This Times of Israel blogpost is an excerpt from my book Photograph God http://photographgod.com that explores the vibrant interface between spiritual seeing, smartphone photography, and social media. It demonstrates how the digital age offers fresh insights into kabbalah, the down-to-earth spiritual tradition of Judaism. The photo above is of a painting I made on a Miami wall showing the bar code of ARTnews magazine with a digitized Rembrandt drawing of man reading. Painted above the barcode are the words: “We all stand illiterate before the secret language of the electronic age easily read by a supermarket laser.”
I hear the word kabbalah spoken frequently in Israel where I live. I hear it from the supermarket checkout clerk when she hands me the long paper ribbon saying, “kabbalah shelkhah,” “your receipt.” The Hebrew word kabbalah means “receipt.” In addition to its use in mundane affairs, kabbalah is the hidden wisdom of the deep structure of Jewish consciousness received from generation to generation. It is appropriate that both a supermarket computer printout and the Jewish mystical tradition share the same word. We all stand illiterate before the secret language of the digital age that only supermarket lasers can read — the bar code on boxes, bottles, and cans. Kabbalah is a down-to-earth mysticism that provides a symbolic language, a spiritual bar code, for exploring how divine
When my wife, Miriam, and I carry our groceries from our car in the underground garage to the elevator, we hear an automated announcement in both Hebrew and English: “knisah rashit kabbalah, main entrance reception.” Kabbalah is the reception desk at the entrance to our building. Entering our apartment, we unpack the bags and cook lunch together. It is being in our kitchen with each other that the mystical secrets of life, the deepest meaning of human existence, are revealed.
In the Bible, the KBL root of the Hebrew word KaBaLah takes on an alternative meaning. It is the root of the word maKBiL, “parallel.” The artists creating the Tabernacle covered it with two large tapestries each having fifty loops parallel to each other linked together with gold fasteners (Exodus 26:5 and Exodus 36:12). One tapestry symbolizing divine creation is linked to the second one that symbolizes human creativity. Since these two creative processes are parallel, we can discover spiritual secrets of God’s creation of the universe through gaining insight into our own creative process.
This parallelism between human creativity and divine creation is derived from two scriptural passages. One describes the prototypic artist, Bezalel, as being “filled with a divine spirit, with Wisdom, Understand, and Knowledge and with artistic talent” (Exodus 31:3). The second passage describes God as creator of the universe: “God founded the earth in Wisdom, established heavens in Understanding, and with Knowledge the depths opened and skies dripped dew” (Proverbs 3:19-20). The words Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge are only found together in the Bible to describe the creative artist and God as the creator of the universe. The central idea of Jewish consciousness from which kabbalah is derived values every person as a partner of God in the continuing creation, in the renewal of the cosmos. When you photograph God with your creative eyes, you become God’s partner in creation.
Studying kabbalah invites the learner to visualize its symbolic language in terms of concrete experiences. The deepest mysteries of kabbalah can only be understood at the level of everyday life. In his book Fragments of a Future Scroll, Rabbi Zalman Schachter tells a Hasidic tale set in Eastern Europe more than a century ago to illuminate this core concept in understanding kabbalah.
Shmuel Munkes was walking down a road on his way to see his illustrious Rebbe when an elegant carriage stops. A well-dressed dandy invites him to ride with him since he is going to see the Rebbe, too. The dandy brags about being the son and grandson of kabbalists. Shmuel asks this self-proclaimed kabbalist for help in deciphering a kabbalistic text of cosmic proportions that he said he had found on a scrap of paper in a old holy book:
“In the very primal beginning there was chaos—all was sundered and separate. Grainy nuclei unconnected. Swirling. Then fiat, they were one in one sphere. The sphere unfolded into an orb. On the orb-lines appeared, forces cut the space in fields. These fields became centered in a point and enfolded the point. Peace was made between fiery angels and the angels of the vital fluid and in their cooperation all came our as it ought to be.”
The dandy expressed amazement at this mystical text that he admitted he could not place. Shmuel explained that since he was a young student, he would have to wait weeks before the Rebbe would see him. He said, “Since you are such an important man, you will be invited to see the Rebbe soon after you arrive in town. Please ask the Rebbe about the text and tell me what he says.” The dandy agrees and does get to see the Rebbe without a long wait. The Rebbe slowly reads from the scrap of paper, closes his eyes and stares into inner places searching for the deepest meaning the text. He opens his eyes and turns to the anxious dandy explaining the text with one word: kreplach (a Jewish version of ravioli).
“In the very primal beginning there was chaos—all was sundered and separate, grainy nuclei unconnected swirling.” (That was flour.) “Then fiat, they were in one sphere.” (Dough.) “The sphere unfolded into an orb.” (The dough was rolled out flat.) “On the orb lines appeared, forces cut the space into fields.” (Of course, diamond shaped pieces of dough are cut and meat put in.) “The fields became centered in a point and enfolded the point. Peace was made between fiery angels and the angels of the vital fluid.” (As the pot was filled with water and put on the stove to boil, the kreplach were put in.) “And in their cooperation all came out as it ought to be.”
The Rebbe laughed when he finally saw Shmuel. “What a dish you cooked up,” he said.
AT ONCE HIDDEN AND REVEALED
The Zohar, the core book of kabbalah, teaches how we can understand that God is One, both hidden and revealed, both invisible and seen. The introduction to the Zohar explores the divine name Elohim as the key to apprehending this apparent dichotomy. The Bible begins by introducing God as Elohim, the Creator of the heaven and the earth. In Hebrew, Elohim is spelled alef-lamed-heh-yud-mem (A-L-H-I-M). The Zohar links the letters of divine name in Genesis to a passage in Isaiah, “Raise your eyes upward and see who (M-I ) created these (A-L-H).” We ask “mi zeh?”(“who’s that?”) in response to a knock on our door. We don’t know who’s there. We respond to a presence hidden from our view. In the market, we point to red apples that we want saying to the greengrocer eleh (A-L-H) “these.” Elohim is both M-I (who), God hidden from our view, invisible, and Elohim as A-L-H (these) the divine creator revealed in every aspect of our everyday world.
The Zohar links the blue of the sea to the blue of the sky to the sapphire blue of the divine throne. We see the sea as being blue although it is really a reflection of the sky. Standing in the water looking down at our feet, we realize that the water is not blue at all. It is transparent. Although we see a blue sky, it is really an illusion resulting from the diffraction of sunlight. Seen from a spaceship, the earth’s atmosphere is transparent. Although we cannot see the transparent, invisible, hidden God, we can see divine light illuminating all that reaches the retinas of our eyes.
CREATIVITY AND ORIGINALITY
Kabbalah teaches how your creativity can draw holiness into a profane world by opening channels through which divine light illuminates your material reality. You become a creator of worlds when you use your camera to reveal fresh visions of God in your surroundings in ways that no one has ever seen before.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik sees the transformation of the profane into the sacred when you become a partner of God in the act of creation, when you bringing into being something new, something original. Through your acts of creation, transcendence is lowered into the midst of our turbid, coarse, physical world. The person who never creates, the passive type who is derelict in fulfilling his task of creation, the person who never brings into being anything new, cannot be holy. If you wish to attain holiness, you must become a creator of new ways of seeing the world.
Abraham Isaac Kook, a poet and down-to-earth mystic who served as the chief rabbi of the Land of Israel during the first part of the 20th century, teaches:
“Whoever is endowed with the soul of a creator must create works of imagination and thought, for the flame of the soul rises by itself and one cannot impede it on its course…. The creative individual brings vital, new light from the higher source where originality emanates to the place where it has not previously been manifest, from the place that ‘no bird of prey knows, nor has the falcon’s eye seen.’ (Job 28:7), ‘that no man has passed nor has any person dwelt’ (Jeremiah 2:6).”
CHOREOGRAPHY FOR THE DANCE OF THE MIND
Kabbalah is a metaphorical way of thinking rather than a body of knowledge to be seized. Rabbi Arthur Green teaches that kabbalah offers a choreography for a dance of the mind to be apprehended by the part of the mind that appreciates poetry and hears its inner music.
This imaginative way of thinking led to the creation of a graphic model representing a spectrum of ten hues of divine light flowing down into our everyday world. Each of these hues is called a sephirah (sephirot in plural). The ten sephirot are interconnected by 22 pathways, each representing one of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Hebrew letters are not merely letters. They are the raw material of Creation combined into phrases in the spiritual realm like atoms into molecules in the physical realm and bits into bytes in the digital realm.
TREE OF LIFE
The kabbalistic model of creative process, both divine and human, is depicted by ten sephirot with 22 pathways linking them. It is called a “Tree of Life.” It was crystallized by Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as The Ari, and his circle in the Galilee mountain town of Tzfat in the sixteenth century. In a single visual image, it revealed the major concepts of kabbalah that had formerly been hidden in a vast body of obscure verbal discourse that could only be deciphered by a learned few. It made a profound contribution to understanding the complexities of kabbalah by a wider circle of people.
The ten sephirot are grouped into four Worlds: Emanation/Intention, Creation/Mind, Formation/Emotions, and Action/Making. Although the Hebrew names of these worlds are usually translated as Emanation, Creation, Formation and Action, it is most relevant to the aims of this book to call the worlds by names denoting their meanings: Intention, Mind, Emotions, and Action.
At the top of the Tree of Life, closest to the source of the emanation of divine light, is the sephirah of Crown (Keter) the will and intention to create essential to setting the process of creation in motion. Crown is the single sephirah of the World of Intention.
Crown is followed by two cognitive sephirot: Wisdom (Hokhmah) and Understanding (Binah) of the World of Mind. Wisdom and Understanding are followed by six affective sephirot of the World of Emotions: Compassion (Hesed), Strength (Gevurah), Beauty (Tiferet), Success (Netzakh), Splendor (Hod), and Foundation (Yesod). The eight sephirot from Crown to Splendor are funneled through Foundation into in the tenth sephirah Kingdom (Malchut) where they are actualized in the realm of space and time in our here and now World of Action.
Consciousness of the flow of divine light down through the worlds of Mind, Emotions, and Action “liberate the people who are blind though they have eyes and deaf though they have ears” (Isaiah 43:7-8). Photography can be liberating when you open your eyes fully to see what was always there in fresh and creative ways. Be on the lookout for acts of compassion, strength, beauty, success, and splendor as they illuminate the World of Action. Listen closely enough to discover the delicate beauty in elusive melodies emanating from your everyday life. Pay attention to the cries of the widow and orphan and the songs of birds.
In his highly original book on kabbalah, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Rabbi Adin Steinsalz describes angels as messengers bringing divine plenty down from the worlds of Mind and Emotion into the World of Action. The role of angels is implicit in their Hebrew name malakh, which means “messenger.” It is said that an angel can carry out only one mission. Every angel is one-dimensional, lacking the many-sidedness of human beings. No two angels are alike.
In the biblical book Ezekiel, we learn about three classes of angels: Sepharim inhabiting the World of Mind, Hayot in the World of Emotions, and Ofanim in the World of Action. Each one of the Sepharim is a distinct unit of mind, each of the Hayot is a distinct unit of an emotion, and each of the Ofanim is a distinct action. Sepharim and Hayot are like invisible bits and bytes in the cybersphere cloud that transmit their messages to Ofanim that render them visible on your computer monitor, tablet or smartphone. Like data packets transporting information through cyberspace, the task of angels is to maintain communications between worlds of Mind, Emotions, and Action.
Angels can be considered discrete data packets in the immaterial Worlds of Mind and Emotions realized in the material World of Action. An angel in the World of Mind is a one-of-a-kind cognitive data packet of a specific thought, word, idea, or concept. An angel in the World of Emotions is an affective data packet of a particular feeling or emotion, a specific inclination or impulse toward love, fear, pity, and so on. Ofanim are wheel angels bicycling through the World of Action, animating the realm of space and time, coloring every single facet of your daily life. (In modern Hebrew, ofnayim is a bicycle and ofnoah is a motorcycle.)
Since every angel is a separate entity, no angels exist in the World of Intention. It is a world close enough to the divine source to be whole before being broken into separate entities by the creation of the universe.
Did you notice how sometimes a web page that you are receiving does not appear all at once on your monitor? It comes up on your screen in parts until the whole finally comes together. The full image does not fly out through the Web at once. The Web server sending the digitized image to the requesting browser breaks the image up into data packets. Each packet is assigned an ID number and routed by routers from one geographical location to the next through the available telecommunications pathways.
In celebration of Miami’s centennial, I digitized an angel drawn by Rembrandt and sent it flying between the four corners of USA. The single angel image was deconstructed and routed through cyberspace between Miami and San Diego along multiple pathways. When the data packets reach San Diego, they are reassembled in the correct sequence based on the ID numbers that were assigned in Miami.
The transmission control protocol (TCP) ensures that all the packets get to the requesting computer with no pieces missing as the whole Rembrandt cyberangel is rematerialized. One angel packet can fly from Miami to New Orleans to Houston to Albuquerque to Phoenix to San Diego, while another angel packet flies from Miami to Atlanta to Nashville to St. Louis to Tulsa to Denver to Las Vegas to San Diego. Visualize the documentation of hundreds of routing paths plotted between the four corners on a map of the USA.
The erratic pathways drawn from Miami to San Diego, from San Diego to Seattle, from Seattle to Portland, and from Portland back to Miami look like streaks of electric energy. The visual record of the cyberangel flight around the American perimeter appear like flashes of lightning illuminating the multiple pathways between the four corners of USA. It is appropriate that the contemporary Hebrew word for electricity heshmal is taken from Ezekiel’s image of an angel.
The Lubavicher Rebbe teaches that the sweeping technological changes we are experiencing today were predicted some two thousand years ago in the Zohar, the classic text of kabbalah. The Zohar describes how the outburst in scientific knowledge and technological advancement would be paralleled by an increase in sublime wisdom and spirituality. Integrating the wisdom of the mind and the wisdom of the soul can begin to usher true unity into the world.
TO BE CONTINUED
Follow my Times of Israel blog every week 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 most other Internet book sellers.