This blogpost is based upon the “Turn Your Lens on Yourself” chapter in my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life http://photographgod.com that explores the vibrant interface between spiritual seeing, smartphone photography, and social media. It demonstrates how kabbalah, the down-to-earth spiritual tradition of Judaism, offers fresh insights into the creative process, both human and divine.
The photo above shows a cyberangel that I added to an advertising placard for English muffins from a NYC subway train with the caption “The biblical words for angel and food are written with the same four Hebrew letters to tell us that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life.” See more “Subway Angels” artworks at my website http://melalexenberg.com.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
I use kabbalah to analyze my creative process in two artworks – Subway Angels and Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim. This blogpost describes Subway Angels, part of my “Digitized Homage to Rembrandt” series that integrates photography with painting, serigraphy and text. Next week’s Times of Israel blogpost will describe Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim is a biofeedback system for creating digital self-generated portraits that I created at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. Both offer alternative views into the creative process from a kabbalistic perspective. They provide a conceptual model for understanding your creative process as you embark on your adventure photographing God and spiritual blogging your life.
WISDOM, UNDERSTANDING AND KNOWLEDGE
The Bible uses the same words, Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge, to describe both human creativity and God’s creation of the universe. It teaches that the artist is “filled with a Divine spirit, with Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge and with artistic talent” (Exodus 31:3). A parallel biblical passage teaches: “God founded the earth in Wisdom, established heavens in Understanding, and with Knowledge the depths opened and skies dripped dew” (Proverbs 3:19-20). Gaining insight into your process of forming something new can offer you some inkling of God in action creating the world.
THE EIGHTH DAY
“On the seventh day, God finished all the work that he had done…. God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, for it was on this day that God ceased from all the work with he had been creating [for human beings to continue] making.” (Genesis 2:2-3)
Celebrate the seventh day by honoring God’s creations. On the eight day, become God’s partner in continuing creation. Turn can your creative lens on yourself to see your own creative process as a clue to the way God works. (Before you follow the exemplary processes described below, take another look at the diagram of the kabbalistic model of creative process in Chapter 2.)
The ten stages in the creative process both divine and human begin with the sephirah of Crown, a pre-cognitive realm of intention to create. It represents the divine will to create the universe before the Creation as well as a human being’s will to create something new. This will to create is followed by cognitive sephirot of Wisdom and Understanding, the realm of mind experienced as insight and thought. The next six sephirot represent the affective realm of Compassion, Strength, Beauty, Success, Splendor, and Foundation. The ninth sephirah of Foundation funnels all the earlier eight sephirot of the worlds of will, mind and emotions into the tenth sephirah of Kingdom, the world of action, the place where everything is happening.
When you photograph God, your lens captures actions that reveal the emotions of Compassion, Strength, Beauty, Success, Splendor, and Foundation in the Kingdom of space and time where all the action takes place. When you turn the lens on yourself you can also reveal the sephirot of Crown, Wisdom, and Understanding, your intentions, your insights, and your thoughts. These three sephirot are invisible to your camera lens focused on the six affective sephirot that you can see enacted in your environment, the sephirah of Kingdom.
WISDOM FROM NOTHINGNESS
The first stage in the creative process is the sephirah Crown (Keter) – the will to create coupled with faith that one can create and anticipation that the creative process is pleasurable. Without this intention, self-confidence, and hope for gratification, the creative process has no beginning.
Crown sets the stage for the sephirah of Wisdom (Hokhmah) that requires a selfless state, nullification of the ego that opens gateways to supraconscious and subconscious realms. When active seeking ceases, when consciously preoccupied with unrelated activities, when we least expect it, the germ of the creative idea bursts into our consciousness. This sudden flash of insight is what the kabbalah calls Wisdom. It is the transition from nothingness to being, from potential to the first moment of existence. In biblical words, “Wisdom shall be found in nothingness” (Job 28:12).
The process of creating Subway Angels began as I sat in a small Hasidic synagogue in Brooklyn following the reading of the weekly biblical portion from the handwritten Torah scroll. I listened to the ancient Hebrew words, translating them into English in my mind. As an artist, listening to the chanting of the passage describing the attributes of the Bible’s prototypic artist Bezalel made me feel at home. The passage tells how Bezalel is filled with divine spirit, wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, and talent for all types of craftsmanship to make all manner of MeLekHet MakHSheVeT (Exodus 35:33). Usually translated as “artistic work,” MeLekHet MakHSheVeT literally means “thoughtful craft.”
At that moment, I was living in the Crown sephirah. I subconsciously intended to create artworks; I had faith in my ability to create artworks; and I felt that I would derive pleasure from the process of making art. However, it was the Sabbath and I was removed from my studio, from my classroom where I taught computer graphics, and from my office as head of the art department at Pratt Institute.
Indeed, the definition of Sabbath rest is to refrain from making MeLekHet MakHSheVeT. The Sabbath day is biblically defined as the Non-Art day. It is the day in which all work on the tabernacle was suspended. To this day, an observant Jew on the Sabbath avoids doing any of the 39 categories of thoughtful craft that went into the biblical artists’ creation of the tabernacle.
My absorption in the rhythm of the chanting of the Torah put me into a meditative state. I was passively listening, open to receiving. The stage was set for the sephirah of Wisdom.
In a flash of insight I realized that as a male artist, I needed to create computer angels. It suddenly dawned on me that the biblical term for “art,” MeLekHeT MakHSheVeT, is feminine. Its masculine form is MaLakH MakHSheV, literally “computer angel.” Art is a computer angel when biblical Hebrew meets modern Hebrew in a digital world.
Like the sperm that is received by the ovum in the womb, the unformed germ of an idea from the sephirah of Wisdom enters into the sephirah of Understanding (Binah). This union of Wisdom and Understanding is Knowledge, as Adam knew Eve.
As soon as the synagogue service came to an end, I rushed to explain to my wife that I needed to make computer angels. “You need to make what?” she responded incredulously. As I transformed my unformed insight into words to explain my thoughts to her, I entered into the sephirah of Understanding.
All manner of thoughts entered my mind on ways to create computer angels. The shapeless idea that ignited the process began to take form in the sephirah of Understanding. Together, Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge form the cognitive realm of thoughts. Knowledge both unites Wisdom and Understanding and is the gateway to the next six sephirot that form the affective realm of emotions.
FROM OPENNESS TO SETTING LIMITS
The fourth sephirah of Compassion (Hesed) is openness to all possibilities. I thought of the hundreds of artistic options open to me in creating computer angels and I loved them all. Compassion is counterbalanced by the fifth sephirah of Strength (Gevurah), the strength to set limits, to make judgments, to choose between myriad options. It demands that I make hard choices about which paths to take and which options to abandon. What angel images do I digitize? What media do I use? Should I make paintings, lithographs, serigraphs, etchings, photographs, videos, multimedia works, or telecommunication events in which cyberangels fly around the planet via satellites?
I recalled that a few weeks earlier, my son Ron had sent me an article on Rabbi Kook’s views that the light in Rembrandt’s paintings was the hidden light of the first day of Creation. At the time, Ron was archivist at Beit Harav Kook in Jerusalem, the residence of the late kabbalist and chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook. It became clear that I needed to digitize Rembrandt’s angels.
I planned to visit the print room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I could look at original Rembrandt drawings and etchings and select his angel images. I knew he had created a number of artworks of Jacob’s dream. “A ladder was standing on the ground, and its top reached up toward heaven, and angels were going up and down on it” (Genesis 28:12). Since angels first go up before they go down, they must start their ascent from the lowest of places. I thought that in New York City, perhaps angels fly up from the subways. I would paint on subway posters and silk-screen print on them digitized Rembrandt angels and spiritual messages from underground.
As I felt satisfaction with my choice, I departed from the sephirah of Strength to the next stage, the sixth sephirah of Beauty (Tiferet). This sephirah represents a beautiful balance between the counterforces of Compassion and Strength. It is the feeling of harmony between all my possible options and the choices I had made. Beauty is the aesthetic core of the creative process in which harmonious integration of openness and closure is experienced as deeply felt beauty. The closure of having chosen to have cyberangels fly out of subway placards gave me the feeling that all is going well.
The seventh sephirah of Success (Netzah) is the feeling of being victorious in the quest for significance. I felt that I had the power to overcome any obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing my artwork. Netzah can also mean “to conduct” or “orchestrate” as in the word that begins many of the Psalms. I had the confidence that I could orchestrate all the aspects of creating a multimedia symphony of computer angels arising from the bowels of New York City.
The eight sephirah of Splendor (Hod) is the glorious feeling that the final shaping of the idea is going so smoothly that it seems as effortless as the splendid movements of a graceful dancer. The sephirah of Success is an active self-confidence in contrast with the sephirah of Splendor which is a passive confidence born of a trust in divine providence that “all will be good.” It is the power to advance smoothly with the determination and perseverance born of deep inner commitment. It is the wonderful feeling that all is going as it should.
The ninth sephirah of Foundation (Yesod) is the sensuous bonding of Success and Splendor in a union that leads to the birth of the fully formed idea. It funnels the integrated forces of intention, thought, and emotions of the previous eight sephirot into the world of physical action. In Chronicles 1:29, this sephirah is called All or Everything (kol). It channels everything that was playing out in my mind into the craft of making the artwork. It transports my private mental world into a public environmental arena in which I can create a product to communicate my ideas to others.
This tenth sephirah of Kingdom (Malkhut) is the noble realization of my concepts and feelings in the kingdom of time and space. It involves all the practical details that go into physically making an artwork.
I began the realization of my concepts by going to the company that places advertising posters in subway cars. They gave me fifty different placards on which I painted and silk-screened printed angels and spiritual messages. On one of them, I used deep blue acrylic paint to paint out the copy on an English muffin ad that showed a large photo of a muffin with a bite taken out of it. I printed a computer angel in silver ink next to the missing piece of the muffin and printed a new text in gold ink: “The biblical words for angel and food are written with the same four Hebrew letters to tell us that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life.”
Exhibiting my Subway Angels series was a culminating activity that gave me the opportunity to stand back and look at what I had done. This activity is parallel to the divine act on the seventh day when God looked at the completed creation and saw that it was good. My sense of satisfaction, however, began to turn into a feeling of postpartum emptiness. I had given over my creations to the world and they were no longer mine to possess.
The tenth sephirah of Kingdom, the realm of physical reality was being transformed into the first sephirah of Crown, returning to nothingness permeated by an undefined longing to create anew. The process had come full circle. The sephirot of Kingdom and Crown, the end and the beginning, merge into a single sephirah as the creative process is renewed.
TO BE CONTINUED
Follow my Times of Israel blog https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/ where my current 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.