11 June 2017

Alexenberg Explores "Art, Zionism and Identity" at The Times of Israel


Mel Alexenberg's article "On Being a Zionist Artist in the Networked World" appears as a five part series in The Times of Israel. The series can be accessed at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/ and read below.

08 June 2017

Art, Zionism, and Identity in a Networked World

(From The Times of Israel, 20 April 2017) 

This blog post is the first of a series of five in The Times of Israel that explores my thoughts and experiences at the interface between art in a postdigital age, Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, and multiple identities as an American-born Israeli artist, educator, writer, and blogger.  All five articles in the series are published below.


The AT&T Annual Report photo above shows me receiving a digitized Rembrandt angel returning from a five hour circumglobal flight via communications satellites from New York, Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Tokyo and Los Angeles, returning to New York after having flown into tomorrow and back into yesterday.    

“Art, Zionism, and Identity in a Networked World” was first published in Hebrew in Zipora: Journal of Education and Contemporary Art and Design. I wrote about the conceptual background for this series in my books: The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press), Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life (CreateSpace), and in Hebrew Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Four Essays on Judaism and Contemporary Art.

Renew the old and sanctify the new

The great biblical miracle of liberating one nation of thousands from enslavement in the one country of Egypt after hundreds of years of exile pales in comparison with the Zionist miracle in our time of liberating millions of Jews from persecution, pogroms, and the Holocaust in scores of countries after thousands of years of exile and bringing them home to Israel.  Choosing to be an integral part of this Zionist miracle, unprecedented in world history, offers me enthralling creative opportunities as an artist. 

I draw inspiration from the Zionist challenge of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to “renew the old and sanctify the new” as I explore the vibrant interface between the structure of Jewish consciousness, the realization of the Zionist dream in the State of Israel, and new directions in art emerging from postdigital creativity in a networked world.  The wellsprings of my Zionism flows from my Jewish roots and values while the form and content of my art emerges from Jewish thought and experience in a networked world in which of art, science, technology, and culture address each other. 

As an artist born and educated in the United States, I chose to leave a country that I love and that gave me wonderful professional opportunities to be part of the Zionist enterprise that permits me to be more fully immersed at the center of Jewish life.  Zionism seeks to ensure the future and distinctiveness of the Jewish people by fostering Jewish spiritual and cultural values in its historic homeland (World Zionist Organization, Jerusalem Program, 2004).  As a Zionist artist I strive to create both an intimate dialogue with the Jewish people and a lively conversation with people throughout the world.

Art crossing over into a new reality

The biblical story of the Jewish people begins with the journey of Abraham as he crosses over from his all too familiar past to see a fresh vision of a future in a new land.  Indeed, Abraham is called a Hebrew (Ivri) – one who crosses over into a new reality.  Abraham is told: “Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)   This passage can also be read as: “Walk with your authentic self away from all the familiar and comfortable places that limit vision to a land where you can freely see.” Here, the dynamic Hebraic mindset is established as new ways of seeing emerge from the integration of our journey to the Land of Israel with our inner quest for spiritual significance.

The personal power of Abraham to leave an obsolete past behind and to cross conceptual boundaries into an unknown future presents a powerful message to me as a Zionist artist living in a democratic Jewish State in a postdigital age.  Today in Israel and at the leading edge of technologically advanced societies worldwide, we are beginning to cross over from the digital culture of the Information Age to a Conceptual Age in which people in all walks of life will succeed most when they behave like artists who integrate left-brain with right-brain thinking.  Industrial Age factory workers and Information Age knowledge workers are being superseded by Conceptual Age creators and empathizers who integrate high tech abilities with high touch and high concept abilities of aesthetic and spiritual significance.
Art debunking art

Subverting idolatry with a twist of irony has been the mission of the Jews from their very beginning.  As a prelude to the biblical story of Abraham beginning his journey away from his father’s world to the Land of Israel, the Midrash tells that Abraham was minding his father’s idol shop when he took a stick and smashed the merchandise to bits.  He left only the largest idol untouched placing the stick in its hand.  When his father returned, his shock at seeing the scene of devastation grew into fury as he demanded an explanation from his son.  Abraham explained how the largest idol had broken all the other idols.  He could have smashed all the idols without saving one on which to place the blame.  An idol smashing idols gives us clues for creating art to debunk art, art that aims to undermine undue reverence for art, art that challenges the established canon of Western art. 

I am interested in creating art to knock art off its pedestal by displaying a creative skepticism not just towards art’s subjects but also towards its purposes.  In his book Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century, Ori Z. Soltes, professor of art and theology at Georgetown University, comments on my series of Digitized Homage to Rembrandt paintings, photomontages, computer-generated etchings, serigraphs, lithographs, and telecommunications events: “Alexenberg appropriates an iconic image from the Christian art tradition: Rembrandt’s angel, who wrestles with Jacob.  But he transforms and distorts it, digitalizing and dismembering it, transforming the normative Western tradition within which he works as he rebels against it.”  My painting is the cover image of Soltes’ book.      

Art emerging from Hebraic rather than Hellenistic consciousness

As a Zionist artist, I am joining artists worldwide in liberating art from Hellenistic dominance since its revival in the Renaissance.  The 20th century was a century of modernism that aimed to undermine the Hellenistic definition of art.  The 21st century invites a redefinition of art derived from the Hebraic roots of Western culture rather than its Hellenistic roots.  Winston Churchill writes in his History of the Second World War:
“The Greeks and the Jews are the two peoples whose worldviews have most influenced the way we think and act.  Each of them from angles so different has left us with the inheritance of its genius and wisdom.  No two cities have counted more with Mankind than Athens and Jerusalem.  Their messages in religion, philosophy, and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture.”  

More than three thousand years ago, King David moved the capital of ancient Israel from Hebron to Jerusalem.  Five centuries later during the Golden Age of Athens, the major temples of the Acropolis were built under the leadership of Pericles.  In my MERIWIP: MEditerranean RIm WIkiart Project, a text inviting the participation of people from the 21 Mediterranean rim countries was posted on my art blog http://www.wikiartists.us in the many languages of these countries.  Only Hebrew and Greek, the millennia old languages of the indigenous peoples of the Land of Israel and Greece are still in use and continue to be written with the same two ancient alphabets.      
            
The Hellenistic definition of art as mimesis is reflected in the words for art in contemporary European languages: art in English and French, arte in Spanish, Kunst in German and Dutch, and iskustvo in Russian.  The roots of all these words are related to artificial, artifact, imitation, and phony.  In contrast, the Hebrew word for artist (oman) is spelled AMN with the same letters as the word amen which means truth.  Its feminine form is emunah, faith, and as a verb l’amen means to nurture and educate. 


This ancient Greek view of art as mimesis, imitating nature, arresting the flow of life, has become obsolete as new definitions of art are arising from Jewish thought and action that explore issues of truth, faith, and education as they enrich everyday life.  In Thorleif Boman’s  classic book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Hebraic thought  is characterized as being “dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and sometimes quite explosive in kind; correspondingly Greek thinking is static, peaceful, moderate, and harmonious in kind.”  That it is the Hebraic rather than the Hellenistic roots of Western culture that is redefining art in a rapidly expanding networked world is argued in my book The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) and its Hebrew version Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Four Essays on Judaism and Contemporary Art. (See reviews at http://future-of-art.com.)

Art Medium as an Expression of a Jewish Message

(From The Times of Israel, 27 April 2017)

This article is the second in the “Art, Zionism, and Identity in a Networked World” series in The Times of Israel.  The series explores my thoughts and experiences at the interface between art in a postdigital age, Zionism as the creation of the vibrant State of Israel after two millennia of exile, and multiple identities as an American-born Israeli artist, educator, writer, and blogger. The entire series can be accessed at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/.
             
         “Art, Zionism, and Identity in a Networked World” was first published in Hebrew in Zipora: Journal of Education and Contemporary Art and Design. I wrote about the conceptual background for this series in my books: The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) http://future-of-art.com, Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life (CreateSpace) http://photgraphgod.com, and in Hebrew Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Four Essays on Judaism and Contemporary Art.


Art is a biofeedback-generated self-portrait

The photograph above demonstrates the medium conveying a Jewish message.  It shows my Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim artwork, a biofeedback generated interactive system that I created at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  It plays with the words p’nim (inside) and p’anim (face) that are both spelled with the same Hebrew letters.  This dialogic artwork creates a feedback loop in which one’s internal mind/body state (p’nim) constantly changes a digital image of one’s external self (panim).  A portrait derived from Jewish consciousness is a dynamic changing system presenting the flow of life forces between spiritual and material realms rather than a static painting of a frozen face enclosed in a gold frame.       

Art conveying its message through form and medium

The significance of form and medium in Jewish life is so strong that we only read the Torah portion in synagogue from a scroll hand-written on parchment.  If we have no Torah scroll, we read nothing at all rather than read the identical content from a Hebrew Bible printed in a rectangular codex book form.  Tradition teaches how the Israelites were enslaved in the malben, which means both brickyard and rectangle. The Torah trapped in a malben between two book covers cannot convey a message of liberation expressed by a free-flowing spiral scroll.  The heart (spelled LB in Hebrew) of the Torah is the place where the last letter L in the word yisrael (Israel) is linked to the first letter B in b’reshit (In the beginning) in an endless flow.  Both changing form and medium radically changes the message.  A Torah written on Japanese rice paper is bizarre and one written on pigskin would be the ultimate anti-Semitic statement.  We can recognize the life-affirming parallel between the double spiral of the Torah scroll and the DNA molecule in which all life forms are encoded. 

To explore form and media in Jewish thought and experience, I invited fellow artists at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies to collaborate with me in creating LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age, 8 an exhibition for Yeshiva University Museum. Creating art in a digital age in a networked world offers Zionist artists unprecedented opportunities to invent alternative art forms and explore new media confluent with the structure of Jewish consciousness.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the first Zionist artists Ephriam Lilien and Boris Schatz, the artists who participated in the exhibition at the 5th Zionist Congress in 1901, and the theoreticians of culture Martin Buber and Ahad Ha’am saw Zionist art only in terms of content and iconography.7 Landscapes of the Land of Israel, Jewish subjects, and biblical scenes idealizing the Bedouin types as if they were ancient Israelites were the content of their artwork expressed in alien European forms and media.   These first Zionist artists did not liberate themselves from the Hellenistic definition of art that was plastered over their Jewish consciousness by centuries of indoctrination living in Europe.
Art revealing the power of Hebrew letters in an era of digital and bio technologies 

One of the Zionist enterprise’s greatest accomplishments is reviving Hebrew as the common everyday language uniting Jews who have returned to their homeland speaking scores of different languages. There is an aesthetic and spiritual power in seeing Hebrew letters dancing across storefronts in the Jewish State, flashing across TV screens, using smartphones set for Hebrew language, and surfing the Internet in the ancient biblical language.   Hebrew letters have a special meaning for the artist.   The mishkan’s artist, Betzalel, is said to have had the divine secret of forging combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters to create new worlds. The digital era makes this kabbalistic notion of artistic creativity through making permutations of bits of information more than a quaint legend.  It is computer science rather than mysticism, physics rather than metaphysics that lets us reveal in our times this ancient wisdom.  All the multitude of words, sounds and images that we can access today on the Internet, CDs, and DVDs are encoded in bits strung together in groupings of eight called bytes. The 256 bit permutations in one byte are in turn grouped into billions of combinations that we perceive as a web site, a computer game, a text, a song, or a movie.


This image is a computer-generated hologram of the two versions of the Ten Commandments that I created with laser experts at MIT for my exhibition “LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age” at Yeshiva University Museum. 

Jewish tradition sees the 22 sacred Hebrew letters as profound, primal, spiritual forces, the raw material of Creation.  The numerous alternative arrangements of the letters in words results in different blends of cosmic spiritual forces that finds a parallel in natural systems where different numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons form the atoms of each of the 92 different elements. These atoms, in turn, combine into molecules, and molecules into supersized molecules like DNA in which the code of all life’s forms is written with only four letters: A-T, T-A, and C-G, G-C.   The interplay between combinations and permutations of Hebrew letters in the spiritual realm, of atoms and molecules in the physical realm, and bits and bytes in the realm of digital media, provides raw materials for creating artworks that generate a lively dialog between the Jewish past and Israel’s future as a world center of digital and bio technologies. 

Art revealing the spiritual dimensions of everyday life in the Land of Israel 

The great transgression of ten of the leaders of the Israelite tribes who were charged to spy out the Land of Israel after their exodus from Egypt was their inability to discern the difference between hard work as slaves in Egypt and hard work building their own land.   Only Joshua and Calev met the challenge.  The Torah tells us that Calev of the tribe of Judah had “a different spirit” (Numbers: 14:24).  Unlike the others, he was able to make the paradigm shift to recognize that the challenge of living in the Land of Israel was to see spirituality emerging from all aspects of life. 

Ten of the spies chose to remain in the desert where they could live a totally spiritual existence learning Torah all day.  They would not have to work at all since food was delivered daily for free at the opening of their tents.  In the Land of Israel, they would have to grow their own food, build houses, fight enemies, and collect garbage which seemed to them like returning to the slavery they had just left.  These ten spies were sentenced to death in the desert for their inability to see that the spiritual arises from the quality of one’s encounter with the material world.  The descendents of Calev’s tribe of Judea are almost all of the Jews who have the great privilege of returning to our homeland and rebuilding it 3,500 years later.  Most of the descendents of the ten spies who lacked “a different spirit” have disappeared.

Calev’s great-grandson, the prototypic Jewish artist Betzalel, sets a direction for today’s Zionist artists by having created an environment that invites holiness into our concrete world – “God walks in the midst of the camp…therefore shall your camp be holy” (Deuteronomy 23:15).  I invited my students at Emunah College School of the Arts in Jerusalem and at Ariel University to reveal holiness by photographing divine light emanating from their everyday life in Israel.

We can appreciate Calev’s alternative viewpoint through the 20th century experience of the Rebbe of Sadegora, Rabbi Avraham Freidman (1884-1961). The Nazis attempted to humiliate the Rebbe in the eyes of his Hasidim by forcing him at gunpoint to work all day sweeping streets and collecting garbage and at night to march waving a Nazi flag.   The Rebbe survived the Holocaust and moved to Tel Aviv where he rose early every morning in the week before Israel Independence Day to join the city’s sanitation workers in sweeping streets and collecting garbage.  At night, he could be seen walking through the streets of Tel Aviv waving the Israeli flag.  He marveled at the great privilege he had to keep his city clean and to honor his nation’s flag.

Artistic Partnership Renewed After Three Millennia

(From The Times of Israel, 18 May 2017)

This article is the third of a series in The Times of Israel that explores the interface between art, Zionism, and identity in a networked world. The full “Art, Zionism and Identity in a Networked World” series can be accessed at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/.


It explores the Zionist miracle of the descendants of the tribes of Judah and Dan who created the Tabernacle creating art together today after more than three millennia apart.  The photograph above shows my students at Emunah College School of the Arts in Jerusalem holding a children’s book created by a student whose parents came home to Israel from Ethiopia. It tells an Ethiopian fable she illustrated with paintings and designed with texts in Hebrew and Amharic.

It also discusses how art imitating the Creator rather than the creation is derived from Jewish consciousness, how spiritual art is created in a playful spirit, and art educating through visual midrash. These ideas are expanded in my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life http://photographgod.com.       

Teaching the descendants of Betzalel and Oholiav in Jerusalem

The Torah describes two prototypic Jewish artists – Betzalel and Oholiav.   “See, I have called by 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 honors the artist’s passion and freedom of expression.  The Torah describes Betzalel’s partner, “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 means “My Tent of Reliance on Father, Son, and My Brother,” integrating the contemporary with its past and future.  Father, son, and brother stand together with the artist in a common tent in mutual support of one another.  Betzalel represents the psychological power of the artist and Oholiav the sociological impact on community.  Working together, they create a shared environment of spiritual power.

As head of Emunah College School of the Arts in Jerusalem, I had the privilege of seeing the descendants of Betzalel of the tribe of Judah and Oholiav of the tribe of Dan creating artworks together.  Most of the Jews in Israel today are from the tribe of Judea.  The Ethiopians are the tribe of Dan.  It is a Zionist miracle that we have the gained the opportunity of renewing the sacred partnership of Bezalel and Oholiav after millennia of separation. 

Art imitating the Creator rather than the creation 

I am interested in being an active partner of the Creator of the universe in the on-going creation of new worlds.  As a Jewish artist, it is not the Hellenistic vision of a complete and ideal nature to be copied that is the primary artistic value, but it is the emulation of the process of creation itself that is valued.  Therefore, I studied in depth the creative process in art and science from a psychodynamic point of view that I present in my book Aesthetic Experience in Creative Process (Bar-Ilan University Press).

Two millennia ago, the Roman governor over the Land of Israel asked Rabbi Akiva, “Which are greater and more beautiful, human creations or God’s?”  The governor was disturbed by the rabbi’s response that human creation is more exalted than divine creation.  While the Roman was questioning the rabbi’s unexpected response, the rabbi served a plate of wheat grains to the Roman and took cakes for himself.  The puzzled Roman asked, “Why do you take cakes for yourself while you give me raw grains of wheat?”  Rabbi Akiva answered, “You prefer God’s creation.  I prefer the creations of human hands!”

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook provides a poetic manifesto for the Zionist artist derived from the deep structure of Jewish consciousness in Lights of Holiness (Orot Hakodesh). Rabbi Kook was the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel and founder of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem where my son Rabbi Ron Alexenberg studied.           
“Whoever is endowed with the soul of a creator must create works of imagination and thought, for the flame of the soul rises by itself and one cannot impede it on its course…. The creative individual brings vital, new light from the higher source where originality emanates to the place where it has not previously been manifest, from the place that “no bird of prey knows, nor has the falcon’s eye seen.” (Job 28:7), “that no man has passed, nor has any person dwelt” (Jeremiah 2:6).”                                                                                     
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik proposes that the dream of creation is the central idea in Jewish consciousness – the idea of the importance of human partnership with the Almighty in creating new worlds.  Rabbi Soloveitchik taught at the rabbinical college at Yeshiva University and served as president of the Mizrachi Zionists of America.  He writes in his seminal book Halachic Man:
“This longing for creation and the renewal of the cosmos is embodied in all of Judaism’s goals….  If a man wishes to attain the rank of holiness, he must become a creator of worlds.  If a man never creates, never brings into being anything new, anything original, then he cannot be holy unto his God.  That passive type who is derelict in fulfilling his task of creation cannot become holy.  Creation is the lowering of transcendence into the midst of our turbid, coarse, material world.”

I attempt to act as partner of the Creator during six days of the week.  However, I stop my creative work one day each week and step back to admire and honor the handiwork of the Creator of the universe.  This Sabbath Day is both a Non-Art Day and an Ecology Day.  Emulating Betzalel and his artistic collaborators who stopped building the mishkan on Shabbat, I stop my artistic activities on the seventh day to celebrate Non-Art Day.  Indeed, all Shabbat observance is defined by artistic activity, by the 39 craft categories involved in building the mishkan.  From when the sun sets on Friday evening to the time stars dot the sky on Saturday night, I celebrate Non-Art Day as well as Ecology Day by leaving the world the way I got it.  I replenish my soul on Shabbat so that on the eighth day I can resume with renewed energies the role of partner with the Creator in tikun olam, actively making the world a better place for all humanity. 

Art imitating the Creator rather than the creation 

As an artist, I engage the Torah in creative play through both my conceptual and aesthetic explorations. The Torah itself teaches us to approach it in a playful spirit.  In Psalm 119:174, we read: “Your Torah is my plaything (sha’ashua).”  Sha’ashua is a toy to engage children in play.  In Proverbs 8:30, 31, King Solomon speaks in the voice of the Torah: “I [the Torah] was the artist’s plan.  I was His [God’s] delight every day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the inhabited areas of His earth, my delights are with human beings.”  This translation from the Hebrew original is based on the ancient wisdom on the first page of Midrash Rabba.  God as the master artist played creatively with the Torah, His plan for creating the universe.  Midrash Rabba uses these two verses from Proverbs to explain the first words of the Torah, “In the beginning God created.”  God first created “Beginning” referring to the Torah as an open-ended blueprint for creating the world.  We learn this from an earlier verse, Proverbs 8:22, “God made me [the Torah] as the beginning of His way, before His deeds of yore.”  In human emulation of God’s delight, we are invited to play with the Torah as we create new worlds.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote a letter of congratulations on the founding of the Betzalel Art School in Jerusalem in 1906.  By way of allegory, he refers to the revival of Jewish art and aesthetics after two thousand years of exile as a child in a coma who awakes calling for her doll. 
“The pleasant and beloved child, the delightful daughter, after a long and forlorn illness, with a face as pallid as plaster, bluish lips, fever burning like a fiery furnace, and   convulsive shaking and trembling, behold!  She has opened her eyes and her tightly sealed lips, her little hands move with renewed life, her thin pure fingers wander hither and thither, seeking their purpose; her lips move and almost revert to their normal color, and as if through a medium a voice is heard: “Mother, Mother, the doll, give me the doll,   the dear doll, which I have not seen for so long.”  A voice of mirth and a voice of gladness, all are joyous, the father, the mother, the brothers and sisters, even the elderly man and woman who, because of their many years, have forgotten their children’s games.”

Rabbi Kook saw artists at work as a clear sign of the rebirth of the Jewish people in its homeland.  Their playful spirit nurturing sensitivity for beauty “will uplift depressed souls, giving them a clear and illuminating view of the beauty of life, nature, and work.”  

Not only are the Hebrew words for ‘artist’ and ‘educating’ related, but the Torah teaches that Betzalel and Oholiav are divinely endowed with artistic talent coupled with the talent to teach (Exodus 35:30-34). Creating art can be an alternative method of Torah study that beautifies the mitzvah of study through creating visual midrashMidrash is the unique Jewish literary form that combines commentary, legend, and narrative explanations of biblical texts.  In a sense, midrash fills the spaces between the written words to reveal deeper meanings of scriptural passages.  Art as visual midrash provides fresh commentaries on biblical texts through multimedia experiences that extend the verbal exploration of text into visual realms.  ‘Context’ in its primal meaning is ‘with text’ while context is the defining characteristic of postmodern art.

In order to better understand the cultural context of my values as a Zionist artist in an era of globalization, I invited renowned art educators worldwide to redefine art and art education at the interdisciplinary interface where scientific inquiry and new technologies shape aesthetic and cultural values – local and global.  This inquiry resulted in my book Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology, and Culture (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) http://future-of-art.com.

Art Engaging the Torah in a Playful Spirit

My grandson Razel playing with the Sea of Galilee.  Photo taken by his professional photographer brother Or Alexenberg of Oralex Photography.

(From The Times of Israel, 1 June 2017)

This article is the fourth of a series in The Times of Israel that explores the interface between art, Zionism, and identity in a networked world.  In addition to discussing how art engages the Torah in a playful spirit, it explores art educating through visual midrash and community involvement, art revealing beauty in processes of liberation and creation, and art expressing love for the Land of Israel.

The full series can be accessed at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/.

Torah teaches us to approach it through creative play

As an artist, I engage the Torah in creative play through both my conceptual and aesthetic explorations. The Torah itself teaches us to approach it in a playful spirit.  In Psalm 119:174, we read: “Your Torah is my plaything (sha’ashua).”  Sha’ashua is a toy to engage children in play.  In Proverbs 8:30, 31, King Solomon speaks in the voice of the Torah: “I [the Torah] was the artist’s plan.  I was His [God’s] delight every day, playing before Him at all times, playing in the inhabited areas of His earth, my delights are with human beings.”  This translation from the Hebrew original is based on the ancient wisdom on the first page of Midrash Rabba.  God as the master artist played creatively with the Torah, His plan for creating the universe.  Midrash Rabba uses these two verses from Proverbs to explain the first words of the Torah, “In the beginning God created.”  God first created “Beginning” referring to the Torah as an open-ended blueprint for creating the world.  We learn this from an earlier verse, Proverbs 8:22, “God made me [the Torah] as the beginning of His way, before His deeds of yore.”  In human emulation of God’s delight, we are invited to play with the Torah as we create new worlds.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook wrote a letter of congratulations on the founding of the Betzalel Art School in Jerusalem in 1906.  By way of allegory, he refers to the revival of Jewish art and aesthetics after two thousand years of exile as a child in a coma who awakes calling for her doll. 

“The pleasant and beloved child, the delightful daughter, after a long and forlorn illness,   with a face as pallid as plaster, bluish lips, fever burning like a fiery furnace, and   convulsive shaking and trembling, behold!  She has opened her eyes and her tightly sealed lips, her little hands move with renewed life, her thin pure fingers wander hither and thither, seeking their purpose; her lips move and almost revert to their normal color, and as if through a medium a voice is heard: “Mother, Mother, the doll, give me the doll, the dear doll, which I have not seen for so long.”  A voice of mirth and a voice of gladness, all are joyous, the father, the mother, the brothers and sisters, even the elderly man and woman who, because of their many years, have forgotten their children’s games.”

Rabbi Kook saw artists at work as a clear sign of the rebirth of the Jewish people in its homeland.  Their playful spirit nurturing sensitivity for beauty “will uplift depressed souls, giving them a clear and illuminating view of the beauty of life, nature, and work.”

Art educating through visual midrash

Not only are the Hebrew words for ‘artist’ and ‘educating’ related, but the Torah teaches that Betzalel and Oholiav are divinely endowed with artistic talent coupled with the talent to teach (Exodus 35:30-34). Creating art can be an alternative method of Torah study that beautifies the mitzvah of study through creating visual midrashMidrash is the unique Jewish literary form that combines commentary, legend, and narrative explanations of biblical texts.  In a sense, midrash fills the spaces between the written words to reveal deeper meanings of scriptural passages.  Art as visual midrash provides fresh commentaries on biblical texts through multimedia experiences that extend the verbal exploration of text into visual realms.  Arthur C. Danto writes in his book Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-historical Perspective that ‘context’ in its primal meaning is ‘with text’ while context is the defining characteristic of postmodern art.

In order to better understand the cultural context of my values as a Zionist artist in an era of globalization, I invited renowned art educators worldwide to redefine art and art education at the interdisciplinary interface where scientific inquiry and new technologies shape aesthetic and cultural values – local and global.  This inquiry resulted in my book Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology, and Culture (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press).  

Art educating through community involvement

The Torah describes two prototypic Jewish artists – Betzalel and Oholiav.   “See, I have called by 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 honors the artist’s passion and freedom of expression.  The Torah describes Betzalel’s partner, “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 means “My Tent of Reliance on Father, Son, and My Brother,” integrating the contemporary with its past and future.  Father, son, and brother stand together with the artist in a common tent in mutual support of one another.  Betzalel represents the psychological power of the artist and Oholiav the sociological impact on community.  Working together, they create a shared environment of spiritual power.

My wife, artist Miriam Benjamin, and I collaborated with elders and youth from the Miami Jewish, Hispanic, and African-American communities in creating Legacy Thrones, monumental works of public art facing Biscayne Bay.  In Israel, we created an Institute for Arts and Jewish Life in the Negev desert town of Yeroham to educate art teachers for community centers.  We lived in Yeroham for seven years where we taught students from throughout Israel and the Diaspora to integrate the creative energies of Betzalel with the impact on community of Oholiav.  

Art revealing beauty in processes of liberation and creation 

Zionism and the visual arts interface as they emerge from the core values of Judaism as expressed in the Ten Commandments, which begins:  “I am YHVH (Was-Is-Will Be), your God, who has taken you out of the Land of Egypt (Narrow Straits), out of the House of Slavery.  Do not have any other gods before Me.  You shall not make yourself any carved statue or picture of anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or the water beneath the land.” (Exodus 20:1-14, repeated in Deuteronomy 5:6-18) 

The biblical divine name YHVH is associated with beauty (tiferet) and the historic process of attaining freedom from slavery. YHVH is a verb, not a noun, combining the Hebrew words for was, is and will be, a process in time.  YHVH is both the Liberator from narrowness and the Creator of the heaven, earth, and water.   The biblical name for Egypt, mitzrayim, literally means from narrow straits, to teach that national liberation is the process of attaining independence from narrow-mindedness to experiencing expansive freedom in the Land of Israel.   Indeed,      when Moses sent scouts to explore the Land of Israel from the wilderness of Tzin to Rehov (Numbers 13:21). Joshua sent scouts four decades later who arrived at the house of Rahav (Joshua 1:1).  Rahav and Rehov mean wide expanses.  Having left slavery in the narrow straits the Israelites headed toward the freedom of wide expanses in their own land.   

God is One, both Liberator from narrow straits and Creator of the wide expanses of heaven, earth, and water.  Was-Is-Will Be is the Liberator from ancient Egypt’s cult of the dead and the Creator of a world overflowing with vibrant life. As a Jewish artist, I avoid creating art that freezes the lively process of creation and the dynamic process of liberation, arresting them in fixed images. I avoid stilling life meant to flow freely or solidifying in stone that which is in flux. 

The Israelites exodus from Egypt’s narrow straits, from the land of the Book of the Dead and its immovable pyramids led to a process of liberation in the wide expanse of the desert, where they received of the Book of Life (torat chaim), and built a Lego-like moveable mishkan deconstructed and reconstructed numerous times during their four-decade journey.  The Zionist challenge then as now is to settle in the Land of Israel with the expansive viewpoint of movement in the open desert without regressing to the narrow viewpoint engendered by a sedentary mentality.  It is a land that devourers yoshveha, its inhabitants who sit still (Numbers 13:32) rather than those who are on the go (Genesis 12:1).   Those residents of the Land of Israel who are not passive, but actively create movement, growth, and change are not in danger of being consumed.

An authentic Zionist arts movement encourages artists to create transformative artworks and adventuresome artforms that not only explore the intersections of Zionism and the arts, but reveal beauty in the dynamic processes of liberation and creation.  Theodor Herzl wrote in his visionary Zionist novel Altneuland (Old-New Land):
“Beauty and wisdom do not die because their creators die.  Just as the conservation of energy is self-evident, so must we infer that there is conservation of beauty and wisdom…. Have the sayings of our ancient sages perished? No, their flame burns brightly, even if in happy times it is less clearly visible than in dark days, like all flames.  And what should we learn from this?  That we should strive to increase beauty and wisdom in this earth, as long as we live.” 

Art expressing love for the land of Israel

Rabbi Kook stresses in his book Orot and in Selected Letters that the intrinsic bond between the Land of Israel and the Jewish People that extends to a call to delight and rejoice in the beauty of the land:        

“The Land of Israel is not something external, not an external national asset, a means to the end of collective solidarity and the strengthening of the nation’s existence, physical or even spiritual.  The Land of Israel is an essential unit bound by the bond-of-life to the People, united by inner characteristics to its existence.”  

“See the splendor of an attractive land, the splendor of the Carmel and the Sharon, the splendor of the pleasant and beautiful azure skies, the magnificence of the clear, pure, temperate air that reigns in its majesty and glory.  Delight and rejoice in this desirable, fair and pleasing land, a land of life, a land whose air is the wellspring of the spirit.  How beautiful and how graceful she is!”


Spring wildflowers at the lake in Park Ra'anana next to my home
  
Some of my earliest memories from the beginnings of my education as a Zionist artist.  I remember sitting on the counter in my grandfather’s Hebrew bookshop on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn in the 1940’s surrounded by images of the Land of Israel in the calendars, postcards, posters, and metal relief pictures from the Bezalel workshops in Jerusalem that he sold.  I would often watch him carving mezuzot from mother-of-pearl and olive wood imported from Israel.  My grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Kahn, left the Telz Yeshiva in Lithuania in 1900 to participate in the 4th Zionist Congress in London never to return.  He settled to Boston where he was married and my mother was born.  When he passed away four years before his Zionist dream was realized in 1948, my grandmother came to live with us.  When I came home from school, she spread out the Yiddish newspaper on the kitchen table for us to sit together and search for pictures of Israel which we would cut out and paste in scrap books.  On quiet Shabbat afternoons, we would often sit together immersed in a virtual journey to the Land of Israel through our scrap books. 

When I first came to live in Israel in 1969, I sensed I had been there many times before.  I had fallen in love years before in New York with Israel’s diverse landscape, from the green hills of the Galilee to the Negev desert where my son and his family now live, from Ra’anana where I live to Jerusalem where I worked, from the Dead Sea to the coral reefs of Eilat, from the surf at the Tel Aviv beach to the Western Wall, and from mountainous Tzfat to the Ramon Crater.  This love of the land urges Zionist artists to explore, articulate, express, and document the landscape, from its gentle beauty to its overwhelming magnificence, and to create earth art and ecological artworks to honor the land. 

Negev artist Ezra Orion organized an environmental art event in which ten Israeli artists were invited to create works of earth art at Sodom at the southern end of the Dead Sea on Purim 5744/1984.  I appropriated a hill blocking the wadi between the mountain ranges of Moab and Edom to create an earth artwork relating Sodom to Purim: http://www.melalexenberg.com/artworks/Sodom.doc

Art that enables the mundane to rise up and touch the Divine

(From The Times of Israel, 8 June 2017)

To conclude my five part Times of Israel series on art, Zionism and identity in the networked world, I draw on Rabbi Yohanan's words in Tractate Taanit in the Babylonian Talmud, “God declared: ‘I will not come to the heavenly Jerusalem before coming to the earthly Jerusalem.’”  As Zionist artists, my wife and I have the great privilege to explore the dynamic interface between aesthetic and spiritual energies revealed in our earthly encounters with everyday life in the Land of Israel. 


Blogart as an ideal Jewish art form

The networked world offers the blog as an ideal Jewish art form. A blog is a web log, an active diary of a living process, rather than still life entombed in a golden frame.  Narrative blogart is a spiritual postdigital art form that my wife, artist Miriam Benjamin, and I employed to celebrate our 52nd year of marriage. We celebrated our love by collaborating on our "Torah Tweets" blogart project that documents the sacred in our everyday life in http://torahtweets.blogspot.com and http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com.

My wife Miriam pressing cloves into an etrog in Torah Tweets blogart project and on the cover of my book "Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life"
  
During each of the 52 weeks of our 52nd year, we posted six photographs reflecting our life together in Israel with a Torah tweet text that related the weekly Torah reading to our lives, past and present.  The seventh photograph does not exist since Shabbat is a Non-Art Day on which we tune out, turn off, unplug, and honor the Creator rather than our creations.
      
The blog creates a dialogue between images and text through kabbalah as a model creative process in the age of social media.  The images are observations of spirituality in our everyday life.   The text is composed as "tweets," sentences of not more than 140 characters required by the Twitter social networking website. 140 is the numerical value (gematria) of the Hebrew word hakel, which means to gather people together to share a Torah learning experience as in Leviticus 8:3 and Deuteronomy 4:10.

I teach people of all faiths how to create their own blogart project in my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life http://photographgod.com.
    
The introductory quotations that we posted at the top of our blog emphasize the centrality of down-to-earth spirituality in Judaism from the viewpoints of Talmud scholar Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, The Lubavitcher Rebbe M. M. Schneerson, and American novelist E. L. Doctorow.  Like instruments in an orchestra, A. Y. Kook, Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel at the beginning of the 20th century, sees individual actions combine into a symphony of Jews acting together as a nation in their own land to empower the mundane to touch the Divine.  This is the essence of the Zionist challenge.
  
"Judaism does not direct its glaze upward but downward ... does not aspire to a heavenly transcendence, nor does it seek to soar upon the wings of some abstract, mysterious spirituality. It fixes its gaze upon concrete, empirical reality permeating every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the street, the house, the mall, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop of religious life.” (Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik)
                         
It is not enough for the Jew to rest content with his own spiritual ascent, the elevation of his soul in closeness to G-d, he must strive to draw spirituality down into the world and into every part of it - the world of his work and his social life - until not only do they not distract him from his pursuit of G-d, but they become a full part of it. (Rabbi M. M. Schneerson)

If there is a religious agency in our lives, it has to appear in the manner of our times. Not from on high, but a revelation that hides itself in our culture, it will be ground-level, on the street, it'll be coming down the avenue in the traffic, hard to tell apart from anything else.”  (E. L. Doctorow)

“The first message that Moses chose to teach the Jewish people as they were about to enter the Land of Israel was to fuse heaven to earth, to enable the mundane to rise up and touch the Divine, the spiritual to vitalize the physical, not only as individuals but as an entire nation." (Rabbi A. Y. Kook)

Art combining pride in roots with an overview of the world as seen by others
 
The ingathering of the Jewish people into their ancestral homeland in the Land of Israel at the time that many other peoples are being dispersed into new host countries would seem to be a countertrend to the powerful forces of globalization.  However, the rebirth of the Jewish State and the ingathering of the exiles plant roots that provide the sure footing required to play the fast-moving globalization game.  Nearly seven decades after its rebirth, Israel has emerged as a major player in the world as the start-up nation in hi-tech, medicine, agriculture, and water management.

Vibrant Zionist art draws on the creative tension and energetic interplay between subjugation and freedom, between narrow unidirectional thought and open-ended systems thought, between spiritual and material realms, between traditional values and scientific and technological development, between war and peace, between hatred and brotherhood, between local action and global outreach, and between being rooted in one’s own culture and exploring others.  This tension and interplay is the stimulus and raw material for creating art to revitalize Jewish culture while offering fresh directions for the growth of art globally.

Art confronting hatred, bigotry, racism, terrorism, and cults of death with moral outrage

In the tradition of Picasso’s Guernica, I have created a work of webart http://www.futureholocaustmemorials.blogspot.com to warn the world of Iran’s quest for a nuclear bomb to “wipe Israel off the map.” Just as the world’s acquiesce to Hitler’s raining bombs on the Basque village Guernica gave him the license to proceed with preparing for WW II and exterminating the Jews of Europe on his way to global conquest, the world’s indifference to the thousands of rockets launched against Israel by Iran’s proxy armies, Hamas and Hezbollah, are empowering Iran to incinerate the Jews of Israel as a prelude to the Islamist’s global jihad.
 
My webart cries out “Never Again!” to the apathetic world of nations that did little to prevent the murder of six million Jews in Europe or collaborated with the Nazis in their extermination.  It issues a powerful warning to these same nations now pressuring the Jews, the indigenous people of the Land of Israel, to surrender its historic heartland for establishing a Palestinian terrorist state.  It exposes the fact that the majority of the Arabs living in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza freely elected the Iranian proxy Hamas thugs whose genocidal charter reads:  “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims…. Muslims will fight the Jews…for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill, assault and kill, assault and kill.”
 
Art promoting an aesthetic peace between the Jewish State and its neighbors

Pursuing peace is a central value of Judaism.  The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, is mentioned 237 times in the Hebrew Bible and scores of times in the Jewish liturgy.  Peace is offered in Israel’s Declaration of Independence: “We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land.”

Despite virulent Islamist anti-Semitism and genocidal aims, Israel continues to seek peace.  However, all political processes and road maps from Oslo to Obama were doomed to failure because the Arab conflict is not political but rather an aesthetic problem that calls for an artistic solution.   In my exhibition Aesthetic Peace Plan for the Middle East at the Jewish Museum of Prague and on the Internet at http://aestheticpeace.blogspot.com, I propose an aesthetic solution that creates a new metaphor for peace derived from Islamic art and thought.

Islamic art teaches Arabs to see their world as a continuous geometric pattern that extends across North Africa and the Middle East.  They see Israel as a blemish that disrupts the pattern.  It is viewed as an alien presence that they have continually tried to eliminate through war, terrorism, and political action.  A perceptual shift that can lead to a genuine peace can be derived from Islamic art and thought.  In Islamic art, a uniform geometric pattern is purposely disrupted by the introduction of a counter-pattern that demonstrates that human creation is less than perfect.  Since Islam believes that only Allah creates perfection, rug weavers from Islamic lands intentionally weave a patch of dissimilar pattern to break the symmetry of their rugs.

Islamic rug with dots counter-pattern

          Peace will come from a fresh metaphor in which the Islamic world sees Israel’s existence as Allah’s will.  A shift in viewpoint where Israel is perceived as the necessary counter-pattern in the overall pattern of the Islamic world will usher in an era of peace.  The Koran (Sura 17:104) teaches that the ingathering of the Jewish people into its historic homeland in the midst of the Islamic world is the fulfillment of Mohammed’s prophecy: “And we said to the Children of Israel, ‘scatter and live all over the world…and when the end of the world is near we will gather you again into the Promised Land.’”
           
Art creating dialog between Israel and the Diaspora

Although living in Israel by a Jewish calendar, speaking Hebrew, walking on the soil of our ancestors is the Zionist ideal, the networked world provides unprecedented opportunities for Jewish artists in their ancestral homeland and those in the Diaspora to creatively interact with each other. Social media generate multiple frameworks for global communities to form and flourish.  Zionist artists forming virtual communities worldwide with Israel as the central node is the realization of the dream of the cultural Zionists led by Ahad Ha’am at the First Zionist Congress in 1897.
 
Artists can share their creative works through social media -- blogs, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Rhizome, etc.  Particularly vital to the Zionist future is creative dialog and collaboration between the two largest Jewish communities.  Through inspired partnerships between artists in Israel, the world center of Jewish culture, and artists in the USA, the world center of artistic innovation, a new Zionist energy will emerge and flourish.

In addition to energizing the creative dialog between Jews in Israel and United States, it is important to the Zionist enterprise in a networked world to establish a creative dialog between Israelis and Americans of diverse backgrounds.  To realize this extended dialog, I created a work of participatory blogart JerUSAlem-USA linking the twenty places in the United States called ‘Jerusalem’ with the original in Israel: http://jerusalem-usa.blogspot.com.  In this collaborative artwork, Americans send photographs of the twenty places in USA named “Jerusalem” to which Israelis respond with images of original Jerusalem in Israel.  This digital dialog creates an interactive network of people with shared values that deepens friendships between them.

Jerusalem, Rhode Island, from the blogart project JerUSAlem-USA

The Lubavicher Rebbe, Rabbi 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.

The Times of Israel, 8 June 2017