A Kabbalistic Model of Creative Process
Journal of Expressive Therapy. Volume I, Number 2, July 2003
“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 its 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). Abraham Isaac Kook, Lights of Holiness1
Kabbalah is Judaism’s esoteric tradition that provides a symbolic language and conceptual schema for exploring two parallel creative processes – human and divine. Both the description of the artistic personality and kabbalah are derived from the same biblical passage (Exodus 31:2). “Wisdom, understanding, and knowledge” are both the artist’s cognitive traits and the first stages in the kabbalistic model of the creation of the universe.
Kabbalah is the hidden wisdom of the deep structure of biblical consciousness received from generation to generation. Kabbalah means to receive. I hear the word kabbalah spoken frequently in Israel where I live. I hear it from the supermarket checkout clerk when she hands me the long paper ribbon saying, “kabbalah shelkhah,” literally “your receipt.” It is appropriate and significant that both a supermarket computer printout and the Jewish mystical tradition share the same word. I appreciate the esoteric supermarket language —the bar code on boxes, bottles and cans. We all stand illiterate before the secret language of the digital age that only supermarket lasers can read. Kabbalah is a down-to-earth mysticism that explores how divine energies are drawn down into our everyday world.
Bezalel and Oholiav
Kabbalah originates in the biblical account of the creation of the tabernacle in the Sinai desert under the artistic direction of Bezalel and Oholiav. “See, I have called by name: Bezalel 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. That his name is not “In the Divine Light” acknowledges the shadow side of the creative process, the Freudian subconscious, the dark inclinations that need to be transformed into life-enhancing energies. The artist possesses the creative power to turn darkness into light.
The Bible also describes Bezalel’s partner, Oholiav. “I have assigned with him Oholiav ben Akhisamach 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 me in a common tent in mutual support of one another. Bezalel represents the psychological power of the artist and Oholiav the sociological impact on community. Together they symbolize the postmodern value of harnessing the passion and freedom of the artist to nurture intergenerational collaboration in building a shared environment of spiritual power.
Kabbalah reveals the Bible’s deep structure by providing a model of human creativity that parallels divine Creation. The KBL root of the Hebrew word KaBaLah appears in the Bible itself in the word maKBiL meaning, “parallel.” The artists creating the tabernacle covered it with two large tapestries each having fifty loops parallel to each other, linked together with gold fasteners (Exodus 26:5 and Exodus 36:12). The tapestries symbolize divine Creation and human creativity linked one to the other. Since these two creative processes are parallel, we can learn about the creation of the universe through gaining insight into our own creative process.
The Eighth Day
Being created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) is understood as an invitation to each human being to be God’s partner in the creation of worlds. The Bible follows the story of creation with the seventh day on which God rested from all creative work in order for humanity to continue the process on the eighth day. The biblical passage reads, “that God ceased from all the work which He had been creating to do” (Genesis 2:3). It would seem that the sentence would end after the word “creating.” The word l’asot, “to do,” however, is added to teach that we realize our being in the divine image by acting creatively, by continuing the divine pattern of creation, by bringing into being something new and original. According to the major 20th century theologian, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the first and central biblical commandment is that each person is “obligated to engage in creation and the renewal of the cosmos.” 2 The dream of creation is the central idea in Jewish consciousness, “the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as a creator of worlds.”3
Human creativity finds its divine parallel in the scriptural passage, “God founded the earth in Wisdom. He established heavens in Understanding. With His Knowledge the depths opened and skies dripped dew” (Proverbs: 3:19-20). These three words are only found together in the Bible in relation to the Creator of the universe and the artist Bezalel. Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge represent the beginning cognitive stages in the creative process. The next six stages in the creative process are affective stages representing emotions. They are found in Chronicles 1:29: “Yours, God, is the Compassion, the Strength, the Beauty, the Success, the Gracefulness, even Everything in heaven and earth.” The final stage is the Kingdom of time and space in which intentions, thoughts, and emotions are realized in the everyday world of action. These stages in the creative process are called the ten sephirot of the kabbalistic model.
Setting the Stage (Keter)
The creative process begins in the preconscious realm of faith, pleasure, and intention. This first of the sephirot is the sepherah (singular) of keter, literally “crown.” Just as a crown floats above the head, so keter is an undifferentiated longing to create that precedes the cognitive realm. It sets the stage for the first flash of insight. It is made up of three elements – faith that one can create, anticipation that the creative process is pleasurable, and intention to create. Without this self-confidence, hope for gratification, and will to create, the creative process has no beginning.
Flash of Insight (Hokhmah)
The inner experience of the second sephirah of Wisdom (hokhmah) requires a selfless state. The nullification of the ego opens gateways to the subconscious. When active seeking ceases, when consciously preoccupied with unrelated activities, when we least expect it, the germ of the creative idea bursts into our consciousness. This sudden flash of insight is what the kabbalah calls wisdom. It is the transition from nothingness to being, from potential to the first moment of existence. In biblical words, “Wisdom shall be found in nothingness” (Job 28:12).
In order to concretize the kabbalistic dynamic, I will use a personal example of one particular process in creating an artwork. This description of a creative process will emphasize the flow from stage to stage, from preconscious intention to realization in the physical world.
The process of creating “Subway Angels” began as I sat in a small Hasidic synagogue in Brooklyn following the reading of the weekly biblical portion from the handwritten Torah scroll. I listened to the ancient Hebrew words, translating them into English in my mind. The sentence about the prototypic artist Bezalel being filled with divine spirit, wisdom, understanding, and knowledge, and talent for all types of craftsmanship is followed by “to make all manner of MeLekHet MakHSheVeT” (Exodus 35:33). Usually translated as “artistic work,” it literally means “thoughtful craft.”
At that moment, I was living in the crown sephirah of keter. As an artist, I subconsciously intended to create artworks; I had faith in my ability to create artworks; and I felt that I would derive pleasure from the process of making art. However, it was the Sabbath and I was removed from my studio, from my classroom where I taught computer graphics, and from my office as head of the art department at Pratt Institute. Indeed, the definition of Sabbath rest is to refrain from making MeLekHet MakHSheVeT. The Sabbath day is biblically defined as the Non-Art day. It is the day in which all work on the tabernacle was suspended. To this day, an observant Jew on the Sabbath avoids doing any of the 39 categories of thoughtful craft that went into the biblical artists’ creation of the tabernacle.
My absorption in the rhythm of the chanting of the Torah put me into a meditative state. I was passively listening, open to receiving. The stage was set for the sephirah of Wisdom. In a flash of insight I realized that as a male artist, I needed to create computer angels. It suddenly dawned on me that the biblical term for “art,” MeLekHeT MakHSheVeT, is feminine. Its masculine form is MaLakH MakHSheV, literally “computer angel.” Art is a computer angel when biblical Hebrew meets modern Hebrew in a digital age.
Taking Form (Binah)
Like the sperm that is received by the ovum in the womb, the unformed germ of an idea from the sephirah of Wisdom enters into the sephirah of Understanding (binah). This union of Wisdom and Understanding is Knowledge, as Adam knew Eve. As soon as the synagogue service came to an end, I explained to my wife that I needed to make computer angels. “You need to make what?” she responded incredulously. As I transformed my unformed insight into words to explain my thoughts to her, I entered into the sephirah of Understanding. All manner of thoughts entered my mind on ways to create computer angels. The shapeless idea that ignited the process began to take form in the sephirah of Understanding. Together, Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge form the cognitive realm of thoughts. Knowledge both unites Wisdom and Understanding and is the gateway to the next six sephirot that form the affective realm of emotions.
From Openess to Setting Limits (Hesed and Gevurah)
The fourth sephirah of Compassion (hesed) is openness to all possibilities. I thought of the hundreds of artistic options open to me in creating computer angels and I loved them all. Compassion is counterbalanced by the fifth sephirah of Strength (gevurah), the strength to set limits, to make judgments, to choose between myriad options. It demands that I make hard choices about which paths to take and which options to abandon. What angel images do I digitize? What media do I use? Should I make paintings, lithographs, serigraphs, etchings, multimedia works, videos, or telecommunication events in which cyberangels fly around the planet via satellites?
I recalled that a few weeks earlier, my son Ron had sent me an article on Rabbi Kook’s views that the light in Rembrandt’s paintings was the hidden light of the first day of Creation.4 At the time, Ron was archivist at Beit Harav Kook in Jerusalem, the residence of the late kabbalist and chief rabbi of the Land of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook. It became clear that I needed to digitize Rembrandt’s angels. I would go to the print room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I could look at original Rembrandt drawings and etchings and select images of his angels. I knew that he had created a number of artworks of Jacob’s dream. “A ladder was standing on the ground, and its top reached up toward heaven, and angels were going up and down on it” (Genesis 28:12). Since angels first go up before they go down, they must start their ascent from the lowest of places. I thought that in New York City, perhaps angels fly up from the subways. I would paint on subway posters and silk-screen print on them digitized Rembrandt angels and spiritual messages from underground.
Beautiful Balance (Tiferet)
As I felt deep satisfaction with my choice, I departed from the sephirah of Strength to the next stage, the sixth sephirah of Beauty (tiferet). This sephirah represents a beautiful balance between the counter forces of Compassion and Strength. It is the feeling of harmony between all my possible options and the choices I had made. Tiferet is the aesthetic core of the creative process in which harmonious integration of openness and closure is experienced as beauty, splendor, and truth. The closure of having chosen to have cyberangels fly out of subway placards gave me the splendid feeling that all is going beautifully.
Graceful Success (Netzakh and Hod)
The seventh sephirah of Success (netzakh) is the feeling of being victorious in the quest for significance. I felt that I had the power to overcome any obstacles that may stand in the way of realizing my artwork. Netzakh can also mean “to conduct” or “orchestrate” as in the word that begins many of the Psalms. I had the confidence that I could orchestrate all the aspects of creating a multimedia symphony of computer angels arising from the bowels of New York City.
The eight sephirah of Gracefulness (hod) is the glorious feeling that the final shaping of the idea is going so smoothly that it seems as effortless as the movements of a graceful dancer. The sephirah of Success is an active self-confidence in contrast with the sephirah of Gracefulness which is a passive confidence born of a trust in divine providence that “all will be good.” It is the power to advance smoothly with the determination and perseverance born of deep inner commitment. The word hod connotes both “acknowledgement” (hoda’ah) and “splendor” in the sense of an aura-like “reverberation” (hed) of light. The sephirah of Hod is “the acknowledgement of a supreme purpose in life and the total submission of self which it inspires; it serves to endow the source of one’s inspiration with an aura of splendor and majesty.”5 It is the wonderful feeling that all is going as it should.
Integrating All (Yesod)
The ninth sephirah of Foundation (yesod) is the sensuous bonding of Success and Gracefulness in a union that leads to the birth of the fully formed idea. It funnels the integrated forces of intention, thought, and emotion of the previous eight sephirot into the world of physical action. In Chronicles 1:29, this sephirah is called All or Everything (kol). It channels everything that was playing out in my mind into the craft of making the artwork. It transports my private mental world into a public environmental arena in which I can create a product to communicate my ideas to others.
Noble Realization (Malkhut)
This tenth sephirah of Kingdom (malkhut) is the noble realization of my concepts and feelings in the kingdom of time and space. It involves all the practical details that go into physically making an artwork. I began the realization of my concepts by going to the company that places advertising posters in subway cars. They gave me fifty different placards on which I painted and silk-screened printed angels and spiritual messages. On one of them, I used deep blue acrylic paint to paint out the copy on an English muffin ad that showed a large photo of a muffin with a bite taken out of it. I printed a computer angel in silver ink next to the missing piece of the muffin and printed a new text in gold ink: “The biblical words for angel and food are written with the same four Hebrew letters to tell us that angels are spiritual messages arising from everyday life.”
Exhibiting my series of “Subway Angels,” was a culminating activity that gave me the opportunity to stand back and look at what I had done. This activity is parallel to the divine act on the seventh day when God looked at the completed creation and saw that it was good. My sense of satisfaction, however, began to turn into a feeling of postpartum emptiness. I had given over my creations to the world and they were no longer mine to possess.
The tenth sephirah of Malkhut, the kingdom of physical reality was being transformed into the first sephirah of Keter, the crown of a returning nothingness permeated by an undefined longing to create anew. The process had come full circle. The sephirot of Kingdom and Crown, the end and the beginning, merge into a single point on an endlessly flowing Mobius strip. The linear progression through ten sephirot is an oversimplification. Not only does the end transform itself into the beginning, but also there is movement in multiple directions between the sephirot and within them.
The spiral form of the Torah scroll is a powerful semiotic statement attesting to the significance of the endless process in kabbalistic thinking. The last letter of the Torah connected to the first letter spell the Hebrew word for “heart” (LeV). The heart of the Torah is where the end touches the beginning. Jews joyously dance with the Torah scroll on the day it is rewound and the end and the beginning are read as one. Indeed, the endless flow of the scroll form is an absolute requirement for reading the weekly biblical portion in synagogue. If no scroll is available, it is not acceptable to read the exact same words from a printed book. The medium is an integral part of the message.
The kabbalistic model is a metaphorical way of thinking rather than a body of knowledge to be seized. It offers a choreography for a dance of the mind to be apprehended by the part of the mind that appreciates poetry and hears its inner music.6
1 Abraham Isaac Kook, Abraham Isaac Kook: Lights of Holiness, translated by Ben Zion Bokser (New York: The Classics of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press, 1978), 216.
2 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, translated by Lawrence Kaplan (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1983), 101.
3 Ibid., 99.
4 A. Melnikoff, “Rabbi Kook on Art,” The Jewish Chronicle, September 13, 1935.
5 Yitzchak Ginsburgh, “The Divine Emanations—The Ten Sefirot: Hod.” http://www.inner.org/sefirot/sefhod.htm (www.inner.org is a good website for seriously learning the basics of kabbalah.)
6 Arthur Green, Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights, 2003), 59.
Mel Alexenberg is head of the School of the Arts at Emuna College in Jerusalem, former professor in the School of Education at Bar Ilan University and the departments of behavioral sciences and Jewish studies at Ariel University Center. In the United States, he was professor of art and education at Columbia University, dean at New World School of the Arts in Miami, head of the art department at Pratt Institute, and research fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies. While at MIT, he was Adjunct Professor in the M.A. Program in Art Therapy at Lesley College Graduate School and was elected Distinguished Fellow of The Expressive Therapy Association.
He earned his master’s degree at the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology at Yeshiva University and was awarded his doctorate at New York University for his research on the psychology of the creative process in art and science. He is author of Aesthetic Experience in Creative Process (Bar Ilan University Press), Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology, and Culture and The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (both published by Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press), and in Hebrew Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass House). His artworks exploring the interface between new media, global systems, and Jewish consciousness are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide.