In honor of the 125th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress in Basel
Renew the old and sanctify the new
I draw inspiration from the Zionist challenge of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to “renew the old and sanctify the new” as I explore the vibrant interface between the structure of Jewish consciousness, the realization of the Zionist dream in the State of Israel, and new directions in art emerging from postdigital creativity in a high tech world of NFT’s.
The wellsprings of my Zionism flows from my Jewish roots and values while the form and content of my art emerges from Jewish thought and experience in a world in which art, science, technology, and culture address each other. They stem from my grandfather Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Kahn who was with Herzl at the 4th Zionist Congress in London.
As an artist born and educated in the United States, I chose to leave a country that I love and that gave me professional opportunities as art professor at Columbia University and research fellow at MIT to be part of the Zionist miracle that permits me to be more fully immersed at the center of Jewish life. Zionism seeks to ensure the future and distinctiveness of the Jewish people by fostering Jewish spiritual and cultural values in its historic homeland.
As a Zionist artist in the age of digital technologies, I strive to create both an intimate dialogue with the Jewish people and a lively conversation with people throughout the world. This aim is expressed in two of my books: Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art (Rubin Mass Publishers, Jerusalem) in Hebrew, and The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press).
Art is a Computer Angel
I discovered that art is a computer angel in a synagogue on Shabbat listening to the chanting of the Torah portion about artists Bezalel and Oholiav building the Tabernacle. While translating the Hebrew words into English in my mind, it struck me that the Bible’s term for “art” is malekhet makhshevet, literally “thoughtful craft.” It is a feminine term. Since I’m a male artist, I transformed it into its masculine form malakh makhshev, literally “computer angel.” Art is a computer angel when biblical Hebrew meets modern Hebrew in a digital age.
When the services ended, I ran to tell my wife Miriam that I discovered that my role as a male Jewish artist is to create computer angels. “To do what?” was her incredulous response. I reminded her of an interview of Rabbi Kook in the London Jewish Chronicle that our son Rabbi Ron Alexenberg had sent us when he was archivist at HaRav Kook House in Jerusalem. Rabbi Kook, a down-to-earth mystic who served as the chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, recalled that during the years he lived in London he would visit the National Gallery where his favorite pictures were those of Rembrandt.
He said: “I really think that Rembrandt was a tzaddik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works, they reminded me of the legend about the creation of light? We are told that when God created light, it was so strong and pellucid that one could see from one end of the world to the other.” [Like the Internet.] “Now and then there are 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 felt well equipped to create computer angels. I was head of the art department at Pratt Institute, America’s leading art college, where I taught the first course on creating art with computers and simultaneously was research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies where I was developing interactive artworks using leading-edge digital technologies.
Miriam and I spent hours in the print room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at Rembrandt’s drawings and etchings of winged people representing angels. I digitized one of his angel images and sent it in 1989 flying around the world from New York, to Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and back to New York via AT&T’s telecommunications systems to honor Rembrandt on the 320th anniversary of his death.
The photo here shows me launching the cyberangel from Rembrandt’s studio dressed as his friend Menasseh ben Israel, Rabbi of Amsterdam. Miriam’s great-grandfather Rabbi Dr. Yosef Tzvi Dunner was chief rabbi of Holland where he founded the Dutch Zionist Organization.
Grandfather of NFTs
I am known as Grandfather of NFTs since my experimental digital artworks span more than half a century. I created the first digital computer generated painting in 1965, experimental digital fine art prints in the 1980s exploring Jewish thought that are in 30 museums worldwide, circumglobal cyberangel flights passing through the Israel Museum, and my exhibition LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age, an art environment that I created with my colleagues and graduate students at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies for Yeshiva University Museum.
LightsOROT included 25 interactive artworks using laser animation, holography, fiber optics, biofeedback-generated imagery, computer graphics, interactive electronic media, and spectral projections. ARTnews wrote: “Rarely is an exhibition as visually engaging and intellectually challenging as ‘LightsOROT.’” The exhibition catalog includes “Light, Vision and Art in Judaism” my dialogue with Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University that was republished at The Times of Israel in his memory on June 2, 2020.
Future ethereal cyberangels will take flight from NFTs via Etherium blockchain technology. Beyond our watching them, they will watch us. They will be programmed to respond to the cries of the world by analyzing digital news signals and algorithmically making decisions that modify their behavior. Follow my career as an artist exploring emerging media at my website https://www.grandfatherofnfts.com.
Web 3.0 NFT technologies extend earlier technologies with which I have freed Rembrandt’s angels from the surface of the paper of his drawings and etchings, to come alive as they leap from their static life on canvas, breaking out from being trapped in decorative frames.
Art crossing over into a new reality
The biblical story of the Jewish people begins with the journey of Abraham as he crosses over from his all too familiar past to see a fresh vision of a future in a new land. Indeed, Abraham is called a Hebrew (Ivri) – one who crosses over into a new reality. Abraham is told: “Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) This passage can also be read as: “Walk with your authentic self away from all the familiar and comfortable places that limit vision to a land where you can freely see.” Here, the dynamic Hebraic mindset is established as new ways of seeing emerge from the integration of our journey to the Land of Israel with our inner quest for spiritual significance.
The personal power of Abraham to leave an obsolete past behind and to cross conceptual boundaries into an unknown future presents a powerful message to me as a Zionist artist living in a democratic Jewish State in a postdigital age. Today in Israel at the leading edge of technologically advanced societies worldwide, we are beginning to cross over from the digital culture of the Information Age to a Conceptual Age in which people in all walks of life will succeed most when they behave like artists who integrate left-brain with right-brain thinking. Industrial Age factory workers and Information Age knowledge workers are being superseded by Conceptual Age creators and empathizers who integrate high tech abilities with high touch and high concept abilities of aesthetic and spiritual significance.
Art debunking art
Subverting idolatry with a twist of irony has been the mission of the Jews from their very beginning. As a prelude to the biblical story of Abraham beginning his journey away from his father’s world to the Land of Israel, the Midrash tells that Abraham was minding his father’s idol shop when he took a stick and smashed the merchandise to bits. He left only the largest idol untouched placing the stick in its hand. When his father returned, his shock at seeing the scene of devastation grew into fury as he demanded an explanation from his son. Abraham explained how the largest idol had broken all the other idols. He could have smashed all the idols without saving one on which to place the blame. An idol smashing idols gives us clues for creating art to debunk art, art that aims to undermine undue reverence for art, art that challenges the established canon of Western art.
I am interested in creating art to knock art off its pedestal by displaying a creative skepticism not just towards art’s subjects but also towards its purposes. In his book Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century, Dr. Ori Soltis comments on my series of Digitized Homage to Rembrandt paintings, photomontages, computer-generated etchings, screenprints, lithographs, and telecommunications events: “Alexenberg appropriates an iconic image from the Christian art tradition: Rembrandt’s angel, who wrestles with Jacob. But he transforms and distorts it, digitalizing and dismembering it, transforming the normative Western tradition within which he works as he rebels against it.” One of my cyberangel paintings is the book’s cover.
Art emerging from Hebraic rather than Hellenistic consciousness
As a Zionist artist, I am joining artists worldwide in liberating art from Hellenistic dominance since its revival in the Renaissance. The 20th century was a century of modernism that aimed to undermine the Hellenistic definition of art. The 21st century invites a redefinition of art derived from the Hebraic roots of Western culture rather than its Hellenistic roots.
The Greeks and the Jews are the two peoples whose worldviews have most influenced the way we think and act. Each of them from angles so different has left us with the inheritance of its genius and wisdom. No two cities have counted more with Mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy, and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture.
Three thousand years ago, King David moved the capital of ancient Israel from Hebron to Jerusalem. Five centuries later during the Golden Age of Athens, the major temples of the Acropolis were built under the leadership of Pericles. In my Wikiartists project, I invited the participation of people from the 21 Mediterranean Rim countries. It was posted on my blogart site https://wikiartists.blogspot.com in the many languages of these countries.
Only Hebrew and Greek, the millennia old languages of the indigenous peoples of the Land of Israel and Greece are still in use and continue to be written with the same two ancient alphabets.
The Hellenistic definition of art as mimesis is reflected in the words for art in contemporary European languages: art in English and French, arte in Spanish, Kunst in German and Dutch, and iskustvo in Russian. The roots of all these words are related to artificial, artifact, imitation, and phony. In contrast, the Hebrew word for artist (oman) is spelled AMN with the same letters as the word amen which means truth. Its feminine form is emunah, faith, and as a verb l’amen means to nurture and educate.
This ancient Greek view of art as mimesis, imitating nature, arresting the flow of life, has become obsolete as new definitions of art are arising from Jewish thought and action that explore issues of truth, faith, and education as they enrich everyday life. In the classic book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Hebraic thought is characterized as being “dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and sometimes quite explosive in kind; correspondingly Greek thinking is static, peaceful, moderate, and harmonious in kind.” That it is the Hebraic rather than the Hellenistic roots of Western culture that is redefining art in a rapidly expanding networked world is argued throughout my books: The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age and in Hebrew Dialogic Art in a Digital World.
Art revealing the power of Hebrew letters in an era of digital and bio technologies
One of the Zionist enterprise’s greatest accomplishments is reviving Hebrew as the common everyday language uniting Jews who have returned to their homeland speaking scores of different languages. There is an aesthetic and spiritual power in seeing Hebrew letters dancing across storefronts in the Jewish State and TV screens and smartphones. The biblical Hebrew letters in Torah scrolls come alive in in Israeli newspapers, magazines, NFTs, and children’s books.
Hebrew letters have a special meaning for the artist. The mishkan’s artist, Betzalel, is said to have had the divine secret of forging combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters to create new worlds. The digital era makes this kabbalistic notion of artistic creativity through making permutations of bits of information more than a quaint legend. It is computer science rather than mysticism, physics rather than metaphysics that lets us reveal in our times this ancient wisdom.
All the multitude of words, sounds and images that we can access today on the Internet are encoded in bits strung together in groupings of eight called bytes. The 256 bit permutations in one byte are in turn grouped into billions of combinations that we perceive as a web site, a computer game, a text, a song, or a movie.
Jewish tradition sees the 22 sacred Hebrew letters as profound, primal, spiritual forces, the raw material of Creation. The numerous alternative arrangements of the letters in words results in different blends of cosmic spiritual forces that finds a parallel in natural systems where different numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons form the atoms of each of the 92 different elements. These atoms, in turn, combine into molecules, and molecules into supersized molecules like DNA in which the code of all life’s forms is written with only four letters: A-T, T-A, and C-G, G-C.
The interplay between combinations and permutations of Hebrew letters in the spiritual realm, of atoms and molecules in the physical realm, and bits and bytes in the realm of digital media, provides raw materials for creating artworks that generate a lively dialog between the Jewish past and Israel’s future as a world center of digital and bio technologies.
Art revealing the spiritual dimensions of everyday life in the Land of Israel
The great transgression of ten of the leaders of the Israelite tribes who were charged to spy out the Land of Israel after their exodus from Egypt was their inability to discern the difference between hard work as slaves in Egypt and hard work building their own land. Only Joshua and Calev met the challenge. The Torah tells us that Calev of the tribe of Judah had “a different spirit” (Numbers: 14:24). Unlike the others, he was able to make the paradigm shift to recognize that the challenge of living in the Land of Israel was to see spirituality emerging from all aspects of life.
Ten of the spies chose to remain in the desert where they could live a totally spiritual existence learning Torah all day. They would not have to work at all since food was delivered daily for free at the opening of their tents. In the Land of Israel, they would have to grow their own food, build houses, fight enemies, and collect garbage which seemed to them like returning to the slavery they had just left. These ten spies were sentenced to death in the desert for their inability to see that the spiritual arises from the quality of one’s encounter with the material world.
The descendents of Calev’s tribe of Judea are almost all of the Jews who have the great privilege of returning to our homeland and rebuilding it 3500 years later. Most of the descendants of the ten spies who lacked “a different spirit” have disappeared.
Calev’s great-grandson Bezalel and Ohiliav set a direction for today’s Zionist artists by collaborating in building the Tabernacle, a portable environment to invite holiness into our concrete world – “God walks in the midst of the camp…therefore shall your camp be holy” (Deuteronomy 23:15). I invited my students at Emuna College and Ariel University to reveal holiness by photographing divine light emanating from their everyday life in Israel. I created a blog to show their work: https://photographgod.blogspot.com.
One of my most powerful Zionist experiences was teaching descendants of both Bezalel and Oholiav at Emunah College School of the Arts in Jerusalem. Separated by millennia, Bezalel of the tribe of Judea and Oholiav of the tribe of Dan that survived the long exile in Ethiopia were reunited in creating artworks in my classes in the Land of Israel.
We can appreciate Calev’s seeing alternative viewpoints through the 20th century experience of the Rebbe of Sadegora, Rabbi Avraham Freidman (1884-1961). The Nazis attempted to humiliate the Rebbe in the eyes of his Hasidim by forcing him at gunpoint to work all day sweeping streets and collecting garbage and at night to march waving a Nazi flag. The Rebbe survived the Holocaust and moved to Tel Aviv where he rose early every morning in the week before Israel Independence Day to join the city’s sanitation workers in sweeping streets and collecting garbage. At night, he could be seen walking through the streets of Tel Aviv waving the Israeli flag. He marveled at the great privilege he had to keep his city clean and to honor his nation’s flag.
Art conveying its message through form and medium
At the beginning of the 20th century, the first Zionist artists Ephriam Lilien and Boris Schatz, the artists who participated in the exhibition at the 5th Zionist Congress in 1901, and the theoreticians of culture Martin Buber and Ahad Ha’am saw Zionist art only in terms of content and iconography. Landscapes of the Land of Israel, Jewish subjects, and biblical scenes idealizing the Bedouin types as if they were ancient Israelites were the content of their artwork expressed in alien European forms and media. These first Zionist artists did not liberate themselves from the Hellenistic definition of art that was plastered over their Jewish consciousness by centuries of indoctrination living in Europe.
The significance of form and medium in Jewish life is so strong that we only read the Torah portion in synagogue from a scroll hand-written on parchment. If we have no Torah scroll, we read nothing at all rather than read the identical content from a Hebrew Bible printed in a rectangular codex book form. Tradition teaches how the Israelites were enslaved in the malben, which means both brickyard and rectangle. The Torah trapped in a malben between two book covers cannot convey a message of liberation expressed by a free-flowing spiral scroll.
The heart (spelled LB in Hebrew) of the Torah is the place where the last letter L in the word yisrael (Israel) is linked to the first letter B in b’reshit (In the beginning) in an endless flow. Both changing form and medium radically changes the message. A Torah written on Japanese rice paper is bizarre and one written on pigskin would be the ultimate anti-Semitic statement. We can recognize the life-affirming parallel between the double spiral of the Torah scroll and the DNA molecule in which all life forms are encoded.
Marshal McLuhan was intrigued by these ideas in our discussions in my office at Columbia University when he was visiting professor there. Prof. McLuhan is best known for his phrase “The medium is the message” from his book Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. I shared with him parallels in Jewish culture to his proposal that a communication medium itself, not the messages it carries, should be a primary focus.
Art imitating the Creator rather than the Creation
I am interested in being an active partner of the Creator of the universe in the on-going creation of new worlds. As a Jewish artist, it is not the Hellenistic vision of a complete and ideal nature to be copied that is the primary artistic value, but it is the emulation of the process of creation itself that is valued. Therefore, I studied in depth the creative process in art and science from a psychodynamic point of view that I present in my book Aesthetic Experience in Creative Process (Bar-Ilan University Press).
Two millennia ago, the Roman governor over the Land of Israel asked Rabbi Akiva, “Which are greater and more beautiful, human creations or God’s?” The governor was disturbed by the rabbi’s response that human creation is more exalted than divine creation. While the Roman was questioning the rabbi’s unexpected response, the rabbi served a plate of wheat grains to the Roman and took cakes for himself. The puzzled Roman asked, “Why do you take cakes for yourself while you give me raw grains of wheat?” Rabbi Akiva answered, “You prefer God’s creation. I prefer the creations of human hands!”
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook provides a poetic manifesto for the Zionist artist derived from the deep structure of Jewish consciousness:
“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).
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who served as president of the Mizrachi Zionists of America, proposes that the dream of creation is the central idea in Jewish consciousness – the idea of the importance of human partnership with the Almighty in creating new worlds. He writes in HalaKhit Man:
“This longing for creation and the renewal of the cosmos is embodied in all of Judaism’s goals…. If a man wishes to attain the rank of holiness, he must become a creator of worlds. If a man never creates, never brings into being anything new, anything original, then he cannot be holy unto his God. That passive type who is derelict in fulfilling his task of creation cannot become holy. Creation is the lowering of transcendence into the midst of our turbid, coarse, material world.”
I attempt to act as partner of the Creator during six days of the week. However, I stop my creative work one day each week and step back to admire and honor the handiwork of the Creator of the universe. This Sabbath Day is both a Non-Art Day and an Ecology Day. Emulating Betzalel and his artistic collaborators who stopped building the mishkan Tabernacle on Shabbat, I stop my artistic activities on the seventh day to celebrate Non-Art Day.
Indeed, all Shabbat observance is defined by artistic activity, by the 39 craft categories involved in building the mishkan. From when the sun sets on Friday evening to the time stars dot the sky on Saturday night, I celebrate Non-Art Day as well as Ecology Day by leaving the world the way I got it. I replenish my soul on Shabbat so that on the eighth day I can resume with renewed energies the role of partner with the Creator in tikun olam, actively making the world a better place for all humanity.
Art engaging the Torah in a playful spirit
As an artist, I engage the Torah in creative play through both my conceptual and aesthetic explorations. The Torah itself teaches us to approach it in a playful spirit. In Psalm 119:174, we read: “Your Torah is my plaything (sha’ashua).” Sha’ashua is a toy to engage children in play. In Proverbs 8:30, 31, King Solomon speaks in the voice of the Torah: “I [the Torah] was the artist’s plan. I was His [God’s] delight every day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the inhabited areas of His earth, my delights are with human beings.” This translation from the Hebrew original is based on the ancient wisdom on the first page of Midrash Rabba. God as the master artist played creatively with the Torah, His plan for creating the universe.
Midrash Rabba uses these two verses from Proverbs to explain the first words of the Torah, “In the beginning God created.” God first created “Beginning” referring to the Torah as an open-ended blueprint for creating the world. We learn this from an earlier verse, Proverbs 8:22, “God made me [the Torah] as the beginning of His way, before His deeds of yore.” In human emulation of God’s delight, we are invited to play with the Torah as we create new worlds.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote a letter of congratulations on the founding of the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem in 1906. By way of allegory, he refers to the revival of Jewish art and aesthetics after two thousand years of exile as a child in a coma who awakes calling for her doll.
“The pleasant and beloved child, the delightful daughter, after a long and forlorn illness, with a face as pallid as plaster, bluish lips, fever burning like a fiery furnace, and convulsive shaking and trembling, behold! She has opened her eyes and her tightly sealed lips, her little hands move with renewed life, her thin pure fingers wander hither and thither, seeking their purpose; her lips move and almost revert to their normal color, and as if through a medium a voice is heard: ‘Mother, Mother, the doll, give me the doll, the dear doll, which I have not seen for so long.’ A voice of mirth and a voice of gladness, all are joyous, the father, the mother, the brothers and sisters, even the elderly man and woman who, because of their many years, have forgotten their children’s games.”
Rabbi Kook saw artists at work as a clear sign of the rebirth of the Jewish people in its homeland. Their playful spirit nurturing sensitivity for beauty “will uplift depressed souls, giving them a clear and illuminating view of the beauty of life, nature, and work.”