Mel Alexenberg

Mel Alexenberg – From a Skyscraper for Killing God to a Peace Hut Higher Than Sky

Mel Alexenberg – From a Skyscraper for Killing God to a Peace Hut Higher Than Sky

This blogpost is based upon  from my book Photograph God http://photographgod.com that explores how God, named “The Place” (in Hebrew Hamakom), honors human beings by creating through them.  It discusses four building projects described in the Bible.  Humanity’s first collective building project, the Tower of Babel, was a skyscraper for killing God that ended in disaster. It is followed by more positive human constructions: Abraham’s Eshel academy for spiritual learning in a tent opened to the four winds, the Mishkan  Logo-like tabernacle designed to be packed-up and moved, and the Sukkah hut constructed annually to this day as an invitation to world peace.  The photo above is the frame of a sukkah I built for the “Sky Art” exhibition in Munich that was attacked by a neo-Nazi motorcycle gang.

In my next Israel Seen blogpost, I will examine contemporary buildings that express Hebraic consciousness:  Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Spain, and Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower at Ground Zero.  The final building is a virtual one, the interactive Internet, a world wide web of images and texts, a human community of global reach.

GOD IS THE PLACE OF THE WORLD

One of God’s names is Hamakom.  In Hebrew, Hamakom literally means The Place. “Why do we call God by the name Hamakom?  Because God is the place of the world” (Bereshit Raba).  These words penned almost two millennia ago as a commentary on Genesis teaches us that Hamakom, the Omnipresent, is everyplace. Hamakom is the spacial name for the endless God.

The biblical narrative describes Jacob coming upon a nameless place on his journey from his parent’s home to a distant place that he has never seen.  It was at that place where he stopped to sleep that he had the dream of a ladder linking heaven and earth.

And Jacob left Beersheba and headed toward Haran.  He came upon the place and spent the night there because the sun had set; and he took from the stones of the place which he arranged around his head and lay down in that place (Genesis 28:10-11).

It was in this rocky no-man’s-land that Jacob encountered Hamakom.   If God is in everyplace, how could Jacob have stumbled upon Hamakom in one particular place?  Jabob came upon a new insight rather than finding a new geographical place.  He came to realize that in the finite makom, the place where he happened to stop for the night is where he encountered the infinite Hamakom.  He began to see that God was present wherever he stopped on his life’s journey.  Jacob stumbled upon the understanding that wherever he found himself was the right place at the right time.  When he awoke from his sleep, he said “Surely God is present in this place and I did not know it…. How awesome is this place (Genesis 28:17-18).  Jacob’s insight teaches us how awe-inspiring it is to discover God’s presence everyplace we happen to find ourselves.

Jewish tradition refers to God as The Place to signify that God is the address of all existence.  God is called Hamakom in the Talmud, the central text of Judaism’s oral tradition. We read, “Hamakom will provide you with all that you are lacking.” When consoling a mourner, we say “May Hamakom comfort you.” The 613 obligations delineated in the Torah are divided into those between person and person and between person and Hamakom.  On the eve of Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day of the year, the congregation gathers in the synagogue. The Ark is opened and two people take from it two Torah scrolls and stand on each side of the cantor.  The three of them begin the evening service chanting the words: “With the acknowledgement of Hamakom and the acknowledgement of the congregation.”  Wikipedia translates Hamakom as “The One Who Is Everywhere.”

If you want to photograph God, focus your lens on Hamakom, The Place, anyplace where you see divine light illuminating reality.  Photograph places in nature that God creates and places that God creates through human creativity.   Let your camera collect the light reflecting from the reality shaping your life and you will find yourself photographing God.

 

OPEN YOUR EYES IN WONDER

To find God, you have to stop seeking.  Don’t search for God in some far-off place or hope to meet God in some future encounter.   You need to simply open your eyes in wonder in whatever place you are and you will be positioned to photograph God here and now.   Rabbi David Aaron teaches that seeing with eyes of wonder is seeing for the first time every time.

Keep your eyes and ears open to discovering the beauty of The Place that may be hidden from you in the fast flow of your busy life.  Don’t be so hurried that aesthetically, spiritually, and conceptually significant experiences pass you by.  Be ready to focus your camera when you encounter the beauty of Hamakom where and when you least expect it.

An experiment conducted in a Washington subway station highlights the risk of missing out on a wonderful experience. A violinist played Bach pieces for an hour while two thousand people passed through the station.  A few tossed coins into his open violin case.  No one stopped to listen. None recognized or appreciated that the violinist was the world renowned musician Joshua Bell.  He played some to the most challenging violin music ever composed with a violin worth millions of dollars.  Two days before, hundreds of people had paid an average of $100 per ticket to listen to him play the same music in a sold-out concert hall.  This social experiment invites us to ask ourselves how many significant events do we rush by unnoticed.

You are less likely to miss the beauty of God’s handiwork in the wonders of the natural environment than in the beauty hidden in everyday encounters with the built environment.  It’s hard to miss the majestic splendor of mountains, forests and rivers, the magnificent radiance of the sun setting into the sea, to the sparkling morning beauty of beads of dew on a leaf, the delightful sight of young animals at play, the awesome power of hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes, or the digital magic of seeing the rocky surface of Mars up-close.

However, all creations of human mind and hand are just as much God’s creations as nature. The Bible teaches that we are created in God’s image to be God’s partners in the on-going process of creation. God honors us by creating through us.  Recognize that as you are creating a photograph, God is creating through you.  Both the subject of your photo and the photograph itself are facets of Hamakom.    Open your eyes in wonder everyplace.  With eyes of wonder you can discover the miraculous in the mundane.   Stop long enough to uncover veiled aspects of Hamakom expressed through the built environment and frame them through your lens.

 

FROM THE TOWER OF BABEL TO BLOGS IN THE CLOUD

The primary material creation of human civilization is the built environment that is as much God’s creation as nature.   The construction of buildings described in the Bible translates its verbal messages into visual forms.  There are also significant examples of contemporary architecture as well the digital architecture of the Internet that express biblical values and Hebraic consciousness.  These buildings, ancient and modern, material and virtual, convey meaning by how we relate to them through our thoughts, emotions, and actions. They gain significance through the qualities of our visual encounters with them, our movement through them, and our ways of using them.

I will explore powerful biblical messages revealed in the design of seven buildings, four encountered in the Bible and three in contemporary architecture, from the Tower of Babel to the Freedom Tower.  In addition to these structures built in real space, I will explore the spiritual significance of structures built in cyberspace.  We have the great privilege of being the first generations to live in both environments built of steel and stone and of bits and bytes.

In his seminal work, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Norwegian theologian Thorleif Boman compares Hebraic to Hellenistic consciousness. 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 in architecture emphasizes temporal processes in which space is actively engaged by human community rather than presenting a harmoniously stable form in space. Architectural theorist, Bruno Zevi, compares the Hebraic and Greek attitudes toward architecture in his essay on concepts of space-time shaping Hebraic consciousness:

For the Greeks a building means a house-object or a temple-object. For the Jews it is the object-as-used, a living place or a gathering place. As a result, architecture taking its inspiration from Hellenic thought is based on colonnades, proportions, refined moulding, a composite vision according to which nothing may be added or eliminated, a structure defined once and for all. An architecture taking its inspiration from Hebrew thought is the diametric opposite. It is an organic architecture, fully alive, adapted to the needs of those who dwell within, capable of growth and development, free of formalistic taboo, free of symmetry, alignments, fixed relationships between filled and empty areas, free from the dogmas of perspective, in short, an architecture whose only rule, whose only order is change.

We can see a renaissance of this ancient Hebraic consciousness in the scientific foundations of the hi-tech revolution.   Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogione explains in Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature that the traditional science of the age of the machine tended to emphasize stability, order, uniformity, equilibrium, and closed systems. The transition from an industrial society to a hi-tech society in which information and innovation are critical resources, brought forth new scientific world models that characterize today’s accelerated social change: disorder, instability, diversity, disequilibrium, nonlinear relationships, open systems, and a heightened sensitivity to the flow of time.

 

SKYSCRAPER FOR KILLING GOD

The Bible describes the first collective human endeavor after the Flood as what not to do.   This endeavor was a tragic building project.  The progeny of the survivors of the Flood joined together to build a skyscraper to get close enough to the God in the sky to kill Him so that He would never destroy the world with another Flood.  They shot arrows from the top of the Tower straight up into the sky hoping to find God’s blood on their arrows as they fell back to earth. God was a threat that they aimed at bringing down to earth dead so they would reign in heaven from the top of their Tower.

The builders of the Tower of Babel mistakenly thought they could work together to find God by ascending to meet Him in heaven. “Come, let us build a city and a tower with its top in the heavens and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth” (Genesis 12:4).  Many years were spent building the Tower. The individual was but a dispensable cog in the Tower-building machine.   It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell and died they paid no attention to him.  If a brick fell down, they wept because it would take a year to replace it.

The offense of “let us make a name for ourselves” is added to the offenses of valuing the work of human hands above human life and attempting to find God in heaven rather than here on earth. “Us” and “ourselves” emphasizes the community of builders who see the might of the collective against the individual who is subordinate to the group.  It diminishes the individual by the totalitarian elevation of the collective.

The Tower of Babel story aims at developing biblical consciousness that values community when its purpose is not self-aggrandizement, but aggrandizement of God by honoring each individual created in the divine image. A community’s worth is determined by both how successful it is in honoring and serving every person and how successful it is in bringing God down to earth alive.

The major transgression of the Tower builders was their defying the divine will that obligates humanity to revere and applaud differences between peoples. It is most significant that the Bible, which does not waste words, repeats the same message three times.  “These are the families of Noah’s descendants, according to their generations, by their nations; and these nations were separated and spread across the earth after the Flood” (Genesis 10: 5, 20 and 31).  Just as God did not create a single mold in which to cast identical clones, so each of the biblical seventy nations of the world was not meant to come together to speak one language, to share a common set of cultural values, and to engage in a singular mission of self-aggrandizement. “God descended to see the city and the tower that the son of man had built… From that place, God scattered them all over the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city” (Genesis 11:5, 8). Each nation has its unique and distinct voice to contribute to the grand planetary choir singing God’s praises.

 

LEARNING TENT OPEN TO THE FOUR WINDS

Abraham pitched a tent in the desert open to the four winds inviting passersby to study Torah there with him. “He planted an eshel in Beersheba and there he proclaimed the Name YHVH, God of the Universe” (Genesis 21:33).  Although eshel is usually translated as a tamarisk tree, tradition reads alternative meanings into it. Eshel, spelled alef, shin, lamed, becomes the word for “question” sha’al when the order of the same three Hebrew letters is rearranged as shin, alef, lamed. The Talmud teaches that eshel is also the acronym for food (alef), lodging (shin), and escorting (lamed) guests on their way.

Abraham built an inn, a learning retreat in the desert where people could enter and ask him questions about his new monotheistic idea. The inn was a tent open to the four ruhot.  Ruhot means both winds and spirits. It refers both to winds blowing into the tent from the north, south, west, and east and to the spiritual individuality of each human being coming to Abraham’s open school from different places in their intellectual and emotional lives. After learning with Abraham, each individual could go in his own way leaving through one of the four openings appropriate to him. In addition to providing food and lodging in the dormitory of his school, Abraham would escort each of his students on his way into the desert until the student felt secure enough to continue asking questions on his own.

Eshel and sha’al (question) are one, written with the same Hebrew letters. Abraham’s open school was designed to encourage a never-ending process of individualized learning through asking questions.  This ancient pedagogical strategy is equally significant today.  When Isador Rabi, Nobel laureate in physics, was asked how he was able to reach such heights in science, he explained that as a child all the mothers of his classmates would ask, “What did you learn in school today?” while his mother asked, “Did you ask any good questions today?”

Jewish consciousness relates scientific curiosity that evokes questioning to spirituality. When Moses first found God in the desert, he was drawn by 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 lowly shrub. Moses is instructed to take off his shoes and move aside to see the bush from a fresh vantage point that invites him to question the significance of his divine encounter.

 

LEGO-LIKE TRAVELING TABERNACLE

The Bible teaches that although we can encounter Hamakom, The Omnipresent, everyplace, we can also create a human-scale environment to experience God up-close.   That place is called the Mishkan, literally “a dwelling place” usually translated as “Tabernacle.” The Bible describes in exquisite detail how a team of artists collaborated to build a dwelling place for God to stop by while “walking in the midst of the camp” (Deuteronomy 23:15).  The Mishkan is designed to play back the verbal divine message of Sinai in a visual form.

The Mishkan was made of modular parts and woven curtains, came apart like Lego, was set on a wagon, moved through the desert from place to place, deconstructed and reconstructed each time. It was a structure made of Acacia wood, from the most common tree growing wild in the desert, covered with tapestries. It was a portable building that moved with the people, quite different from the immovable monumental marble temples on the Acropolis.  It served as a special meeting place between the people and Hamakom no matter where along the journey it was erected.

The homeless Israelites, wandering in the Sinai desert for forty years, built the Mishkan as a model home for future generations. We can learn from the design of the Mishkan and its furnishings to create homes in ways that they invite God in.  We can make our place a material presence for experiencing The Place up close, making Hamkom visible in every part of our lives. The forerunner to the Mishkan was the desert tent that Abraham created with his wife Sarah.  Abraham walked away from the threshold of the Garden of Eden as he came to understand that paradise is not found at the end of a cave or in some heavenly realm.  It is found at home with his wife, the place where their everyday experiences are sanctified.

We can begin to appreciate the Mishkan’s divine message by looking at the names of the two artists, Betzalel and Oholiav, who were appointed to teach others to collaborate with them in creating a place for The Place to dwell.  God said to Moses:  “See, I have selected a man by the name Betzalel ben Uri ben Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with a divine spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, and with the talent for all types of craftsmanship” (Exodus 31:2). The literal translation of this artist’s name is: “In the Divine Shadow son of Fiery Light son of Freedom.” It negates the darkness and slavery of Egypt by honoring the human creation of a place that brings forth light and freedom.

Understanding the name of Betzalel’s partner, Oholiav, gives an added dimension to their partnership.  “I have assigned with him Oholiav ben Ahisamakh of the tribe of Dan, and I have placed wisdom in the heart of every naturally talented person” (Exodus 31:6). Oholiav’s full name can be read to mean “My Tent of Reliance on Father, Son, and My Brother,” integrating the present with its past and future. Father, son, and brother stand together with Oholiav in a common tent in mutual support of one another. Oholiav’s name symbolizes the sociological dimensions of creating community.

Betzalel’s name symbolizes the psychological potential of illuminating one’s life through freedom of expression. This prototypic biblical artist is blessed with divine spirit, wisdom, and understanding to create a beautiful place for man and God to meet.   Together, Betzalel and Olholiav symbolize the biblical value of harnessing creative passion and freedom of expression to nurture intergenerational collaboration in building a shared environment of spiritual power.  The biblical narrative of building the Mishkan invites everyone in every generation to discover in himself the spiritual power to transform anyplace into a special place for encountering The Place.

The most prominent object in the Mishkan was the menorah, a candelabrum forged of a single piece of gold.  Its seven branches rise out of its tree-like form in different directions emerging from a single root.  At the top of each branch is a flower-like vessel of olive oil that is kindled to illuminate the Mishkan.  Like the Torah, it is called a Tree of Life.  “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17).  No one way and no single path, but rather alternative ways and multiple paths. In Ra’anana, Israel, where I live, three creative young men developed a real-time interactive system for navigating alternative ways and multiple paths.  They sold their company Waze to Google for over a billion dollars to upgrade Google maps.

 

PEACE HUT HIGHER THAN SKY

“Seven days you shall live in sukkot (thatched huts). Everyone included in Israel shall dwell in such sukkot.  This is so that future generations will know that I had the Israelites live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42-43).  To this day, Jews throughout the world celebrate the week-long holiday of Sukkot by moving out of their comfortable homes into fragile huts built so that stars can be seen through their thatched roofs.   By spending a week in sukkot, Jewish families relive the biblical narrative of dwelling in temporary structures during their ancestors’ wandering through the Sinai wilderness.

In the biblical portion Zechariah 14:16–19 read in synagogues on the joyous holiday of Sukkot, the prophet Zechariah extends an invitation to all humanity to join the Jewish people in sukkot.  If all the people of the world would live for just one week in fragile huts undefended and exposed to the sky, we would be living at peace with each other and in harmony with nature.

Since spiritual blogging invites us to weave contemporary narratives with biblical narratives, I will tell the story of my building a sukkah (singular for sukkot) in Munich.   It was my art installation for the international Sky Art exhibition at the BMW Museum. At first, I was reluctant to accept an invitation to participate in the exhibition since my wife’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were all murdered by the Germans. It was also being held in the city in which Hitler got his start and at a museum across the road from the Olympic Village where 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Arab terrorists nearly 30 years before 9/11.

However, reading the article on Munich in Encyclopedia Judaica changed my mind.  It described how in the 18th century the Munich authorities harassed its Jews by making it illegal to build a sukkah.  When I looked in my calendar and saw that the opening of the Sky Art exhibition fell during the holiday of Sukkot, I agreed to participate if the City of Munich would fund my building a sukkah at the entrance to the museum. A sukkah is sky art since stars dotting the night sky must be visible through gaps in its roof.

When I arrived at the BMW Museum I found Bavarian pine planks, the same pine wood used to build the barracks at Dachau death camp built in a garden suburb of Munich. The planks were piled on the sidewalk in front of the museum waiting for me to build the sukkah. BMW had contributed the wood and sent its carpenters to help me erect the hut. Unfortunately, they refused do anything when they learned that I had no blueprints. It made no difference that I had an accurate drawing of my sukkah that I had made for the exhibition catalog. It did not help when I explained that as the designer, I could stand there and direct the construction. “No blueprints! No building!” was their response.

Two other artists participating in the exhibition overheard my hour-long fruitless discussion with the carpenters and offered to help me build the sukkah. As we started to build the sukkah, a Japanese artist passed by and offered to help. Tsutomo Hiroi, Japan’s greatest kite maker who would fly his giant dragons in the Bavarian sky, was the most skilled carpenter of the four of us. He helped us build a strong structure that survived an attack by a neo-Nazi motorcycle gang that attempted to destroy the sukkah after it was built.

As we worked, Hiroi stood inside the sukkah, looked around at it, and chanted, “Ohhh, beautiful Japanese building. Ohhh, beautiful Japanese building.” He saw its resemblance to the delicate geometries of rice-paper covered wooden frameworks found in traditional Japanese dwellings. I unsuccessfully tried to convince him that we were building a Jewish building. When the sukkah was standing, he was willing to accept that we had built an Asian building. Israel is on the west coast of Asia while Japan is on its east coast.

The next year, I marked the parentheses of Asia by exchanging sand from the beach in Tel Aviv with sand from the beach at the fishing village of Chikura. I photographed a parenthesis mark that I etched in the damp beach sand with a stick near the surf line at the Pacific Ocean. I filled the etched arc with yellow Tel Aviv sand. I flew back to Tel Aviv to etch a matching parenthesis mark in the sand at the Mediterranean shore that I filled with black volcanic sand that I had brought to Israel from Chikura. I made a serigraph from the photographs showing the set of two parentheses with Israel’s sky, surf, and sand facing Japan’s sky, surf and sand.

The Hebrew word for “shade” tzel is related to the word for “salvation” and “rescue” hatzalah. The protective shade in the desert provided by the sukkah gave the Israelites life-granting refuge from the relentless sun while fleeing from Egyptian bondage. We sat and ate in the sukkah around a table that I constructed from a clear plastic cylinder holding two discs, one as the tabletop and the second floating midway between the top and the ground. On this second disc, I spread earth flown from Israel to hover over the ground casting an ellipsoid shadow on the sukkah floor. My idea for creating a shadow-making table came from my realization that the final two Hebrew letters of ereTz yisraeL, Land of Israel, spell the word for “shadow” TzeL.

Marking the opening of the Sky Art exhibition, an international Sky Art conference was held at which I was invited to deliver the keynote address. In my talk “Higher than Sky,” I told a Hassidic tale in which Hassidim tell about their great rebbe who ascends to heaven during the ten days between the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A skeptic comes to their town and hears them enthusiastically tell about how their rebbe ascends to heaven in order to plead for the forgiveness for all humanity’s transgressions in a face-to-face encounter with God. The skeptic confronted a group of the Hassidim: “How can you think such ridiculous nonsense? According to tradition, even Moses fell short of such an encounter.” They responded, “If you knew our rebbe, you too would recognize his greatness.”

One morning, the skeptic sees the rebbe seated in the front of the synagogue next to the ark suddenly disappear. He ran out of the synagogue and spied the rebbe rapidly walking down the street. The skeptic discreetly trailed the rebbe and saw him enter his home to emerge a short time later dressed in workman’s clothes with an ax in his belt and a rope draped over his shoulder. The rebbe walked to the edge of his village where the forest began, chopped down a small tree, cut off its branches, tied all the wood together with his rope, and entered a hut with the bundle of wood on his back. Peering through a window, the skeptic saw a frail old woman in bed and the rebbe putting the wood in her stove, peeling potatoes, and putting up a stew to cook, changing her bedding, and getting down on his knees to scrub the floor.

He then spied the rebbe walking back home, replacing his work clothes with an elegant black brocade robe and a white woolen tallit prayer shawl, and returning to the synagogue through a back door. The skeptic quietly slipped into the synagogue to find the Hasidim talking ecstatically about their rebbe’s return from his ascent to heaven. The skeptic added, “If not higher than that!”

TO BE CONTINUED

Follow my Blog on israelseen.com every week where my posts are 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.

Professor Mel Alexenberg
Author of  Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life, The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, Educating Artists for the Future, and in Hebrew: Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art.
Former art professor, Columbia University, head of the art department, Pratt Institute, research fellow, MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and professor at universities and art colleges in Israel
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