21 July 2016

Art as Visual Midrash: Four Wings of America

As collaborative artists, my wife Miriam and I celebrate America’s Independence Day on July 4th with our Torah Tweet  blogart project post  “Four Corners of America” that presents a commentary on Korah (Numbers 16:1-18:32), the fifth portion of Numbers read from Torah scrolls in Israel on  July 2nd.

We traveled to the four corners of America – the Atlantic corners of Maine and Florida, and the Pacific corners of California and the State of Washington, where we placed four rope tzitzit fringes each with a sky-blue strand that links sky to sea. 

“Speak to the Israelites and say to them that they shall make themselves tzitzit on the corner wings of their garments for all generations.  And they shall include in the tzitzit of each corner wing a thread of sky-blue wool….  I am God your Lord who brought you out of Egypt.” (Numbers 15:38, 41)

Our blogart post below is our creative exploration through digital photography and twitter poetry of the biblical passage in relation to our life together.  We invite others to Bible blog their lives. My book Photograph God http://photographgod.com  is an instruction manual on how to create a spiritual blog of your life.  It explores the interface between photography, social media and spirituality.

Following the Torah Tweets post is a more complete description and discussion of the “Four Corners of America” blogart project from my more academic book The Future of Art  in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) http://future-of-art.com.  


Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters displayed on the Twitter social networking website. Limiting the number of words in our Torah Tweets bloagart sentences to 140 characters is a creative challenge that imitates the torah itself which does not waste words. Torah tweets are like bursts of bird song that sometimes gain a haiku-like poetic flavor. 140 is the numerical value (gematria) of the word hakel, which means 'to gather people together to share a Torah learning experience' as in Leviticus 8:3 and Deuteronomy 4:10.


Korah son of Izhar son of Kehat son of Levi began a rebellion along with Datan and Aviram sons of Eliav. (Numbers 16:1, 12-13)

Korah’s challenge: "Isn't a talit prayer shawl woven entirely with sky-blue wool exempt from the one sky-blue thread?”

Moses replied that one is obligated to tie only a single sky-blue thread among 3 white ones.  The color of the tallit is irrelevant.

The SaPphiRe thread suggests a heavenly realm SPiRaling through ordinary white threads to bring SPiRitual energies to everyday life.

An all sky-blue tallit symbolizes a totally spiritual life separated from the mundane.

Kanfot, the Hebrew word for 'corners' of garments is also used for 'corners' of the earth as in the biblical prophecy:

“He will ingather the dispersed ones of Judah from the four corner wings [kanfot] of the earth.” (Isaiah 11:12).

When the City of Miami asked my wife Miriam and me to create the official artwork for its centennial, we proposed placing tzitzit on the 4 corners of America.

American Airlines, the largest US corporation in the wing business, agreed to sponsor our “Four Wings of America” project.

We flew to Maine where we placed a large rope tzitzit with a sky-blue strand on barnacle-encrusted boulders at the Atlantic Ocean.

We attached a tzitzit to a tree on the beach of a balmy Florida bay where the blue of the sky colored the sea water.

On the Pacific coast, a Mexican boy watched the tzitzit shuddering in the wind hanging from the wall separating San Diego from Tijuana.

From Seattle, we drove to Neah Bay, an Indian reservation at the end of the Olympia Peninsula in Washington State to place the 4th tzitzit.

See the photographs and tweet texts for our year-long blogart project at http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com.


Midrash is 2,000 years of creative narratives designed to elucidate biblical concepts. It takes the biblical narratives themselves and spins out tales that read between the lines of the biblical text and that reveal messages hidden in the white spaces between the Hebrew letters. These inspirational stories form a vast literature illuminating biblical texts from countless alternative viewpoints. Postmodern art provides a context in which traditional story telling can be transformed from a verbal activity into visual one. “In a postmodern framework, art is once again about something beyond itself; it defines a particular narrative or world view.” Exemplary narrative art can be seen in the artworks of the husband-wife teams Christo and Jean-Claude and Newton Harrison and Helen Mayer Harrison. Their artworks are narratives of their dialogue with social, political, and environmental factors presented through the interplay between of visual and verbal modes of expression.

New narratives emerging from a visual artist’s dialogue with biblical texts can be called “visual midrash.” My visual midrash, Four Wings of America, creates an innovative form of Jewish visual culture that acts in counterpoint to the age-old ritual drama of donning a talit with tzitzit flowing from its corners. I extend the postmodern pattern of art as the narrative of an artist’s dialogue with social, political, and environmental realms into spiritual and ethical realms as my New World tale, Four Wings of America, extends into an Old World tale, Fringed Hut in Munich. The story of tzitzit flowing from the four corners of America continues in a visual midrash in which mega-tzitzit emerge from four corners of a giant talit in Munich constructed from planks of pinewood supplied by BMW for “Sky Art ‘83.” The giant talit is built as a sukkah, the traditional hut that is both a reminder of the desert dwellings of the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt and an invitation to initiate an era of world peace.

Often midrash forges creative connections between a word in the Bible that appears several times in different contexts. In Numbers we read, “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of (kanfai) their garments, throughout their generations … I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Before the Israelites received the Ten Commandments, God tells Moses, “Tell the Israelites: ‘You saw what I did in Egypt, carrying you on wings of (kanfai) eagles and bringing you to me” (Exodus 19:4). Forty years later standing on the east bank of the Jordan River, Moses reviews the laws of the Torah for the generation born in the desert before they enter the Promised Land. He said, “Make yourself fringes on the four corners (kanfot) of the garment with which you cover yourself ” (Deuteronomy 22:12). Before donning his prayer shawl each morning, a Jew says, “May the talit spread its wings (kanfav) […] like an eagle rousing his nest, fluttering over its eaglets.” The biblical prophecy, “He will ingather the dispersed ones of Judah from the four corners (kanfot) of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12), is being realized in our day. The biblical Hebrew word used for the four “corners” of one’s garment and metaphorically as the four “corners” of the earth is the same word that is used for “wings.” The foremost biblical commentator Rashi (11th-century France) points out the links between corners and wings, “The tzitzit are placed ‘on the corners (kanfot) of their garments,’ alluding to God having freed the Israelites from Egypt, as it states, ‘and I carried you on the wings (kanfot) of eagles.’”

Four Wings of America is a visual midrash that conceptually links corners of a garment to corners of the land to wings. It was one of twenty artworks that my wife, the artist Miriam Benjamin, and I created as part of the official celebration of Miami’s centennial. When we moved to Miami from New York, we sensed that we had moved to one of the four corners of America. These artworks explored relationships between the four corners of continental United States and its geographic center. We made large white rope tzitzit with a sky blue thread with the thought of attaching them to the four corners of America. Since corners are wings in biblical Hebrew, we invited American Airlines, the largest US corporation in the wing business, to sponsor our artwork. We placed large rope tzitzit on the boardroom table to explain to the airline executives their ritual significance and why we wanted to create a visual midrash by placing them at the four corners/wings of America. It became apparent that our proposal was appreciated, when one of them said, “It is as if the United States is spiritually lifted up by its four corners as the blue thread of the fringes links the sea to the sky.” They agreed to sponsor the project and flew Miriam and me to the four corners of America to physically realize our spiritual metaphor. Since American Airlines is the only airline with non-stop flights from Miami to Seattle, its public relations people were pleased with the concept.

We drove from Seattle to Neah Bay, an Indian reservation at the end of the Olympia Peninsula in Washington State, attached the tzitzit to a tree at the shoreline. The tzitzit flowing outward into the Pacific Ocean transformed the northwest corner of the continental United States by their presence. At the southwest corner, the tzitzit shuddered in the wind hanging from to the steel wall that separates San Diego from Tijuana at the Pacific Ocean. Tzitzit flowed into the Atlantic Ocean from huge barnacle-encrusted boulders on the Maine coast and from swaying palms shading the beach of a balmy Florida bay.

Biblical passages on tzitzit linking them to the exodus from Egyptian bondage invite us to appreciate our freedom. The sky blue strands of tzitzit flowing freely from the four corners of America also tell America’s story that links the heavenly blessing of freedom to the oceans crossed by those yearning to be free in the New World. At the request of the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams proposed a seal for the newly independent United States of America that shows the Israelites escaping to freedom from Egyptian bondage through the divided waters of the Red Sea while Moses stood on the shore with his hand held high over the sea. President George Washington repeated the same biblical message of freedom in his letter to the Jewish community of Savannah. His letter quoted in the introductory chapter, draws the parallel between God’s delivering the Hebrews from oppression in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land and the providential agency in establishing the United States separated from European oppression by a vast sea. He prays that the same wonder-working Deity that freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt would “still continue to water them with the dews of heaven” as a Jewish community living in freedom in America.

In synagogues in each of the four corner cities – Miami, San Diego, Seattle and Portland (Maine) – I participated in the weekday morning services wearing tzitzit flowing out of the four corners of my talit, a white woolen rectangular shawl with a series of stripes on both ends like giant bar codes. The stripes are parallel to call attention to the multiple paths of the twelve Israelite tribes, each representing different personality traits and alternative viewpoints. I photographed the spontaneous groupings of men in striped shawls as they gathered around the Torah scroll to kiss it as it was carried from the ark to the reading table. It brought to mind the herds of zebras in a National Geographic film I had seen. The zebras gathered together for protection. However, when a zebra was about to give birth she separated herself from the herd so that her unique stripe pattern would be imprinted on the newborn’s mind. If the newborn zebra were to first see the patterns on other zebras, it would be unable to identify its mother in the herd for nursing and would die of starvation. Like a bar code that identifies a product, zebra stripes serve a biological survival function of imprinting the identity of a particular zebra as mother. Perhaps those Jews who come together each morning donning a striped talit and seeing the tzitzit will never forget their identity. I photographed zebras in the zoos of each of the four corner cities and juxtaposed them with the photographs of the men in striped shawls.

I painted a mural incorporating the bar code stripes from the cover of ARTnews magazine on a wall in downtown Miami with the caption, “We stand illiterate before bar codes that supermarket lasers read with ease.” Seeing the common pattern in the secret language of our digital age and in zebras’ survival mechanisms and the ritual act of wearing a talit, attests to the grand ecosystem in which all is interconnected in divine oneness. The integral structure and ecological perspective that characterizes Jewish consciousness are playfully revealed through narrative artworks.

After attaching tzitzit to the four corners of America, I sensed that I needed to experience the center. Lebanon, Kansas, is the geographical center of continental United States. I flew to Kansas City and took a small plane to Selena, rented a car and drove through miles of corn fields to Lebanon, a town of 350 souls in the center of the northern tier of Kansas near the Nebraska border. Shortly before arriving at Lebanon, I passed through a town with a sign on its main street, “The Largest Ball of Twine in the World.” I pulled over to see a ten-foot high ball of string. It looked to me as if all the free flowing tzitzit in the four corners of the earth could have emerged from this giant source at the center.

There were no people on Main Street when I drove into Lebanon at midday. Only the post office and general store were opened. I went into the post office and asked how Lebanon got its name. As she postmarked stamps with “The Center of USA,” the postal clerk said that she had no idea how Lebanon got its name. She sent me across the street to the general store to ask. “You’re in luck,” the store owner responded. “Every Tuesday and Thursday Gladys Kennedy quilts with her friends at the American Legion hall next door. Gladys knows.” He took me next door and introduced me to Gladys as the town historian. As she quilted, she explained that it was named for the cedars of Lebanon that King Solomon used to build the Temple in Jerusalem. She quilted a few more stitches and added, “I have a large cedar growing in my back yard, one of the many growing in this part of Kansas.” Gladys walked home to fetch a history of Lebanon for me to get the official version. She returned with a hardbound centennial volume, A Century at the Center: 1887–1987. I copied the following from the book while Gladys went back to quilting:

“Name of Lebanon Chosen: A group of early settlers asked Jackson “Jack” Allen, an early settler of the community, to choose a name for the post office and village. Mr. Allen, a Bible student, was the leading literary man of the day and the settlers looked to him to select the name by which the post office town should be designated. “Why not the Bible?” was his first inspiration, and searching the pages, he stopped when he read The Cedars of Lebanon and suggested that name. Nobody opposed, and the name of Lebanon was recorded in the records. This was the year of 1873.”

A mile out of town there is an official monument with a bronze plaque marking the geographical center of the United States. It is made of fieldstones stacked into a truncated pyramid holding a flagpole flying the stars and stripes. On the pebbled ground in front of the monument, I drew a left-handed spiral with golden earth from Jerusalem. I framed the Jerusalem spiral by drawing four corners with sand that Miriam and I collected from the four corners of America. Sand from a Florida beach and from between granite boulders on the Maine coast formed the two corners on the right side of the spiral and sand from the beach where San Diego touches Mexico at the Pacific Ocean and from Neah Bay at the tip of the Olympia Peninsula in the State of Washington formed the two corners on the left side of the Jerusalem spiral.

I scooped up some black Kansas soil at America’s center and brought it with me to Jerusalem, honored as the Center of the World by both Judaism and Christianity. With the Kansas earth, I drew a right-handed spiral on a slab of stone beside the Western Wall retaining the Temple Mount. This Jerusalem stone combined with cedar wood from Lebanon was used by King Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem three millennia ago. As I was photographing the Kansas-earth spiral in Jerusalem to juxtapose with the matching Jerusalem-earth spiral that I photographed in Lebanon, Kansas, I realized that the biblical word “Lebanon” means “heart of the fifty.” The first part of the word means “heart” in Hebrew and the second part is the name of the Hebrew letter having the numerical value of fifty. 
My teenage son, Moshe, enjoyed my playful discovery of Lebanon as the heart of the fifty. Wearing a Miami Panthers T-shirt with tzitzit spiraling out from the four corners of his talit katan undergarment, he had just returned from having pushed a rolled-up scrap of paper into a space between the huge stones of the Western Wall. Rather than interacting with the rectangular stones, Jews throughout the centuries have related to the open spaces between the stones where they place their hopes and prayers written on small scraps of paper. In our postdigital age, people throughout the world can send their prayers to Jerusalem by e-mail inviting a proxy to print them out, roll them up, and add them to the hundreds of hopes filling the empty spaces between the stones.

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