10 December 2017

JerUSAlem-USA: There are 20 Jerusalems in USA


The recognition by the United States of the 3,000-year reality that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, prompted my posting here a description of my blogart project about the twenty Jerusalems in the United States.  See http://jerusalem-usa.blogspot.com for photos and texts by local residents of places named “Jerusalem” in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah and Vermont.  My description of the project here is an excerpt from my book The Future of Art in Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) available from amazon.com. See the book’s blog at http://future-of-art.com.


The name of these American Jerusalems was inspired by the Bible where we read about King David establishing Jerusalem as the capital of the unified state of the Israelite nation more than three millenia ago. Today, Jerusalem is the lively capital of the modern state of Israel.
I created a JerUSAlem-USA blog and a JerUSAlem-USA Facebook group where I posted invitations to participate in this art project by sending photographs of everyday life (people, homes, stores, community events and celebrations, flora and fauna, scenery, and signs showing the name “Jerusalem”). I also invited participation by sending letters to the editors of local newspapers read by people living in the American Jerusalems and neighboring communities. I also e-mailed my request to professors at art schools and college and university art departments in the dozen states with Jerusalems to invite their photography students to participate. I contacted governors, senators, congressmen, and state and local governments with requests to arrange collaboration by their constituents. I then posted on the project blog an invitation in Hebrew inviting Israelis to study the photographs of Jerusalems in the USA and submit matching images of Jerusalem in Israel.

The juxtaposition of photographs of the original Jerusalem with those from the twenty American Jerusalems creates an interactive network of people with shared values that deepens the friendship between them. A photograph of a wooden covered bridge built over the Jericho River by Thomas Forsyth in 1865 in Jerusalem Mills, Maryland, is juxtaposed with a photograph of the light rail bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava and built in 2009 to span the entrance to Jerusalem, Israel, drawing up images of the stringed harp of King David. The image of an Independence Day celebration in Jerusalem in upstate New York on the shores of Lake Keuka to commemorate the liberation of the USA from British rule on the 4th of July 1776 is matched by an image of a Jerusalem Day celebration in downtown Jerusalem commemorating the liberation of Jerusalem after nearly 2,000 years of occupation by foreign powers from the Roman Empire to the Ottoman Empire to the British Empire. A photo of Ave Maria Grotto, known as “Jerusalem in Miniature,” a landscaped park designed to provide a natural setting for the 125 architectural miniatures created of stone and concrete as the lifetime work of Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine monk of St Bernard Abbey in Alabama is posted with a photo of “Mini Israel,” a tourist attraction midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that features over 350 beautifully crafted exact-replica models of historical, religious, archeological, and modern sites in Jerusalem and throughout the Land of Israel. The fun photograph of a pink rabbit on a spring for children to ride in a playground in Jerusalem, Ohio, is juxtaposed with a photograph of a huge fantasy monster created by artist Niki de Saint Phalle in 1972 in Jerusalem, Israel; children climb up inside the monster to slide down any one of its three tongues.

People began to not only send me photographs of Jerusalems in the USA, but attached delightful stories of how the American Jerusalems got their names and descriptions of the places they chose to photograph. Residents wrote about their experiences living in an American Jerusalem and visitors wrote about their observations of the place and their discussions with people who live there.

Judi and Al Grant of Jerusalem, Rhode Island wrote: “My husband Al and I live in the village of Jerusalem year round. We heard about your project through an article written in our local paper – The South County Independent. The photos of the Block Island ferry were taken from our home looking over to the Port of Galilee. Rhode Island has four seasons and whether it’s winter, spring, summer or fall each season brings a sense of contentment and wellbeing within our community. It is truly a remarkable place. I’ve attached another photo – it was on the outside of our home when we purchased it years ago. The man that built the house in 1945 placed it on the chimney – Now the way to get to Jerusalem is by way of Galilee passing through Jericho – is it not? Was this the original owner’s way of saying this was his little slice of heaven?” About how it got its name. “In 1902, the story goes, Thomas Mann a fisherman from Nova Scotia who had settled here, felt the village that had sprung up with its fishing shacks should be called Galilee after the fishing village of biblical times. One day, an old timer sat on the docks repairing his nets when a stranger called out to him, ‘Where am I?’ The answer was ‘Galilee.’ ‘And what is that?’ the stranger asked pointing to the other side of the channel. The old timer thought for a minute, nodded his head and replied, ‘Must be Jerusalem!’ And so the names of Galilee and Jerusalem have been used since to denote a most picturesque part of Rhode Island.”

Molly Davis, a student of photography professor Amy Jorgensen at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, wrote: “A long, dry, dirt road led up to the town of Jerusalem, Utah. There were old decaying cabins and sheds, log cabins, and tiny houses where the people lived. A car came down the dirt road with a lady wearing a pink hat and pink lipstick. She introduced herself as Laura Phelps, ‘Mayor’ of the town. She was sweet and excited about the JerUSAlem-USA project when we explained it to her. She told us about the history of little Jerusalem that was established by her great-grandfather. Walking down the road was a man in his flannel shirt and worn out jeans with his eight-month-old Great Dane puppy. You could hardly call her a puppy. She was huge. The man was in the process of training her. Her jumping all over the place scared me. The man, who did not want to be identified, told us about his great-great-grandmother and how she lived in the broken down blue bus in his shed. He then left to help his neighbor with a farming project. The farming equipment was painted in beautiful bright colors, which was humorous because the town itself was very dry and bland with green trees and hills behind it. I felt a sense of beauty there even with the ‘No Trespassing’ and ‘Keep Out’ signs.”

Cynthia Glad is also a student at Snow College where she is majoring in art. She is a 38-year-old mother of six who interviewed and photographed three of the families living in Jerusalem, Utah. Cynthia lives in the town of Moroni only a five-minute drive from Jerusalem. Just as different photographers of the same Jerusalem focus on different aspects of the place, the texts I received complement each other by providing alternative viewpoints. Cynthia wrote: “I found as I talked to the residents of Jerusalem, they were excited as well. I think this gives one more human connection to the rest of the world that sometimes these little places are lacking. They are happy and content in their lives, secluded for the most part by choice. But to know that there are people just like them in communities across the USA and in Israel is eye opening. Even though the initial connection is linked only by the name of their community, they will find other similarities with the people and lives of those other places. It makes the world a little smaller. Kind of like Disney’s ‘It’s a Small World After All.’ One couple spent many years taking their children to the farm on weekends and holidays. When the father retired and sold his chiropractic business, they went to the farm to live. They own several acres and have a gigantic garden. There are bags and boxes of fruits and vegetables throughout the kitchen, as well as bottles and racks of dried and processed foods. The night I visited with them, the pressure canner was busy at work on the stove. All these are signs of the efforts they have put into the land and the reward for their hard work. They have one pasture that every evening fills up with about a hundred deer. They lead a busy life that at the same time carries a sense of quiet. The land that Jerusalem, Utah, sits on has been in the mother’s family since the mid-1800s when the first settler Lawrence Christensen moved there. Laura Phelps, another great-granddaughter, says of her great-grandfather, ‘Someone asked him the name of his little town and he said, Little Jerusalem. It has been Jerusalem ever since.’ Jack Bailey drove by in his truck. He is the great-grandson of Lawrence Christensen. He was born and raised in Jerusalem. His family home had burned down many years ago. He now has a home that sits on many acres and is nestled against the mountain where he raised his kids. Jack is 82 years old and has been farming all his life. Jack has only about 30 head of sheep left on his farm. He said, ‘I’m about ready to give it up.’” 

30 November 2017

Orchestrating Dry Pixels and Wet Biomolecules


This blogpost from The Times of Israel, IsraelSeen, and LinkedIn is based upon the “Turn Your Lens on Yourself” chapter in my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life http://photographgod.com that explores the vibrant interface between spiritual seeing, smartphone photography, and social media.  It demonstrates how kabbalah, the down-to-earth spiritual tradition of Judaism, offers fresh insights into the creative process, both human and divine.

I describe the process of my creating an artwork to help you use the kabbalistic model to become aware of your creative process as you photograph God and creating a spiritual blog your life.  Here I describe how I created Inside/Outside:P’nim/Panim, a responsive artwork through which internal mind/body processes and one’s facial countenance engage in dialogue.   Participants in Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim create a live feedback loop as they photograph themselves.  The photo above shows my interactive biofeedback-generated self-portrait that I created at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies for the LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum in New York.

INTENTION TO INSIGHT

My process once again began in synagogue on the Sabbath day. I was absorbed in the rhythm of the chanting of words from the Torah scroll following them with my eyes. I was far removed from my studio/laboratory at MIT when I suddenly realized that the Hebrew words for face panim and for inside p’nim are written with the same Hebrew letters. This flash of awareness that outside and inside are linguistically one is the sudden transition from Crown to Wisdom, from intention to insight.     

When I told my son what had just dawned on me, my mind left the sephirah of Wisdom for the sephirah of Understanding. The linguistic insight that ignited the process began to take form as an artwork in Understanding.  I sensed that I needed to create portraits in which dialogue between the outside face and inside feelings become integrated in a single artwork.

HARMONIOUS INTEGRATION OF OPENNESS AND CLOSURE

The first three sephirot symbolize the artist’s intention to create and the cognitive dyad of Wisdom-Understanding in which a flash of insight begins to crystallize into a viable idea.
The fourth sephirah, Compassion, symbolizes largess, the stage in the creative process that is open to all possibilities, myriad attractive options that I would love to do. I thought of a multitude of artistic options opened to me for creating artworks that reveal interplay between inner consciousness and outer face. 

Compassion is counterbalanced by the fifth sephirah of Strength, restraint, the power to set limits, to make judgments, to have the discipline to choose between myriad options. It demands that I make hard choices about which paths to take and which options to abandon.  As an MIT research fellow with access to electronic technologies, my mind gravitated to creating digital self-generated portraits in which internal mind/body processes and one’s facial countenance engage in dialogue through a biofeedback interface.

The balance between the affective dyad Compassion-Strength is the sephirah of Beauty.   As I felt satisfaction with my choice, I departed from the sephirah of Strength to the next stage, the sixth sephirah, Beauty, the aesthetic core of the creative process in which harmonious integration of openness and closure elicits an exquisite feeling.

ORCHESTRATING DRY PIXELS AND WET BIOMOLECULES

The seventh sephirah, Success, is the feeling of being victorious in the quest for significance. I felt that I had the power to overcome any obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing my artwork. I had the confidence that I could orchestrate all the aspects of creating a moist media artwork that would forge a vital dialogue between dry pixels and wet biomolecules, between digital imagery and human consciousness. The eighth sephirah, Splendor, is the splendid feeling that the final shaping of the idea is going so smoothly that it seems as effortless as the graceful movements of a skilled dancer.

CREATING A BIOFEEDBACK LOOP

The ninth sephirah, Foundation, is the sensuous bonding of Success and Gracefulness in a union that leads to the birth of the fully formed idea. It funnels the integrated flow of intention, thought, and emotion of the previous eight sephirot into the world of physical action, into the tenth sephirah of Kingdom, the noble realization of my concepts and feelings in the kingdom of time and space. It is my making the artwork.

INSIDE/OUTSIDE: P’NIM/PANIM

I constructed a console in which a participant seated in front of a monitor places her finger in a plethysmograph, a device that measures internal body states by monitoring blood flow, while under the gaze of a video camera.  Digitized information about her internal mind/body processes triggers changes in the image of herself that she sees on the monitor. She sees her face changing color, stretching, elongating, extending, rotating, or replicating in response to her feelings about seeing herself changing.  My artwork, Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim, created a flowing digital feedback loop in which mind/body state p’nim effects changes in one’s face panim, and panim, in turn, effects changes in p’nim.  It creates living self-generated, interactive, digital portraits in the Kingdom of space and time.

CREATOR OF WORLDS

When you create photographs of God revealed in your everyday world and create a spiritual blog your life, you are acting as God’s partner in continuing creation.  It is through turning your lens on yourself to gain insight into your creative process that you can catch some glimpses of the Creator of the Universe at work.  In Genesis 2:2-3, we learn that on the seventh day God ceased from all the work that He had been creating so that we could continue His work on the eight day.  The kabbalistic model of creative process outlined in this chapter offers you tools for observing yourself as God’s partner.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, teaches in his masterpiece Halakhic Man that the central idea of Jewish consciousness is the importance of human beings as partners of the Almighty in the act of creation.

“If 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 the task of creation cannot become holy.  Creation is the lowering of transcendence into the midst of our turbid, coarse, material world.”   

24 November 2017

Cyberangels Seen Ascending from the New York City Subways


This article is based upon the “Turn Your Lens on Yourself” chapter in my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life http://photographgod.com that explores the vibrant interface between spiritual seeing, smartphone photography, and social media.  It demonstrates how kabbalah, the down-to-earth spiritual tradition of Judaism, offers fresh insights into the creative process, both human and divine.

The photo above shows a cyberangel that I added to an advertising placard for English muffins from a NYC subway train with the caption “The biblical words for angel and food are written with the same four Hebrew letters to tell us that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life.”  See more “Subway Angels” artworks at my website http://melalexenberg.com.    

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I use kabbalah to analyze my creative process in two artworks – Subway Angels and Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim.  This blogpost describes Subway Angels, part of my “Digitized Homage to Rembrandt” series that integrates photography with painting, serigraphy and text.  My next article will describe Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim is a biofeedback system for creating digital self-generated portraits that I created at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.   Both offer alternative views into the creative process from a kabbalistic perspective.  They provide a conceptual model for understanding your creative process as you embark on your adventure photographing God and spiritual blogging your life.

WISDOM, UNDERSTANDING AND KNOWLEDGE

The Bible uses the same words, Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge, to describe both human creativity and God’s creation of the universe. It teaches that the artist is “filled with a Divine spirit, with Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge and with artistic talent” (Exodus 31:3).  A parallel biblical passage teaches: “God founded the earth in Wisdom, established heavens in Understanding, and with Knowledge the depths opened and skies dripped dew” (Proverbs 3:19-20). Gaining insight into your process of forming something new can offer you some inkling of God in action creating the world. 

THE EIGHTH DAY

“On the seventh day, God finished all the work that he had done…. God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, for it was on this day that God ceased from all the work with he had been creating [for human beings to continue] making.” (Genesis 2:2-3)

Celebrate the seventh day by honoring God’s creations.  On the eight day, become God’s partner in continuing creation.  Turn can your creative lens on yourself to see your own creative process as a clue to the way God works. 

The ten stages in the creative process both divine and human begin with the sephirah of Crown, a pre-cognitive realm of intention to create.  It represents the divine will to create the universe before the Creation as well as a human being’s will to create something new.  This will to create is followed by cognitive sephirot of Wisdom and Understanding, the realm of mind experienced as insight and thought.  The next six sephirot represent the affective realm of Compassion, Strength, Beauty, Success, Splendor, and Foundation.  The ninth sephirah of Foundation funnels all the earlier eight sephirot of the worlds of will, mind and emotions into the tenth sephirah of Kingdom, the world of action, the place where everything is happening. 

When you photograph God, your lens captures actions that reveal the emotions of Compassion, Strength, Beauty, Success, Splendor, and Foundation in the Kingdom of space and time where all the action takes place.  When you turn the lens on yourself you can also reveal the sephirot of Crown, Wisdom, and Understanding,   your intentions, your insights, and your thoughts. These three sephirot are invisible to your camera lens focused on the six affective sephirot that you can see enacted in your environment, the sephirah of Kingdom.         

WISDOM FROM NOTHINGNESS

The first stage in the creative process is the sephirah Crown (Keter) – the will to create coupled with faith that one can create and anticipation that the creative process is pleasurable. Without this intention, self-confidence, and hope for gratification, the creative process has no beginning.

Crown sets the stage for the sephirah of Wisdom (Hokhmah) that requires a selfless state, nullification of the ego that opens gateways to supraconscious and subconscious realms.  When active seeking ceases, when consciously preoccupied with unrelated activities, when we least expect it, the germ of the creative idea bursts into our consciousness. This sudden flash of insight is what the kabbalah calls Wisdom. It is the transition from nothingness to being, from potential to the first moment of existence. In biblical words, “Wisdom shall be found in nothingness” (Job 28:12).

SUBWAY ANGELS

The process of creating Subway Angels began as I sat in a small Hasidic synagogue in Brooklyn following the reading of the weekly biblical portion from the handwritten Torah scroll.  I listened to the ancient Hebrew words, translating them into English in my mind.  As an artist, listening to the chanting of the passage describing the attributes of the Bible’s prototypic artist Bezalel made me feel at home.   The passage tells how Bezalel is filled with divine spirit, wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, and talent for all types of craftsmanship to make all manner of MeLekHet MakHSheVeT (Exodus 35:33).  Usually translated as “artistic work,” MeLekHet MakHSheVeT literally means “thoughtful craft.”

At that moment, I was living in the Crown sephirah.  I subconsciously intended to create artworks; I had faith in my ability to create artworks; and I felt that I would derive pleasure from the process of making art.  However, it was the Sabbath and I was removed from my studio, from my classroom where I taught computer graphics, and from my office as head of the art department at Pratt Institute. 

Indeed, the definition of Sabbath rest is to refrain from making MeLekHet MakHSheVeT.  The Sabbath day is biblically defined as the Non-Art day.  It is the day in which all work on the tabernacle was suspended.  To this day, an observant Jew on the Sabbath avoids doing any of the 39 categories of thoughtful craft that went into the biblical artists’ creation of the tabernacle. 

My absorption in the rhythm of the chanting of the Torah put me into a meditative state.  I was passively listening, open to receiving.  The stage was set for the sephirah of Wisdom.  
In a flash of insight I realized that as a male artist, I needed to create computer angels.  It suddenly dawned on me that the biblical term for “art,” MeLekHeT MakHSheVeT, is feminine.  Its masculine form is MaLakH MakHSheV, literally “computer angel.”  Art is a computer angel when biblical Hebrew meets modern Hebrew in a digital world.

TAKING FORM

Like the sperm that is received by the ovum in the womb, the unformed germ of an idea from the sephirah of Wisdom enters into the sephirah of Understanding (Binah).  This union of Wisdom and Understanding is Knowledge, as Adam knew Eve. 

As soon as the synagogue service came to an end, I rushed to explain to my wife that I needed to make computer angels.  “You need to make what?” she responded incredulously.  As I transformed my unformed insight into words to explain my thoughts to her, I entered into the sephirah of Understanding. 

All manner of thoughts entered my mind on ways to create computer angels. The shapeless idea that ignited the process began to take form in the sephirah of Understanding.  Together, Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge form the cognitive realm of thoughts.  Knowledge both unites Wisdom and Understanding and is the gateway to the next six sephirot that form the affective realm of emotions.

FROM OPENNESS TO SETTING LIMITS

The fourth sephirah of Compassion (Hesed) is openness to all possibilities.  I thought of the hundreds of artistic options open to me in creating computer angels and I loved them all.  Compassion is counterbalanced by the fifth sephirah of Strength (Gevurah), the strength to set limits, to make judgments, to choose between myriad options.  It demands that I make hard choices about which paths to take and which options to abandon.  What angel images do I digitize?  What media do I use?  Should I make paintings, lithographs, serigraphs, etchings, photographs, videos, multimedia works, or telecommunication events in which cyberangels fly around the planet via satellites? 

I recalled that a few weeks earlier, my son Ron had sent me an article on Rabbi Kook’s views that the light in Rembrandt’s paintings was the hidden light of the first day of Creation.  At the time, Ron was archivist at Beit Harav Kook in Jerusalem, the residence of the late kabbalist and chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook.  It became clear that I needed to digitize Rembrandt’s angels. 

I planned to visit the print room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I could look at original Rembrandt drawings and etchings and select his angel images.  I knew he had created a number of artworks of Jacob’s dream. “A ladder was standing on the ground, and its top reached up toward heaven, and angels were going up and down on it” (Genesis 28:12).  Since angels first go up before they go down, they must start their ascent from the lowest of places.  I thought that in New York City, perhaps angels fly up from the subways.  I would paint on subway posters and silk-screen print on them digitized Rembrandt angels and spiritual messages from underground.  

BEAUTIFUL BALANCE

As I felt satisfaction with my choice, I departed from the sephirah of Strength to the next stage, the sixth sephirah of Beauty (Tiferet).  This sephirah represents a beautiful balance between the counterforces of Compassion and Strength.  It is the feeling of harmony between all my possible options and the choices I had made.  Beauty is the aesthetic core of the creative process in which harmonious integration of openness and closure is experienced as deeply felt beauty.  The closure of having chosen to have cyberangels fly out of subway placards gave me the feeling that all is going well.

GRACEFUL SUCCESS

The seventh sephirah of Success (Netzah) is the feeling of being victorious in the quest for significance.  I felt that I had the power to overcome any obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing my artwork.  Netzah can also mean “to conduct” or “orchestrate” as in the word that begins many of the Psalms.  I had the confidence that I could orchestrate all the aspects of creating a multimedia symphony of computer angels arising from the bowels of New York City.

The eight sephirah of Splendor (Hod) is the glorious feeling that the final shaping of the idea is going so smoothly that it seems as effortless as the splendid movements of a graceful dancer.  The sephirah of Success is an active self-confidence in contrast with the sephirah of Splendor which is a passive confidence born of a trust in divine providence that “all will be good.”  It is the power to advance smoothly with the determination and perseverance born of deep inner commitment.  It is the wonderful feeling that all is going as it should.

CREATIVE INTEGRATION

The ninth sephirah of Foundation (Yesod) is the sensuous bonding of Success and Splendor in a union that leads to the birth of the fully formed idea.  It funnels the integrated forces of intention, thought, and emotions of the previous eight sephirot into the world of physical action.  In Chronicles 1:29, this sephirah is called All or Everything (kol).  It channels everything that was playing out in my mind into the craft of making the artwork.  It transports my private mental world into a public environmental arena in which I can create a product to communicate my ideas to others.

NOBLE REALIZATION

This tenth sephirah of Kingdom (Malkhut) is the noble realization of my concepts and feelings in the kingdom of time and space.  It involves all the practical details that go into physically making an artwork. 

I began the realization of my concepts by going to the company that places advertising posters in subway cars.  They gave me fifty different placards on which I painted and silk-screened printed angels and spiritual messages.  On one of them, I used deep blue acrylic paint to paint out the copy on an English muffin ad that showed a large photo of a muffin with a bite taken out of it.  I printed a computer angel in silver ink next to the missing piece of the muffin and printed a new text in gold ink: “The biblical words for angel and food are written with the same four Hebrew letters to tell us that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life.”

NEW BEGINNINGS

Exhibiting my Subway Angels series was a culminating activity that gave me the opportunity to stand back and look at what I had done.  This activity is parallel to the divine act on the seventh day when God looked at the completed creation and saw that it was good.  My sense of satisfaction, however, began to turn into a feeling of postpartum emptiness.  I had given over my creations to the world and they were no longer mine to possess.

The tenth sephirah of Kingdom, the realm of physical reality was being transformed into the first sephirah of Crown, returning to nothingness permeated by an undefined longing to create anew.  The process had come full circle.  The sephirot of Kingdom and Crown, the end and the beginning, merge into a single sephirah as the creative process is renewed.

TO BE CONTINUED


Follow my articles in The Times of Israel, IsraelSeen, and LinkedIn reproduced here at artiststory.com. My current sequence of articles is 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 http://amazon.com and other Internet book sellers.

16 November 2017

Art Museums, Freedom Tower, and Torah Blogs in The Cloud


This blogpost was published today in The Times of Israel, IsraelSeen, and LinkedIn.  It explores how God, named “The Place” (in Hebrew Hamakom), honors human beings by creating through them.  It is based upon my book Photograph God http://photographgod.com that examines four contemporary buildings that express Jewish consciousness:  Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, and Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower at Ground Zero.  The fourth building is a virtual one, the interactive Internet, a world wide web of images and texts, a human community of global reach.  The Wikimedia Commons photo above shows the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

My last week’s Times of Israel blogpost “From a Skyscraper for Killing God to a Peace Hut Higher than Sky” http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/from-a-skyscraper-for-killing-god-to-a-peace-hut-higher-than-sky/  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. 

BUILDING TIME OVER SPACE

In Frank Lloyd Wright: A Study in Architectural Content, art historian Norris Kelly Smith explained Wright’s originality and genius in terms of Boman’s comparison between Hebrew and Greek patterns of thought. Since Wright was well versed in the Bible as the son of a Unitarian minister, he internalized the biblical message of freeing humanity from enslavement in closed spaces and expressed this freedom in his architectural design. Smith emphasized that Wright imbued the field of architecture, conditioned by two thousand years of Greco-Roman thought, with Hebrew thought. Wright sought to create a new architecture to echo the biblical call inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10).

He wanted American architecture to assert its cultural independence from Europe. The connection between the exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and the American experience as a rebellion against European tyranny was clear to America’s founding fathers. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress formed a high-powered committee, made up of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, to propose a seal and motto for the newly independent United States of America. They proposed a seal depicting the Israelites escaping to freedom from bondage under Pharaoh through the divided waters of the Red Sea, with Moses standing on the shore extending his hand over the sea, causing it to overwhelm the Egyptians. The proposed motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Fourteen years later, George Washington wrote a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Savannah repeating the same biblical message of freedom:
"May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in the promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of heaven and make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of the people whose God is Jehovah."

Hebraic consciousness of freedom, movement, and change is exemplified by Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral Guggenheim Museum in New York. When I had asked my children what they remembered most from their visits to the Guggenheim, they enthusiastically reminisced about running down the ramp and being high up looking over the fence into the center atrium. It is not a box for rectangular pictures set in static space. It is an active place to be engaged over time. The exhibitions I saw there that worked best were shows about movement: Alexander Calder’s mobiles were moving around the spiral space to create a circus of color. Yaacov Agam’s kinetic and dialogic art changed with the movement of the viewers in his Beyond the Visible exhibition, and Jenny Holzer’s ruby light word messages on a running electronic signboard flashed their way up the spiral ramp. The motorcycle show was right on the mark.

The Bible encoded in a spiral Torah scroll provides a clue as to the nature of biblical consciousness as an open-ended, living system. It shares its spiral form with major forms of life, from DNA, to a nautilus shell, to the growth pattern of palm fronds. The spiral shape of Wright’s Guggenheim Museum represents the victory of time over space. It is the architectural expression of Hebraic thought and experience.  This is significant because it was fully realized by a non-Jew.

SETTING A BUILDING IN MOTION

In creating the Bilbao Guggenhiem Museum, Frank Gehry moved beyond Wright to a more powerful realization of the Hebraic mindset that Boman describes as dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and sometimes quite explosive in kind. It started in Canada when young Frank would play with the live carp swimming in his grandmother’s bathtub. Gehry often told the story that every Thursday his grandmother would buy fish and keep them in the bathtub until Friday when she prepared gefilte fish for the Sabbath meal. The vigorous body motions of swimming fish seen from above gave Gehry his vocabulary for the dynamic shape of his museum. Fish are one with their environment. They must stay in constant motion in it to stay alive. Oxygen carrying water must be kept moving over their gills for them to breathe. To stop motion is to die.  In their book on Gehry’s complete works, Dal Co and Foster write: 

"Over the years, Gehry has cultivated a highly personal studio practice of working with models, because it permits impossibly cantilevered parts and vertiginous piles of volumes in fluid transformation. As he began to shape buildings from mobile parts, his sense of space transcended Cartesian notions. This special sense defies verbal definition, but it might be compared with the sensation of moving bodies in a medium akin to water. To the extent that his buildings arrest volumes in continuous motion (and transformation), time becomes their formative dimension."

As an integral part of education for an architecture of time and motion, Gehry takes his students on ice in full hockey gear to interact with each other and their environment in rapid movement. Like fish in water, skaters standing still on ice are unstable. Swift motion creates balance. The same concept of stability in motion is sensed in seeing the “fish-scale” titanium skin on the Bilbao museum that makes it look like a futuristic airplane. Airplanes must move through their air medium in order to fly. Stopping motion in midair leads to crashing and death. He sets the bodies of his buildings in motion as a choreographer does with dancers. His studio practice appears like a performance rehearsal.

Gehry creates a dynamic flow between the building and its waterfront site and between the visitor and continually unfolding spaces. While jutting out over the water, the huge flowing fish-like building uses a combination of water-filled pools and the river to create an energetic interplay between building and site. Its full aerodynamic form can be seen from the other side of the river. Crossing the bridge and approaching the building transforms the experience of this monumental sculptural form into a more intimate encounter. Shifting viewpoints confuse the building and its environment as well as interior and exterior spaces. Moving through and around Gehry’s museum provides fresh encounters and new ways of seeing.

BUILDING STORIES

Influenced by the narrative structure of the Hebrew Bible, architect Daniel Libeskind explains that he creates buildings that tell stories. “If a building doesn’t tell a story it’s a nothing.  Every building should tell you the deeper story of why it’s there.”
            
Libeskind follows in the tradition of his grandfather who made his living traveling from village to village in Poland telling stories colored with Torah values. He emphasizes that his architectural sensibility is consciously Jewish, aiming at shaking people’s souls.  Architecture, he wrote, “seeks to explore the deeper order rooted not only in visible forms, but in the invisible and hidden sources which nourish culture itself, in its thought, art, literature, song and movement.”  He explores the symbolic potential of architecture through which history and tradition, memories and dreams are expressed. 

In an interview with The Jerusalem Report, Libeskind describes how his architecture expresses Jewish values that reject looking at buildings as merely material reality.
"I know that any building that I love is a building full of connections to something memorable, to something that has to do with the larger world, not just the immediate functional use.  Architecture should be able to pose questions, not just make people fall asleep and be anaesthetized, but invoke the real vitality of life, which is full of something wondrous.  It’s the Jewish value that space in not just the superficial idol that people often venerate, but that space is connected to culture, to spirit, and has great resonance in terms of tradition, the present and how it’s oriented towards new horizons.'    
              
His first commission was the Jewish Museum in Berlin at the heart of the beast that devoured six million Jews in a fiery genocidal frenzy.  Libeskind used the elements of architecture to tell the horrific story of the brutal mass murder of European Jewry from the point of view of the son of survivors of a Jewish family decimated by the Holocaust. The unconventional structure of the unbalanced building itself tells the story.  Visitors to the Berlin museum experience disorienting discomfort as they walk on tilted floors between sloping walls through uncomfortable spaces,  irregular structures, displaced fragments, misshaped proportions, unanticipated lighting, unconventional acoustics, and unexpected temperatures.  James Young writes in Daniel Libeskind and the Contemporary Jewish Museum that Libeskind’s drawings for the Berlin museum “look more like sketches of the museum’s ruins, a house whose wings have been scrambled and reshaped by the jolt of genocide, a devastated site being prepared to enshrine broken forms.” 
            
In contrast to the Berlin museum telling the unredeemable narrative of centuries of drenching the soil of Europe in Jewish blood, Libeskind designed a Freedom Tower that honors America’s primary value of guaranteeing freedom for all its citizens to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The Freedom Tower, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, reaches up from the site of the World Trade Center demolished by the 9/11 attack by Islamist terrorists that destroyed the lives of 3,000 Americans. Its spire reaches a symbolic height of 1,776 feet corresponding to the year the United States declared its independence.  It can be seen aligned to the torch of the Statue of Liberty that Libeskind first saw immigrating to the United States when he was thirteen.  As the first step in telling the American story through his Freedom Tower, he studied the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States.
            
Perhaps the Jewish historical experience of rebirth after catastrophic events informs the work of Jewish architects.  In addition to Daniel Libeskind being selected in an international competition to create a new World Trade Center, two other architects were selected in different competitions to also create works at the site of the 9/11 catastrophe.  Santiago Calatrava, designer of the Bridge of Strings at the entrance to Jerusalem, was selected to design the WTC Transportation Hub that he created to resemble a bird being released from a child's hand.  Calatrava’s family was victim of the Spanish Inquisition’s persecution, execution, and banishment of its Jews at the time Columbus discovered America.  Michael Arad was selected to design a memorial as a sacred place to remember and honor the thousands murdered by terrorists in the horrific attacks on the WTC.   He created Reflecting Absence, two pools with the waterfalls cascading down their sides filling the empty footprints of the Twin Towers. Each pool symbolizes the loss of life and the physical void created by the destroyed towers. The sound of the water falling drowns out the sounds of the city making the site a contemplative sanctuary. Arad, son of Israel’s ambassador to the United States, serviced in the Israel Defense Forces’ Golani Brigade commando unit defending the Jewish State against enemies aiming at annihilating it. 

BUILDING BLOGS IN THE CLOUD

The Cloud is a digital age term that describes a vast number of computers interconnected through a real-time communication network such as the Internet.  The Cloud embodies a peer-to-peer distributed architecture without the need for central coordination.  Residents of The Cloud act as both suppliers and consumers of information. The Cloud appears to be cloudy because it is unpredictable which paths data packets will take when transmitted across a packet-switched network that links your computer, tablet and smartphone to every other one in the world.  The Cloud is a living network of networks of networks blanketing our planet. 

When you photograph God and post your images on your blog or on Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter, or other sites in The Cloud, you distribute them worldwide, sharing them with all who enter into The Cloud.  When you are spiritually blogging your life, you are building a blog in The Cloud that continues to live on in The Cloud, accessible to billions of others.  Indeed, I am writing this book in Dropbox, situated somewhere in The Cloud unknown to me.

The Cloud is a thought-provoking metaphor for an invisible God everyplace that can be revealed to us anyplace that we invite divine light to illuminate our retinal screen.  The Place, Hamakom, is the One and only master network of all interlinking networks.  That you can see nothing at all looking at the motherboard or memory of your computer with the most powerful microscope is extended to every other digital device in The Cloud.  However, the screen on your computer, tablet or smartphone can reveal every photo, video and text on a growing global organism that we call The Cloud. 

In his book Judaism: A Way of Being, distinguished Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter explores the paradox that God coexists as an abstract, indescribable, and invisible transcendence and an intimate presence close to us everyplace we are.  He proposes a veil between God and man to reconcile two verses from the same chapter of the Bible: “No man can see Me and live” (Exodus 33:30) and “The Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his neighbor” (Exodus 33:11).  Perhaps the metaphor of a veil made of a misty cloud can resolve the passages from the Midrash: “Let the soul praise God whose place nobody knows” and “In every place where you find a trace of human footprints, there am I before you.”  God can be intimately close while not visible through the veiling cloud.     

A number of biblical verses describe a cloud guiding the Israelites on their trek through the desert and hovering over the Mishkan.  The kabbalah proposes that the cloud over the Mishkan extended over the huts of every family.  The cloud both shielded them from the scorching desert sun and was translucent enough to let enough light through to see their way.  The cloud is a metaphor for God’s both being hidden above a hovering cloud and divine light that can illuminate our huts when we let God in. The kabbalah proposes ten sephirot thorough which the blinding intensity of divine light filters down into our everyday world. In Genesis 9:13, God sets a rainbow in the cloud as a sign of a covenant between God and the earth.  The rainbow spectrum transforms white light into the multicolored world for us to enjoy if we open our eyes in wonder.

A creative digital age translation of the first verses of the Bible from the original Hebrew can offer us a fresh look at connections between The Place and The Cloud.  “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)”

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. 

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 Cloud is written with the binary system of the first day of Creation.

Educated as a scientist, The Lubavicher Rebbe, the 20th century’s greatest Hasidic leader, recognized the spiritual power of The Cloud early on.  Each of the nearly 3,000 husband-wife emissary teams who established Chabad Houses from Miami and Paris to Mumbai and Katmandu have created websites.  The emissaries’ annual conferences can be viewed live via Internet simulcast with a running Twitter commentary.  The Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, 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.”

TO BE CONTINUED

Follow my Times of Israel blog http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/ 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 other Internet book sellers.

09 November 2017

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


This blog post was published today in The Times of Israel, IsraelSeen, and LinkedIn.
It 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 Times of Israel 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.

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 Times of Israel blog http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/ 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.