receiving inspiration from the curving lines of Tel Aviv’s strong Bauhaus tradition and the twist of a snail’s shell.”
As a biologist turned new media artist and professor of art and Jewish education, Dana Azrieli’s thoughts about life forms and Jewish tradition reflect my teaching at universities in USA and Israel. I taught “Morphodynamics: Design of Natural Systems” at Columbia and MIT and “Art in Jewish Thought” at Bar-Ilan and Ariel.
The significance of the spiral form in both biological systems and Jewish consciousness is explored in my books: Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media (Elm Hill/HarperCollins) and The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press). Through a Bible Lens is one of two books and 80 articles that I wrote during the six years that I have lived with my wife Miriam at Palace Ra’anana, Azrieli Group’s retirement community.
PEOPLE OF THE SPIRAL SCROLL
Jews are called am haSePheR, usually translated “People of the Book.” But SePheR is a word written in the Torah scroll itself long before the invention of codex type books contained between two covers. SePheR means spiral scroll. It is spelled SPR, the root of the word “SPiRal” in numerous languages, ancient and modern. Jews, then, are “People of the Spiral.” In kabbalah, Judaism’s down-to-earth spiritual system, the SePhiRot are emanations of divine light spiraling down into our everyday life. The English words “SPiRitual” and “inSPiRation” share the SRP root from the Latin SPiRare, to breathe.
In Judaism, form gives shape to content. The medium is an essential part of the message. Weekly portions of the first five books of the Bible in the form of a Torah scroll are read in synagogue. The symbolic significance of the spiral form is so strong that if a Torah scroll is not available in synagogue, the Bible is not publicly read at all. The exact same words printed in codex book form convey the wrong message. If the divine message encoded in the Torah is trapped between two rectilinear covers, it loses its life-giving flow. The Torah teaches that the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptians in a malben, a brickyard. Malben is also the Hebrew word for rectangle.
The Torah must have the infinite flow of a Mobius strip where the final letter of the Torah, the lamed of yisraeL (Israel) connects to the first letter, the bet of B’reshit (in the beginning). Lamed bet spells the word for “heart.” The heart of the Torah is where the end connects to the beginning in an endless flow. Form and content join together to symbolize the essence of Jewish values. The Bible encoded in a flowing scroll form provides a clue as to the nature of biblical consciousness as an open-ended, living system like DNA molecules, snail shells, and the spiral growth pattern of palm fronds.
SPIRAL LADDERS AND SPIRITUAL BAR CODES
The spiral is a key symbol of Jewish culture, from tzitzit fringes to ram’s horn shofar to spiral hallah bread. Their spiral forms parallel the major life forms in nature. The ladder in Jacob’s dream can connect spiritual and scientific viewpoints: “He had a vision in a dream. A ladder was standing on the ground, its top reaching up towards heaven as Divine angels were going up and down on it.” (Genesis 28:12) Jewish tradition arrives at the spiral shape of Jacob’s ladder by noticing that the numerical value of Hebrew words for “ladder” sulam and for “spiral” slil are both 130. Creative play using numerical equivalents of Hebrew letters, a system called gematriah, can lead to fresh insights. The spiral ladder in Jacob’s dream can be linked to the DNA spiral ladder with rungs on which codes for all forms of life are written with four words: A-T, T-A, C-G, G-C.
“Speak to the Israelites and say to them that they shall make fringes (tzitzit) on the corner of their garments for all generations. And they shall include in the fringes of each corner a thread of sky-blue wool.” (Numbers 15:37) The sky-blue dye used to color the thread is derived from a spiral sea snail.
To this day, these ritual fringes are tied to the corners of a rectangular prayer shawl. Like the DNA spiral that spells out the code for the characteristics of all plants, animals, and human beings, each spiral fringe spells out “God is One” in a numerical bar code. Each fringe is tied with four sets of spirals held together by five knots in a sequence of 7, 8, 11, and 13 turns (in the Ashkenazi tradition). Seven days of divine creation is followed by the eighth day in which humanity joins with God in continuing the creation. 7 + 8 = 15, the numerical equivalent of YH, the first two letters in the divine name. The numerical value of second two letters, VH, is 11. The full divine name YHVH equals 26. The fourth set of 13 turns is the numerical value of ehad, the Hebrew word for “one.” In morning prayers, Jews gather together in one hand the fringes from the four corners of our prayer shawls as we recite the shema, the central affirmation of Judaism “God is One,” while looking at the spiral tzitzit that spells out “God is One” in a numerical bar code.
I created Four Corner of America, the official artwork celebrating the Miami’s Centennial. I make large ship-rope tzitzit, colored one strand sky-blue, and placed them at the four corners of America. The tztzit on the coast of Florida and Maine reached into the Atlantic Ocean and on Washington State and California into the Pacific Ocean. The Torah not only speaks of four corners of a garment, but also about the four corner of the Earth. The biblical word for “corner” kanfot literally means “wings.” It was appropriate that American Airlines sponsored my art project.
JEWISH ARCHITECTURE AS LIVING SYSTEM
A Jewish structure of consciousness in architecture emphasizes temporal processes in which space is actively engaged by human community rather than presenting a harmoniously stable form in space. Architectural theorist Bruno Zevi, compares the Hebraic and Greek attitudes toward architecture in his essay on concepts of space-time shaping Hebraic consciousness in the book Bruno Zevi on Modern Architecture:
“For the Greeks a building means a house-object or a temple-object. For the Jews it is the object-as-used, a living place or a gathering place. As a result, architecture taking its inspiration from Hellenic thought is based on colonnades, proportions, refined molding, a composite vision according to which nothing may be added or eliminated, a structure defined once and for all. An architecture taking its inspiration from Hebrew thought is the diametric opposite. It is an organic architecture, fully alive, adapted to the needs of those who dwell within, capable of growth and development, free of formalistic taboo, free of symmetry, alignments, fixed relationships between filled and empty areas, free from the dogmas of perspective, in short, an architecture whose only rule, whose only order is change.”
Theologian Thorleif Boman writes in Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek about the dynamic action-centered Hebraic consciousness, noting that biblical passages concerned with the built environment always describe plans for construction without any description of the appearance of the finished structure. The Bible has exquisitely detailed construction instructions for the Tabernacle (mishkan) without any word picture of the appearance of the completed structure. The mishkan was a movable, small scale structure made of modular parts and woven tapestries. It was taken apart, packed on wagons, and moved through the desert from site to site. Its modest tent-like design and active life was quite different from the immovable marble temples of ancient Greece that still stand today.
We can see a renaissance of this ancient Hebraic consciousness in the scientific foundations of the hi-tech revolution. Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogione explains in Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature that the traditional science of the age of the machine tended to emphasize stability, order, uniformity, equilibrium, and closed systems. The transition from an industrial society to a hi-tech society in which information and innovation are critical resources, brought forth new scientific world models that characterize today’s accelerated social change: disorder, instability, diversity, disequilibrium, nonlinear relationships, open systems, and a heightened sensitivity to the flow of time.
Influenced by the narrative structure of the Hebrew Bible, architect Daniel Libeskind explains that he creates buildings that tell stories. “If a building doesn’t tell a story it’s a nothing. Every building should tell you the deeper story of why it’s there.”
Libeskind follows in the tradition of his grandfather who made his living traveling from village to village in Poland telling stories colored with Torah values. He emphasizes that his architectural sensibility is consciously Jewish, aiming at shaking people’s souls. Architecture, he wrote, “seeks to explore the deeper order rooted not only in visible forms, but in the invisible and hidden sources which nourish culture itself, in its thought, art, literature, song and movement.” He explores the symbolic potential of architecture through which history and tradition, memories and dreams are expressed.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Report, Libeskind describes how his architecture expresses Jewish values that reject looking at buildings as merely material reality.
“I know that any building that I love is a building full of connections to something memorable, to something that has to do with the larger world, not just the immediate functional use. Architecture should be able to pose questions, not just make people fall asleep and be anaesthetized, but invoke the real vitality of life, which is full of something wondrous. It’s the Jewish value that space in not just the superficial idol that people often venerate, but that space is connected to culture, to spirit, and has great resonance in terms of tradition, the present and how it’s oriented towards new horizons.”
The 91 stories the Azrieli Tower has significance in Judaism. When the reader chants the words from a Torah scroll, he sees the unspoken divine name YHVH but reads it as Adoni. In prayer books in the Sephardi tradition, these two divine names are printed together as YHV followed by a stretched out H holding within it the word Adoni. YHVH has the numerical value of 26 and Adoni of 65. Together they equal 91. The visual and spoken divine names become one.
After a prayer is recited, the congregation says amen, a Hebrew word adapted by English to affirm the truth of the prayer. Amen has the numerical value of 91.
The word for artist oman is 91. The words for angel malach and for food ma’achal each have a numerical value of 91. The biblical words for angel and food are written with the same four Hebrew letters to teach us the angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life.
As an artist, I am currently collaborating with students at Emunah College School of the Arts on my Jerusalem in Israel to JerUSAlem in USA art project (http://jerusalem-usa.blogspot.com). They are creating one-minute smartphone videos about food in Jerusalem that will be sequenced with animated cyberangels and streamed from Israel to the twelve US states that have places named “Jerusalem.” These cyberangels are digitized Rembrandt images shown ascending from a NASA image of the Land of Israel on a smartphone screen on the cover of my Through a Bible Lens book (http://throughabiblelens.blogspot.com).
It would be appropriate for the cyberangels to fly to the four corners of the Earth from the 53 story Azrieli Sarona Tower, the highest building in Israel, until the 91 story Spiral Tower is completed. It will be the realization of the commentary of the eminent biblical interpreter Rashi that angels in Jacob’s dream ascend from the Land of Israel and come down throughout the world.