20 June 2016

How to See Spirituality in Your Smartphone Photos

“I made for myself gardens and orchards and planted in them every kind of fruit tree.” (Ecclesiastes 2:5) 


(Based upon my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life http://photographgod.com)

A traditional method of Bible study called PaRDes offers a postdigital method for looking beyond the surface of smartphone photographs.  This method of discerning deeper levels of significance in biblical texts can be valuable in mining meaning beneath the surface of smartphone images.  The Hebrew word PaRDeS literally means orchard.  Creatively discerning levels of meaning in biblical texts is compared to tasting sweet fruits picked and eaten while wandering through an orchard.  PaRDeS is related to the word “PaRaDiSe.”

PaRDeS is an acronym for four levels for looking beyond the biblical text.  P’shat is the simple, literal meaning of the biblical words. Remez is a hint of innate significance. Drash is a homiletic interpretation.  And Sod is spiritual and inspirational.

There is a considerable body of theoretical literature on reading photographs that establishes categories for analyzing images that parallel PaRDeS.  A comprehensive review this literature is presented in Shlomo Lee Abrahmov’s chapter “Media Literacy: Reading and Writing Images in a Digital Age” in my book Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the intersection of Art, Science, Technology and Culture. He proposes three categories for analyzing photographic images: Factual Level (observing factual details), Interpretive Level (assigning significance to factual details), and Conceptual Level (deciphering the intrinsic/deep meaning).

P’shat corresponds to the Factual Level, Remez to the Interpretive Level, and Drash to the Conceptual Level.  Sod is an additional category derived from kabbalah that adds a profound dimension that is not found in literature outside of the Jewish tradition.  All four levels of PaRDeS are significant in reading smartphone photographs posted in a spiritual blog.
Kabbalah, Judaism’s down-to-earth spiritual tradition, links the four levels of PaRDeS to four realms: Action, Emotion, Mind, and Emanation.  The everyday World of Action in space and time corresponds to P’shat -- the plain, simple, direct reading. The World of Emotion corresponds to Remez -- the affective, allegoric, symbolic meaning. The World of Mind corresponds to Drash -- the cognitive, conceptual, comparative meaning.  And the World of Emanation, closest to the Divine source, corresponds to Sod – the spiritual, esoteric, mystical, hidden and inspirational meaning.

I will first demonstrate this four-step method by using it to explore the biblical text that describes Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder.  Then, I will apply it to the photograph above that I created to illustrate human hands continuing the process of Creation after God finished His part.

“He had a vision in a dream. A ladder was standing on the ground, its top reaching up towards heaven as Divine angels were going up and down on it.” (Genesis 28:12)

That a ladder is a ladder is P’shat.

That the ladder was spiral, like a spiral staircase, is the Remez. We arrive at the spiral shape of the ladder by noticing that the numerical value of the Hebrew words for “ladder” and for “spiral” are both 130. Creative play using numerical equivalents of Hebrew letters, a system called gematriah, can lead to fresh insights. 

A more contemporary Remez links Jacob’s ladder to the DNA spiral ladder with rungs on which codes for all forms of life are written with four words: A-T, T-A, C-G, G-C.   The SPR root of SPiRal is found in many ancient and modern languages.  The hand-written scroll of the Five Books of Moses is called SePheR Torah.  SPR appears in SPiRitual and inSPiRation, two words most relevant for analyzing photographs spiritually.    

The ladder as a metaphor for Mount Sinai reaching up towards heaven from the ground below is Drash.  Jacob’s dream was a prophetic vision of angels ascending the mountain to bring the Torah down to earth. The numerical value of “Sinai” is also 130.

The deepest significance of the ladder as symbolized in Sod is offered in the Zohar, the major work of kabbalistic thought.  The Zohar teaches that Jacob’s ladder is Jacob’s body with his head in the clouds dreaming of what can be while his feet rest on the ground where dreams are realized.  Every human being has the potential to connect heaven and earth by making spiritual energy flow through him into the everyday world.

I will apply the PaRDeS method of looking beyond the surface of a photograph in the “Torah Tweets” blogart project  http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com.  It is a post for the opening chapter of the Bible, Bereshit /In the beginning (Genesis 1:1-6:8).  The post is titled “Creation of the World at Our Doorstep.”

The photo is the last in a sequence of six images representing life forms in the biblical creation story.   I photographed them all in and around my home:  a cactus plant on our porch, red-leafed plants in front of our house, a cat hiding in the bushes between our door and a pet shop selling goldfish, and our dog Snowball. The sixth photo shows my wife’s fingers pressing cloves into a yellow citrus fruit.

P’shat (literal meaning) is an image of a woman’s fingers pressing cloves into a lemon.

Remez (innate significance) is that the fruit is not a lemon, but a citrus fruit called a citron, in scientific nomenclature Citrus medica and in Hebrew etrog.  Jews hold an etrog together with a palm frond and branches of myrtle and willow leaves, on the holiday of Sukkot in accordance with the biblical mitzvah:
"And you shall take on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days!" (Leviticus 23:40).

Drash (homiletic interpretation) is that the four species symbolize four types of people that taken together form a community.  The etrog has both a pleasant smell and taste, the date from a palm tree has no smell but a sweet taste, myrtle has a nice smell but no taste, and willow leaves have neither smell nor taste.  Smell represents Torah study and taste good deeds.  The etrog symbolizes a person who both engages in scholarly pursuits and performs good deeds.

Sod (inspirational meaning) is that my wife Miriam is recycling a mitzvah.  After the holiday of Sukkot is over, the ritual role of the four species has ended.  Instead of discarding the etrog, Miriam presses cloves into the entire etrog to preserve it for use in the havdalah ceremony marking ending of the Sabbath day.  So that the extra soul we gain on the Sabbath to make it a sweet day does not make us faint as it suddenly departs, a pleasant fragrance is used to prolong it.  We enjoy the wonderful smell of the etrog preserved by the cloves for the entire year through the mitzvah of havdalah.  Havdalah is a multisensory ceremony in which the olfactory sense in joined with a visual experience of flames of a multi-wick candle, and the taste of sweet wine. 

A deeper meaning is Miriam becoming God’s partner in continuing God’s work.  God created the etrog and cloves.  She married these two divine creations to create a new human creation that honors the Sabbath.  Two of God’s botanical creations in the realm of space are joined by human creativity to honor God’s creation in the realm of time.                    

16 June 2016

The Art and Thought of Mel Alexenberg

From the 2016 book Tradition and Transformation: Three Millennia of Jewish Art and Architecture by Dr. Ori Z. Soltes, Professorial Lecturer in Theology and Fine Arts, Georgetown University

Chapter 16: A World of Revolutions: From the 1970’s, Pages 433-435

The play on Western visual themes in a uniquely “Jewish” direction that differently defines Rivers’ triptych and Rand’s diversely sweeping series of paintings also—differently—forms a substantial part of the work of Mel Alexenberg (b.1937). As by the 1980s the explosion of visual artistic creativity in the United States among Jewish artists born here continued in exponential expansion, Alexenberg is symptomatic of one end of the broad spectrum of artists and media that fall logically within the parameters of this narrative. That is, antithetical in myriad ways to the work of those artists in which “Jewish content” requires somewhat of an archaeological enterprise, he exemplifies a pattern of intense overtness with regard to consciousness of and asking the question of how to define Jewish art.
Beginning as a New York-based scientist, Alexenberg early in his career began very consciously to articulate the parameters of Jewish art in conceptual form. He was commenting in the summer of 1984 on the form of the tallit—the prayer shawl—in the Jewish tradition, and its termination in particularly structured fringes (tzitzit) which, apart from being an element that hangs from the tallit, is worn daily by observant Jews, as its own separate garment, under the shirt. In his remarks he noted the tzitzit structure: knot, spiral, branching, extending, outflowing terminations. Alexenberg related these images, of spiral, scrolling and branching, both to the natural world—from the DNA helix to the sea shell—and to Jewish visual symbology. Not only is the tzitzit a spiraling, scrolled fringe, but the phylactery thong that wraps around the arm in prayer forms a spiral, as does each of the unshaved earlocks of traditional Jewish males, and, of course, the doubly scrolled Torah: Book of books for the People of the Book.
Interestingly, much of Alexenberg’s work has been electronic—he offers computer-generated images—which also develop as spiral and branching systems: the doubly-wound video and audio tape, the branched format of the microchip.  This is endemic to nature, he argues, as it is to Jewish consciousness: and thus, both his chosen technique at the time of his remarks, of computer-generation, and his sense of image, are endemically symbolic of Jewish art and artistic consciousness. Hundertwasser, we recall, had denounced the straight line as pagan. Alexenberg speaks of the one-line circle as idolatrous—relating the Hebrew word circle—iggul—to that for the Golden Calf (Egel HaZahav)  of the Exodus story (Ex 32:1-6, 15-20) which pulled the Israelites back toward pagan, Egyptian-style worship. Even more emphatically, he refers to the single-line square as symbolic of slavery with its enclosed, stop-based parameters (at each corner one stops in order to turn and continue the line).

This is an artist whose every thought in generating art derives from a conscious exploration of himself as a Jew and what it means to be a Jewish artist. There is superb irony—even humor (and the humor of appropriation and transformation of message, while not unique to the Jewish engagement of the world, is certainly endemic to it)—in his appropriation of an icon from the western—Christian—artistic tradition: Rembrandt’s angel, floating up the ladder of the Patriarch Jacob/Israel’s sacer-suffused dream. Alexenberg repeatedly used, transformed and essentially distorted that image by digitalizing, dismembering and recreating it in an important part of his work of the 1980s [FIG 504].
 Like Rivers in his “Story of Matzah” triptych, but completely different in technique, style and visual direction, Alexenberg transforms the normative Western tradition within which he works, as he rebels against it—as a Jewish artist conscious of the long centuries through which Jews were denied participation in Western cultural and other mainstreams. He does it in various media, sometimes by superimposing that Rembrandt angel, intermediary between divine and human, sacer and profanus realms, over a Brooklyn street scene in which delicatessen—food—signs repeat themselves; or soaring into the space left when a bite has been taken out of a buttered muffin advertised in a subway car.

FIG 504: Mel Alexenberg: Muffin Angel (from Subway Angel series), 1987
Thus he word-plays on the relationship in Hebrew between the term for food (ma’akhal; okhel) and angel (mal’akh) and the classical term for art (m’lakhah), and thus between the most down-to-earth notion (food) and the element of the divine (angel) as mediated by art, created out of human—in this case, Jewish (certainly linguistically Jewish)—consciousness.
He has attached giant styrofoam Hebrew letters—the seven letters that are typically decorated by a scribe with vertical pointed crowns called tagin—to hydrogen-filled weather balloons. The letters were painted the seven colors of the rainbow floated upward from the wilderness of Tzin, near the Dead Sea. Alexenberg observes that a midrash points out that these seven letters are found in words like “hate,” that are too heavy to float up to Heaven when the Torah is chanted, and therefore need the tagin to help elevate them. The artist literalized and aggrandized this idea with his upwardly-soaring letters released near the lowest geological point on the planet's surface and both in Israel and near Jordan [FIG 505].

 FIG 505: Mel Alexenberg: Ascent from the Tzin Wilderness, 2009
At other times he uses technology as his paintbrush and the human worlds both below and above as his canvas. He has sent computer angels via satellite from the Old City of Jaffa, in Israel, to New York City, Los Angeles, Paris, Amsterdam, Melbourne, Buenos Aires: creating a universalistic happening by “connecting” these seven sites across the globe; or in the sky above Munich—Hitler’s 1930s geographic rallying point, and the PLO’s 1972 Olympic murder point—where he floated seven giant Hebrew letters, in the 1983 “Sky Art” exhibit.
 As elsewhere, in these gargantuan works the artist draws explicitly on the number seven with both its broad and its narrow significance: a pregnant, redemptive number that connects creation to Sabbath to Temple Menorah to Jewish (and Christian and Muslim, among others) art symbolism. Floating upward, like the spherot of the Jewish mystical tradition, these angels, these letters and numbers, intermediate between God-creator and God’s created universe; they represent the transformation of spirit into matter and of matter into spirit. They recall Jacob’s dream in the journey out from Canaan, of angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth, to counterpoint his dream on the journey back to Canaan, where he wrestled the angel of God to a draw and was transformed, from Jacob to Israel. Within the blue sky with its white, whispy clouds, these are strands of the blue and white conceptual tapestry—the blue and white tallit—with which Mel Alexenberg weaves “Jewish art” out of the minute and magnificent elements of human aspiration.
Alexenberg has also used art, more recently, as specifically American political commentary on the relationship between heaven and earth. His interactive “Divine Retribution” installation of 2000 offered newspaper front pages from three moments in President Clinton’s political life: the day before and after his 1992 election and the day of the impeachment decision. Below these mounted newspaper clippings, we read that the President brought back a substantial amount of earth from Israel to be offered as “gifts”—soil from the Holy Land—to political patrons. The artist’s implied commentary was that the impeachment was divine punishment for abrogating God’s will by taking away and giving away pieces of the Promised Land to those to whom it was not promised—and the viewer was invited, tongue-in-cheek, to carry off a scoop. Alexenberg punned, moreover, on the idea of “Four corners of the Land”—a biblical phrase used with reference to that Holy Land—by selecting the news headlines from cities located in the four corners of the United States. He thus also implicitly commented on the issue of Homeland/Promised Land that has, in many Jewish circles, placed Israel and the United States in either opposition or apposition since the end of the nineteenth century.

02 May 2016

Shame on Bernie Sanders

From The Algemeiner, May 1, 2016. http://www.algemeiner.com/2016/05/01/shame-on-bernie-sanders/

Bernie Sanders is following in the footsteps of Judge Richard Goldstone — a Jew whose slanderous report issued by a UN kangaroo court irreparably harmed the state of Israel.

A Jew slandering his own people is infinitely more powerful than a non-Jew doing it. Those who hated Israel loved Goldstone.

Five years ago, when Goldstone’s libelous report was issued, my wife Miriam Benjamin and I were creating “Torah Tweets,” http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com, a project that showed how our life and current events reflected each week’s Torah portion.

The Torah portion Metzorah/Slanderer, which is read in synagogues on the Shabbat before Passover, proposes rehabilitation therapy for slanderers like Richard Goldstone and Bernie Sanders. This portion teaches us that slanderers undermine a free society by spreading lies that defame others.

The damage Goldstone’s falsehoods inflicted on Israel’s image and standing was beyond calculation. It made front page headlines. Buried on the inside pages of newspapers, a year and a half later, was the news that Goldstone had recanted his report. He admitted that charges that Israel deliberately killed civilians were blatant lies. But Goldstone’s slander, which had been etched in the public’s mind, could not be erased.

Professor Michael Oren reacted to Sander’s lies about Israel’s actions in Gaza by saying, “He accused us of a blood libel. He accused us of bombing hospitals. He accused us of killing 10,000 Palestinian civilians. Don’t you think that merits an apology?” When asked about Oren later on, Sanders said, “Who is Michael Oren?”

When CNN‘s Jake Trapper tried to correct Sanders, the senator just shrugged it off without expressing any regret that he had misinformed the public. Former US Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, along with many others, report that Israel went to “extraordinary lengths” to limit civilian casualties in Gaza.

Sanders dared not face his fellow Jews at the AIPAC Conference and display his animosity towards Israel. His absence was conspicuous when presidential candidates Clinton, Cruz, Kasich, and Trump spoke there.

Sanders also chooses to ignore the US government designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization. Perhaps he should read the Hamas Charter, and learn of their genocidal aims: “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims…. Muslims will fight the Jews until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him! I indeed wish to go to war for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill, assault and kill, assault and kill.”

Shame on Bernie Sanders.

Mel Alexenberg is author of Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life, professor emeritus of art and Jewish thought at Ariel University, former professor at Columbia University and Bar-Ilan University, and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. 

18 April 2016

Read B’reshit (In the beginning) as B’reshet (In the network)

From Breaking Israel News, April 13, 2016, http://www.breakingisraelnews.com

“In the network, God created media systems for creating heaven and earth.  When the earth was absolutely empty and dark, God created light and separated between light and darkness (1 and 0, on and off).” (Genesis 1:1-1:4)

A creative translation of the first verses of Genesis from the original Hebrew offers the Creation narrative in postdigital perspective.

We can read the first word of the Bible B’reshit (In the beginning) as B’reshet (In the network).  In Genesis 1:1, the Hebrew word et appears twice, before heaven and before earth.  “In the beginning God created et the heaven and et the earth.”  Since English has no equivalent for the word et that links a verb to a noun, it drops out in translation.  et is spelled alef-tav, the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Spanning the full set of 22 Hebrew letters, et symbolizes media systems.

Wikipedia uses my definition of “postdigital” as the humanization of digital technologies through interplay between digital, biological, cultural, and spiritual systems.

My new book PHOTOGRAPH GOD: CREATING A SPIRITUAL BLOG OF YOUR LIFE https://israel365.com/store/books/photograph-god-creating-a-spiritual-blog-of-your-life/ brings postdigital concepts into the everyday world.  The book’s cover shows the photo of Miriam pressing cloves into an etrog (a citrus fruit grown in Israel).  By combining two of God’s creations, we create something new that has spiritual meaning for marking the conclusion of the Sabbath.         


The media system of heaven, the spiritual realm, is written in the Torah with Hebrew letters that form words.  The media system of earth, the physical realm, is written with electrons and protons that form atoms and molecules.  The media system of the digital realm returns us to the primeval binary creation of darkness and light, 0 and 1.  It is written with the binary digits 0-1 called bits that form bytes.   Every blog, website, video, song, and text that you access in the Internet is written with the binary system of the first day of Creation.

The Lubavticher Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson, the 20th century’s greatest Hasidic leader educated as a scientist, recognized the spiritual power of the Internet early on.  The Rebbe teaches: “The divine purpose of the present information revolution, which gives an individual unprecedented power and opportunity, is to allow us to share knowledge – spiritual knowledge – with each other, empowering and unifying individuals everywhere. We need to use today’s interactive technology not just for business or leisure but to interlink as people – to create a welcome environment for the interaction of our souls, our hearts, our visions.”


My wife Miriam and I created the “Torah Tweets” blogart project to celebrate our 52nd year of marriage.  It developed into my book PHOTOGRAPH GOD: CREATING A SPIRITUAL BLOG OF YOUR LIFE.  During each of the 52 weeks of our 52nd year, we posted photographs reflecting our life together with texts that relate the weekly Torah reading to our lives.  We disseminated our weekly “Torah Tweets” posts worldwide through the Blogosphere and Twitterverse.  You can see our blogart project at http://bibleblogyourlife.com.

The PHOTOGRAPH GOD book invites others to create their own Bible blogs that link their unfolding life stories with the Bible’s storyline.  Bible blogging offers a powerful way to express spirituality in an age of smartphones and selfies.

14 April 2016

Bernie Meets Goldstone in the Amazon Jungle

Bernie Sanders is following in the footsteps of Judge Richard Goldstone, a Jew whose slanderous report issued by a UN kangaroo court that he chaired did irreparable damage to the State of Israel. 

A Jew slandering his own people gave infinitely more power than any of the usual international reports assailing Israel. Those who hated Israel loved Goldstone.

Five years ago, when Goldstone’s libelous report was issued, my wife Miriam Benjamin and I, two artists, were creating the “Torah Tweets” blogart project that showed how our life and current events reflected each week’s Torah portion.  The entire blogart project integrating photography with texts written as 140 character tweets can be accessed at http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com.

The Torah portion Metzorah/Slanderer read in synagogues on the Shabbat before Passover proposes rehabilitation therapy for slanderers like Richard Goldstone and Bernie Sanders.  This portion is linked to Passover, the Festival of Freedom, to teach us that slanderers undermine a free society by spreading lies that defame others. I only have to replace “Goldstone” with “Sanders” to make our five-year old blog post current.    


Metzorah/Slanderer (Leviticus 14:1-15:33)

“He shall take the live bird together with cedar wood, crimson wool and hyssop….  And he shall set the live bird free upon the open fields.” (Leviticus 14:6, 7)

Rav Kook (Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel during the first half of the 20th century) reads Metzorah as Motzi Shem Ra (to create a bad name for someone), a slanderer who defames others by his speech (lashon hara).

The slanderer not only afflicts his own body, clothes and house through lashon hara, but he threatens society through breakdown of trust.

Therefore, he is banished from his community to live in isolation and seclusion in the wild among animals and plants that speak no evil.

Bernie Sanders should be banished to the Amazon jungle for defaming Israel with blatant lies as it defends itself against rocket attacks.     

Metzorah follows Shemini (kosher animals) to teach that what comes out of our mouths can be far more detrimental than what goes in.  (Rabbi Yisrael Salanter)

Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains that the mighty cedar and hyssop weed with sheep wool and crimson bug dye symbolize all plant and animal life.

When banishment therapy has succeeded, cedar and hyssop are bound with a red woolen thread to symbolize rising above amoral nature.    

A bird flying free represents the potential to tweet truthful words that confirm the metzorah's rehabilitation from crowing hateful lies.  

The biodiversity of the Amazon jungle is unmatched.  It is home to far more species of flora and fauna than anyplace else on Planet Earth.

Bernie Sanders would feel at home living with Amazon toucans, the greatest big-mouth birds in the world.


The damage Goldstone’s falsehoods inflicted on Israel’s image and standing was beyond calculation.  It made front page headlines.  Buried on the inside pages of newspapers a year and a half later, was the story that he recanted.  He admitted that Israel deliberately killed civilians were blatant lies.  Goldstone’s slander etched in the public’s mind could not be erased.


Prof. Michael Oren reacted to Sander’s lies: “He accused us of a blood libel.  He accused us of bombing hospitals.  He accused us of killing 10,000 Palestinian civilians.  Don’t you think that merits an apology?”  When Jake Trapper in his CNN interview corrected his lies, Sanders just shrugged it off without expressing any regret that he had misinformed the public. The number according to the UN was 1,462 and Israel’s estimate is 762 people who were warned by the IDF to evacuate civilian sites hiding rocket manufacturing and launching. Former U.S. Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey says that Israel went to “extraordinary lengths” to limit civilian casualties in Gaza.

Senator Sanders displayed appalling ignorance by asking, “Who is Michael Oren?”  Oren was Israel’s high-profile ambassador to the U.S. during Obama’s first term, current Knesset member, and author of highly acclaimed books on the history of American foreign policy in the Middle East, a subject he taught at Harvard, Yale, Tel Aviv and Hebrew universities.

He dared not face his fellow Jews at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington and display his animosity towards Israel’s government and ignorance of the brutality destroying the countries surrounding the Jewish State.  His absence was conspicuous when presidential candidates Clinton, Cruz and Trump spoke there.           

Sanders chooses to ignore the U.S. government designation of Hamas, the rulers of Gaza, as a terrorist organization that launched thousands of rockets at Israel’s villages, towns and cities in its attempts to kill and maim as many Israel’s as possible.

He could have googled “Hamas Charter” and learned their genocidal aims:  “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims…. The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him….! I indeed wish to go to war for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill, assault and kill, assault and kill.”