Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Torah Formula for Renewing Judaism

Noah (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

God will expand Yefet and He will dwell in the tents of Shem. (Genesis 9:27)

A formula for the renewal of Judaism is found in this passage from Parshat Noah.  It teaches the relationship between Torah values and secular learning as the relationship between Noah’s sons Yefet and Shem.

Renewal of life after the flood is symbolized by the branch from a tree brought to Noah by a dove.  I will link the contemporary significance of Yefet dwelling in the tents of Shem to new growth emerging from the scars of the tree where its branch was severed. (See photographs and Torah tweets for Parshat Noah at

M&M 130

The Torah tells us that Yefet is the father of Yavan (Greece).  Yavan represent Greek philosophy and Hellenistic art.  Shem, the ancestor of Israel, represents Torah learning that leads to actively embracing moral and spiritual values in everyday life.

The vibrant networked world of 21st century makes the emergence of Shem overtake the dominance of Yefet in Western Culture since the Renaissance.   My book, The Future of Art in a Postdigtial Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, relates to theologian Thorleif Boman’s seminal 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.

Yaft is usually translated as “expand.”  It is also related to yafa, which means “beauty.”  Yefet has expansive and beautiful potential.

The contemporary challenge of the Jewish People is to build a tent of Shem with such strong, durable and flexible fabric that the expansive beauty of Yefet is welcome.   We have not implemented this Torah formula so vital for the success of our reborn Jewish State.

Just as Jochanan ben Zakai and his colleagues in Yavne renewed Judaism when Jewish sovereignty was lost, a second Yavne is needed now to renew the Judaism of exile so that it addresses our reestablished sovereignty in the Land of Israel in a networked world.  Without Yavne’s creation of a redesigned Judaism to function with the loss of the sacrificial rituals of the temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish people could not have survived two millennia of exile.

How is the Torah formula of Yefet dwelling in the tents of Shem enacted in Israel today?

Secular Israelis attempt to live in the tent of Yefet feeling the tent of Shem is obsolete and irrelevant to contemporary life.

The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) hide in a tent of Shem imported to Israel from 18th century Eastern Europe.  They indirectly acknowledge the expansive power of Yefet by avoiding it like a plague.

Reform Judaism imported to Israel from America reverses the biblical passage by asking how Shem can be reformed to fit into the tents of Yefet.

National Religious (Dati Leumi) and Modern Orthodox Jews see the value in both tents.  They are commuters moving between the tents of Shem and Yefet.  Separate departments of serious Torah studies and high-level research in the sciences and humanities have been created at Bar-Ilan University.

Implementing the formula posed by the Torah for Yefet to dwell in the tents of Shem is major challenge for Jewish People in the 21st century.

The emergence of the Jewish State after our nation’s branches were cut off during two millennia of persecutions, inquisitions, pogroms and the Holocaust, is expressed by new life sprouting from the very places that a tree’s branches were sawed off in the photographs that I took in Petah Tikva (Opening to Hope). See them here.

Noah knew that the water had subsided from the earth when the dove came back to him with a freshly-plucked olive leaf in its beak. (Genesis 8:11)

A leaf symbolizes renewed life after the flood.  Without photosynthesis in green leaves there would be no life on this planet.

Miriam is fascinated by tree barks that document the renewal of life where new leaves grow out from their scars.

We photographed an olive branch and ficus trees at the end of our street that have enchanted Miriam for years.

From clay, she formed tree-like, life-size, branchless forms with gnarls, fissures and fractures that were exhibited in a Washington museum.

Mel’s paintings of leaf cross-sections from photomicrographs were exhibited at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.

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

The biblical story of the repopulation of the earth called for multiple ways and paths that respect human diversity.

Not heeding the divine call to honor different languages, ethnicities, and nationalities led to the disastrous totalitarian Tower of Babel.

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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