Mel Alexenberg
Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Art Medium as an Expression of Jewish Message

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This blog post is the second in the “Art, Zionism, and Identity in a Networked World” series.  The series explores my thoughts and experiences at the interface between art in a postdigital age, Zionism as the creation of the vibrant State of Israel after two millennia of exile, and multiple identities as an American-born Israeli artist, educator, writer, and blogger.

“Art, Zionism, and Identity in a Networked World” was first published in Hebrew in Zipora: Journal of Education and Contemporary Art and Design. I wrote about the conceptual background for this series in my books: The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press), Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life (CreateSpace), and in Hebrew Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Four Essays on Judaism and Contemporary Art.

Art is a biofeedback-generated self-portrait

The photograph above demonstrates the medium conveying a Jewish message.  It shows my Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim artwork, a biofeedback generated interactive system that I created at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  It plays with the words p’nim (inside) and p’anim (face) that are both spelled with the same Hebrew letters.  This dialogic artwork creates a feedback loop in which one’s internal mind/body state (p’nim) constantly changes a digital image of one’s external self (panim).  A portrait derived from Jewish consciousness is a dynamic changing system presenting the flow of life forces between spiritual and material realms rather than a static painting of a frozen face enclosed in a gold frame.

Art conveying its message through form and medium

The significance of form and medium in Jewish life is so strong that we only read the Torah portion in synagogue from a scroll hand-written on parchment.  If we have no Torah scroll, we read nothing at all rather than read the identical content from a Hebrew Bible printed in a rectangular codex book form.  Tradition teaches how the Israelites were enslaved in the malben, which means both brickyard and rectangle. The Torah trapped in a malben between two book covers cannot convey a message of liberation expressed by a free-flowing spiral scroll.  The heart (spelled LB in Hebrew) of the Torah is the place where the last letter L in the word yisrael (Israel) is linked to the first letter B in b’reshit (In the beginning) in an endless flow.  Both changing form and medium radically changes the message.  A Torah written on Japanese rice paper is bizarre and one written on pigskin would be the ultimate anti-Semitic statement.  We can recognize the life-affirming parallel between the double spiral of the Torah scroll and the DNA molecule in which all life forms are encoded.

To explore form and media in Jewish thought and experience, I invited fellow artists at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies to collaborate with me in creating LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age, 8 an exhibition for Yeshiva University Museum. Creating art in a digital age in a networked world offers Zionist artists unprecedented opportunities to invent alternative art forms and explore new media confluent with the structure of Jewish consciousness.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the first Zionist artists Ephriam Lilien and Boris Schatz, the artists who participated in the exhibition at the 5th Zionist Congress in 1901, and the theoreticians of culture Martin Buber and Ahad Ha’am saw Zionist art only in terms of content and iconography.7 Landscapes of the Land of Israel, Jewish subjects, and biblical scenes idealizing the Bedouin types as if they were ancient Israelites were the content of their artwork expressed in alien European forms and media.   These first Zionist artists did not liberate themselves from the Hellenistic definition of art that was plastered over their Jewish consciousness by centuries of indoctrination living in Europe.

Art revealing the power of Hebrew letters in an era of digital and bio technologies 

One of the Zionist enterprise’s greatest accomplishments is reviving Hebrew as the common everyday language uniting Jews who have returned to their homeland speaking scores of different languages. There is an aesthetic and spiritual power in seeing Hebrew letters dancing across storefronts in the Jewish State, flashing across TV screens, using smartphones set for Hebrew language, and surfing the Internet in the ancient biblical language.   Hebrew letters have a special meaning for the artist.   The mishkan’s artist, Betzalel, is said to have had the divine secret of forging combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters to create new worlds. The digital era makes this kabbalistic notion of artistic creativity through making permutations of bits of information more than a quaint legend.  It is computer science rather than mysticism, physics rather than metaphysics that lets us reveal in our times this ancient wisdom.  All the multitude of words, sounds and images that we can access today on the Internet, CDs, and DVDs are encoded in bits strung together in groupings of eight called bytes. The 256 bit permutations in one byte are in turn grouped into billions of combinations that we perceive as a web site, a computer game, a text, a song, or a movie.

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This image is a computer-generated hologram of the two versions of the Ten Commandments that I created with laser experts at MIT for my exhibition “LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age” at Yeshiva University Museum. 

Jewish tradition sees the 22 sacred Hebrew letters as profound, primal, spiritual forces, the raw material of Creation.  The numerous alternative arrangements of the letters in words results in different blends of cosmic spiritual forces that finds a parallel in natural systems where different numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons form the atoms of each of the 92 different elements. These atoms, in turn, combine into molecules, and molecules into supersized molecules like DNA in which the code of all life’s forms is written with only four letters: A-T, T-A, and C-G, G-C.   The interplay between combinations and permutations of Hebrew letters in the spiritual realm, of atoms and molecules in the physical realm, and bits and bytes in the realm of digital media, provides raw materials for creating artworks that generate a lively dialog between the Jewish past and Israel’s future as a world center of digital and bio technologies.


Art revealing the spiritual dimensions of everyday life in the Land of Israel 

The great transgression of ten of the leaders of the Israelite tribes who were charged to spy out the Land of Israel after their exodus from Egypt was their inability to discern the difference between hard work as slaves in Egypt and hard work building their own land.   Only Joshua and Calev met the challenge.  The Torah tells us that Calev of the tribe of Judah had “a different spirit” (Numbers: 14:24).  Unlike the others, he was able to make the paradigm shift to recognize that the challenge of living in the Land of Israel was to see spirituality emerging from all aspects of life.

Ten of the spies chose to remain in the desert where they could live a totally spiritual existence learning Torah all day.  They would not have to work at all since food was delivered daily for free at the opening of their tents.  In the Land of Israel, they would have to grow their own food, build houses, fight enemies, and collect garbage which seemed to them like returning to the slavery they had just left.  These ten spies were sentenced to death in the desert for their inability to see that the spiritual arises from the quality of one’s encounter with the material world.  The descendents of Calev’s tribe of Judea are almost all of the Jews who have the great privilege of returning to our homeland and rebuilding it 3,500 years later.  Most of the descendents of the ten spies who lacked “a different spirit” have disappeared.

Calev’s great-grandson, the prototypic Jewish artist Betzalel, sets a direction for today’s Zionist artists by having created an environment that invites holiness into our concrete world – “God walks in the midst of the camp…therefore shall your camp be holy” (Deuteronomy 23:15).  I invited my students at Emunah College School of the Arts in Jerusalem and at Ariel University to reveal holiness by photographing divine light emanating from their everyday life in Israel.

We can appreciate Calev’s alternative viewpoint through the 20th century experience of the Rebbe of Sadegora, Rabbi Avraham Freidman (1884-1961). The Nazis attempted to humiliate the Rebbe in the eyes of his Hasidim by forcing him at gunpoint to work all day sweeping streets and collecting garbage and at night to march waving a Nazi flag.   The Rebbe survived the Holocaust and moved to Tel Aviv where he rose early every morning in the week before Israel Independence Day to join the city’s sanitation workers in sweeping streets and collecting garbage.   At night, he could be seen walking through the streets of Tel Aviv waving the Israeli flag.  He marveled at the great privilege he had to keep his city clean and to honor his nation’s flag.

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.
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