This blogpost explores how God, named “The Place” (in Hebrew Hamakom), honors human beings by creating through them. It is based upon my book Photograph God http://photographgod.com that examines four contemporary buildings that express Jewish consciousness: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, and Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower at Ground Zero. The fourth building is a virtual one, the interactive Internet, a world wide web of images and texts, a human community of global reach. The Wikimedia Commons photo above shows the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
My last week’s Times of Israel blogpost “From a Skyscraper for Killing God to a Peace Hut Higher than Sky” discusses four building projects described in the Bible. Humanity’s first collective building project, the Tower of Babel, was a skyscraper for killing God that ended in disaster. It is followed by more positive human constructions: Abraham’s Eshel academy for spiritual learning in a tent opened to the four winds, the Mishkan Logo-like tabernacle designed to be packed-up and moved, and the Sukkah hut constructed annually to this day as an invitation to world peace.
BUILDING TIME OVER SPACE
In Frank Lloyd Wright: A Study in Architectural Content, art historian Norris Kelly Smith explained Wright’s originality and genius in terms of Boman’s comparison between Hebrew and Greek patterns of thought. Since Wright was well versed in the Bible as the son of a Unitarian minister, he internalized the biblical message of freeing humanity from enslavement in closed spaces and expressed this freedom in his architectural design. Smith emphasized that Wright imbued the field of architecture, conditioned by two thousand years of Greco-Roman thought, with Hebrew thought. Wright sought to create a new architecture to echo the biblical call inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10).
He wanted American architecture to assert its cultural independence from Europe. The connection between the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and the American experience as a rebellion against European tyranny was clear to America’s founding fathers. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress formed a high-powered committee, made up of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, to propose a seal and motto for the newly independent United States of America. They proposed a seal depicting the Israelites escaping to freedom from bondage under Pharaoh through the divided waters of the Red Sea, with Moses standing on the shore extending his hand over the sea, causing it to overwhelm the Egyptians. The proposed motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Fourteen years later, George Washington wrote a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Savannah repeating the same biblical message of freedom:
May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in the promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of heaven and make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of the people whose God is Jehovah.
Hebraic consciousness of freedom, movement, and change is exemplified by Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral Guggenheim Museum in New York. When I had asked my children what they remembered most from their visits to the Guggenheim, they enthusiastically reminisced about running down the ramp and being high up looking over the fence into the center atrium. It is not a box for rectangular pictures set in static space. It is an active place to be engaged over time. The exhibitions I saw there that worked best were shows about movement: Alexander Calder’s mobiles were moving around the spiral space to create a circus of color. Yaacov Agam’s kinetic and dialogic art changed with the movement of the viewers in his Beyond the Visible exhibition, and Jenny Holzer’s ruby light word messages on a running electronic signboard flashed their way up the spiral ramp. The motorcycle show was right on the mark.
The Bible encoded in a spiral Torah scroll provides a clue as to the nature of biblical consciousness as an open-ended, living system. It shares its spiral form with major forms of life, from DNA, to a nautilus shell, to the growth pattern of palm fronds. The spiral shape of Wright’s Guggenheim Museum represents the victory of time over space. It is the architectural expression of Hebraic thought and experience. This is significant because it was fully realized by a non-Jew.
SETTING A BUILDING IN MOTION
In creating the Bilbao Guggenhiem Museum, Frank Gehry moved beyond Wright to a more powerful realization of the Hebraic mindset that Boman describes as dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and sometimes quite explosive in kind. It started in Canada when young Frank would play with the live carp swimming in his grandmother’s bathtub. Gehry often told the story that every Thursday his grandmother would buy fish and keep them in the bathtub until Friday when she prepared gefilte fish for the Sabbath meal. The vigorous body motions of swimming fish seen from above gave Gehry his vocabulary for the dynamic shape of his museum. Fish are one with their environment. They must stay in constant motion in it to stay alive. Oxygen carrying water must be kept moving over their gills for them to breathe. To stop motion is to die. In their book on Gehry’s complete works, Dal Co and Foster write:
Over the years, Gehry has cultivated a highly personal studio practice of working with models, because it permits impossibly cantilevered parts and vertiginous piles of volumes in fluid transformation. As he began to shape buildings from mobile parts, his sense of space transcended Cartesian notions. This special sense defies verbal definition, but it might be compared with the sensation of moving bodies in a medium akin to water. To the extent that his buildings arrest volumes in continuous motion (and transformation), time becomes their formative dimension.
As an integral part of education for an architecture of time and motion, Gehry takes his students on ice in full hockey gear to interact with each other and their environment in rapid movement. Like fish in water, skaters standing still on ice are unstable. Swift motion creates balance. The same concept of stability in motion is sensed in seeing the “fish-scale” titanium skin on the Bilbao museum that makes it look like a futuristic airplane. Airplanes must move through their air medium in order to fly. Stopping motion in midair leads to crashing and death. He sets the bodies of his buildings in motion as a choreographer does with dancers. His studio practice appears like a performance rehearsal.
Gehry creates a dynamic flow between the building and its waterfront site and between the visitor and continually unfolding spaces. While jutting out over the water, the huge flowing fish-like building uses a combination of water-filled pools and the river to create an energetic interplay between building and site. Its full aerodynamic form can be seen from the other side of the river. Crossing the bridge and approaching the building transforms the experience of this monumental sculptural form into a more intimate encounter. Shifting viewpoints confuse the building and its environment as well as interior and exterior spaces. Moving through and around Gehry’s museum provides fresh encounters and new ways of seeing.
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.
His first commission was the Jewish Museum in Berlin at the heart of the beast that devoured six million Jews in a fiery genocidal frenzy. Libeskind used the elements of architecture to tell the horrific story of the brutal mass murder of European Jewry from the point of view of the son of survivors of a Jewish family decimated by the Holocaust. The unconventional structure of the unbalanced building itself tells the story. Visitors to the Berlin museum experience disorienting discomfort as they walk on tilted floors between sloping walls through uncomfortable spaces, irregular structures, displaced fragments, misshaped proportions, unanticipated lighting, unconventional acoustics, and unexpected temperatures. James Young writes in Daniel Libeskind and the Contemporary Jewish Museum that Libeskind’s drawings for the Berlin museum “look more like sketches of the museum’s ruins, a house whose wings have been scrambled and reshaped by the jolt of genocide, a devastated site being prepared to enshrine broken forms.”
In contrast to the Berlin museum telling the unredeemable narrative of centuries of drenching the soil of Europe in Jewish blood, Libeskind designed a Freedom Tower that honors America’s primary value of guaranteeing freedom for all its citizens to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Freedom Tower, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, reaches up from the site of the World Trade Center demolished by the 9/11 attack by Islamist terrorists that destroyed the lives of 3,000 Americans. Its spire reaches a symbolic height of 1,776 feet corresponding to the year the United States declared its independence. It can be seen aligned to the torch of the Statue of Liberty that Libeskind first saw immigrating to the United States when he was thirteen. As the first step in telling the American story through his Freedom Tower, he studied the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States.
Perhaps the Jewish historical experience of rebirth after catastrophic events informs the work of Jewish architects. In addition to Daniel Libeskind being selected in an international competition to create a new World Trade Center, two other architects were selected in different competitions to also create works at the site of the 9/11 catastrophe. Santiago Calatrava, designer of the Bridge of Strings at the entrance to Jerusalem, was selected to design the WTC Transportation Hub that he created to resemble a bird being released from a child’s hand. Calatrava’s family was victim of the Spanish Inquisition’s persecution, execution, and banishment of its Jews at the time Columbus discovered America. Michael Arad was selected to design a memorial as a sacred place to remember and honor the thousands murdered by terrorists in the horrific attacks on the WTC. He created Reflecting Absence, two pools with the waterfalls cascading down their sides filling the empty footprints of the Twin Towers. Each pool symbolizes the loss of life and the physical void created by the destroyed towers. The sound of the water falling drowns out the sounds of the city making the site a contemplative sanctuary. Arad, son of Israel’s ambassador to the United States, serviced in the Israel Defense Forces’ Golani Brigade commando unit defending the Jewish State against enemies aiming at annihilating it.
BUILDING BLOGS IN THE CLOUD
The Cloud is a digital age term that describes a vast number of computers interconnected through a real-time communication network such as the Internet. The Cloud embodies a peer-to-peer distributed architecture without the need for central coordination. Residents of The Cloud act as both suppliers and consumers of information. The Cloud appears to be cloudy because it is unpredictable which paths data packets will take when transmitted across a packet-switched network that links your computer, tablet and smartphone to every other one in the world. The Cloud is a living network of networks of networks blanketing our planet.
When you photograph God and post your images on your blog or on Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter, or other sites in The Cloud, you distribute them worldwide, sharing them with all who enter into The Cloud. When you are spiritually blogging your life, you are building a blog in The Cloud that continues to live on in The Cloud, accessible to billions of others. Indeed, I am writing this book in Dropbox, situated somewhere in The Cloud unknown to me.
The Cloud is a thought-provoking metaphor for an invisible God everyplace that can be revealed to us anyplace that we invite divine light to illuminate our retinal screen. The Place, Hamakom, is the One and only master network of all interlinking networks. That you can see nothing at all looking at the motherboard or memory of your computer with the most powerful microscope is extended to every other digital device in The Cloud. However, the screen on your computer, tablet or smartphone can reveal every photo, video and text on a growing global organism that we call The Cloud.
In his book Judaism: A Way of Being, distinguished Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter explores the paradox that God coexists as an abstract, indescribable, and invisible transcendence and an intimate presence close to us everyplace we are. He proposes a veil between God and man to reconcile two verses from the same chapter of the Bible: “No man can see Me and live” (Exodus 33:30) and “The Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his neighbor” (Exodus 33:11). Perhaps the metaphor of a veil made of a misty cloud can resolve the passages from the Midrash: “Let the soul praise God whose place nobody knows” and “In every place where you find a trace of human footprints, there am I before you.” God can be intimately close while not visible through the veiling cloud.
A number of biblical verses describe a cloud guiding the Israelites on their trek through the desert and hovering over the Mishkan. The kabbalah proposes that the cloud over the Mishkan extended over the huts of every family. The cloud both shielded them from the scorching desert sun and was translucent enough to let enough light through to see their way. The cloud is a metaphor for God’s both being hidden above a hovering cloud and divine light that can illuminate our huts when we let God in. The kabbalah proposes ten sephirot thorough which the blinding intensity of divine light filters down into our everyday world. In Genesis 9:13, God sets a rainbow in the cloud as a sign of a covenant between God and the earth. The rainbow spectrum transforms white light into the multicolored world for us to enjoy if we open our eyes in wonder.
A creative digital age translation of the first verses of the Bible from the original Hebrew can offer us a fresh look at connections between The Place and The Cloud. “In the network, God created media systems for creating heaven and earth. When the earth was absolutely empty and dark, God created light and separated between light and darkness (1 and 0)”
We can read the first word of the Bible B’reshit (In the beginning) as B’reshet (In the network). In Genesis 1:1, the Hebrew word et appears twice, before heaven and before earth. “In the beginning God created et the heaven and et the earth.” Since English has no equivalent for the word et that links a verb to a noun, it drops out in translation. et is spelled alef-tav, the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Spanning the full set of 22 Hebrew letters, et symbolizes media systems.
The media system of heaven, the spiritual realm, is written in the Torah with Hebrew letters that form words. The media system of earth, the physical realm, is written with electrons and protons that form atoms and molecules. The media system of the digital realm returns us to the primeval binary creation of darkness and light, 0 and 1. It is written with the binary digits 0-1 called bits that form bytes. Every blog, website, video, song, and text that you access in The Cloud is written with the binary system of the first day of Creation.
Educated as a scientist, The Lubavicher Rebbe, the 20th century’s greatest Hasidic leader, recognized the spiritual power of The Cloud early on. Each of the nearly 3,000 husband-wife emissary teams who established Chabad Houses from Miami and Paris to Mumbai and Katmandu have created websites. The emissaries’ annual conferences can be viewed live via Internet simulcast with a running Twitter commentary. The Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, teaches:
“The divine purpose of the present information revolution, which gives an individual unprecedented power and opportunity, is to allow us to share knowledge – spiritual knowledge – with each other, empowering and unifying individuals everywhere. We need to use today’s interactive technology not just for business or leisure but to interlink as people – to create a welcome environment for the interaction of our souls, our hearts, our visions.”
TO BE CONTINUED
Follow my Times of Israel blog https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/ where my posts are based upon my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life. See praise for the book at http://photographgod.com. You can read the entire book at once by ordering it from amazon.com and other Internet book sellers.