Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Hanukah: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness

miketz_hanukah 032This is a creative exploration of this week’s Torah portion read on Hanukah.  I first present the text and some of the photographs from the Torah Tweets blogart project that I created five years ago with my wife Miriam to celebrate our 52nd year of marriage

It is followed by ideas from my books Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life  and The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness

The thesis that I develop in both books is that we are witnessing a paradigm shift from Hellenistic to Hebraic consciousness in the emerging postdigital age.  I discuss two buildings exemplifying Hebraic ways of experiencing space and time: the Guggenheim Museums in New York City and Bilbao, Spain.

Miketz/Passed (Genesis 41:1-44:17) Hanukah

“Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘See! I have placed you in charge of all the land of Egypt.’  And Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand.” (Genesis 41:41, 42)

Joseph retained his Hebraic consciousness while reaching the highest level of success in Egyptian culture, the major civilization of his day.

Hanukah celebrates those Jews who fought to retain their Hebraic consciousness rather than assimilate into Hellenistic culture, the major culture of their day.

We celebrated Hanukah 5771 with our family lighting both Hanukah and birthday candles in our home.

We celebrated two other events in our lives linked to the Hanukah story.

Rejoicing that Mel completed his book The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press).

Rejoicing that the Greeks saved Jews by sending fire-fighting planes and firefighters to help douse the devastating Mt. Carmel forest fire.

The photograph above shows our grandson Yahel lighting olive oil wicks of a hanukiah in which light from outside is reflected inside.

Mel and our son Moshe lighting Hanukah candles in which light from inside is reflected outside to make the miracle of Hanukah known.

Our grandchildren Tagel, Razel and Elianne dancing to the singing of Hanukah songs.

miketz_hanukah 065

Elianne looking in awe at the candles and sparklers in two pink sufganiot  [jelly donuts] in celebration of her second birthday.

Hanukah story:  Jews so enamored by Hellenistic culture that they would assimilate into it at war with those who chose to retain Jewish values.

Postdigital story:  A paradigm shift from Hellenistic static beauty in stone to Hebraic dynamic beauty of flickering flames and global digital light of the Internet


The worldview of ancient Greece revived in Renaissance Europe dominated Western art and architecture until the rise of modernism. The transition to modernism and postmodernism in art and architecture represents a paradigm shift from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic roots of Western culture exemplified by the two Guggenheim art museums – Frank Lloyd Wright’s museum in New York and Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao, Spain.  An analysis of these two major works of American architecture provides an introduction to the significance of Hebraic consciousness in our rapidly changing contemporary culture.

In his seminal work, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Norwegian theologian Thorleif Boman analyzes Hellenistic and Hebraic consciousness and compares them. He emphasizes the dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and action-centered characteristics of Hebraic consciousness in contrast to the static, peaceful, moderate, and passive Greek consciousness. Boman notes that biblical passages concerned with the built environment always describe plans for construction without any description of the appearance of the finished structure. Noah’s ark is presented as a detailed building plan. How the ark looked when it set sail is never described. The Bible has exquisitely detailed construction instructions for the Mishkan, the mobile Tabernacle built in the Sinai Desert, without any word picture of the appearance of the completed structure.

The Mishkan was made of modular parts and woven curtains, came apart like Lego, was set on a wagon, moved through the desert from site to site, deconstructed and reconstructed each time. Its modest tent-like design, human scale, and active life was quite different from the immovable monumental marble temples on the Acropolis.

A biblical 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, “Hebraism and the concept of space-time in art.”

“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 moulding, 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.”


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 GrecoRoman thought, with Hebrew thought. Wright detested Greek architecture both in its content and in its forms. He was critical of the neo-classical rhetoric employed by American architects who studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

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.

It is significant that the nation founded on the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” became the center of the shift from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic worldview in the arts. Dynamic forms of art and architecture symbolizing life and liberty blossomed on American soil. Frank Lloyd Wright exemplified this blossoming.

His spiral Guggenheim Museum in New York invites a living response. 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 a lively 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 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 show, 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 spiral is one of the major life forms in nature: from DNA, to a nautilus shell, to the growth pattern of palm fronds. It is also one of the major symbols of the Hebraic mind. 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. 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, down-to-earth biblical mysticism, the SePhiRot are emanations of divine light spiraling down into our everyday life. And 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. Rather than the modernist viewpoint of art as “the language of forms,” Judaism shares postmodernism’s emphasis on “the ideas their forms might disclose.”  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 message of the Torah must not be enslaved in the rectangle. It 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.

Bruno Zevi, expert on contemporary architecture, writes: “Wright’s helicoidal shaping of the Guggenheim Museum’s cavity represents the victory of time over space, that is, the architectural incarnation of Hebrew thought, even more significant because it was fully realized by a non-Jew. Like Schonberg’s music, Wright’s architecture is based on linguistic polarity, emancipated dissonance, contradiction; it is once Expressionistic and rigorous; it applies Einstein’s concept of “field”; it is multidimensional; it extols space by demolishing all fetishes and taboos concerning it, by rendering it fluid, articulated so as to suit man’s ways, weaving a continuum between building and landscape. In linguistic terms, this means a total restructuring of form, denial of any philosophical a priori, any repressive monumentality: action-architecture, aimed at conquering ever more vast areas of freedom for human behavior.”


In creating his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, 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 Goldberg (his father changed the family name when they moved to LA) 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.

Gehry’s method of working is creative play with dynamic forms. He starts with spontaneous scribble sketches that become forms that he moves and reshapes in a dynamic interplay between computer-generated 3D CAD graphic models and physical models in real space.

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.

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. Movement through and around Gehry’s museum always provides fresh encounters and new ways of seeing.

He sets the bodies of his buildings in motion as a choreographer does with dancers.  In the book Frank O. Gehry: The Complete Works, Dal Co and Foster write, “One need only observe Gehry’s manner of drawing to gain an immediate impression of his way of thinking: the pen does not so much glide across the page as it dances effortlessly though a continuum of space.” His studio practice appears like a performance rehearsal. His knowledge of performance art, his collaborations with artists, and his planning with artists led to spaces at the Bilbao Guggenheim uniquely suited for the presentation of alternative forms of art.

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.