Manifesto article on Judaism & The Visual Image

Judaism and the Visual Image

The role for the modern Jewish artist can be rooted in ancient biblical tradition.

(originally published in Jewish Renaissance Spring 2005)

The visual world and its depictions, the visual arts, seemingly have a problematic and paradoxical relationship within traditional Judaism. The realm of the visual is often seen as the very antithesis of Jewishness, the culture of the eye pertaining to the Greek system of understanding the world. Often Jewish theology speaks of the unseen and the unknowable, with the aural (hearing sense) being more accessible to relate to Hashem; from the “still small voice” heard by Elijah on the mount, to the masses accepting the Torah at Sinai, “we will do and we will hear - n’aseh v’nishma.” For this reason, Jewish visual artists are often disconnected from the mainstream, misunderstood, even excommunicated or labelled as deracinated.

"V’lo taturu acharei l’vavchem v’acharei ainaichem asher atem zonim achareihem"

"Do not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray"

The problematic relationship has its heart in these famous words of the shema prayer. They suggest that the eyes are a potential source of danger to the self; the source of conflict between the potential pure inner self and the distorted external world. Subsequently, it is implied, the eyes connect to the operations of the heart (ie. desire) and lead the body to sin. It is the position of the eyes in the head that marks the confrontation between the internal self and the world outside, bristling with temptations. The eyes are always looking forward for newness, for originality, but on a path fraught with danger.

In the novel 'The Chosen,' by Chaim Potok, the eyes are represented as a metaphor for confrontation between tradition and modernity. In a lively and competitive baseball game, Danny Saunders raps a line drive that strikes Reuven Malter in the eye. Temporarily blinded by the blow and waking up for the first time to a recognition of himself and his tradition, Reuven recovers in a hospital ward peopled with tragic representatives of life: the nearly blind ex-boxer who has been pummelled brutally and chatters incessantly, and the small boy who stares ceaselessly with blind eyes. This ward of readjusted vision is also the threshold for Reuven’s refocusing his life: “I lay there a long time, thinking about my eyes.” The image of the eye is developed steadily throughout the book, and eventually becomes clearly associated with the conflict between the individual and the tradition. “What’s inside us is the greatest mystery of all,” says Danny at one point. That way of seeing is the exploration of oneself and is perhaps life’s ultimate adventure.

Thus, there is a paradox. We must see to negotiate and move forward in the world, even with our own selves – but at the same time can we trust what we see? The visual world is seemingly bursting with traps and pitfalls tempting our heart.

According to the postmodern theorist, Jean Baudrillard, our own post-industrial society is very much the “society of the spectacle”, living in the “ecstasy of communication.” Whether, it is planes smashing into skyscrapers or enormous waves crashing through innocent villages, the images are transferred at light speed around the globe. What we don’t see with our own eyes, we see on a digitised screen – becoming more and more distant from the realness of seeing. As visual culture explodes with movies, DVDs and video games, Baudrillard speaks of a twist in the relationship between the real and its reproduction. "The real is not what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced . . . the hyperreal . . . which is entirely in simulation."

In the postmodern world there is a danger of moving ever further from any sense of reality from seeing and hence, any sort of reality of our own selves.

In biblical Judaism, the visual was critical. Think tabernacle, temple, priestly clothes. However, the culture of today is very different. As mass society raises the level of seeing to great heights, much of traditional Judaism looks completely away, into itself.

The lines of a Hebraic-Hellenistic divide are being drawn. The different ways of seeing of the two civilisations which had most impact on Western society are explored by Erich Auerbach in his seminal book Mimesis. The essay Odysseus’ Scar draws out the fundamental differences of narrative style between the biblical account of Abraham’s near sacrificing of his son Isaac and Homer’s Iliad.

Auerbach uses an excerpt from the Iliad where the hero, Odysseus, covertly returns home and is recognised by a scar upon his thigh by the housekeeper. The piece is described in an extraordinary level of detail. Auerbach draws from this that the Iliad is externalised, describing uniformly illuminated phenomena at a definite time and place with thoughts and feelings completely detailed and expressed. Genesis, on the other hand, has externalisation only for the benefit of the decisive points of the narrative – all else is left in obscurity. What lies between is nonexistent, with time and place undefined, calling for interpretation; thoughts and feelings remain unexpressed, only hinted at in silence or fragmentary speeches. The whole is directed toward a single goal.

The Homeric poems appear to be more highly developed in linguistic and syntactical composition, yet comparatively simple in their picture of human beings. Delight in physical reality is everything and their highest aim is to make that delight perceptible to us. The reality ensnares us but exists for itself and contains nothing but itself, concealing nothing.

Conversely, in the biblical stories the religious intent involves an absolute claim to historical truth. Auerbach argues that the ‘author’ of the biblical passages remains far more passionate and definite than Homer. What is produced in Genesis is not primarily orientated towards ‘realism’ but towards ‘truth’. Doctrine and promise are embodied within the biblical text and, for that very reason, it is fraught with mystery and secondary concealed meaning.
The Auerbach analysis suggests that at the heart of the Torah is a denial of the visual – it is very much the unseen that is the true place of real seeing, of really understanding. In other words, that which we cannot see is what the enlightened will aim to see.

In the Midrash (rabbinical commentary on the Torah), rabbinic imagination operates on the biblical text and it can be highly visual, with the sages shifting from word to image. In the Akeidah story (Genesis 22:1-19), based on only 19 verses, the root r-‘-h (‘see’) functions as a key symbol, are repeated no less than six times. When Abraham comes within view of Mt. Moriah, (“the mountain of vision" (Gen. 22:14) "So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will see', as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord, He shall be seen” scripture tells us that "Abraham lifted his eyes and he saw the place from afar" (Gen. 22:4).
Here the biblical word me-rachoq (‘from afar’) seems to be understood not as "from a far distant place", but as "from a far-away time". This midrashic re-reading is what motivates the narrative of how the place began as a valley that was miraculously and magisterially turned by God into a mountain. It is difficult to know when in history this miracle is thought to have taken place. It seems as if the entire experience transpires in a kind of ‘metahistorical’ time frame.

Abraham is not seeing in the usual sense. When he lifts up his eyes, he is lifting them up to a higher spiritual level. When he sees the place from afar, he is seeing it beyond the usual perception of seeing. He is seeing beyond physical time and space. He is seeing and knowing. He is seeing not the physical but the metaphysical. He is, amazingly, seeing Hashem (Godliness) in reality.

This gets us to the crux of the issue. Seeing in traditional Judaism is via the parameters of the text, even the words themselves. Kabbalistic meditation is based upon visualising the holy Hebrew names of God to access the inner path. This is a sort of visualising with the ‘mind’s eye’. Therefore, Jewish seeing does not see the world as it is, this is far too horrible – the horrifying sights of the Shoah linger in our memories. The terrifying cinema of Roman Polanski has never recovered from the terrors he witnessed as a boy escaping the European chambers of death. Jewish seeing is a seeing through the Hebrew letters, almost like viewing the world through a protective lens. A sense of visualisation, engaging in textual interplay, is the primal means of Jewish seeing.

This makes Jewish visual art very exciting. Mordechai Ardon attempted to reach a state of mystical abstraction with his powerful paintings. Shades of light express emotion and energy, connecting to the Kabbalistic theories of the sephirot (the 10 circles of the tree of life). This potentially points the way for a more primal Jewish art – caught in a twilight zone between seeing and not seeing, between abstraction and actualisation.

The key for Jewish artists is to avert one’s eyes from the current trends of transgressive art, where art is being used to subvert moral code and order. This movement is a push by the artists as moral superior, attempting to redefine reality and the harmony of creation. The artist Joseph Beuys, for example, suggested that the role of the artist is to remove the line of distinction between the clean and the unclean, through a process of bewitchment with the audience, which is the same argument used in Torah against sorcery.

The artist can invoke divination. The film Max (2002) suggests Hitler was first and foremost a frustrated artist. The key for Jewish artists is to avert one’s eyes from the current trends of transgressive art, where art is being used to subvert moral code and order. Milk, Blood (1986) by Andres Serrano is an example of the push by the artists to subvert moral codes. Mutated forms, cross breeds, absurd adjunctions – its all coming and we must be ready. For our moral imperative is to see through this mis-seeing, to create works that help other people see. Only then may we collectively see with the mind and enter the realm of true seeing – something far beyond our mortal powers.

This is a deep and challenging area. the artist is entering the realm of the mystics. With the mind's eye one has the opportunity to glimpse the fabric of reality and the meta-physical matter of creation. when used properly and purely, the signs and symbols found here (the most basic forms being the hebrew letters) can be used to show the intricate beauty and harmony of the world.

There is nothing more important in my opinion because now is the time of true seeing, of seeing the hand of Hashem in the world.