Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Torah Formula for Judaism in a Postdigital Era

The eighth portion of Exodus, Tetzaveh/Command, is read from the Torah scroll on Shabbat, February 20, 2016.  See how my wife Miriam and I link this Torah portion to our life together through photographs illustrating the Torah tweets about the use of acacia wood covered with a layer of gold in the furniture of the Tabernacle (Mishkan)

Exodus 8: Growing Gold

Tetzaveh/Command (Exodus 27:20-30:10)

“Make an altar to burn incense of acacia wood…. Cover it with a layer of pure gold.” (Exodus 30:1, 3)

“Make the carrying poles of acacia wood and cover them with gold.” (Exodus 30:5)

“Make an ark of acacia wood….  Cover it with a layer of pure gold on the inside and outside.” (Exodus 25:10, 11)

“Make two carrying poles of acacia wood and cover them with a layer of gold.” (Exodus 25:13)

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Our son Ron is a rabbi and biologist who lives with his family in the Negev desert mountains.

He teaches about interrelationships between Torah and science at the Yeshiva High School for Environmental Studies in Mitzpeh Ramon.

We drove with Ron and our son Ari and his wife Julie through the desert in search of acacia trees.

Hiking in the desert, we suddenly caught sight of a single acacia tree isolated in the valley as we came over the top of the hill.

We walked down the rocky hill photographing the tree as we got closer.  Miriam sat down to rest under the tree.

Ron explained that the tree is more than a thousand years old from tree ring studies of other trees in the Negev.

As we walked back, we asked why acacia wood was the primary material used to build the ark housing the Ten Commandments and the altar.

Why were such significant objects only coated with gold rather than being made of pure gold?

As a stable element that neither tarnishes nor rusts, gold symbolizes the eternal values of the written Torah.

The acacia tree symbolizes the living, growing, dynamic oral Torah that engages all generations in creative dialogue.

Carrying the ark and altar by their gold coated acacia poles brings fresh meaning to eternal values at all times and in every place.

“It [Torah] is a living tree for those who grasp it …. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:18, 17)


“God will expand Yefet (Japheth) and will dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27)

“YaFT Elohim l’YeFet v’yishkon b’ohalay Shem”

The transliteration of Genesis 9:27 above into the Hebrew original is significant to understanding the Torah formula.   Since Hebrew Torah is written without vowels, YaFT  (expand) and  YeFeT (Japheth) are written as the same word YFT.  The Talmud reads YaFT as YFiyuTo (beauty).  It states: “The beauty of Yefet will be in the tents of Shem.”

Without vowels, the Torah is written “YFT ELHIM L’YFT VYShKN B’OHLY SHM”      

Yefet is the father of Yavan (Genesis 10:2).  Yavan represents the Greek cultural roots of Western art and science.  In both ancient and contemporary Hebrew, Greece is called Yavan.  Shem represents Jewish culture.

The present era of digital technologies coupled with renewed Jewish sovereignty in its homeland offer an unprecedented opportunity to realize the Torah formula. The 21st century tents of Shem in the State of Israel are growing large enough and strong enough to house the tents of Yefet that have dominated Western culture until the emergence of a redefinition of art and science during the 20th century.


Norwegian theologian Thorleif Boman compares Hebraic to Hellenistic consciousness in his book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek. 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. The Bible has exquisitely detailed construction instructions for the Mishkan without any word picture of the appearance of the completed Tabernacle.  The Mishkan was a movable, small scale structure made of modular parts and woven tapestries.  It was taken apart, packed on wagons, and moved through the desert from site to site. Its modest tent-like design and active life was quite different from the immovable marble temples of ancient Greece that still stand today.  A biblical structure of consciousness emphasizes temporal processes in which space is actively engaged by human community rather than an immutable and stable form.

The modern art movements of the 20th century challenged the ancient Greek aesthetics of mimesis that was renewed in the Renaissance.  The Greek view of nature as a finished product to be imitated is incompatible with the Jewish view of nature left incomplete by God for humanity to actively participate in the creative process.

The aesthetics of the current postdigital age being embraced globally matches the dynamic, vigorous, interactive world of Hebraic consciousness.  This ubiquitous 21st century aesthetics of the Internet and social media also permeates art and science in Greece.  I explore this transformation in depth in my books The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) and Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life (CreateSpace)


This is the era in which Yefet can find its place in the tents of Shem after millennia of incompatibility.  It is the time for actualizing the Torah formula. The current Jewish population basically relates to Yefet in four different ways: 1. dwelling in the tents of Yefet, 2. dwelling in the tents of Shem, 3. Inviting Shem to dwell in the tents of Yefet, 4.commuting between the tents of Shem and Yefet.  None of these groups lives the Torah formula in which Yefet lives in the tents of Shem.

  1. Dwelling in the tents of Yefet.  Secular Jews acknowledge the greatness and beauty of Yefet and view the tents of Shem as devoid of contemporary significance.  They choose to leave the tents of Shem to live in the expansive tents of Yefet.
  2. Dwelling in the tents of Shem.  Ultra-Orthodox/Haredi Jews also acknowledge the greatness of Yefet in a back-handed way.  They view it as a perilously powerful force that needs to be avoided like a plague.  They barricade themselves in the tent of Shem constructed to be impermeable to Yefet’s entry.  They attempt to prevent secular learning and scientific exploration from contaminating their schools.  They forbid the use of smartphones, computers, and TVs that open up to the dangerously inviting world of Yefet.
  3. Inviting Shem to dwell in the tents of Yefet. Reform Jews acknowledge and honor the greatness of both Yefet and Shem.  They invite Shem to dwell in the tents of Yefet where they live, reversing the direction of the Torah formula.  Conservative/Masorti Jews move between 3 and
  4. Commuting between the tents of Shem and Yefet.  National Religious/Dati Leumi and Modern Orthodox Jews are commuters between the tents of Yefet and Shem.  They value the worlds of traditional Judaism as well as Western culture and science.  I know this world well as a former professor at Bar-Ilan University and alumnus of Yeshiva University.  These universities have pitched impressive tents of both Shem and Yefet on their campuses in which the highest levels of study and research are reached in two separate but equal tents.

I took a break from writing this blog post to bring my seven-year old granddaughter Elianne from her school in Kfar Saba to piano lessons in Ra’anana.  A large banner hangs over the entrance to her school with three words printed in huge Hebrew letters – Ma Hateshuva? Hashe’ayla (What’s the Answer? The Question).

This banner offers an invitation to all Jews to join together to questions their deviations from the Torah formula in Genesis 9:27, “God will expand Yefet and will dwell in the tents of Shem.” This questioning can lead to living the Torah formula that is especially relevant in an emerging postdigtial age combined with the rebirth of a sovereign Jewish State in its historic homeland.

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.