Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Supreme Court Architecture Speaks to Israel Today

Rembrandt and Chagall Angels of Peace Meet in the Knesset in a Different Spirit

The dialogic architecture of the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem offers creative ways for solving the current dilemma that shapes what happens inside the courtrooms and in every Israeli citizen’s life. Virtual flights of Rembrandt and Chagall inspired Cyberangels of Peace from the Supreme Court to the Knesset set the stage for dialogue in a different spirit.

My computer-generated image accompanying this article shows me in the period garb of Menasseh ben Israel, Rabbi of Amsterdam, who was the author of the book Rembrandt illustrated. I am in Rembrandt’s studio in the Rembrandt House Museum holding up my Rembrandt-inspired cyberangel print above a fax machine that I placed on the etching press where Rembrandt made his prints.

Supreme Court building architecture invites dialogue and exchange of ideas

I was invited by Israel’s Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon and Israel Museum Chief Curator Izzika Gaon to join with them as a judge for the International Judaica Competition in Jerusalem in 1995. Other members of the jury were Teddy Kollek, former mayor of Jerusalem and Ada Karmi, architect of the Supreme Court building.

After we had spent several days judging the artworks, Ada Karmi took me on a private tour of her new Supreme Court building when it was closed. She pointed out how the architectural space mediates between the time and language of today and that of the past. Ada and I had both been professors at Columbia University during the same years.

I found myself in a unique building that was holding a dialogue between two worlds. One half was facing towards the desert with traditional decorative stone architecture common in the Middle East for centuries. The other half was constructed with modern building materials facing towards the Mediterranean Sea gateway to Europe and America. The courtrooms, each with a different interior design, seemed to float between these two worlds inviting dialogue, conversation, discussion, negotiation, and exchange of Ideas.

As an artist who has been working with digital art forms for more than half a century, I launched my Cyberangels of Peace from Rembrandt’s studio in Amsterdam into the Supreme Court building. In our age of artificial intelligence, the cyberangels were smart enough to continue their flight beyond the Supreme Court to the Knesset where Rembrandt angels joined Chagall angels.

Chagall angels in Knesset hover over celebrated scientists, artists and architects

I know Chagall’s angels in the Knesset well. They hovered over me for the fifteen years that I was a member of the Council of the Wolf Foundation that awards the coveted Wolf Prize to the most accomplished scientists, artists, and architects in the world. The President of Israel at the recommendation of the Minister of Education had appointed me to represent the arts on the Council.

I sat on the stage with the recipients of the prizes beneath three huge tapestries on the wall behind me in the Chagall State Hall in the Knesset. In one tapestry, “The Vision of Isaiah,” Moses is portrayed as an angel with the Tablets of the Law in his hands with Jacob dreaming of angels going up and down on a ladder. In the tapestry “The Exodus,” the two most distinct images are Moses and King David. The Israelites are gathered between them. A cloud hovers over the Israelites while an angel is blowing a shofar to mark the declaration of redemption.

When I looked at the north wall of the Hall, I saw a Chagall mosaic of images of numerous people looking up at an angel signaling to the Jews to return to their homeland. You can see the tapestries and mosaics at the website The Knesset.

Art is a computer angel when biblical Hebrew meets modern Hebrew

Rembrandt was the master at telling Bible stories with angels in his paintings, drawings, and etchings. He created an etching of Jacob’s dream for the only book he illustrated based upon the verse: “A ladder was standing on the ground, its top reaching up towards heaven as divine angels were going up and down on it.” (Genesis 28:12) The angels in Jacob’s dream go up from the Land of Israel and go down throughout the world heralding a message of peace: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

My cyberangels were born when I was in synagogue listening to the chanting of the biblical portion from a Torah scroll while translating in my mind the Hebrew words into English. I realized that the Hebrew term in the Bible for “visual art” MeLekHeT MakHSheVeT means “thoughtful craft,” a feminine term. When I transformed it in my mind into its masculine form, it became MaLakH MakHSheV meaning “computer angel.”

I rushed to tell my wife Miriam that I discovered that my role as a Jewish male artist is to create computer angels! I was well equipped to create them since I was research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies and head of the art department at Pratt Institute where I created and taught the course “Fine Art with Computers.” Art is a computer angel when biblical Hebrew meets modern Hebrew in a postdigital world.

Rembrandt angels meet Rav Kook, chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, in London museum

Two weeks before I discovered that art is a computer angel, my son Rabbi Ron Alexenberg, who was archivist at Rav Kook’s House in Jerusalem, sent me a copy of an interview in the London Jewish Chronicle of Rav Kook who was Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel in the first half of the 20th century.

He said that when he lived in London, he would visit the National Gallery, and his favorite pictures were those of Rembrandt. When God created the intense light of the first day of creation, he reserved it for the righteous men when the Messiah would come. But now and then there were great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty.

I was making preparations for the cyberangel flight around the globe sponsored by AT&T in 1989 using fax machines, the leading-edge technology of the time. The cyberangel flew from New York to Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Los Angeles, returning to New York, to honor Rembrandt on the 320th anniversary of his passing on October 4th. Cyberangels could not only fly around the globe, but they flew into tomorrow and back into yesterday.

Thirty years later, my cyberangels came alive again on October 4, 2019 to pay tribute to Rembrandt on the 350th anniversary of his passing. A new technological era of smartphones and social media had dawned. This time, the cyberangel took flight though the Internet into the thirty museums throughout the world that have my artworks in their collections.

Calev’s different spirit needed today to shape Israel’s future in an old-new land

Theodor Herzl’s dream of a future State of Israel described in his visionary novel Altneuland, Old-New Land. Rembrandt represents the best of the old while Chagall represents the best of a new art. Their cyberangels meet in future art forms of emerging digital technologies that create a vibrant dialogue between old and new.

It is this vibrant dialogue between the old and the new in art forms that can be a model for the people of Israel coming together. It is significant that protesters in the two camps chose the same visual image to represent them – the flag of Israel.

According to the timeline of the Torah, we were first a people when we left Egypt, Am Yisrael. 50 days later we received the Torah at Mount Sinai, Torat Yisrael. 40 years later most of those who had left Egypt died in the desert because they retained their slave mentality, afraid of a future of freedom in their own land. Only Calev had a “different spirt,” and could envision a good life in Eretz Yirrael.

“God said, ‘The only exception will be My servant Calev, since he showed a different spirit and followed Me wholeheartedly. I will bring him to the land that he explored, and his descendants will possess it.’” (Numbers 14:24) “Among the men who explored the land, Joshua son of Nun and Calev son of Yefuneh tore their clothes in grief. They said to the whole Israelite community, “The Land that we passed through to explore is a very, very good Land!” (Numbers 14:6-7)

Those Israelites who perished in the desert lacked the courage to see themselves building a good future in their own land. They feared that the giants who lived there would kill them and their families. However, Calev, with his different spirit, was able to see the same giants as an indication of how the Israelite children would grow big and strong eating the bounty of nutritious food produced in the Promised Land. Having a different spirit is to be able to see the same things that everyone else sees from radically alternate viewpoints that transform the perception of hopelessness into optimistic hopefulness.

It is Calev’s fresh vision of being free in our own land that needs to be renewed today by all the contemporary tribes of Israelis as they create a constitution designed for a vibrant interplay between being both a Jewish and democratic state. Miriam always reminds me that the last line of the blessing of each new month is that all Israelis are one family “Haveyrim kol Yisrael, v’nomar Amen”

Rav Kook wears a Bedouin cloak and kefiyyeh instead of a black coat and top hat

As an artist, I summarize this article with a beautiful visual image of two tall handsome men singing and dancing together with secular young pioneers on their communal farm Poriah overlooking the Sea of Galilee in 1913. One of the men was dressed wearing a Bedouin cloak and kefiyyeh headdress, with a rifle over his shoulder. The other man was dressed in a long black coat over a white shirt with a high hat.

One of the men was the community’s guard who just had dismounted from his horse to join the singing and dancing. He was wearing the black coat. The man wearing the Bedouin cloak and keffiah was Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, Rabbi of Jaffa who later in his life became the Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel.

Rav Kook regularly visited secular communities throughout the Land of Israel where he danced and sang and spoke of the need to unite the entire nation with a connection of souls and spirits. When he saw a man as tall as he was come in from his guard duty, he asked him if they could talk in the manager’s office. He suggested exchanging clothes with the guard, explaining that he wanted to bind together all Jews, from an elderly rabbi to the youngest worker of Poriah.

They both returned to the dancing and sang “Bring home our dispersed from among the nations” – v’karev pizuraynu. At the end, the Rav announced, “I wore your clothes and you wore mine. So it should be on the inside – together in our heats!”

I summarized here the story told by Avraham Rosenblatt who was in Poriah that night in the month of Tisrei 5674. It was published in Rabbi Chanan Morrison’s highly acclaimed book Stories from the Land of Israel available at Amazon. In the book, we gain insight into the Rav Kook’s rare qualities of spirit, his overflowing love for the Jewish people and the land of Israel, and his rare ability to bridge the religious-secular divide.

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.
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