Art Education for Jewish Life in a Networked World

Jewish Educational Leadership, Vol. 9, No. 4, Fall 2011

Menahem (Mel) Alexenberg

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 it 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).           Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook

The confluence between the deep structure of Jewish consciousness and the postdigital redefinition of art invites a rethinking of art education for Jewish life in a networked world.   The 20th century's modern art movements demolished the Hellenistic definition of art revived in the Renaissance.  In the 21st century, we are witnessing the emergence of a paradigm shift from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic roots of western culture

The leading edge of 21st century art education worldwide is responding to the rise of postdigital art forms that emphasize the human dimensions of new technologies in relation to cultural and aesthetic values, community connections, scientific explorations and interdisciplinary thought.  This new art education aspires to integrating pride in roots with an explorer's view of the world as it is shared by others   

The Hellenistic definition is reflected in the words for art in European languages: art in English and French, arte in Spanish, Kunst in German and Dutch, and iskustvo in Russian.  The roots of all these words are related to artificial, artifact, imitation, and phony.  In contrast, the Hebrew word for artist (oman) is spelled (alef-mem-nun) AMN with the same letters as the word amen which means truth.  Its feminine form is emunah, faith, and as a verb l’amen means to nurture and educate. 

The Hellenistic characterization of art as mimesis, imitating nature, arresting the flow of life, has become obsolete as new definitions of art are arising from Jewish thought and action that explore issues of truth, faith, and education as they enrich everyday life.  In Thorleif Boman's classic book Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, Hebraic thought  is characterized as being “dynamic, vigorous, passionate, and sometimes quite explosive in kind; correspondingly Greek thinking is static, peaceful, moderate, and harmonious in kind  

Not only are the Hebrew words for 'artist' and 'educator' linguistically linked, but the Torah teaches that the prototypic Jewish artists Betzalel and Oholiav were divinely endowed with artistic talent coupled with the talent to teach (Exodus 35:30-34). Art education offers an alternative method of Torah study that beautifies the mitzvah of study through creating visual midrash.  Art education in Jewish life needs to cultivate visual midrash through multimedia experiences that extend the verbal exploration of text.  ‘Context’ in its primal meaning is ‘with text’ and the defining characteristic of postmodern art

The narrative of the Jewish people begins with the journey of Abraham as he crosses over from his all too familiar past to see a fresh vision of a future in a new land.  Indeed, Abraham is called a Hebrew (Ivri) – one who crosses over into a new reality.  Abraham is told: “Walk with your authentic self away from all the familiar and comfortable places that limit vision to a land where you can freely see.”  Here, the dynamic Hebraic mindset is established as new ways of seeing emerge from the integration of our journey in life with our inner quest for spiritual significance. The power of Abraham to leave an obsolete past behind and to cross conceptual boundaries into an unknown future presents a powerful message for art education today

I identified major issues in art education today by analyzing 21st century books published by National Art Education Association, its special interest groups, and papers published in the International Journal of Education through Art.  It is instructive that in addition to dealing with culture and ethnicity, collaborative art and cooperative learning, visual culture, interdisciplinary learning, creativity and developing cognitive processes through art making, the most recent special interest group established in 2008 is the Spiritual in Art Education Group.  It seeks to study the relationship between the spiritual impulse and the visual arts and to develop art education curriculum theory and practices that encourage the study of the spiritual in art

My inaugural statement for this NAEA group, papers in four NAEA books and in the International Journal of Education through Art suggest that the most advanced curriculum models for future art education can be derived from Torah sources.   Postdigital curricula explore the interrelationships between four realms in the creative process, both divine and human, that flow from intentions, thoughts and feelings to action: Atzilut (Emination) - the precognitive realm of consciousness/spirituality/intention.  Beriah (Creation) - the cognitive realm of insight/conceptualization/inquiry. Yetzirah (Formation) - the affective realm of emotions/aesthetic experience/artistic expression. Asiyah (Action) - the space-time realm of acting with materials/technologies/media in local community/global culture/biosphere      


Menahem (Mel) Alexenberg is head of the School of the Arts, Emunah College, Jerusalem, professor emeritus of art and Jewish thought, Ariel University, former professor of art and education, Columbia University and Bar Ilan University, head of the art department, Pratt Institute, and research fellow, MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies.  He is author of The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press, 2011) and its Hebrew version Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass House, 2008).  His website is and his current blogart project is