27 February 2007

Spiritual Emergence

Photograph God

Wassily Kandinsky explored the spiritual nature of the emerging modern art movements at the beginning of the 20th century in his classic book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. He saw modern art as movement away from the representation of the material world to a more spiritually elevated world of abstraction. He symbolized this spiritual ascent by a moving triangle with its apex leading it forwards and upwards. Complimenting modernism’s movement of art to a higher spiritual realm of pure color and form, 21st century art forms promote the movement of art down into everyday life and out across the planet. This spiritual movement downward and outward can be symbolized by a second triangle moving into the future through the wisdom of the past with the apex pointing downwards. The two triangles intertwined symbolize the teaching of the Lubavicher Rebbe that it is not enough to rest content with our own spiritual ascent, the elevation of our souls in closeness to God. “We must also strive to draw spirituality down into the world and into every part of our involvement with it – our work and our social life – until not only do they not distract us from our pursuit of G-d, but they become a full part of it.”

The final project for my students in the colleges in Ariel and Jerusalem was to photograph God. I created a blog, www.photographgod.com, where I posted instructions and some of the most interesting sequences of photographs. The first question the students’ asked was, “Where do we find God?” I responded with the teaching of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century, that they should not direct their glance upward but downward, not aspire to a heavenly transcendence nor seek to soar upon the wings of some abstract, mysterious spirituality, but to fix our gaze upon concrete, empirical reality. Look for God in the marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the mall, and the banquet hall. “For God your Lord walks in the midst of your camp” (Deuteronomy 23:15). God permeates into every nook and cranny of life.

In his book, Seeing God, Rabbi David Aaron uses kabbalistic insights to illuminate how we can see divine light all around us. He shares my discomfort using the word “God,” a Germanic word conjuring up images of some all-powerful being zapping us if we step out of line. Hebrew speakers call God Hashem, literally “The Name” in Hebrew, the name of the nameless One encompassing all of reality and beyond. "Hashem does not exist in reality – Hashem is reality. And we do not exist alongside Hashem, we exist within Hashem, within the reality that is Hashem. Hashem is the place. Indeed, Hashem is the all-embracing context for everything. So there can’t be you and God standing side by side in reality. There is only one reality that is Hashem, and you exist in Hashem…. Everything is in Hashem, Hashem is in everything, but Hashem is beyond everything…. Seeing God is all about getting in touch with reality."

In God is at Eye Level, photographer Jan Phillips quotes from Rabbi Elimelech: "My eyes find God everywhere, in every living thing, creature, person, in every act of kindness, act of nature, act of grace. Everywhere I look, there God is looking back, looking straight back…. Whoever does not see God in every place does not see God in any place."

In his acclaimed novel, The City of God, E. L. Doctorow echoes these thoughts: "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. It will be cryptic, discerned over time, piecemeal, to be communally understood at the end like a law of science. They’ll put it on a silicon chip."

We learn divine attributes from the biblical passage, “You Hashem are compassion, strength, beauty, eternity, splendor, and everything in heaven and on earth” (Chronicles 1:29). Like the spectral colors that make up white light, we can see the spectrum of divine light emerging everywhere we look. My students’ charge was to photographically document processes that reveal these six divine attributes, a divine spectrum filtering down into their everyday lives:

Compassion: Largess / Loving All
Strength: Judgment / Setting Limits
Beauty: Aesthetic Balance / Inner Elegance
Eternity: Victory / Success
Splendor: Gracefulness / Magnificence
Integration: Foundation of Everything/ Gateway to Action

I created a blog, http://www.photographgod.com/, for posting my students work and inviting worldwide participation. On the blog, I posted Karen’s photographic sequence expressing compassion as a process that begins with hungry feral cats, hungry for love and food, surrounding an elderly gentleman who has seen much in his life who chose to respond to their hunger. He pets them in one photograph, satisfying their hunger for love, and in the next photograph portions out food for each of them making sure there is enough for all. Sharon sees compassion as the divine loving kindness bestowed upon a bride on her wedding day. Her photographs show a beautiful bride, her eyes closed in contemplation, enveloped in the aura of her new husband’s love, as they stand close together under a wedding canopy.

Dalia sees success as the victory of good over evil and the love of the Jewish people for its Torah for eternity. As a participant, she photographed the “March of the Living” to Nazi death camps in Poland in order to never forget the horrible nightmare and unimaginable suffering of millions of Jews brutally murdered there. On her return home to Israel, she photographed strength as her brave peers, soldiers defending their country against its current enemies seeking to destroy it. They are wrapped in prayer shawls reading from a Torah scroll in an open field marking the beginning of their dangerous day.

Esti documents avian strength in a photographic sequence showing a parrot chick pecking its way out of its egg and avian splendor as the metamorphosis of the young parrot, a strange-looking earthbound creature with stubby feathers, into a magnificent bird in flight. Roni’s photographic sequence shows the birthing of a calf at a dairy farm on Israel’s coastal plain, an awesome event expressing beauty as helping bring new life into the world. It reveals beauty as the vital balance between the farmer’s compassion aiding a cow in labor and the strength of his arms pulling the calf through the birth canal.

The biblical prophet Zechariah envisioned a beautiful future during the depths of despair when Jerusalem was razed by its enemies and the Jewish people exiled. Tzipi sees Zechariah’s vision being realized in our day after two millennia of bitter exile. “Thus said God: I will bring My people from the land of the east and from the land where the sun sets to dwell within Jerusalem…. We will see the wondrous vision of elderly men and women once again sitting in the streets of Jerusalem and the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing.” (Zechariah 8:6-7). Tzipi photographed beauty as she and her brother sitting with their great-grandparents, both 91 years old, in their home in Jerusalem. Her grandparents have 7 children, 47 grandchildren, 170 great-grandchildren, and 6 great-great grandchildren – in total 230 offspring!

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