Mel Alexenberg – Light, Vision and Art in Judaism: My Dialogue with Rabbi Norman Lamm
In Memory of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z”l, President and Chancellor of Yeshiva University, who passed away on May 31, 2020
This article is my dialogue with Rabbi Lamm in December 1987 in his office at Yeshiva University for the catalog of the exhibition LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age at Yeshiva University Museum in New York (January-December 1988). The most advanced technologies of the time were used to create the exhibition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. As research fellow at MIT and alumnus of YU, I was curator of the exhibition in collaboration with Otto Piene, Director of CAVS/MIT and Sylvia Axelrod Herskowitz, Director of Yeshiva University Museum.
The ARTnews reviewer of LightsOROT wrote, “Rarely is an exhibition as visually engaging and intellectually challenging.”
Although LightsOROT opened more than three decades ago, it remains a pioneering exemplar of using leading-edge technologies to create art that explores spiritual dimensions of life through Jewish thought in ways that speak to people of all faiths. You can read about the LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age exhibition in the context of 21st century developments in my books Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphones and Social Media (2019) and The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (2011), and in Hebrew Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art (2008). You can see photographs of the exhibition at http://www.melalexenberg.com/artwork.php?id=2
Light, Vision and Art in Judaism: A Dialogue between Mel Alexenberg and Norman Lamm
MA: As an artist, I think in terms of forms and formal relationships. I see the most powerful statements of Jewish worldview in the tzitziot, the visual fringes that flow out from the four corners of our prayer shawl, the talit. To see the tzitziot is the central visual obligation or mitzvah mandated by the Torah. “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them to make for themselves fringes on the corner of their garments throughout their generations, and to put on the fringes of each corner a blue thread. You shall have it as a fringe, so that when you look upon it you remember to do all the commandments of the Lord” (Numbers 15: 37-39)
The blue thread is a ray of light reaching down from the heavens. It moves through four sets of spirals that spell out “God is one.” The eight strands come together in a knot between each set of spirals and finally branch out like the branches of the menorah candelabrum. Unlike the rectangle and the circle which are closed forms, spirals and branches are open-ended systems of life and growth.
Indeed, the Torah itself is written and read from a double spiral scroll like the double-helix DNA in which all of life’s information is encoded. We do not fulfill our religious obligation if we read the Torah from a rectangular, codex book form.
The infinite light of the Torah must be stored in an endless spiral, in a scroll that rewinds in annual cycles like a Mobius strip. The term Sepher Torah means Bible Scroll. The word SePheR is akin to the word SPiRal. I do not think there is a clearer demonstration of medium subsuming message. Form and content join together to convey a message that is central to Judaism.
NL: Yes, the idea of a scroll is very much part of our tradition. There a numerous sources for this. Thus, Joshua is commanded, “This scroll shall not depart from your mouth.” Zecharia has a vision of megillah afah which we normally translate as “a scroll flying.” One member of our graduate faculty at Yeshiva University, however, told me that megillah afah means a scroll unrolling. The rolling and unrolling of a scroll is what Zecharia sees in his vision.
MA: It is interesting to note that electronic information is stored in spiral forms rather than rectangular book form. Information is electronically communicated thorough branching systems like electronic networks, telephone systems and electrical systems. At the end of the branches of electrical systems are lights like the flames at the ends of the branches of the menorah, one of Judaism’s major symbols. I believe there is a confluence between the deep structure of Jewish consciousness symbolized by spirals and branching systems and the new world views emerging from the electronic revolution.
NL: In classic Kabbalah, you have the sephirot, the divine emanations. They are visualized in two different ways, especially in Lurianic Kabbalah. One way is linear; the other is circular. The latter are circles within circles, with the Ein-Sof, the infinite, in the center. It emanates outward in growing concentric circles. The other method of symbolization, the kav (line), shows a line coming from the Ein-Sof’s first station or emanation, Keter, and going down and branching through lines that unite again, finally, in the sephirah called Malkhut.
MA: I see it move as spirals and branches. The spiral results from the mathematical combination of line and circle. If you have a line and draw a circle on it, it grows and becomes a spiral. The kav or ekhad, one line of light emanating from the Ein-Sof, spirals around, creating ten levels of emanation of divine light. These are the ten sephirot. The branching model has twenty-two lines, one for each of the Hebrew letters. The lines intersect at ten points representing each of the sephirot. Not only do we have the spiral forms in the Torah scroll, in the tefillin straps wrapped around our arms during morning prayers, in the shofar, the ram’s horn, and the branching of the menorah, but we have these two forms used to visually illustrate the basic structural organization of Jewish mystical thought.
NL: One of the greatest Kabbalists, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, sees the origins of the sephirah in sapir, the word for the sapphire gemstone. The gem breaks up white light into different colors of the spectrum. Rabbi Cordovaro also compares the sphirot to pouring colorless water into tumblers of various colors, in which the same substance appears differently in each receptacle. He says that the ten sephirot are not derived from S-PH-R, to count, but as sapir, sapphire, because of the breaking up and re-integration of various lights. Each sephirah shows a different aspect of one reality. Ten facets of divine light are revealed in the Kabbalistic scheme.
MA: One of my artworks in the exhibition I call “Torah Spectrogram.” The Hebrew letters, otiot, are also called lights, orot. Each of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet has a color equivalent. The first letter, aleph, is white. It represents unity, the number one, the integration of all the colors perceived as white. The next seven letters are the colors of the spectrum. This sequence of seven colors is repeated two more times for the remaining letters. The spectrum, red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet, repeated three time equals the remaining 21 letters.
When the computer plays out each portion of the Torah, a different pattern of colors emerges. The Torah is read as light. Torah Orah, the Torah of light, is a deeply Jewish concept. I think the visual experience in intimately connected to the mystical tradition in Judaism.
NL: Yes, a matter of fact the connection between light and mysticism is universal, but especially strong in Judaism. The Ari HaKadosh, Rabbi Isaac Luria, frequently speaks of orot. Rav Kook’s books are titled Orot (Lights) and Orot HaKodesh (Lights of Holiness).
One of the great sources of mysticism in western philosophy is Plato’s famous parable of the cave in The Republic. People are sitting in a cave and are not permitted to turn their backs. All they can see is a campfire and the shadow of passing people. The disturbances in the light patterns indicate to them the reality on the outside.
MA: The Greek idea of the place of visual experience, however seems to me to be the opposite of the Jewish idea. Beauty is seeing out forms; its attention to surface. Beauty is visually experienced by looking at the external form, the naked bodies of the statues of Venus and Apollo. The inside experience is the mythology received as an audial experience.
As you pointed out, the Jewish mystical tradition speaks of light and vision. The key books of Kabbalah have titles about light. The Zohar means “Glow” or “Brilliance.” Sepher HaBahir means “The Book of Visual Clarity” or “Brightness.” The Zohar, Judaism’s major esoteric work, says, “come see” (ta khazi). The Talmud, the major exoteric work, in contrast say “come hear” (ta sh’ma). In Judaism, we hear the outside and see the inside. The Greek roots of western art have us seeing the surface and listening to inner voices.
The renaissance revival of Greek ideals placed a clear primacy of the visual delineation of space. I believe that much of the alienation plaguing western civilization is related to the separation and elevation of isolated visual experience. By its very biological nature, the visual sense is alienating. I can make direct physical contact with the world through all my senses except my eyes. I can touch things with my fingers. I can smell a flower touching my nose. I can head my child’s heartbeat with my ear on his chest. If I touch a picture to my eyes, however, I cannot see it. I must move away in order to experience it visually.
There are guards in museums to insure that are is experienced exclusively in the visual mode. In contrast, the most valued object in Jewish life, namely the Torah scroll, is passed from person to person, is kissed, and is danced with in celebration of its annual rewinding.
NL: Yes, it is true, but there is a book, Kol Hanevuah, by the late “Nazir of Jerusalem,” where he compares visual and auditory powers in the Jewish and Greek philosophies, and asserts the superiority of hearing over seeing. But it is true that light stands for enlightenment. You constantly have it, of course, in Kabbalah. You have it in Rambam, too. When Maimonides wants to describe relationship of prophecy to normal forms of knowing, he uses the example of a lightning flash in which you suddenly gain insight into what is going on. When darkness prevails, you have a memory of the enlightenment or illumination. If you have a series of lightning flashes, you can then see more clearly. Moses was able to see be’aspaklariah ha’meirah, as if the lighting flash endured for a long time, as if all lightning flashes were integrated to produce constant clarity. Thus, says Maimonides, Moses had this enduring clarity. Other prophets had occasional flashes and had to fill in the gaps by themselves. When ordinary people arrive at understanding, it’s like a lightning flash. Here again you have the idea of light as a symbol of understanding and knowledge. When we write about mystic experiences, even today, we speak of ‘Illumination.” Yehuda HaLevi wrote in the Kuzari about a third eye, and inner eye 0 his metaphor for insight or intuition.
MA: In Kabbalah, the sephirah of Hokhmah (Wisdom) represents insight, the sudden lightning flash of recognition, in contrast with Binah (Understanding), which represents synthesis and integration of ideas.
NL: Light represents holiness. There is a fascinating HaZaL (rabbinic commentary) that God dressed Adam and Eve in garments of light. Light and leather are both pronounced or. Rabbi Meir translated it as light.
MA: When I put on a talit (prayer shawl), I say the part of Psalm104: “Thou wrappest thyself in light as a garment.”
In the exhibition, the ceiling of the museum is covered with a talit-like cloth canopy with four large ship-rope tzitziot emerging from each of its four corners. Laser projections on this canopy show transformations of Hebrew letters as pure coherent light. The blue stand in each of the tzitziot carries light through fiber optics fraying into 6,000 star-like dots of light. I would have liked to have 6,000,000 lights as a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but it would have required 4,000 tzitziot instead of four.
NL: There is a great deal of interesting material about light in Halakhah (Jewish Law). It is categorized into light treated functionally and light that is treated puelyvisullay without function. Havdalah, the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath, is treated functionally. You make the blessing Borei M’Orei HaEsh – “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who created the light of fire.” When you make the blessing over the Havdalah lights, you actually look at your fingers held up to the fire. You have to use it. You make a berakhah (blessing) over light that is functional, that has use in human life.
The lights of the Sabbath candles is a symbol of shalom bayit, a peacefulhome. You don’t trip. You don’t hurt yourself. You don’t bump into things. It is light that is functional.
As opposed to that, you have light that is purely there for seeing, but not for using, such as the Hanukkah lights. They are functionless. They are not to be used for any practical purposes. They are purely symbolic reminders of something that once was, of something beyond, of something that must not be exploited.
MA: They are like a flashing neon sign advertising a miraculous event.
NL: In the Ashkenazic tradition you have the yahrzeit lamp, a memorial light which is kindled on the anniversary of a relative’s death. It came to us from Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid in 12th century Germany. It reminds of of a soul. My grandfather zt”l, issued a halakhic response to someone who asked if he could use an electric light instead of the traditional wax candle. My grandfather said “no” because a wax- candle yahrzeit lamp has specific symbolism. It has light that is immaterial and insubstantial, connected to the wick and wax which is material. It represents a human being, one who has a soul which is symbolized by light – insubstantial, but far more “real.” Both the material and the spiritual are combined to symbolize a human being.
MA: I believe that the definition of art for the Jews and the non-Jewish European are not only different, but opposite. We can learn about this great difference by comparing the Hebrew word for artist with the word in other languages. The English word “art” is the root of the words “artificial” and “artifact.” The Latin word “ars” and the German word “Kunst’ as well as words for art in all European tongues are related to imitation, copy, phony, counterfeit, and falsification. The Hebrew word for artist, in stark contrast, is the same word for truth, faith, craft, and education.
NL: Abarbanel says the same thing, in his commentary to Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim: The letters nun, tof, and heh can fall away In Hebrew. Thus you can have the following derivations: faith = emunah; art = amanut; and truth = emet.
MA: Hellenism inspired European culture to equate art with mimesis. The artist’s task was to imitate nature, as if it was the height of creation. Judaism, however, does not view nature as complete or ideal. It sees the artist and God as partners in an ongoing creative process. It is imitating the Creator rather that the creation that is valued. It is not one’s vision of nature that is to be emulated, but rather the divine process of creation.
NL: An artist is one who applies his creative talents to the natural world, which is precisely what God does. The artist applies his creativity in imitatio Dei. God creates new forms as does the artist who applies his creative talents in both aesthetic and functional realms. By creating new forms and organizations, the artist is performing a divine act.
MA: You know the famous legend (Midrash Tankhumah, Parshat Tazree’ah) where Rabbi Akivah was asked by a Roman official, “Which is greater and more beautiful, man’s creations or God’s? The Rabbi shacked the official by respondiong that human creation was more exalted than divine creation. He then brought a plate of wheat grains for the Roman and cakes for himself. He explained to the puzzled Roman that he did not find God’s creation tasty; he would rather eat cakes.
The exhibition “Lights OROT” is a visual Midrash, an artistic commentary on concepts of light, vision and art in Judaism. Like the first Jewish learning environment created by Abraham in the Negev Desert, this electronic art environment involves each person in a creative encounter with surroundings designed to evoke questions. Aishel Avraham literally Abraham’s tamarisk tree. Aishel, however, is the acronym for food, lodging, and escorting a guest on his way. Aishel also contains the same letters of the word sha’al – to question. Abrham’s aishel was opened to the four winds, legend tells us, so that each individual spirit (spirit and wind are the same word in Hebrew) could enter through a different opening. Each person coming from his own unique set of prior experiences could gain fresh insights by a process of questioning in a special environment provided by Aishel Avraham. Abraham then escorted each person out into the desert until his new insights illuminated his way.