This Times of Israel blogpost is based upon the second chapter in my book Photograph God that explores how the digital age gives us amazing ways to experience invisible worlds becoming visible. These experiences give us clues that help us appreciate the insightful imagination of ancient spiritual teachers who visualized invisible realms. Today, what was once metaphysics has become physics.
Scientists and engineers have given us tools to see invisible realms far beyond the narrow band of light that ranges from red to violet. The entire spectrum of visible light is only a tiny speck on an electromagnetic spectrum that extends from invisible long wavelengths like radio waves that can span our solar system to invisible short wavelengths like X-rays, a fraction of the size of an atom.
Before looking more deeply into new technologies, recognize that you only see light. You have never seen your mother, father, spouse or children. You have seen light reflected from them. This light passes through your eyes’ lenses, stimulates the rods and cones in your retina, and transmits the forms and colors of those you love to your brain. Just as you enjoy seeing your loved ones from the light they reflect, you can find joy seeing divine light reflected from every place you look. This book teaches how to see the spectrum of divine light through a smartphone lens.
Consider that in the very room you are reading this book thousands of events throughout the world are invisibly happening simultaneously: a baseball game in Los Angeles, a chess match in Moscow, sumi painting lessons in Tokyo, cooking lessons in Jerusalem, carnival time in Rio, a ping pong tournament in Beijing, and a bicycle race in the south of France. You may ask, “What are you talking about? My room is quiet and empty. The only event occurring in my room is my act of reading this book.”
Think, however, that when you turn on your TV, PC, desktop, laptop, smartphone, or tablet you can see all these events that have been silently present in your room all the time. These events had been transformed into patterns of electromagnetic energy that cannot be perceived by your ordinary senses. Invisible, they permeate your environment even passing unnoticed through your body. In today’s digital world, you can tune into these invisible realms revealing them in full color.
You carry a gateway to the world through the smartphone in your pocket. These super-phone mini-computers link you to invisible realms blanketing our planet that you can make visible with a flick of your finger. They also provide cameras for you to document what you see by storing them as invisible bits and bytes. Unlike photographic negatives of an earlier age where images were visible, digital technologies store images as invisible binary sequences of 0-1, off-on. In the networked world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Blogspot you can share these invisible images with friends worldwide who possess the magical ability to transform them into visual images. Living in contemporary digital culture provides unprecedented opportunities, unavailable to all previous generations, to conceptualize how we can photograph an invisible God.
PHOTOGRAPH THE SPECTRUM OF DIVINE LIGHT
Just as a prism breaks up white light into the colors of the spectrum, kabbalah reveals a spectrum of divine light. This spectrum is made up of ten divine attributes that bring worlds of intentions, thoughts and emotions into the world of action that shape all that we do.
Focus your creative lens on the six attributes of emotions derived from the biblical passage, “Yours God are the compassion, the strength, the beauty, the success, the splendor, and the [foundation] of everything in heaven and on earth” (Chronicles 1:29). Photograph these six affective attributes as they flow down into the kingdom of time and space where all the action is happening. Each of these attributes has a range of meanings derived from the multidimensional roots of their Hebrew words. They are also associated with biblical personalities.
Hesed / Compassion / Largess / Loving All / Abraham / Ruth
Gevurah / Strength / Judgment / Setting Limits / Isaac / Sarah
Tiferet / Beauty / Aesthetic Balance / Inner Elegance / Jacob / Rebecca
Success / Orchestration / Eternity / Moses / Miriam /Netzah
Hod / Splendor / Gracefulness / Magnificence / Aaron / Deborah
Foundation / Integrating All / Gateway to Action / Joseph / Tamar /Yesod
Since you may not be able to immediately discern which of these six divine attributes you are seeing, snap away at any event that catches your fancy. One or more facets of these attributes will always be there. You can decide whether you had documented compassion or strength when you look at your pictures back home. However, you may discover that you had captured both of these attributes in a single action. While photographing an act of compassion, of kindness, of generosity, you may find that you have simultaneously captured an act of strength. Photographing a muscular young man helping an elderly woman put her heavy bags of groceries into the truck her car reveals a synthesis of compassion and strength. The aesthetic balance between these apparent opposites is expressed in the attribute of beauty.
PHOTOGRAPH GOD AS A VERB
God is a verb. God is no thing – nothing in the process of becoming everything. The great 16th century kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as The Ari, calls God Ha’efes Hamukhlat, “The Absolute Nothingness,” as well as Ein Sof, “Endless.” God is One, infinite nothingness and everything in the universe and beyond all at once, absolutely invisible becoming visible wherever we focus our lens. You can discern God over time, in the flow, in the action, in the process of something becoming something else.
In his book Everything is God, Jay Michaelson reminds us that the Hebrew language has no word for “is.” Instead of saying “David is a good boy,” we say “David good boy” (”David yeled tov”). He likes to think of YHVH, the ineffable biblical divine name translated as “God,” as that missing word. YHVH is the absent “is.”
YHVH is the name of one of the ten names of divine attributes in the kabbalistic model of creative process. It is the attribute of inner beauty (Tiferet) that integrates the other divine attributes. When beauty hidden in the mundane suddenly jumps out at you, catch the action in a series of photographs of the absent “is.”
Be alert to moments in the flow of your life that trigger your imagination. Photograph them in a series of images like comic strip or storyboard sequences. Show series of time-based photos in your spiritual blog posts. In contrast, also show series of photos that create a dialogue between them that is conceptual rather than temporal.
At the beginning of the book of Exodus, we find Moses encountering God as the future tense of the verb “to be.” Moses wasn’t going anyplace in particular, freely wandering in the desert tending a herd of sheep, when he came upon a burning bush. When he realized that the fire was not consuming the bush, his curiosity drew him closer to investigate. This strange phenomenon grows stranger as he hears a voice emanating from it. The voice emanating from a lowly shrub charged him with bringing his enslaved brethren out of Egypt. (The Hebrew word for Egypt is MItzrayim, “narrow straits.”) He needs to free slaves who can only see from a narrow perspective after centuries of brainwashing into accepting a life without freedom.
Concerned that no one would listen to him, Moses said to God, “They will ask ‘Who sent you. What is his name?’ What shall I say to them?’ God replied to Moses Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh (I Will Be As I Will Be) and explained ‘Tell them that Ehyeh (I Will Be) sent you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14) Ehyeh is the future tense of the verb “to be.”
The primary divine name YHVH combines all the tenses of the verb “to be.” YHVH is “Is-Was-Will Be” as well as “Is,” Hebrew’s missing word.
PHOTOGRAPH LIFE’S JOURNEY
Kabbalah teaches that God is all of being in the on-going process of becoming. Be prepared with your camera in your pocket to quickly whip it out to zoom in on YHVH, simultaneously the present moment and all of time, and Ehyeh, the emerging future. Keep your eyes open as you focus on meaningful images coming at you. Create a photographic narrative as your journey into the future unfolds.
When I was at a meeting of test center coordinators of the American Association for the Advancement of Science curriculum project “Science: A Process Approach,” Professor David Hawkins introduced me to Water Rat in his lecture “Messing About in Science.” Water Rat is a character in the classic children’s book, The Wind in the Willows, who teaches us to revel in the journey itself:
“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said Water Rat solemnly, as he leaned forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend; there is nothing –absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing,” he went on dreamily, “messing – about in boats –or with boats…in or out of ’em. It doesn’t matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy and never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do.”
Wherever you find yourself on life’s journey, you can always find fresh opportunities to photograph God as a verb, as Ehyeh “I Will Be” anticipating your future. Photographing God as YHVH “Is-Was-Will Be” integrates your intentions, thoughts and emotions in a meaningful present that results in a digital document viewed as a past event by those who see your photos in the future.
In our networked world, you can supplement your real-space photos in your spiritual blog posts with those you can discover on a journey through cyberspace. In his book thelordismyshepard.com: Seeking God in Cyberspace, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman proposes a digital age model of spiritual exploration that he calls “a virtual pilgrimage.” Beginning with a biblical value statement, he embarks on an intuitive journey through the Internet from website to website searching for God as the unfolding of Creation. He invites us to join him on a digital kabbalistic quest transcending time and space without our knowing where it will end up.
KUZU is YHVH in motion. The biblical passage beginning with “Hear, O Israel, YHVH is our God, YHVH is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), is written by a scribe on small parchment scrolls affixed to doorposts in Jewish homes. These mini-Torahs called mezuzot, a word related to the root zaz, which means to move. Each scroll is rolled up with the biblical text on the inside. On the outside of the scroll at the place on the reverse side of where YHVH is written, the scribe writes KUZU to set God in motion. K-U-Z-U is spelled with each of the four letters that follow Y-H-V-H in the Hebrew alphabet. K follows Y, U follows H, Z follows V, and U follows H. It is if we were to write GOD as HPE, H being the letter following G, P the letter following O, and E the letter following D. In addition to moving each of the letters in YHVH forward, KUZU is written upside-down to invite us to see God in motion from multiple viewpoints. Photograph KUZU.
God becomes even more active in the kabbalist’s prayer book where TDHD is added to KUZU. TDHD are the four Hebrew letters preceding YHVH, as if GOD moves backwards to FNC and forwards to HPE. Photograph TDHD and KUZU, before and after. YHVH spelled backwards is HVHY, pronounced havayah, meaning “existence.” All that is exists within God. Photograph Is-Was-Will Be dancing back and forth.
PHOTOGRAPH GOD IN EVERY NOOK AND CRANNY OF LIFE
Look for God in every nook and cranny of your life. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century, teaches that you should not direct your glance upward but downward, not aspire to a heavenly transcendence nor seek to soar upon the wings of some abstract, mysterious spirituality, but to fix your gaze upon concrete reality. He emphasizes that you should not confine your search for God to houses of worship for you can find God penetrating into every nook and cranny of life. Focus on episodes expressing divine attributes as you walk through the streets, ride on a bus, shop in the mall, dance at a wedding, hike in the countryside, or come home from work. Photograph God in the details of empirical reality permeating your daily activities.
A divine formula for seeing your everyday activities from new perspectives was proposed to Abraham: “Walk yourself away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) This formula applied to you today can be read as: “Move both physically and psychologically away from those things that are most familiar to you and you will come to see from a fresh viewpoint.”
After living for seven years in the bright light of the Negev mountains, finding myself in Brooklyn gave me aesthetic blues. The Brooklyn sky looked sidewalk gray. The sidewalks were dirty, the buildings drab. I missed the flowers that bloomed beside the Negev streams after the first winter rain: red anemones, poppies with paper-thin petals, black irises with sun-yellow cores, and clusters of bell-shaped flowers named iyrit, my daughter’s name. It seemed easy to see from a fresh viewpoint walking through the desert, brown and barren at first glance, and coming upon spots of color blooming during the short wet season. I closed my eyes to the possibility of seeing anything divine while walking daily down Brooklyn streets in my neighborhood.
The artist Louise Nevelson gave me an opening to change my viewpoint. As head of the art department at Pratt Institute, I met with her to invite her to speak at commencement. We met in her elegantly furnished home on Mott Street, where SoHo meets Chinatown and Little Italy. While complaining about my unsightly neighborhood, she pointed to a rocking chair across from where I was sitting. She told me about the art critic who had come to interview her for ARTnews and had the chutzpah to ask her why she owned such an ugly, kitsch rocking chair. Louise lectured me in her deep voice, “I told him that he should see the amazing shadows that the rocker casts each morning when the sun streams in. Mel, you need to be receptive of subtle bits of beauty, and they will jump out at you even on Brooklyn streets.”
It happened early one Sunday morning while I was out on Avenue J buying fresh-baked bagels and the Sunday paper. For some reason, I turned around as I left the bagel shop. I stopped and stared at the storefront as if I had seen it for the first time. Neon Hebrew words danced above it. I rushed home, ate breakfast, and returned to Avenue J with my camera to photograph food stores. Next to the bagel shop was Isaac’s kosher bakery. In the three blocks between the train tracks and Coney Island Avenue, I photographed more bagel shops, kosher meat markets, kosher fish markets, kosher cheese stores, kosher take-out food places, kosher doughnut shops, fruit and vegetable stands run by Jewish immigrants from Odessa, and kosher pizza parlors each named for a different city in Israel: Netanya Pizza, Jerusalem Pizza and Haifa Pizza. I photographed two kosher Chinese restaurants with oriental-sounding names: Glatt Chow and Shulchan Low (shulchan means table in Hebrew, glatt is a Yiddish word referring to “unblemished lungs,” a sign of especially kosher meat).
It appeared that Judaism was about food. Kosher food stores were far more numerous and conspicuous than synagogues tucked away in what appeared to be private homes. These stores, crowned with Hebrew neon, seemed to me to be strangely out of place. They looked to me as if they had been plucked up from a street in Israel and plopped down in America by a band of mischievous angels. The Hebrew word for “angel” MaLAkH is written with the same letters as the word for “food” MAakHaL. That both words are written with the same four letters teaches us that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life.
PHOTOGRAPH GOD IN YOUR WORK AND SOCIAL LIFE
The Lubavicher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, the great contemporary Hasidic rabbi, emphasizes that it is not enough to rest content with your own spiritual ascent, the elevation of your soul in closeness to God. You must also strive to draw spirituality down into the world and into every part of your involvement with it, your work and your social life, until not only do they not distract you from your pursuit of God, but they become a full part of it.
The Bible teaches that “God walks in the midst of your camp.” (Deuteronomy 23:15) KeReV, the Hebrew word for “midst,” shares the same root as being “close” KaRoV. Photograph the spectrum of divine light as you see it revealed in the midst of your work and social life and feel God close to you.
When you go to work today, let you camera become a magic lens that lets you see your place of work and your fellow workers in a new light. When you come home, see your spouse and children like you’ve never seen them before. After all, both you and they have changed while you were away at work. Fall in love again. Make your old friends new friends. Create renewed images of familiar faces and scenes at work and in your social life.
PHOTOGRAPH GOD AT GROUND LEVEL
In his acclaimed novel, The City of God, E. L. Doctorow echoes these rabbinic thoughts:
If there is a religious agency in our lives, it has to appear in the manner of our times. Not from on high, but a revelation that hides itself in our culture, it will be ground-level, on the street, it’ll be coming down the avenue in the traffic, hard to tell apart from anything else. It will be cryptic, discerned over time, piecemeal, to be communally understood at the end like a law of science.
Digital photography lets you to document all that you encounter in rapid sequences, in enormous numbers, from multiple viewpoints and from fresh vantage points. When Moses first found God in the desert, he was drawn by his curiosity about an anomalous physical phenomenon. A bush was burning and was not being consumed. It was not in a mystical trance or in a holy place that Moses found God, but in researching a desert shrub. Moses is instructed to take off his shoes and move aside to see the bush from a fresh vantage point. Step aside and look again, question what you are seeing and seek out what is hidden beneath the surface of your street-level view.
It is often hard to tell which attributes of the spectrum of divine light you are seeing as they speed down the street at you. Therefore, you should freely create many images to read when you get home. Find a quiet pool of time for studying your photographs to discern which of them display compassion, strength, beauty, success, splendor, or combinations of them. Discover divine spectral patterns hidden in your culture.
PHOTOGRAPH GOD IN THE STILL SILENT VOICE
An overwhelming silence always followed me during my frequently walks in the desert when I lived in the Negev. The stillness often grew more intense as I stopped to stoop down to get a close look at a bit of green growth emerging from the brown desert expanse. What a delight to suddenly encounter a tiny flowering plant growing out of the crevice of a rock. Specks of life hiding in shaded spots invited me to photograph their gentle power of survival.
The Hebrew word for “desert” MiDBaR is spelled with the same letters as the word for “speaking” MiDaBeR. The desert speaks softly, yet strongly, about delicate forms of life. In the desert, you can see the quiet voice of God. In the desert at Mt. Sinai, “all the people saw the sounds” (Exodus 20:15) rather than heard them.
Standing on a mountain top, the prophet Elijah saw a great powerful wind, smashing mountains and breaking rocks. After the wind came an earthquake and after the earthquake was fire and after the fire there was a still silent voice. Elijah saw God in the still silent voice, rather than in the mighty wind, rather than in the rumbling earthquake, rather than in the raging fire (I Kings 19:11-12). Look beyond the majestic forces of nature that clearly reveal God’s power. Open your eyes to divinity in quiet recesses of your everyday experiences. Listen for the still silent voice as you photograph God in the intimate spaces and minute details of your life. Transform your vision of small ordinary events into extraordinary images.
PHOTOGRAPH GOD IN FACE TO FACE DIALOGUE
The Hebrew words for face PaNIM and for inside P’NIM are written with the same Hebrew letters to teach that our outer visage reveals our inner being. From deep within us, a distinct spectrum of divine light wells up to shape our faces as unique expressions of Is-Was-Will Be. We are challenged to use our creative imagination to simultaneously know the invisibility of God and see God in every face.
“God created human beings in His image. In the image of God, He created male and female.” (Genesis 1:27) The biblical word for image TzeLem is the root of the contemporary Hebrew word for photography TziLuM. TziLuM, meaning “imaging,” is more appropriate for our era of digital imaging than “photography,” a word derived from Greek that means “light-writing.” A billion digital images of different faces are posted by Facebook users. Facebook acquired Face.com, an Israeli start-up that developed facial recognition software that identifies faces by their one-of-a-kind characteristics. Perhaps we can begin to comprehend the multiple facets of God’s absolute oneness by appreciating that of the more than seven billion faces on our planet, no two are the same.
“Face” can be found more than two thousand times in the Bible. We first encounter it when Jacob succeeded in his struggle with a stranger as dawn was breaking. “Jacob named the place Divine Face (P’niel) since I have seen God face to face.” (Genesis 32:31) Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, which means “those who see God.” Later, the Torah relates the face to face encounter of God with Moses and of God with the Israelite nation. “God would speak to Moses face to face, just as a person speaks to a close friend.” (Exodus 33:11) When Moses was about to review the Ten Commandments that were given at Mt. Sinai to all of Israel for all generations, he said, “On the mountain, God spoke to you face to face out of the fire. I stood between you and God at that time to tell you God’s words.” (Deuteronomy 5:4, 5). After mourning Moses’ death, the entire nation acknowledged, “No other prophet like Moses has arisen in Israel, who knew God face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10).
Moses’s brother, Aharon, was instructed to bless the Israelites with the words: “May God illuminate His face through your face and be gracious to you.” (Numbers 6:25) To this day, the descendants of Aharon continue to bless all the members of the congregation in synagogue with these same words. See God’s face in the faces of everyone you encounter.
Engage family and friends in dialog as you photograph their changing facial expressions. See these familiar faces from fresh viewpoints that reveal multiple facets of the spectrum of divine light as you interact. Discover in their faces combinations of compassion, strength, beauty, success, and splendor. Take many photographs from which you can select and arrange in a sequence of portraits that reveal multiple expressions of one person’s face.
Unlike photography with the old viewfinder cameras that hid the photographer’s face, digital photography lets your friend or relative see your face as you snap away. They can react to your changing facial expressions with theirs. Not hiding behind a camera also makes it easier to ask a stranger to take his picture. Showing him the picture of his face that you took only a split second before is a valuable tool for getting permission to take a sequence of thoughtfully composed photographs. Continue to share the images as you take them. Looking at them together can activate a face to face dialog that transforms the stranger into your friend.
Smartphones and tablets even give you the ability to photograph your own face. These digital self-portraits, “selfies,” can be shared through Instagram and WhatApp or posted on Facebook, Flickr, and your blog.
LET GOD LOOK BACK AT YOU
Photographer Jan Phillips shares her thoughts about focusing her lens on God in her book on photography and creativity, God is at Eye Level. She extends the words of Rabbi Elimelech, one of the founding fathers of Hassidism in the 18th century, to express the central theme of her book: “Whoever does not see God in every place does not see God in any place.” She adds, “My eyes find God everywhere, in every living thing, creature, person, in every act of kindness, act of nature, act of grace. Everywhere I look, there God is looking back, looking straight back.”
TO BE CONTINUED
Follow my Times of Israel blog every week where I post 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.