Jewish Consciousness and Art of the Digital Age

Professor M. Alexenberg[1]

Journal of Judaism and Civilization, Volume 5, 2004

This essay by a distinguished religious Jewish artist starts by exploring in general the difference between the Hebrew and the Hellenic paradigms in art. In general the difference is between the Hebraic one that is concerned with a dynamism of inner vitality, and the Hellenistic paradigm, which is more concerned with the more static contemplation of the external aspect of reality. A further aspect of the Hebraic vision is that of integrality, whilst the Hellenistic vision looks at parts and divisions.

Digital systems and the art based on them by their nature approach the Hebraic perspective and paradigm. The encoding of the entities of creation through the Divine attributes (sefiros) and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which constitute these entities, shows also the secret of their integration and unity, as do the bytes and language of computer technology. Digital art makes visible an inner integrality.

A number of his artworks, which Professor Alexenberg discusses in the last section, illustrate the concepts of dynamic conceptual inwardness as against external frameworks in art; the interconnectedness of phenomena suggested by the hyperlinking of the Internet; and finally the moral integrity of art as deed.

1. Hellenistic and Hebraic paradigms in art

 Hebraic and Hellenistic "mindsets"

The impact of digital technologies on art, contemporary life, and human consciousness demands a redefinition of art and its role in society. This redefinition reveals the confluence between the expression of an information age paradigm in postmodern art and the deep structure of Jewish consciousness. New art forms emerging in response to digital technologies represent a paradigm shift from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic roots of Western civilization.

The Lubavicher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, teaches that the sweeping technological changes we are experiencing today were predicted some two thousand years ago in the Zohar, a classical text of Jewish mysticism. It describes how the explosion in scientific knowledge and technological advancement would be paralleled by an increase in sublime wisdom or spirituality. Integrating the wisdom of the mind and the wisdom of the soul, which is the role of the artist, can begin to usher true unity into the world.

“The Divine purpose of the present information revolution, for instance, which gives an individual unprecedented power and opportunity, is to allow us to share knowledge – spiritual knowledge – with each other, empowering and unifying individuals everywhere. We need to use today’s interactive technology not just for business or leisure but to interlink as people – to create a welcome environment for the interaction of our souls, our hearts, our visions.”[2]

In the current digital era, we are witnessing the change of art from iconic representation to dialogic presentation, from static image to dynamic process, from passive appreciation to interactive collaboration, and from imitating the creation to imitating the Creator. It is not the vision of a complete and ideal nature to be copied that is the primary artistic value, but it is the continuation of the dynamic process of creation itself that is valued in Judaism. The dream of creation as the central idea in Jewish consciousness is the major thesis in Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s book, Halakhic Man. He emphasizes “the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as creator of worlds. This longing for creation and the renewal of the cosmos is embodied in all of Judaism’s goals.”[3]

The worldview of ancient Greece revived in Renaissance Europe dominated Western art until the rise of modernism at the beginning of the 20th century. Modernism demanded the abandonment of the definition of art as mimesis, the imitation of nature. The Hellenistic worldview is reflected in European languages: art in English and French, arte in Spanish, Kunst in German and Dutch, iskustvo in Russian, etc. These words are all related to artificial, artifact, imitation, and phony. In contrast, the Hebrew word for artist is spelled with the same letters (AMN) as the word amen which means truth. Its feminine form is emunah, faith, and as a verb l’amen means to nurture and educate. These two definitions of art are not only different from one another they present opposite viewpoints. The radical redefinition of art in the digital age represents the current shift from Hellenistic to Hebraic consciousness. Winston Churchill argued that the Greeks and the Jews are the two peoples whose worldviews have most influenced thought and action in Western civilization. “Each of them from angles so different have left us with the inheritance of its genius and wisdom. No two cities have counted more with Mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy, and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture.”[4]   The Hellenistic thought reborn in the Renaissance that had dominated Western art and culture for centuries is being replaced by postmodern directions in art, media, and technology that engender fresh conceptualizations that can be seen as flowing from the deep structure of Jewish consciousness. Transformations from premodernism to postmodernism and from mechanical to electronic technologies reflect the move from Athens to Jerusalem.

Norwegian theologian Thorleif Boman wrote in Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek: “If Israelite thinking is to be characterized, it is obvious first to call it dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and sometimes quite explosive in kind; correspondingly Greek thinking is static, peaceful, moderate, and harmonious in kind.”[5] The path of the first Hebrew begins with movement, a journey away from the safely familiar towards freedom to experience new ways of seeing. The biblical story of the Jewish people begins: “G-d said to Abram: ‘Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” [6]  This passage can also be read as: “Walk with your authentic self away from all the familiar and comfortable places that limit vision to a place where you can freely see.” Here, the dynamic Hebraic mindset is established as new ways of seeing emerge from the integration of our journey through geographical space with our inner quest for spiritual significance. Movement through the psychological realms of intention, thought, and emotion coupled with action in the physical realm leads to fresh visions.

Responsive art

Israeli artist Yaakov Agam, son of a rabbi, creates works of art that express this dynamic Jewish mindset by requiring the active participation of the viewer. Either the viewers must set themselves in motion in order to see his work fully or the viewers must actually touch parts of the work to set them in motion. Agam argues:

“A work of art which captures a specific moment and eternalizes it in a painting or sculpture is expressing a static view of existence. Authentic Jewish art must capture and communicate the very dynamism of life’s flowing, changing quality…characterized by diversity, newness, aliveness, activity.”[7]

His “polymorphic” works are paintings on a series of vertical, attached triangular prisms. As the viewer walks from the right to the left side of the prism, the painted forms on the right side disappear as the colors and shapes on the left side gradually become visible. In contrast with Cubism, where the artist presents the many perspectives of reality and unifies them in a single image, Agam creates art works that invite each viewer to be an active participant in unifying countless perspectives. His “transformable” Beating Beating Heart, is a nine element stainless steel floor sculpture of heart forms. Each element moves independently when touched. A heartbeat-like motion is created when all nine undulating heart forms are set in motion simultaneously.  

Jewish tradition teaches that the medium is an essential part of the message, that Jewish content is subverted when presented in a foreign form. The symbolic significance of the spiral scroll form, for example, is so strong that if we do not have a Torah scroll in the synagogue, we read nothing rather than read from the exact same text printed in a codex book form. If the Divine message encoded in the Torah is trapped between two rectilinear covers, it loses its life-giving flow. The Hebrew word for rectangle - malbein - also means brickyard where the Israelites where enslaved in Egypt, mitzrayim, literally “narrow straits.”  A message of freedom must be free flowing. It must break out of the box of narrow-minded thought. Like a Mobius strip, the Torah scroll represents an unending flow where the final letter of the Torah, the lamed of yisraeL (Israel) is linked to the first letter, the beit of B‘reishit (in the beginning), to spell out the Hebrew word for “heart.”  The heart of the Torah is where the last letter connects to the first in an on-going process[8]. Form and content join together to symbolize the essence of Jewish values. The medium is an integral part of the message.

Form and medium shape content. The Torah must be hand written on parchment from a kosher animal. The Torah written on a scroll of Japanese rice paper would be bizarre and unacceptable. Written on pigskin, it would be the ultimate anti-Semitic statement. To create a portrait in which the medium is an integral part of the message and content is shaped by process, I created the artwork, “Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim” at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for my LightsOROT exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum in New York.

I designed a bioimaging system in collaboration with my son Ari that integrates real-time computer graphics with biofeedback. Our starting point for this digital portrait was the fact that the Hebrew words for face, panim, and inside, p’nim, although vocalized differently, are the same when written. We explored creating an artwork in which outside flows from inside and inside flows from outside in a continuously flowing feedback loop. In our studio/laboratory at MIT, we developed a system using biofeedback from brain waves sensed by electrodes connecting the participant’s head to an electroencephalograph. For the museum, however, difficulty placing electrodes on people’s heads required that we redesign the system. We built a console in which a participant seated in front of a monitor would place a finger in a plethysmograph, which measures internal body states by monitoring blood flow, while under the gaze of a video camera.

“A feedback loop is created in which changes in one’s internal mind/body state changes a video image of one’s external self. It is a video/computer graphics self-portrait painted by the flow of one’s inner river of light. A person sits before a video camera. Her body is connected to a biofeedback sensor. She watches a real-time naturalistic image of herself on the video monitor. Information about her internal mind/body processes is digitized and conveyed to the central processing unit of the computer system. The video image is modified by a specially designed software package. It can be modified by changing color or size, by stretching, elongating, extending, rotating, replicating, superimposition or by other computer graphics effects. For example, the participant sees herself turn green and is shocked by the sight. The shock, in turn, changes the biofeedback information causing the computer to modify her self-portrait again. Her green face now becomes elongated. Changes in body processes affect changes in the video image. The perceived video image, in turn, stimulates the mind/body changes, and so on in a continuous feedback loop like the unending flow of a Torah scroll.”[9]

The artist 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[10]. 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.

Complementing modernism’s movement of art to a higher spiritual realm of pure color and form, postmodernism and electronic age art, is the beginning of movement of art down into everyday life and out across the planet. This 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. These two triangles intertwined form a star of David that symbolizes the dynamic integration of both up and down movements, like the image of angels ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder linking heaven and earth. It symbolizes the shift of art in the digital age from Hellenistic to biblical values in Western culture. The significance of the downward movement in Judaism is expressed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson: “It is not enough to rest content with our own spiritual ascent, the elevation of our soul in closeness to G-d. We must also strive to draw spirituality down into the world and into every part of our involvement with  it – the world of our work and our social life – until not only do they not distract from our pursuit of G-d, but they become a full part of it.”[11]

From imitating the creation to imitating the Creator

The Greek artist’s task was to accurately imitate nature. Pliny praised the artist who painted grapes so realistically that pigeons came to eat them. Rather than imitating the creation, Judaism values the artist who imitates the Creator. The Jewish artist becomes the active partner of G-d in the on-going creation of new worlds. Midrash Tankhumah on Parshat Tazriah[12] illustrates this value. The Roman tyrant Tinneius Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “Which are greater and more beautiful, man’s creations or G-d’s?”  The governor was disturbed by the rabbi’s response that human creation is more exalted than Divine creation. While the Roman was questioning the rabbi’s unexpected response, he served a plate of wheat grains to the Roman and took cakes for himself. The puzzled Roman asked, “Why do you take cakes for yourself while you give me raw grains of wheat?”  Rabbi Akiva answered, “You prefer G-d’s creation. I prefer man’s.”

Modern art moved art beyond imitating nature as if it were the height of creation. It added new life to art by honoring alternative ways of seeing and creating. Postmodernism is further expanding the definition of art in directions that artist Alan Kaprow calls “the blurring of art and life”[13] where art moves closer to the Jewish concept of art striving for truth, faith, and education. Through exploring the specifically Jewish view of art, artists from other cultures can experience “cultural dissimilarities and the light they shed on fundamental human similarities…in art that combines a pride in roots with an explorer’s view of the world as shared by others.”[14]

The Renaissance linear aesthetics of single-point perspective is inadequate to the task of creating art for a digital age that calls for the simultaneity of multiple perspectives. Both postmodernism and Judaism share the dynamic aesthetics of multidimensional narratives that integrate diversity of viewpoints. Studying Jewish modes of dialogic thought and interactive experience can yield clues for creating integral structures for the digital age[15]. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich discusses how the deluge of fragmented and disjointed information accessible through the Internet calls for integrative narratives.

“If traditional cultures provided people with well-defined narratives (myths, religion) and too little ‘stand-alone’ information, today we have too much information and too few narratives that can tie it all together. For better or worse, information access has become a key activity of the computer age. Therefore, we need something that can be called ‘info-aesthetics’ – a theoretical analysis of the aesthetics of information access as well as the creation of new media objects that ‘aestheticize’ information processing.”[16]

The contemporary significance of the shift from Hellenistic to the Hebraic values can also be discerned in new scientific paradigms. Ilya Prigogione, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the thermodynamics of non-equilibrium systems, explains in Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature that the traditional science of the age of the machine tended to emphasize stability, order, uniformity, equilibrium, and closed systems. The transition from an industrial society to a high-technology society in which information and innovation are critical resources, brought forth new scientific world models that characterize today’s accelerated social change: disorder, instability, diversity, disequilibrium, nonlinear relationships, open systems, and a heightened sensitivity to the flows of time[17].

This paradigm shift in science is echoed in the arts by Peter Weibel in net_condition: Art and Global Media: “Modern art created the aesthetic object as a closed system as a reaction to the machine-based industrial revolution. Post-modernism created a form of art of open fields of signs and action as a reaction to the post-industrial revolution of the information society”[18] At the Software exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, Nicolas Negroponte and the MIT Architecture Group created an environment in which a open-ended living system interacted with a mechanical grid controlled by a cybernetic system. A dialogue between a colony of gerbils and a cybernetic system gives us clues about human dialogue within an increasingly computer-controlled world. Negroponte and his collaborators designed a habitat for gerbils to live among stacks of wooden blocks controlled by computerized pressure-sensing devices. Moving about in a 5 x 8 foot glass-enclosed environment, the gerbils moved about living their lives, bumping and pushing blocks here and there and sometimes knocking over an entire stack. A computer program, Seek, could arrange the blocks that were connected to a supporting carriage. As the blocks were moved around by gerbil activity, Seek, guided by its memory of the original configuration, continually attempted to reestablish the rectilinear pattern. Watching this ecosystem of life forces interacting with a technological environment makes us ask if we can extrapolate new directions for life in a city of the future from this work of dialogic art. We can also ask: “Can new directions in media design be derived from our complex living patterns in a postmodern metropolis?”16

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan describes this shift from mechanical to digital technologies as a shift from extensions of the human muscular system to extensions of the central nervous system.

“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media.”[19]

Mechanical technologies are expressions of Renaissance consciousness that honours static, uniform, space-centered, closed systems in which the spiritual exists above the mundane. Digital technologies’ impact on art and culture parallel a Jewish consciousness that celebrates dynamic, multiform, time-centered, open systems in which spirituality is drawn down into every part of our daily lives. In E. L. Doctorow’s acclaimed novel, City of G-d, the main character, an Episcopal priest in the process of converting to Judaism, explains to his friend:

“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.”

His friend’s response: “Yeah, they’ll put it on a silicon chip.”[20]

2. Digitality and spirituality

Spiritual digitality

Roots of the confluence between postmodern trends in art of the digital age and Jewish consciousness can be found in the account of the building of the mishkan in the Sinai desert under the direction of Betzalel and Oholiav. “See, I have called by name: Betzalel 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”[21]. The literal translation of this artist’s name is: “In the Divine Shadow son of Fiery Light son of Freedom.”  It honours 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 Torah also describes Betzalel’s partner, Oholiav. “I have assigned with him Oholiav ben Achisamach of the tribe of Dan, and I have placed wisdom in the heart of every naturally talented person.”[22] 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. Betzalel 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. The prototypic Jewish art is a collaborative enterprise that is a dialogic process between a group of talented artists and between the artists and the people. It results in creation of a modular, mobile structure in which the Divine Shechinah can dwell and engage human beings in dialogue.

Betzalel is said to have had the Divine secret of forging combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters to create new worlds. The digital era enables perception of this kabbalistic notion of artistic creativity through making permutations of bits of information more than a quaint legend. All the multitude of words, sounds and images that we can access today on the Internet, CDs, CD-ROMs, DVDs are encoded in bits strung together in groupings of eight called bytes. The 256 bit permutations in one byte are in turn grouped into billions of combinations that we perceive as a web site, a computer game, a text, a song, or a movie.

Hebrew letters and words have numerical values in the decimal system like electronic bits and bytes in the binary system. Gematria is a system which reveals in mathematical terms the relationships of spiritual significance which exist between Hebrew words[23].

“The twenty-two sacred Hebrew letters are profound, primal, spiritual forces. They are in effect, the raw material of Creation…. The letters can be arranged in countless combinations, by changing their order within words and interchanging letters in line with the rules of various Kabbalistic letter systems. Each rearrangement results in a new blend of cosmic spiritual forces.”[24]

Rabbi Nosson Scherman, who wrote these words as an introductory overview to the Hebrew prayer book, ArtScroll Siddur, continues with an analogy from the physical realm of the combinations of atoms into molecules. The different numbers of protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up the atoms of each of the 92 different elements determine it properties. These atoms, in turn, combine into molecules, and molecules into supersized molecules like DNA in which all of life’s forms are written in a binary language of two pairs of two letters: A-T, T-A, and C-G, G-C.  All computer information is written in a binary system of 0 and 1, like a circle and a line. The kabbalistic model called the “Tree of Life” is constructed from ten circles, the sefiros, interconnected by 22 lines, representing the Hebrew letters. It provides a symbolic language and conceptual schema for exploring two parallel creative processes – human and Divine. The description of Betzalel’s personality and kabbalah are derived from the same biblical passage[25]. “Wisdom, understanding, and knowledge” are both the artist’s cognitive traits and the highest sefiros in the kabbalistic model.[26]

Just as each Hebrew letter has a numerical equivalent, kabbalists have assigned colors to each letter. Using a color scheme based upon the rainbow spectrum, I created the interactive artwork “Torah Spectrograph” at MIT. Through computer graphics, it reveals hidden patterns in the Torah. The participant enters his birthday into the computer from which it calculates his birthday according to the Hebrew calendar. He can then watch his bar mitzvah portion scrolling down the monitor in bands of color. A digital version of the first five books of the Bible in the original Hebrew was combined with a look-up table programmed to display colored bands for each letter. The seven colours of the spectrum were repeated three times to correspond to 21 of the 22 Hebrew letters. The first letter, aleph, represents the number one and unity. It unifies all the colors into white light and is displayed as a single white pixel. The second letter, bet, is two red pixels, the third letter, gimel, is three orange pixels, until we come to the final letter, tav, which is a violet band 22 pixels long. Each of the 56 Torah portions exhibits a unique set of patterns and color relationships[27].

Qualities resulting from quantity and arrangement of modules in both the spiritual realm of Hebrew letters and the physical realm of atomic structure find a parallel in the realm of digital media. All computer information is encoded in bits, the smallest elements of information. In Being Digital, MIT Media Lab Director Nicholas Negroponte explains: “A bit has no color, size, or weight, and it can travel at the speed of light…. It is a state of being: on or off, true or false, up or down, in or out, black or white. For practical purposes we consider it to be a 1 or a 0.”  He tells about his visit to a top high tech company where he was asked the value of his laptop computer at the sign-in desk. Negroponte responded that it was worth between one and two million dollars. The receptionist insisted that it could not be worth more than $2,000 and wrote down that amount. “The point is that while the atoms were not worth that much, the bits were almost priceless.”[28]  It is with these bits that Negroponte created MIT’s Media Center and his seminal writings. In the digital age, Microsoft, which is in the business of selling bits, has four times the revenue of America’s top steel maker, U.S. Steel, which sells atoms.

In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich identifies the first principles of new media as numerical representation and modularity, both central to the kabbalistic paradigm.

Numerical Representation. All new media objects, whether created from scratch on computers or converted from analog media sources, are composed of digital code; they are numerical representations. Modularity. This principle can be called the ‘fractal structure of new media.’  Just as a fractal has the same structure on different scales, a new media object has the same modular structure throughout. Media elements, be they images, sounds, shapes, or behaviors, are represented as collections of discrete samples (pixels, polygons, voxels, characters, scripts). These elements are assembled into larger scale objects but continue to maintain their separate identities.”[29]

The principle of modularity and fractal structures parallels the kabbalistic concept of interinclusion in which all ten sefiros are included in each sefirah.[30]  The entire “Tree of Life” lives in each of the elements of the “Tree of Life,” like the branching patterns of a tree repeated in the venation patterns of its leaves. Today, we can more easily grasp how the 32 information elements (ten sefiros and 22 letters) in the kabbalistic paradigm relate in nearly infinite ways to create plans for bringing spiritual energies into our everyday world of Action and, in turn, to teach us how our actions affect the worlds of Intention, Thought, and Feeling.

Making the inner visible

Leaders in both the fields of art and Jewish thought see the major role of the artist as making the invisible visual, revealing fresh insights, and offering alternative perspectives. Rabbi Schneerson sees the genius of the artist as his ability to look beyond surface to reveal the inner being of his subject. “The artist must be able to look deeply into the inner content of the object, beyond its external form, and to see the inner aspect and essence of the object.” [31] “Artistic production reveals to the viewer that which he could not recognize on his own, an essence that was obscured by superficial layers. Only an artist has the skill to reveal the inner dimensions of an object, thus enabling the observer to see it with a different perspective, and to realize the limitations of his previous awareness.”[32] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel during emergence of modern art, teaches us in his poetic style:

“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).”[33]

Telematic systems artist Roy Ascott, one of the world’s major thinkers and educators in the emerging field of digital art, writes in Ars Electronica: Facing the Future, that the overarching project of our time is making the invisible visible. “That is to bring to our senses, to make available to our minds, within the constraints of space and time, what is otherwise beyond our perceptual range, the far side of our mind.”[34]  In addressing the spiritual in art, Kandinsky writes:

“These two possible resemblances between the art forms of today and those of the past will be at once recognized as diametrically opposed to one another. The first, being purely external, has no future. The second, being internal, contains the seed of the future within itself…. To those who are not accustomed to it the inner beauty appears as ugliness because humanity in general inclines to the outer and knows nothing of the inner.”[35]

The Jewish mystical tradition teaches that there are invisible worlds that affect all aspects of our lives. If a century ago, I was to talk about these worlds of Atzilut (Emanation/Intention), Beriah (Creation/Thought), Yetzirah (Formation/Feeling), and Asiyah (Action/Making) that permeate everything we do with Divine light, my words could be dismissed as nonsense by secular rationalists. Today, however, our experience with radio, TV, and the Internet makes the existence of invisible worlds believable, even for the secularly trained. Consider that in the very room in which you are reading these words, thousands of events from throughout the world are happening simultaneously. You may ask, “What are you talking about? My room is quiet and empty.”  Think, however, if you turn on your radio or TV, you will tune into the myriad events that have been silently present in your room all the time. These events, transformed into invisible electromagnetic energy, cannot be perceived by our ordinary senses. But they are here, nonetheless, permeating our environment, even passing unnoticed through our bodies.

As partners of G-d in continuing creation, we have invented technologies that greatly extend our limited visual access to the extensive electromagnetic spectrum. If a line were drawn across this page to represent the full spectrum, from tiny cosmic rays to gigantic radio waves, the portion of that spectrum that can activate our retinas would be less than the width of this “1.”  Electronic technologies, from Geiger counters to television sets, have opened our eyes to the invisible. With the right receivers, the invisible spectrum beyond red and beyond violet is revealed to our senses giving us a clue to the spiritual worlds that kabbalists described centuries ago.

At the gravesite of the greatest kabbalist of the past millennium, Rabbi Isaac Luria, better known as the Ari zal, I read the eulogy written by his student, Chaim Vital. Inscribed in Hebrew on a marble slab standing on a windswept hillside on the edge of the Galilee town of Tzfat, it said that Rabbi Luria was expert in conversing with birds and angels. It brought to mind an artwork of inter-species dialogue by Eduardo Kac and Ikuo Nakamura in which a canary has a conversation with a plant 600 miles away. At the Center for Contemporary Art, University of Kentucky, a canary lived in a cage on top of which circuit boards, a speaker, and a microphone wired to the telephone system were located. In New York, an electrode was placed on the leaf of a philodendron to sense its response to the singing of the bird. The voltage fluctuation of the plant was monitored through a Macintosh running Interactive Brain-Wave Analyzer (IBVA) software that played out sounds controlled by a MIDI sequencer. The order and duration of the sounds were determined in real time by the plant’s response to the canary’s songs. Interaction with humans standing near the bird and plant altered their behavior. The artists explain:

“By enabling an isolated and caged animal to a have telematic conversation with a member of another species, this installation dramatized the role of telecommunications in our own longing for interaction, our desire to reach out and stay in touch. This interactive installation is ultimately about human isolation and loneliness, and about the very possibility of communication.”[36]

Seeing the inside, hearing the outside

Judaism values seeing the inside and hearing the outside in contrast with Hellenism that emphasized seeing the outside and hearing the inside[37]. In ancient Greek art, we see the beautiful form of the nude bodies of Aphrodite and Apollo and hear the mythologies associated with them. David Wright Prall in Aesthetic Judgment presents this Hellenistic ideal as the basic aesthetic philosophy of premodern Western culture: “It is characteristic of aesthetic apprehension that the surface fully presented to sense is the total object of apprehension. As we leave this surface in our attention, to go deeper into meanings or more broadly into connections and relations, we depart, from the typically aesthetic attitude.”[38]

To the Jewish mind, inner beauty is visual and outer surface is auditory. We can learn this formulation from reading Genesis 9:27: “May G-d expand Yefet, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem.”  Yefet is identified with Greek culture that honors the beauty of external form. Both the Hebrew words for expand, yaft, and Yefet derive from the root for beauty. The Jews descend from Shem, a name related to shemiya[39], hearing. The Torah honours visual beauty when it dwells inside the auditory realm. It invites Jewish art forms in which visual beauty informs verbal narrative from within.

When there is a need to emphasize a particular point in the exoteric Talmudic text, we are invited to “come hear.”  However, the Zohar, which reveals the hidden inner meanings of the Torah, emphasizes a point with the phrase “come see.”  Indeed, the word Zohar itself is a visual word meaning, “glow.” 

A synesthetic experience is described in the Torah immediately after the Ten Commandments are uttered. “All the people saw the sounds”[40], not: heard the sounds. Moreover, the central auditory commandment in the Torah, the shema, can also be seen as a visual experience. Following the reading of the Torah portion with “Hear (shema), O Israel: G-d is our Lord, G-d is One”[41], we read the haftorah portion with “Raise your eyes on high and see who created these”[42]. The first Hebrew letters of the words for “raise,” “eyes,” and “high” are shin, mem, ayin, which together spell the word shema (hear). The senses of sight and hearing become intertwined.

For the LightsOROT exhibition at Yeshiva University Museum, I invited Beth Galston, an artist who had created sensitive environments with scrim cloth for theatre sets, to create a giant black talit (prayer shawl) spread over the entire museum ceiling as a night sky. When we raised our eyes on high and called out the Hebrew words from the Torah through which the world was created, we could see them being drawn out on the scrim firmament in shimmering light. I worked with laser artist and composer Paul Earls, to create a computer system to capture spoken Hebrew words and spell them out with letters drawn with a beam of coherent laser light moving at a high enough speed to see them as total words. Saying “let there be light” in Hebrew, let us see the letters aleph, vav, resh, form the word for light, or, dancing in laser light on the night-like firmament.  And we could see the sounds[43].

The visual sense isolated from our other senses is an alienating sense that can draw us away from closeness the Creator and His creations. I can hear my grandson’s heartbeat when my ear is resting on his chest. I can smell a flower touching my nose and taste wine with my tongue. With my sense of touch, I make direct contact with my environment. If I want to use my eyes to read this page, however, I need to hold it away from me. If I touch it to my eyes, I will not be able to see it. Moreover, eyes have an anatomical mechanism, eyelids, that can close them off from the world at will. With all of my senses except the visual, I can make intimate contact with the world.

Renaissance paintings use perspective devices to create a visual illusion of a three-dimensional space. We are invited in with our eyes alone. Museum guards insure that we maintain our distance and do not reach out to touch the painting. Edward Bullough proposes that aesthetic experience results from “psychical distance,” visual contemplation of art detached from all other concerns[44].  Immanuel Kant’s view is that “entirely disinterested satisfaction” is called beautiful[45]. Maintaining physical distance is matched by psychological distancing. Paying homage to highly valued art objects held in distant awe is alien to Jewish sensibilities, coming too close to idolatry for comfort.

To document this visual distancing, my students at Columbia University made a video of visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an edifice imitating the architecture of ancient Greece. The video shows a choreography of movements that mimics the ritual of idolatry. People ascend the broad steps before this neo-Grecian temple to the world’s great art. Inside, they wait in line to pay tithe, an entitlement to enter the inner sanctuary. They ascend an internal flight of marble stairs, stop, look at the honored painting, walk closer, bow down before the painting (to read the label next to it), back away from the painting, and stand in silent adoration while viewing it from a distance. This ritual of homage is then repeated at the next painting.

Moving beyond creating art for individuals to experience from a distance in awesome silence, artists in our digital age of postmodern art are creating “new forms emphasizing our essential interconnectedness rather than our separateness, forms evoking the feeling of belonging to a larger whole rather than expressing the isolated, alienated self.”34 Like new forms of performance art and participatory art, Jews relate to their most valued possession, the Torah scroll, with intimate contact. Three days a week, we undress the scroll removing the velvet mantle to reveal columns of handwritten text that are chanted aloud in public. When the annual cycle of reading the Torah is completed, we dance hugging the scroll, holding it close to our bodies while singing. We kiss it as we pass it on from dancer to dancer. Freeing a Rembrandt painting from its frame, rolling it up, hugging and kissing it while dancing with it in song down Fifth Avenue would land you on a psychiatrist’s couch or in a jail cell.


3. Artistic practice

Tzitzis and inner concept

A visual mitzvah in the Torah[46] is seeing the fringes, tzitzis, flowing from the four corners of a garment as a reminder to do all the other mitzvos and not stray after our heart and eyes that can alienate us from inner values. The Talmud[47] relates a story to teach how observing this visual mitzvah can keep us from lusting after surface gorgeousness separated from inner beauty. A yeshiva student careful to observe the mitzvah of tzitzis traveled to a port city where he heard there lived an amazingly gorgeous harlot. He paid her attendant 400 gold pieces and entered a room sensuously set with six beds of silver and the highest one of gold. She disrobed and sat herself nude on the golden bed. When the man began to undress, his four tzitzis flew up and slapped him in his face. As he began to run out, the woman cried out, “By Jupiter! I will not let you leave me until you tell me what you find wrong with me.”  The man answered, “I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you but the tzitzis that my G-d has commanded me to wear appeared to me like four witnesses to testify against my sin.”  The woman sold all her possessions except for her gold bed and traveled in search of the man who had had the strength to resist taking her beautiful body. When she found his yeshiva, she told the story to the rabbi who headed the yeshiva and begged him to teach her. She learned Torah with love and enthusiasm and converted to Judaism. The rabbi then said to her, “Go, my daughter, and take what is yours. The same bed that you used for sin, you may now enjoy in a permissible manner.”[48] The yeshiva student married a most stunning bride whose outer charms were now matched by her inner beauty.

The visual mitzvah of tzitzis invites the attention of the visual artist. Since the purpose of the tzitzis is a reminder to do mitzvos, I broke holes through the concrete on the four corners of a college building in Israel and laced mega-tzitzis made from ship rope through the holes for all passersby to see.[49] Four giant tzitzis flowed out from the corners of a sukkah that I built as an artwork for the 1983 “Sky Art” exhibition in Munich in front of the BMW Museum in a city where building a sukkah was once punishable by death. One could see the sky through the roof of the sukkah built like a huge talit prayer shawl with a sky blue strand on each tzitzis as a metaphor for bringing heaven down to earth. Lufthansa flew the tzitzis to Germany from Israel.[50] For my 1988 LightsOROT exhibition, I made each of four ship rope tziztit with one spiraling blue p’sil techeles  made from a fiber optics cable used in telecommunications. The end of each cable frayed into 6,000 dots of light carried through the fiber optics in memory of the victims of the Holocaust[51].

In 1996, one could stand at Neah Bay, an Indian reservation at the end of the Olympia Peninsula in Washington State and see ship-rope tzitzis flowing outward from the northwest corner of USA into the Pacific Ocean. To celebrate Miami’s centennial, artist Miriam Benjamin and I put tzitzis at the four corners of America. From Maine and Florida, they streamed into the Atlantic. A fourth fringe, at the southwest corner of continental USA, shuddered in the wind suspended from the steel wall that separates San Diego from Tijuana at the Pacific Ocean. The Hebrew word used for corner is kanaf, which also means “wing.”  We can read the biblical passages as “the four wings of the garment” and “the four wings of the land.”  Rashi’s commentary on Numbers 15:41 relates to this usage by referring to our being carried to freedom on wings of eagles. The executives of American Airlines, sponsor of an artwork about wings, envisioned the metaphor of USA spiritually being elevated by sky blue fringes lifting it up by its four corners.

Tzitzis can symbolize the end of art being confined to a frame. As we discussed above, the malben is both a rectangle and the brickyard where the Israelites were enslaved. It is a halakhic requirement to make tzitzis on the four corners of all rectangular garments. They break open the frame to have the energy flow out of the corners through open-ended spiral and branching forms. The branching out at the ends of the fringes is like roots to the branches of the menorah, the major symbol of Judaism. Branches and spirals are growth forms in living systems. Genetic information of all forms of life is encoded in double helix DNA mega-molecules. In gematria code, the number of spiral turns of the tzitzis spell out “G-d is One.”  Divine data is encoded in the double spiral of the sepher Torah. Digital data is stored in binary code in spiral tapes and discs in contrast to the older analog print technology in which information is stored in rectilinear books. When we read information on a computer monitor we scroll down. The word SePheR, although usually translated as “book,” is a word in the Torah itself long before the invention of codex books. SePheR means spiral scroll. Indeed, SPR is the root of the word “SpiRal” in numerous languages, ancient and modern. In kabbalah, the SePhiRot are emanations of Divine light spiraling down into our everyday life. And the English words “SpiRitual” and “inSPiRation” share the SPR root from the Latin SPiRare, to breathe.

Columbia University philosophy professor Arthur Danto proposes “The End of Art” when visual perception of surface gives way to conceptual grasp of inner significance. In Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, he discusses how Andy Warhol’s 1964 exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York marks the end of art. In the art gallery, Warhol stacked boxes on which he had screen-printed the Brillo logo. They looked identical to the cartons of Brillo soap pads that we see in supermarket aisles. We could no longer see the difference between Brillo Boxes (the work of art) and Brillo boxes (the mere real things). The history of Western art as a progressive historical narrative of one art style superceding a previous style came to an end.

“What Warhol taught was that there is no way of telling the difference by merely looking. The eye, so prized an aesthetic organ when it was felt that the difference between art and non-art was visible, was philosophically of no use whatever when the differences proved instead to be invisible. Pop artists were joined by the Minimalists in showing that there is no special way a work of art has to look. It can look like a Brillo box if you are a Pop artist, or like a panel of plywood if you are a Minimalist…. What makes the difference between art and non-art is not visual but conceptual.”[52]

Danto’s radical new proposal that concept and context rather than visual appearance gives meaning to images and objects was seriously discussed centuries ago by rabbis dealing with idolatry and Greek aesthetics. In the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah (Strange Worship), rabbis discuss whether found fragments of an image such as the hand or foot of a statue that was worshipped are prohibited or permitted. If the idol fell down and broke, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish reasoned, then the hand or foot are permitted because the owner of the idol annuls it by saying, “If it could not save itself, so how could it save me?”  Shmuel explained that if they were mounted on a pedestal they were still valued as idols. Therefore, the exact same hand or foot would be prohibited[53]

The Greek Proclos, son of a philosopher, put a question to Rabbi Gamliel who was bathing in a pool in front a large statute of Aphrodite. “If your Torah forbids idolatry, why are you bathing in the Bath of Aphrodite?”  The rabbi answered, “I did not come into her domain, she came into mine.”  If the statue of Aphrodite was erected and then a pool was made to honor her, it would be forbidden for a Jew to bathe there. However, if the pool was made first and the statue was placed there as an adornment, then it is permitted[54]. Concept and context determine meaning in the case of the idol fragments and the statute of Aphrodite, like Brillo boxes in an art gallery rather than in a supermarket and a panel of plywood hanging in a museum rather than stacked in a lumberyard. The visual sense alone cannot discern between art and non-art today or between idol and mere decoration yesterday.

The Talmud and interconnectivity

When I was teaching at Columbia University, technoprophet Marshall McLuhan came down from Toronto to lecture there. He talked about how the linear pattern of information resulting from print technology limited the thought patterns of people who learned from printed books. Word follows word, line follows line, paragraph follows paragraph, page follows page, chapter follows chapter, in a single necessary order from the first page to last. Learning through a medium that is a one-way street prevented creative, flexible, associative, open-ended, multidirectional, and multidimensional thought. Instead of just being authoritative, books became authoritarian, demanding thinking in straight lines from a fixed point of view. The book medium became a stronger message than its content. Designed to be read in privacy, in seclusion from others, the book ended dialogue. It conferred the values of isolation, detachment, passivity, and non-involvement[55].

I invited McLuhan to my office to show him how the Jewish dialogic mindset, which could not tolerate unidirectional thought, used print technology to design multilinear books. I took a volume of Talmud off my shelf and showed him non-linear pages designed in the 16th century. I opened it to page 2 (there is no page 1) and pointed to the patch of text in the center of the page that starts with the Mishnah, written in Hebrew, followed by the Gemara, in Aramaic. On one side is a column of Rashi’s commentary in a different alphabet font from the central text. On the other side is a column of Tosafos followed by references to Rashi in Tosafos. In a narrow fourth column next to Tosafos, stacked vertically, are four different commentaries on commentaries that span centuries of dialogue over time and space. Sometimes, explanatory diagrams are printed on the side. In the margin are numerous references to biblical passages and to other books.

In the words of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: “The Talmud is thus the recorded dialogue of generations of scholars. It has all the characteristics of a living dialogue. Freshness, vivid spontaneity, and acute awareness of every subject permeate every argument and discussion. The spirit of life breathes on every single page.”[56] It is not a set of books to be read in quiet solitude. We give life and continuity to the dialogue that began millennia ago by engaging the hundreds of voices talking across the folio pages in active dialogue with a learning partner. The two learners, a chevrutah, enter a page and move around within it while arguing with each other and calling for support from all the scholars before them. They can begin their learning on any of its 5,894 pages. The multi-volume Talmud has no beginning and no end. The chevrutah can jump around within a page, between pages, between different Talmud tractates, look into the Bible, kabbalistic texts, or any other sources. A study hall in a yeshiva filled with many learning teams is a busy, dynamic, noisy environment, quite different from the eerie silence of a library for linear books.

When I began surfing the net, the World Wide Web seemed a familiar place to me. I felt I had been there before. Talmud study had prepared me for its vast multidirectional options, hyperlinking and its non-sequential organization. I felt at home seeing home pages that had an uncanny resemblance to Talmud pages. As a member of the panel, “Toward an Aesthetic for the 21st Century: Networking, Hypermedia, and Planetary Creativity,”[57] at the 1990 conference of the College Art Association, I explored this confluence between traditional Jewish media experiences and encountering the emerging Internet. A decade later, Jonathan Rosen wrote in The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey between Worlds

“I can’t help feeling that in certain respects the Internet has a lot in common with the Talmud. The Rabbis referred to the Talmud as a yam, a sea – and though one is hardly intended to ‘surf’ the Talmud, something more than oceanic metaphors links the two verbal universes. Vastness and an uncategorizable nature are in part what define them both…. The Hebrew word for tractate is masechet, which means, literally, “webbing.”  As with the World Wide Web, only the metaphor of the loom, ancient and inclusive, captures the reach and the randomness, the infinite interconnectedness of words…. I take comfort in thinking that a modern technological medium echoes an ancient one.”[58]

Canadian professor Eliezer Segal goes one step further. He uses the new medium to explicate the old. He created an interactive Image-Map site of a Talmud page,, to serve as a port of departure on a voyage through centuries of vital dialogue. The visitor to his site can click on any portion of the Talmud page image and be linked to a description of that patch of text. He explains the contents and purposes of the text in English, also describing when and where that patch of text was composed. The site visitor joins a community of explorers who weave learning through time and space[59].

There are groups of learners worldwide who study one page of Talmud together every day completing the entire Talmud in seven years. To mark the end of the seven-year cycle and the beginning of the next cycle, the many daf yomi (a page a day) learning groups throughout the New York area pack Madison Square Garden in celebration. Unlike a book by a single author read alone in silence, the Talmud is a collaborative enterprise that creates community and continuity. There are also cybercommunities of daf yomi learners. Entering “daf yomi” in the search engine Google yields 6,720 sites and in Yahoo yields 5,540 sites[60]. In English we say, “he’s an educated man,” in the past tense. The Hebrew equivalent, talmid hakham, means “wise learner,” one whose learning is daily and lifelong.

The living dialogue of the Talmud can provide clues for creating significant interactive and responsive art. Artists can discover new creative options for making web art that simultaneously address postmodern aesthetics and spiritual issues, an art that moves from deconstruction to reconstruction and from alienation to caring community. It is meaningful to repeat here the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s profound insight. Using digital technologies, artists can serve the Divine purpose of creating a framework that facilitates people sharing spiritual knowledge with each other in "a welcome environment for interaction of our souls, our hearts, our visions".[61]

Cybercharity: art as mitzvah

In this concluding section of my paper, I will attempt to explore relationships between categories of hidur mitzvah (beautification of the mitzvah) proposed by Rabbi Dr. Shimon Cowen and a digital age artwork-in-progress, cybersight@tikunolam. In his paper “Judaism and Aesthetics”[62], Rabbi Cowen describes four levels of hidur mitzvah:  1) Beauty as an inherent aspect of a mitzvah, not simply an embellishment. 2) Beauty incorporated in the body of the mitzvah as an addition to its basic requirements. Embellishment becomes part of doing the mitzvah. 3) Beautification related to the body of the mitzvah, but extraneous to its halachic performance. Embellishment aesthetically enhances the mitzvah but is not an essential element. 4) Separate from the body or performance of the mitzvah, art adorns it in another medium. It depicts mitzvos and the symbol world of Judaism and evokes their beauty. I would suggest that a fifth category is the hidur of the particular mitzvah of limud Torah (the study of Torah). It is a path for learning Torah that moves beyond text into the realm of visual midrash. It uses art as a method of Torah study.

The genesis of cybersight@tikunolam was a discussion with my son, Ari, about extending into the social realm the human-machine interaction in our bioimaging artwork, “Inside/Outside: P’nim/Panim.”  We began brainstorming about how actions in cyberspace could effect changes in people’s lives in real space, how the Internet can bring people together to help one another, how digital technologies can be used for tikun olam (fixing the world) by filling it with loving kindness, and how web art could actually generate charity.

Although Ari and I were unaware of Rabbi Cowen’s categories of hidur mitzvah at the time, our conversation flowed into exploring how a single artwork could include all the categories. More than making a painting depicting the mitzvah of one person giving a coin to another, more than designing a beautiful silver coin collection canister to aesthetically enhance the experience of giving charity, we sought ways to elevate the artwork to the first two categories. How could doing the mitzvah itself with aesthetic awareness be an inherent part of the artwork?  We were interested in moving beyond making art about compassion and charity, chesed and tzedakah, beyond illustration and decoration, to creating art in which actually performing the mitzvah provides the aesthetic experience. We sensed we were on the right path, creating responsive art that honors the highest values of Jewish tradition while moving to the leading edge of conceptual art trends in postmodern art.

When I had visited Allan Kaprow at the University of California at San Diego where he teaches art, he emphasized the differences between “artlike art” and “lifelike art.”  Artlike art resembles other art more than anything else. In his essays on the blurring of art and life, he writes: “Artlike artists don’t look for meaning in life; they look for the meaning of art.”[63] Lifelike artists live their everyday lives with awareness. As a lifelike artist, Kaprow decided to focus on the act of brushing teeth. He brushed his teeth attentively for two weeks becoming aware of the tension in his elbow and fingers, the pressure on his gums, and the slight bleeding that made him think he should see a dentist.

“I began to pay attention to how much this act of brushing my teeth had become routinized, non-conscious behavior, compared with my first efforts to do it when I was a child. I began to suspect that 99 percent of my daily life was just as routinized and unnoticed; that my mind was always somewhere else; and that the thousand signals my body was sending me each minute were ignored. Thus the relationship of the act of toothbrushing to recent art is clear and cannot be bypassed. This is where the paradox lies; an artist concerned with lifelike art is an artist who does and does not make art…. But ordinary life performed as art/not art can charge the everyday with metaphoric power.”[64]

In response to the question of the relevance of his brushing to art, he traces art’s shift away from objects in a gallery to the real body and mind, communications technology, the real urban environment, and natural regions of the ocean, sky and desert.

Jewish tradition celebrates awareness of our actions in our everyday life. We are enjoined not to pass through life without consciously knowing what we are doing. We need to be aware of our actions and be morally responsible for them. Upon arising each morning, before getting out of bed, we declare: “I gratefully thank you, living and eternal King, for having returned my conscious soul to me with loving kindness. Great is your faithfulness.”  We then rise and do our first act of the day – washing our hands. Since hand washing, like tooth brushing, is usually an unconscious routine, a ritual was devised centuries ago to make certain that the first act of the day is performed with full awareness. After our declaration of thanksgiving for reviving our awareness from the night’s slumber, we take hold of a two-handled vessel filled with water and begin the hand-washing process. The set of instructions for this process found in one of the most commonly used Hebrew prayer books in America reads like a conceptual art or performance piece in an art book: 

“Wash the hands according to the ritual procedure: pick up the vessel of water with the right hand, pass it to the left, and pour water over the right. Then with the right hand pour water over the left. Follow this procedure until water has been poured over each hand three times.”[65]

Ari suggested that he could build a website in which people worldwide would be invited to contribute pictures to the site. Like the funding of walkers in a walkathon, we could get corporate sponsors to donate money to a charity each time an image is contributed. We ended our discussion in the States not knowing what kinds of images we would request, what charities would benefit, what corporations would be appropriate sponsors, and in what venues would the completed artwork be presented to the public.

On my returning home to Israel, the artist Miriam Benjamin, my wife and artistic collaborator on many artworks, suggested a specific act of kindness: restoring sight to the blind.  This new direction is deeply meaningful to her because she has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic defect that has made her legally blind. The artistic team had expanded to three – my wife and me and our son. As the artwork evolves, our collaboration is expanding to include many more people. In his book, The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism[66], Charles Green emphasizes that collaboration is the crucial element in the transition from modernism to postmodernism. The redefinition of art and artistic collaboration intersected during this transition. Collaborative art changes the visual artist’s role to be more like creative activities in the performing arts. Instead of a solitary role alone in one’s studio, the new paradigm finds the visual artist acting like a choreographer in dance, composer/conductor in music, and playwright/producer/director in theater and film.

We began by asking people who were born blind or became blind at a young age: “What are four things that you would most like to see if you had vision?”  We interviewed blind people in Israel, the Czech Republic, and United States and sent questionnaires worldwide to associations and schools for the blind.  We have received responses from countries as disparate as Australia, Ethiopia, Fiji, India, Korea, Lebanon, Lithuania, Niger, Poland, Slovenia, Zambia, and United Kingdom. The amazing similarity of responses from such diverse cultures teaches us about the common vision of humanity. Ari, who has designed websites for major American corporations and is president of a high tech company, created a website on which we posted the results of our cross-cultural research. Web surfers will be invited to contribute pictures of things that blind people most want to see. In response to these contributed images, corporate sponsors will be urged to contribute funds for scientific research to prevent and cure blindness. We are creating a cyberpushka[67] of global dimensions, an artwork through which actions in cyberspace rectify defects in real space, tikun olam.

The next stage is to link the Internet to innovative analog and digital technologies that enable blind people to “see” pictures through the sense of touch. A special computer mouse has been developed in Jerusalem that gives blind people direct access to pictures on a computer monitor. Beneath fingers placed in indentations in this specially designed mouse, there is a gird of needles that move up and down independently to trace the image on the computer monitor onto the blind person’s fingertips. The blind worldwide will be able to access pictures from the image bank at our website

In addition to the cyberpushka part of the artwork, we are giving blind people cameras to take pictures of their environments and experiences. Instead of framing a picture through the viewfinder, they point the cameras in response to sounds, smells, touch, movement, and intuition. In pilot trials in Prague, Miami, and Tel Aviv, we are finding that the images created by blind people present fresh and original viewpoints. Sighted photographers, from rank amateurs to seasoned professionals, frame their images through a viewfinder. Unframed images shot by blind people are less stereotypic. They provide alternative perceptual approaches that are often found to be aesthetically powerful by sighted viewers.

When the film is processed, we discuss the images with the blind photographers and choose and digitize the most conceptually and visually interesting photographs. Using a computer graphics program, I transform the photographs into line drawings that are rendered as tactile hard copy. The computer images are transferred to a swell paper imbedded with a chemical that makes a raised line appear when heated. The blind photographers can then perceive their pictures by running their fingers over lines that protrude. It is an act of chesed to facilitate a blind person’s “seeing” images of their own world through their fingertips.

Unlike disinterested contemplation of art in the Hellenistic tradition, art that actively responds to the cries of the world is most exalted in Jewish tradition. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches: “The key to the workings of the entire universe is charity. The entire flow of spiritual and physical blessing into the world can be seen as G-d’s ‘charity’ to His creatures, to bring them to know Him. When we ourselves give charity, we are participating in this process, which is why charity is such an exalted mitzvah.” [68]  Judaism teaches that the four-letters of the Divine name, yod, heh, vav, heh, contain the mystery of charity. Yod is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet that symbolizes a coin. Since heh is the fifth letter of the alphabet with the numerical value of five, it alludes to the five fingers of the hand. Heh is the hand that gives. Vav is shaped like an outstretched arm. When used as a prefix, vav is the conjunction “and,” the connecting word. The final heh, is the hand of the one who receives. Indeed, the very name of G-d teaches about the centrality of charity in Jewish life. The Internet can greatly expand the connective power of the vav, linking hands across the global network.



[1] Mel Alexenberg is Head of the School of the Arts at Emuna College in Jerusalem and Professor Emeritus of Art and Jewish Thought at Ariel University Center of Samaria.  He is former Dean of Visual Arts at New World School of the Arts in Miami, Professor and Chairman of Fine Arts at Pratt Institute in New York, Associate Professor of Art and Education at Columbia University and Bar-Ilan University, and Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His artworks are in the collections of more than fifty museums worldwide.

[2] Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Toward a Meaningful Life, adapted by Simon Jacobson   New York, William Morrow, 1995, p. 191.

[3] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, translated by Lawrence Kaplan, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983, p. 99.

[4] Winston Churchill, History of the Second World War, Vol. V, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951, 532.

[5] Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, New York: Norton, 1970, p. 27, 17.

[6] Genesis 12:1.

[7] Yaacov Agam and Bernard Mandelbaum, Art and Judaism, New York: BLD Limited, 1981, pp. 22-23.

[8] See Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah:The Book of Creation, York Beach, ME, Samuel Weiser, 1990, p.  9. Rabbi Kaplan describes how the lamed and bet of LeV is equivalent to 32, the ten sefiros and the 22 Hebrew letter pathways, contained between the last and first letters of the Torah. These two letters are the only two letters of the Hebrew alphabet that can be combined with the yud, heh, and vav, the letters of the Divine name, to spell out words.

[9] Mel Alexenberg, “On the Creation of LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age,” LightsOROT, eds. Mel Alexenberg and Otto Piene, Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies and New York: Yeshiva University Museum, 1988, p. 55.

[10] Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M. T. H. Sadler, New York: Dover, 1977, pp. 1, 4.

[11] Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Torah Studies, adapted by Jonathan Sacks, London: Lubavitch Foundation, 1986, 320.

[12] Sect. 5.

[13] Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993, p. 223.

[14] Lucy R. Lippard, Mixed Blessings: New Art in Multicultural America, New York: Pantheon Books, 1990, p. 6.

[15] Mel Alexenberg, “Toward an Integral Structure Through Science and Art,” Main Currents in Modern Thought, Vol. 30, No. 4, 1974.

[16] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, Cambridge: MA: MIT Press, 2001, p. 217.

[17] Ilya Prigogione and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man’s Dialogue with Nature, New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

[18] Peter Weibel and Timothy Druckery, editors, net_condition: Art and Global Media, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press and Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM Center for Art and Media, 1999, p.19.

[19] Marshall McLuhan, The McLuhan Program, University of Toronto,

[20] E. L. Doctorow, City of G-d, New York: Plume Book/Penguin Putnam, 2001, p. 254.

[21] Exodus, 31:2.

[22] Exodus 31:6.

[23] [Editor's note: one cannot in the first place determine spiritual signficance from numerical equivalences of different Hebrew words. Rather, given the knowledge of spiritual relationships, this knowledge will then be reflected in mathematical equvialences.]

[24] Rabbi Nosson Scherman, translation and commentary, The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, Brooklyn, New York: Mesorah, 1987, p. xvi.

[25] Exodus 31:2.

[26] Mel Alexenberg, “A Kabbalistic Model of Creative Process,” Journal of Expressive Therapy, Vol. I, No. 2, 2003.

[27] Mel Alexenberg, “On the Creation of LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimension of the Electronic Age,” 58.

[28] Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, p. 14.

[29] Manovich, The Language of New Media, pp. 27, 30

[30] Yitzchak Ginsburgh, The Alef-Beit: Jewish Thought Revealed through the Hebrew Letters (Nothvale, NJ and London: Jason Aronson, 1995). p. 13.

[31] Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Letters from the Rebbe New York: Otsar Sifrei Lubavitch, 1997), Vol. 2, 2-3. Cited in Rabbi Shimon Cowen, “Judaism and Aesthetics,” Journal of Judaism and Civilization, Vol. 3, p. 86.

[32] Dovid Shraga Polter, Listening to Life’s Messages, adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson,  Brooklyn: Sichos in English, 1997, p. 33.

[33] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Abraham Isaac Kook: Lights of Holiness, translated by Ben Zion Bokser, New York: The Classics of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press, 1978, p. 216.

[34] Roy Ascott, “Gesamtdatenwerk: Connectivity, Transformation and Transcendence,” in Ars Electronica: Facing the Future, ed. Timothy Druckrey,(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999, p. 86.

[35] Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M. T. H. Sadler  (New York: Dover, 1977), pp. 1, 4.

[36] Eduardo Kac, “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,”

[37] [Editor's note: What is seen is primary and what is heard is secondary]

[38] David Wright Prall, Aesthetic Judgment, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1929, p. 20.

[39] Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 36:8 refers to hearing in the tents of Shem the words of Torah spoken in the language of Yefet.

[40] Exodus 20:15

[41] Deuteronomy 6:4

[42] Isaiah 40:26.

[43] Alexenberg, “On the Creation of LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age,” pp. 50-51.

[44] Edward Bullough,  “Psychical Distance as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle,” in The Problems of Aesthetics, ed. Eliseo Vivas and Murray Krieger, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966, pp. 406-411.

[45] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, translated by J. H. Bernard,  London: MacMillan, 1931, p. 55.

[46] Numbers 15:39

[47] Talmud Bavli, Menachoth 44a

[48] Narrated in Aryeh Kaplan, Tzitzith: A Thread of Light, New York: NCSY/Orthodox Union, 1984, p. 49.

[49] Tzvi Alush, “Visual Art in Yeroham: Fringed Building,” Yediot Achronot, July 18, 1983.

[50] Haim Chertok, “Booths, Beerhalls, and BMW: Building a Sukkah in Munich,” Moment, Vol. 9, No. 9, October, 1984.

[51] Alexenberg, “On the Creation of LightsOROT: Spiritual Dimensions of the Electronic Age,” pp.52-53.

[52] Arthur C. Danto, Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1992, p. 5.

[53] Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah, 41a, 41b.

[54] Ibid., 44b

[55] See Marshall McLuhan, Guttenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man  (New York: New American Library, 1969) and Understanding Media, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

[56] Adin Steinsaltz, The Talmud, The Steinsaltz Edition, Reference Guide, New York: Random House, 1989, p. 9.

[57] For summary of this panel discussion, see: Ray Gallon, “Ideas of Planetary Creativity: The College Art Association Tackles Networking,” Netweaver.

[58] Jonathan Rosen, The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey between Worlds, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000, pp. 7, 8, 11.

[59] Eliezer Segal, “A Page for the Babylonian Talmud,” http://www.ucalgary. ca/~elsegal/Talmud Page.html.

[60] "Google" and "Yahoo" searches made 17 August 2003.

[61] See full quotation at the beginning of this paper. Rabbi M.M. Schneerson, Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe, p. 191.

[62] Rabbi Shimon Cowen, “Judaism and Aesthetics,” Journal of Judaism and Civilization, Vol. 3,  pp. 85-108.

[63] Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, p. 232.

[64] Ibid., p. 221.

[65] Rabbi N. Scherman, The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, p. 2.

[66] Charles Green, “Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), p. x.

[67] Pushka is the Yiddish word for a canister into which coins are dropped for charity.

[68] Rabbi Noson, leading pupil of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, The Fiftieth Gate: Likutey Tefilot.