LightsOROT at MIT: Learning Torah through Art

 

Excerpt from The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press. pp. 223-234.

 

Mel Alexenberg

Creating art can be an alternative method of Torah study that beatifies the mitzvah of study through visual midrash.  Midrash 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. The centrality of learning Torah in Jewish life warrants its being an additional category. 

Arthur Danto, in his book on the visual arts in post-historical perspective22, expounds on the major significance of context in understanding postmodern art.  Rabbi Arthur Green reads “context” in its primal meaning “with-text.” 

“Judaism is a process of ongoing commentary.  To be a Jew is to be a student.  To be a self-affirming Jew is to love and study Torah.  It is no small matter that the rabbis considered study equal in value to all the other mitzvot combined as one….  It is, after all, that historical contextuality, that living “with the text” that places us within the chain of tradition, that makes our generation a contributor to the sum of what will be passed on to the future.  We do this faithfully only as we submit ourselves to the role of student, as we are willing to allow ourselves to be shaped by the text as we have received it and made it our own.”23

The centrality of the mitzvah of learning Torah is revealed in the daily morning liturgy in response to the special blessing for Torah study: “Please YHVH, our God, sweeten the words of Your Torah in our mouth and in the mouth of Your people, the family of Israel.  May we and our offsprings and the offsprings of Your people, all the House of Israel know your Name and study your Torah for its own sake.”  Following the blessing, three passages from the Written and Oral Torah are studied.  The first is the biblical blessing, “May God bless you and safeguard you.  May God illuminate His countenance for you and be gracious to you.  May God turn His countenance to you and establish peace for you” (Numbers 6:24-26).   The last is a passage from the Talmud:

“These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys: honor due to father and mother, acts of kindness, early attendance at the house of study morning and evening, hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, providing for a bride, escorting the dead, absorption in prayer, bringing peace between man and his fellow – and the study of Torah is equivalent to them all.”24

Creating art as a method of Torah study is exemplified by the creation of LightsOROT at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  LightsOROT (OROT is the Hebrew word for “lights”) is a collaborative artwork that resulted in a communal creation that honors and facilitates the expression of each individual artist’s vision and talents.  Creating community that honors what is unique in each person is a core Jewish value that we learned from King Solomon’s instituting eruv with n’tilat yadayim.  The very process of creating LightsOROT is as much an expression of Jewish consciousness as its creating visual midrash on light.  LightsOROT exemplifies a reconstructive postmodernism that moves beyond modernism’s construction of personality cults build upon the individual artist’s originality and postmodernism’s deconstruction of modernism’s values.  Creating LightsOROT formed a community of artists who worked together to create an integral environmental artwork that revealed each artist’s vision in interplay with the visions of the others.

LightsOROT focuses on studying the subject of “light” in Torah and natural systems through artistic explorations that exploit new light media.  The Bible soundly links light to Torah study: “A mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23).  The biblical passage read in response to the blessing for Torah study talks of “illumination.”  Seeking creative avenues for coaxing divine light to enter our everyday world and illuminate it forms the core of Jewish consciousness.  This inspired search that integrates halakhic, kabbalistic, ecological and dialogic perspectives through artists’ collaborative study and creative expression forms the essence of postmodern art.  LightsOROT is an exemplary model of the process of creating art through Torah study that resulted from my forging a creative partnership between MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies and Yeshiva University Museum, between America’s most advanced center for exploring new technologies in creating art and America’s leading center for Jewish learning.           

The genesis of LightsOROT can be traced to my Torah study with Moshe Davidowitz (now Dror).  I contacted Moshe when I read that he was creating a Center for Art in Jewish Life in New York in 1974.  At that time, I was art professor at Columbia University and Moshe was directing the continuing education program at New York University. Moshe had formerly been a congregational rabbi in Connecticut and director of the Spertus Museum, the Jewish museum in Chicago.  Our shared interests prompted us to become a hevrutah, a dyad of Torah learning partners, meeting alternatively at Columbia and NYU.  We began our studies at the beginning with the book of Genesis integrating our study of traditional Jewish sources with insights gleaned from the natural and social sciences, general systems theory, art history, aesthetic philosophy, and media ecology.  Light became a central focus of our learning Torah together.  My Torah studies with Moshe paralleled a graduate course on color that I was teaching at Columbia where my students explored color from the points of view of physics, physiology, psychology, anthropology, aesthetics, and art history.  I had written the book Light and Sight25 during my earlier career as a science teacher.

I moved back to Israel in 1977 where I founded a new regional college in the Negev desert town of Yeroham in cooperation with Bar-Ilan University where I was a professor.  I spent the summer of 1980 in the States as a research fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  During that summer, I began my dialogue with the Center’s director, Otto Piene.  Otto was cofounder with Heinz Mack of Group Zero26 in Germany and pioneered in creating light art.  The first public performance of his Light Ballet was in 1959.  We had talks about the future of light art as an expression of the spiritual dimensions of the electronic revolution.  My researches that summer led to the first stages in the development of a biofeedback-generated computer graphics system that provided the digital technology for my artwork, Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim, that was to become part of LightsOROT eight years later.

That summer, I met Moshe Dror in New York.  He had moved from a houseboat in the Hudson River while at NYU to a villa overlooking Lake Geneva to head the International Humanistic Psychology Association.  I invited him to join me in Yeroham as dean of the college when he finished his term office in Geneva.  Before Rosh Hashanah the following year, he phoned me to tell me that he would be accepting my invitation.    Moshe and I, rabbi and artist, resumed and intensified our hevrutah study of Torah in relationship to space-time concepts, sense modalities, new digital technologies, and alternative roles for the arts in Jewish life.  We put our ideas into practice by developing a program in art and Jewish thought at the college in which we both taught and coauthored a paper, “Educating a Jewish Artist,”27 on the theoretical background for our new program.  It was during our long walks together in the desert mountains over the next few years that the conceptual framework for LightsOROT evolved. It became clear to us that God/Torah/Israel were intimately linked to light in Jewish consciousness:  “God is my light” (Psalms 27:1); “Torah is light” (Psalms 6:23); Israel is a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).  Light is connected by gematria to the secret of the Infinite.  Or (light) and raz (secret) and ein sof (infinite) all share the numerical equivalent of 207.

When Sylvia Herskowitz, Director of the Yeshiva University Museum, was visiting Israel, Moshe and I drove up to Jerusalem to propose to her developing an art exhibition exploring Jewish thought through electronic technologies.  She was enthusiastic about the idea.

After seven years living in the desert and teaching at the university, I earned a sabbatical year that I spent at MIT.  My renewed dialogue with Otto Piene made me realize that the conceptual framework forged in Israel could be transformed in physical reality with access to the powerful technological resources of MIT.  Otto became my new learning partner in the further conceptualization of LightsOROT in relation to artistic collaboration and electronic technologies.  I flew down to New York to meet with Sylvia Herskowitz and she subsequently made visits to Cambridge to meet with Otto and me in planning LightsOROT as a joint venture between MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS) and Yeshiva University Museum.  As the idea of the show became a reality, Otto and I expanded our dialogue to include other artists affiliated with CAVS.  We organized a symposium on light in Jewish thought and experience at Yeshiva University in New York for the artists who would be collaborating in creating LightsOROT.  Moshe Dror flew in from Israel to participate in the symposium.  All the artists, both Jews and non-Jews, spent two intense days learning with Moshe and me. 

After completing my year as research fellow at CAVS, I accepted the position to head the art department at Pratt Institute in New York.  By moving to New York and becoming a frequent flyer on the New York-Boston shuttle, I was able to coordinate a complex collaborative enterprise between the YU museum and CAVS.  During the next two-and-a-half years, I met regularly with Otto and the participating artists both in group meetings and in individual conferences.  I worked closely with all the artists in exploring interfaces between the conceptual framework for the show and their individual talents and aesthetic concerns.  The paper that I wrote for the collaborating artists, “Lights of Creation: Sight and Insight,” became their conceptual guidebook. I invited rabbis with wide-ranging creative insights to CAVS to engage in dialogue with the artists about interrelationships between Torah concepts and ideas for their artworks.  Being on campus, Daniel Shevitz, the director of Hillel, the Jewish students organization at MIT and organizer of a conference on computers and Judaism, was available for consulting with the artists.  Zalman Schachter, the spiritual leader of the Jewish Renewal movement and professor at Temple University who learned Torah in Dharamsala with the Dalai Lama28 learned with the artists.  Josef Wosk, a congregational rabbi in Massachusetts and graduate of both the rabbinical school of Yeshiva University and Harvard Divinity School, not only learned with the artists, but he collaborated with Joel Ziff in preparing “A Light Concordance,” a resource document on light in Jewish sources that became a 14-page section of the LightsOROT catalog.

My dialogue with Otto expanded to involve three other artists who worked with us in solidifying fluid ideas into a concrete set of visual and auditory parameters that developed into a master plan for integrating all the collaborating artists’ work within the museum space.  My dialogue with musical composer and laser artist Paul Earls and environmental artist Lowry Burgess had begun during my 1980 summer at MIT, during subsequent visits to Cambridge, and at the “Sky Art” exhibition in Munich.  Lowry had also visited with me in Israel where I assisted him in distilling the waters from the world’s major rivers at the Dead Sea for the core of his art satellite.  Joe Moss, sculptor, environmental artist, and art professor at the University of Delaware, joined us and was named project director responsible for the construction and installation of the exhibition at the museum.

Talit Firmament was the first of 25 pieces to be installed.  It was created by Beth Galston, a sculptor working with light to create participatory environments. She collaborated with textile designer Maura Walsh and laser artist Paul Earls.  Beth had created sensitive environments that involve movement and change with scrim cloth used in theater sets.  Since she had been working with cloth, seeing the white woolen talit prayer shawl with black stripes became an inspiration that led her to spread layers of black and white scrims over the entire ceiling of the museum.  In dialog with Paul Earls, it became a firmament on which he could project laser animations of shimmering Hebrew words alternating with celestial luminaries drawn by Otto Piene.    He was inspired by the biblical account in Genesis 1:6-8, 14: “God said, ‘Let there be a firmament’…. God made a firmament…. God called the firmament ‘Heaven’…. God said, ‘Let there be luminaries in the firmament of the heaven to separate between day and night.  And they shall serve as signs.”  He created a computer program that moved a tiny mirror at extremely high speeds to send a coherent beam of laser light onto the scrim firmament synchronized with an environmental sound composition. Paul had earned three degrees from Eastman School of Music at University of Rochester, including a Ph.D. in composition.  He used an argon laser beam to trace contour-line drawings of dancing light forms projected through layers of black and white scrim.  Looking up, the visitor to LightsOROT saw stars emerging from the firmament and Hebrew letters spelling out the words, b’reshit (in the beginning), or (light), rakeeyah (firmament), yom (day), and lailah (night), in response to words spoken by visitors. Microphones hanging from the ceiling captured spoken words transmitting them into a computer, processing them, and then returning them to the exhibition space as shimmering words hovering above projected through layers of scrim cloth. 

Immediately after reading the Ten Commandments in the Bible, we read, “All the people saw the sounds” (Exodus 20:15) rather than “heard the sounds.”  Paul was able to simulate the synaesthetic experience at the foot of Mount Sinai of seeing sounds.  When the word “or” was said, ten-foot letters alef, vav, resh spelled out the Hebrew word for “light” in pure laser light flickering across a scrim night sky for all to see.  In his artist’s statement for the LightsOROT catalog, Paul Earls wrote that he strives “to create new work that neither I nor anyone else has ever experienced before which integrates the senses and celebrates life.”29 He followed his statement with a passage from Psalms 19:2: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork.”  

Beth’s image of talit called for tzitzit fringes.  On the four corners of the scrim, I attached giant tzitzit tied from ship rope given to the museum by the Israeli shipping firm, Zim Lines.  Instead of using rope for one of the strands of each fringe, I used light-transmitting fiber optic cable used in telecommunications.  I painted it sky blue in accordance with the biblical precept, “put on the fringe of each corner a blue thread” (Numbers 15:38). Each blue fiber optic bundle was frayed at the ends into 6,000 dots of light as memorial lights for the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.  To produce six millions dots of light, I would have had to make four thousand giant tzitzit!  Harold Tovish’s sculpture Region of Ice was also a memorial light for those lost in the Holocaust.  Light emerged through a heap of broken glass like an icy mass of shattered lives.  A lone life-size sculpted head entombed in an epoxy sphere rested on the broken glass.

When I looked up at the scrim talit and firmament, I began to see them from another perspective, as a big tent.  The scrims were transformed into the patriarch Abraham’s tent pitched in the desert 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, midrash reads alternative meanings into it.  Eshel, spelled alef, shin, lamed, becomes the word for “question” sha’al, when the order of same three Hebrew letters is rearranged as shin, alef, lamed.  The Talmud30 teaches that eshel it is also the acronym for food, lodging, and escorting 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, both winds and spirits.  Ruhot 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.  Like the four sons in the Passover Haggadah, each represents a different personality type whose different questions require different answers.  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 (alef) and lodging (shin) in the dormitory of his school, Abraham would escort (lamed) each of his students on his way into the desert until the student felt secure enough to continue asking questions on his own. Lamed is both the name of a letter and a word in itself related to learning, study, and teaching.  It is the tallest of the 22 Hebrew letters, is the only one that breaks through the scribe’s guide line scored above the letters.  It soars above all the letters into a mysterious space where no other letters have been.  Learning is posing questions evoked by this mystery.   Eshel and sha’al (question) are one, written with the same Hebrew letters.

The never-ending process of asking questions according to Albert Einstein is the essence of both art and science as they approach the mysteries of human life and nature.  “He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”31 When Nobel laureate in physics, Isador Rabi, 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 to spiritualality.  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 of his shoes and move aside to see the bush from a fresh vantage point in order to discover the deep significance of his encounter.

There is a dispute recorded in the Talmud about the symbolic meaning of the eshel that Abraham planted in Beersheba.  Although some of the rabbis saw eshel as an inn in which Abraham taught, others explained that eshel is a generic name for trees.  It symbolizes a grove, a PaRDeS, a vertical metaphor for learning Torah in depth from multiple vantage points in contrast to the horizontal metaphor of a tent/inn/school open in four directions to engage individuals with different cognitive styles and worldviews in inquiry-centered learning.  PaRDeS, as we discussed earlier, is the acronym for four levels of learning Torah.  P’shat is the simple, literal meaning of the text.  Remez is a hint of deeper significance.  Drash is homiletic interpretation.  And Sod is the mystical, hidden meaning.

Although Beth’s work on the tent-like structure symbolized Abraham’s open school, I felt that we needed a complimentary piece that would more explicitly convey the idea and feeling of entering and exiting from the tent/inn/school.  While discussing this need with Otto, he was fingering a sand-cast glass hand that I had seen over the years on his desk.  I digressed to add the idea that the Hebrew word for “knowledge” yadah is made up of the word for “hand” yad and the letter “ayin” which is also the word for “eye.”  To know is to see what your hand is doing, to be aware of one’s behavior, and to take responsibility for one’s actions.  I returned to talking about how Abraham comes to see by changing his position both physically and psychologically, walking away from all that is familiar.  “Walk in your own way away from your land, your birthplace, from your father’s home to the land that you will recognize when you see it” (Genesis 12:1).  As I began exploring connections between Abraham’s walking, “lekh l’khah,” and Torah learners walking in and out of Abraham’s tent/inn/school, Otto exclaimed: “Wouldn’t it be beautiful to sand-cast glass feet like this glass hand on my desk.  Paths to enlightenment could spiral out in four directions.”  We had found the conceptual and aesthetic counterpoint on the floor below to the scrim firmament above.  Feet in sand brought to mind the vision of Abraham’s descendents walking through desert sand from Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai where they received the Torah.  It is said that the centuries of slavery made Abraham’s descendents forget the Torah that Abraham knew intuitively and, therefore, they had to be handed it is writing at Mount Sinai. 

Walking through the halls of Massachusetts College of Art where my wife was studying for her MFA, I had seen the flames from kilns running non-stop to maintain batches of molten glass for the students.  With the help of the MassArt faculty and students joined by our MIT students, we cast eighty-eight glass feet in sand.  Men, women, and children pressed their bare feet into damp sand.  Molten glass was then poured into the impressions left by their feet.  We built a raised plywood floor a foot above the museum floor and painted it black.  Four paths of 22 glass feet were placed on the plywood floor spiraling out from the center of the museum’s main exhibition hall.  Pencil lines were drawn around the feet on the plywood and foot-shaped openings in the false floor were cut out with a saber saw.   After the glass feet were glued with epoxy into the corresponding openings, a separate light bulb was wired under every one of the feet.  Each of the four paths contained 22 illuminated feet corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet with which the Torah is written.  All of the lighting in LightsOROT emanated from the ambient light of the artworks themselves.  No other lighting was added.

The four sets of illuminated feet emerged from under a large satellite dish (13 feet in diameter) facing upwards.  A second identical satellite dish facing downwards hovered several feet above it.  Mirrored plastic sheets cut into seventy narrow triangles were glued into each dish like pie slices.  Rotating in midair between the two dishes was a prism star cast in acrylic.  Under the bottom dish an infrared sensor sensed the body heat of a visitor as she approached the dishes.  The sensor triggered a flash of intense light on her face that was captured by the prism star and spread onto the seventy mirrored triangles.  She saw her face replicated seventy times as a symbolic expression of the Talmudic saying that there are “ayin panim l’torah” – seventy faces of the Torah.  Since ayin is both “seventy” and “eye,” the Talmudic saying encourages us to see every passage in the Torah from seventy different viewpoints.  The electronic flash is a metaphor for the sudden flash of insight  (hokhmah) that brings us a fresh viewpoint.  A second version of this dialogic artwork stood vertically inviting the visitor to stand between the two dishes.  He would see his face seventy times circulating around animated laser drawings of eyes floating in the circular opening in the center of each satellite dish.  Both versions of this interactive environmental sculpture were a truly collaborative work of Lowry Burgess, Paul Earls, Christopher Janny, Joe Moss, and Otto Piene.  

To fine-tune its interactive properties, the vertical version, Monocle 2, was exhibited at the Museum of Science in Boston before it was installed at the Yeshiva University Museum.  Media artist Vin Grabil made a video of Otto and me talking about LightsOROT standing between the dishes at the science museum.  This became the conceptual introduction for a video catalog of the show that Vin produced.  At the Yeshiva University Museum, a continuous loop of the video catalog was shown in a room with rows of seats off the main exhibition hall.  We also produced a 113-page print catalog that explores the theoretical background of light in Jewish consciousness from multiple viewpoints.  It was dedicated to Gyorgy Kepes, Head of the Light and Color Department at the New Bauhaus in Chicago and Founding Director of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, who was a great inspiration for many of the artists participating in LightsOROT.  In addition to essays by Otto and me, world-renowned psychologist of art Rudolf Arnheim wrote the introductory essay, “On the Symbolism of Light.”  Professor Arnheim was teaching at Harvard at the time and had written Toward a Psychology of Art, Visual Thinking, and Entropy and Art.  For the catalog, I also coauthored with Rabbi Norman Lamm, Torah scholar and President of Yeshiva University, “Light, Vision and Art in Judaism: A Dialogue.” Rabbi Lamm’s book, Torah Umadda: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition,32 has provided intellectual support for my life-long quest for understanding interrelationships between art, science, and Jewish thought that was artistically realized through the creation of LightsOROT.

Suspended from the ceiling beneath the scrim firmament, a sixty-foot long water prism ran across the entire length of the museum to create River of Light.  In Hebrew, river and light are linguistically linked. The feminine form of word for “river” nahar is a biblical word for “light” naharah used in Job 3:3.  Lowry Burgess, Joe Moss, and David Burns bent 30-inch acrylic sheets into a “V” shape that was suspended with steel cables from a concrete beam in the museum ceiling.  Filled with water, the sixty-foot prism weighed several tons.  A bank of light projectors projected white light through the full length of the water prism to create a two-foot high spectral band that colored the length of the museum wall opposite the light source.  We found that this massive water prism acted as a seismograph responding to tremors across the globe that caused the undulation of the spectral band.  Seeing this seismographic effect provided an awesome aesthetic experience of ecological perspective in the realization that our entire planet is interconnected as a single system that touches me.  Rainbow waves generated by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions throughout the world as revealed by an artwork in a New York museum evoked a spiritual response in many people.  The concept that white light is composed of a spectrum of different colors has both kabbalistic and halakhic significance.  Just as white light breaks into colors, the one divine light breaks into the spectrum of sephirot in its descent into our every day world.  Sephirot as stages in the creative process can be represented by a continuum of spectral colors. It is also a metaphor in Jewish tradition for community that is beautiful when it recognizes the wonderful variety exhibited by the individuals who make up the community.  The white light of community and the range of spectral colors representing individuals are one. 

The spectrum assigned to Hebrew letters can reveal hidden patterns in Torah.  With the computer programming assistance of Yisroel Cohen, I created a dialogic artwork, Torah Spectrograph, through which people could see these patterns as related to their own lives.   Just as each Hebrew letter has a numerical value, it can also have a color value.  The first letter of the alphabet, alef, with the numerical equivalent of the all-inclusive one, is represented by one pixel of white light.  The second letter, beit, is two pixels of red light.  The third letter, gimel, is a band of three letters of orange.  When we come to the eighth letter, het, a band of eight violet pixels, we have run out of spectral colors.  We then repeat the spectrum three times so that the final letter of the alphabet, tav, is a band 22 violet pixels long.  To access the Torah color patterns, the visitor enters his birthday into the computer from which the date of his birthday in the Hebrew calendar is calculated.  That Hebrew date determines what portion of the Torah is read in synagogue each week.  At age thirteen, a Jewish boy is called to the Torah to acknowledge his becoming a bar mitzvah.  At age twelve, a Jewish girl becomes a bat mitzvah.   The Hebrew date of the visitor’s birthday calls up his or her Torah portion and plays it out on the monitor in bands of color according to the spacing pattern in a Torah scroll.  The Torah Spectrogram addresses each individual with a personalized biblical symphony of rainbow colors scrolling across the computer monitor.  I have subsequently used the same digital schema in more high touch materials.  In the courtyard of a Miami synagogue, I wrote out Psalm 146 “from generation to generation” in bands of stained glass in a wedding canopy.  With the sun passing through the canopy, we see a biblical song of color moving over the white wedding gown of the bride as the Earth spins.  I also spelled out the story of the creation of the universe from Genesis in bands of wood painted in acrylic colors flowing across the desert surface in the Negev mountains.

A spectral image appeared as visitors moved before the computer-generated white light hologram, The Ten Commandments: Stone of Light.  I made photocopies of the two versions of the Ten Commandments as they appear hand-written in a Torah scroll, one version made by God and the second made by Moses. In collaboration with two scientists working in Steve Benton’s MIT laser lab, artist/holographer Dieter Jung used my photocopies to create a three-dimensional hologram of the two versions superimposed on one another.  Visitors experienced the scribe’s Hebrew letters floating in space as pure disembodied spectral light.  Rabbi Chaim ben Atar in his book Or Hachaim  (Light of Life), wrote that the Ten Commandments were written with a divine finger of light.

Wen-Ying Tsai, an artist with degrees in engineering, created Dancing Menorah.  He constructed his five-foot high menorah with delicate stainless steel rods painted in spectral colors emerging from the seven branches of the menorah.  The movement of the rods was controlled by an audio control system coordinated with stroboscopic lights to realize the biblical passage: “All the people saw the sounds” (Exodus 20:15) rather than “heard the sounds.”  Sounds made by the visitors caused the long slim rods to sway in dancing motion that was visually stopped periodically by stroboscopic light.  

A grid of hologram discs created by Yaacov Agam was hanging on the balcony surrounding the main exhibition hall.  Visitors looking through them at any light source below saw the point of light transformed into a glowing six-pointed star.  When looking down on the eighty-eight illuminated glass feet through Agam’s holograms, the visitor would see a glowing Star of David hovering over each of the footprints.

Todd Siler created Metaphors on Light, multimedia bookworks using enamel, Plexiglas, oilstick, canvas, acetates, filmstrips, inks, paper, and adhesives integrated through collage and assemblage.  His three bookworks draw titles for the kabbalistic books, Sepher Habahir (Scroll of Brightness), Zohar (Glow), and Orot (Lights). Todd’s artwork explores inner realms of brain activities in relation to light in Jewish experience. He explains that as books of light they are timeless reflections on the celestial working of the human mind and the boundless elements of the imagination.  I first met Todd in 1980 when I was research fellow at MIT and he was a graduate student there.  He had lived in Israel and had illustrated the Passover Haggdah, Gates of Freedom, in delicate watercolor paintings.  Our common interests in a biological model of creative process in relation to art, technology, and culture made our dialogue particularly animated.  After completing his master’s degree at CAVS, he studied neurophysiology and cognitive psychology and became the first artist to be awarded a Ph.D. by MIT.  He expanded his doctoral research in his book, Breaking the Mind Barrier: The Artscience of Neurocosmology.33 His work truly expresses the ecological perspective of Jewish consciousness.

The biofeedback computer graphics system that I created in collaboration with my son, Ari, for our Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim dialogic artwork also deals with links between neurophysiology and psychology.  As described earlier in the book, this artwork creates a feedback loop in which one’s internal mind/body state (p’nim) changes a video image of one’s external self (panim).  It is an interactive system in which visitors paint digital self-portraits with the flow of their inner rivers of light.   An individual sits before a monitor and video camera with one finger in a plethysmograph, a device that measures blood flow in the finger and is a sensitive indicator of mind/body state.  We developed special software that transformed the color, form, and size of one’s face on the monitor in response to changes in mind/body states.  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 in which one’s still face, enclosed in gold frame, is set off from the world of life.   It is living life that is honored, not still life, not nature morte.

Poet Elizabeth Goldring and video artist Vin Grabill collaborated on an interactive video art work, Eye/Sight, which brought visitors inside their own eyes and the eye of a person whose vision is being lost.  A video camera reaches the retinal screen of a visitor’s eye and juxtaposes it with a medical examination of Elizabeth’s eye.  Elizabeth explored the visual disintegration of her own eyes as it produces visible inference patterns from electromagnetic fields of light and color.  She says, “I want to grasp these patterns as they rattle my soul, as they are shocked by maelstroms of sunlight, laser light, and blood light.  For me in the terror and beauty of these moments words/images/sounds/space are exploded and fused.”34 An audiotape of Elizabeth’s Eye/Sight Poems could be heard.

During a discussion with Elizabeth and Otto, Elizabeth mentioned her collection of rooster crows from around the world.  It immediately bought to mind the morning prayers that begin with the blessing, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast given the rooster intelligence to distinguish between day and night.”  This blessing is derived from Job 38:36 where the Hebrew word for rooster (sekhvi) comes from the verb “to see.”  The rooster sees the first light of dawn and announces it to us.  Otto jumped at the idea of creating a large inflatable rooster that sings the song of dawn for LightsOROT.  With the assistance of Lees Ruoff, Otto created a giant Sehvi Rooster.  Entering the museum, the visitor saw a massive heap of red nylon cloth laying on the floor in darkness.  It suddenly began to move, grow, and come to life as it was inflated to its full 17-foot high.  As it was growing, the rooster was illuminated by strobe lights that made the growth occur at an erratic pace.  Strobe lights stop motion.  The lighting was designed by MIT’s Harold “Doc’ Edgerton, the inventor of the strobe light.  His famous strobe photographs of a milkdrop crown, a bullet blasting through an apple, flying birds with their wings’ motion stopped, have been extensively reproduced.   When fully inflated, the lighting danced in tune to seckhvi roosters’ crows circling the globe.  The inflated rooster first called out a long stretched-out crow recorded in Japan where they have contests won by the length of the rooster’s crow.  Crows from roosters in the Land of the Rising Sun are followed by the “cock-a-doodle-do” of American roosters, rooster crows from across Europe, roosters announcing the dawn from the hills of Jerusalem with “coo-coo-ree-coo”, crows from India and China, and finally the long crows of Japanese roosters again. The blowers then stopped, thereby, causing the Seckhvi Rooster to slowly deflate and collapse into a dark heap before new breath would enter it and resurrect it.  Augmenting Elizabeth’s collection of rooster crows, crows of champion Japanese roosters were collected by art critic Itsuo Sakane and Jerusalem rooster crows were recorded by my son, Ron.

Ron also collaborated with Paul Earls on the sound environment for LightsOROT. Ron is a rabbi and a scientist who teaches biology and Torah and relationships between them at the Yeshiva High School for Environmental Studies at the edge of the Ramon Crater in the Negev.  At the time, he was a student at Merkaz Harav, the rabbinical college founded by Rabbi Kook in Jerusalem, as well as a music student.  He recorded ten different ways of chanting from the Torah scroll of ten different Jewish communities in Israel.  Ten people chanted in the tradition of their fathers the first four days of creation (Genesis 1:1-19), from “Let there be light” on the first day to “Let there be luminaries (orot) in the firmament” on the fourth day.  The diverse tunes of Yemenite, Kurdish, Persian, Dutch, German, Polish, Hungarian, Eastern European and American Jews became the raw materials for Paul’s musical composition.  Using computers, voice synthesizers, and other digital technologies, he wove together a four-channel musical environment linked to his laser display on the scrim firmament.  He spaced four amplifiers and speakers in the museum to create a sound environment in which there was a continual interplay between the different Torah chanting styles. His musical composition made so many combinations and variations from the ten styles that it took a full year before the same combinations reappeared.  For the eighteen months that LightsOROT filled the museum, visitors were encircled and engaged by a rich sound environment in which alternative musical traditions in the biblical Hebrew language were transformed through digital technologies and linked to a laser display of celestial luminaries on the scrim firmament.  They listened to distinctive traditional melodies in their cultural individuality as they joined in harmony with each other to create new voices for our postmodern digital era in keeping with Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s proclamation, “Renew the old, and sanctify the new.” 

Notes

22 Danto, Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-historical Perspective.

23 Arthur Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name (Northvale, NJ and London: Jason Aronson, 1992), 138.

24 Babylonian Talmud: Shabbat, 127a.

25 Melvin L. Alexenberg, Light and Sight (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970).

26 See Otto Piene and Heinz Mack, Zero (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1973).  Original German edition published in 1958.

27 Menahem Alexenberg and Moshe Dror, “Educating a Jewish Artist,” Bisdeh Hemed, No. 5-6, May-June 1984.  In Hebrew.

28 For the story of Rabbi Schachter’s encounter with the Dalai Lama, see: Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew in the Lotus (San Francisco: Harper, 1994).

29 Alexenberg and Piene, LightsOROT, 85.

30 Babylonian Talmud: Sota 10a.

31 Einstein, The World As I See It, 5.

32 Norman Lamm, Torah Umadda: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition (Northvale, NJ, and London, Jason Aronson, 1990).

33 Todd Siler, Breaking the Mind Barrier: The Artscience of Neurocosmology (New York: Touchstone Books, Simon and Schuster, 1990).