Concerning the Spiritual in Art Education: Kabbalistic Creativity for a Postdigtial Age

Mel Alexenberg


Modernism’s forwards and upwards movement to a spiritually elevated abstract realm of color and form described by Kandinsky in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art is complemented by postmodernism’s downwards and outwards movement into all aspects of everyday life and around the world via digital technologies.  The confluence between the deep structure of biblical consciousness and the postdigital age redefinition of art is explored showing new directions in art as expressions of the paradigm shift from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic roots of Western culture.  The biblical integration of the roles of artist and teacher provide a model of creative process derived from kabbalah, Judaism’s ancient teachings of ways to bring spiritual insights to realization in the material world of space and time.  The kabbalistic model with its aesthetic core gains significance applied to artistic practice and art education. Postdigital artists in our networked world are assuming roles of creative educators who invite us to collaborate in creating lively artforms that integrate digital technologies with myriad aspects of our everyday life. 


The spiritual nature of the emerging modern art movements at the beginning of the 20th century was explored by Wassily Kandinsky in his classic book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art.  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.  “The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forwards and upwards” (p. 1).  On the other hand, Kandinsky would have appreciated that the postmodernism of the digital age would produce other directions in art.  “Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of emotions.  It follows that each period of  culture produces an art of its own” (p. 4).

Complimenting modernism’s movement of art to a higher spiritual realm of pure color and form, 21st century postmodernism is the emergence of new art forms that reach down into everyday life and out across the planet.  We are shifting our gaze from modernism’s movement forwards and upwards to postmodernism’s movement downwards and outwards.  This spiritual movement downwards and outwards can be symbolized by a second triangle moving into the future through the wisdom of the past with the apex pointing downwards. Kandinsky’s upwards moving triangle intertwined with a triangle moving downwards form the Star of David that symbolizes the dynamic integration of both up and down movements, like the biblical image of angels ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder linking heaven and earth (Genesis 28:12).  The apex of the triangle moving downwards and outwards symbolizes a paradigm shift in art of the digital age from the Hellenistic to the Hebraic roots of Western culture.

The worldview of ancient Greece revived in Renaissance Europe dominated Western art until the rise of modernism that began to deconstruct it.  This deconstruction opens up spaces in which postmodern reconstructions of art are emerging in forms confluent with the deep structure of Hebraic consciousness.  Winston Churchill writes:

"The Greeks and the Jews are the two peoples whose worldviews have most influenced the way we think and act.  Each of them from angles so different has 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." (1951, p. 532)

The paradigm shift from Athens to Jerusalem can be experienced in new art forms emerging at the interdisciplinary interface between art, science, technology, and culture.  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. (Alexenberg, 2003) 

Postdigital artists in our networked world are assuming roles of creative educators who invite us to collaborate in creating lively artforms that integrate digital technologies with myriad aspects of our everyday life. (Alexenberg, 2010)

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 outburst 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." (1995, p. 191)

Down-to-Earth Spirituality

The emerging postdigital age paradigm shares with the Jewish spiritual tradition the movement from a transcendental spirituality high above the mundane to an imminent spirituality that permeates every aspect of every-day life and reaches out across our planet through cyberspace entering the homes of millions of people.  Rather than a quest for purity of form in some heavenly realm, Judaism seeks to reveal spirituality in the rough complexities of earth-bound living.  The centrality of this down-to-earth spirituality in Hebraic consciousness is expressed by two of the towering figures in 20th century Jewish thought: Hasidic leader Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavicher Rebbe, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik, professor at the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University.  Rabbi Schneerson teaches:

"It is not enough for the Jew to rest content with his own spiritual ascent, the elevation of his soul in closeness to G-d, he must also strive to draw spirituality down into the world and into every part of it – the world of his work and his social life – until not only do they not distract him from his pursuit of G-d, but they become a full part of it."  (1986, p.320)

The Lubavitcher Rebbe takes a mystical path through the esoteric world of kabbalah, which is derived from the biblical descriptions of the personality traits of prototypic artist/educator Bezalel.  The Rebbe’s Hasidic route aims at releasing the holy sparks hidden in our mundane world.  On the other hand, Rabbi Soloveitchik takes a highly intellectual path through the exoteric world of Talmudic learning to arrive at the same viewpoint.  He writes:

"Judaism does not direct its glace upward but downward.  The Halakhah [the Jewish way of life] does not aspire to a heavenly transcendence, nor does it seek to soar upon the wings of some abstract, mysterious spirituality.  It fixes its gaze upon concrete, empirical reality…. The Halakhah is not hermetically enclosed within the confines of cult sanctuaries but permeates into every nook and cranny of life.  The marketplace, the street, the factory, the house, the meeting place, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop of religious life." (1983, p. 99) 

In his acclaimed novel, City of God, E. L. Doctorow summarizes the confluence between postmodern experience and Jewish consciousness in a digital age in an elegant literary formulation.  The main character in his novel, 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." (2001, p. 254) 

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

Artist as Teacher

The Bible integrates the role of artist with that of teacher charging them with creating an earthly space into which the divine spirit is invited to dwell.  The prototypic biblical artist Bezalel was “filled with a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and a talent for all types of craftsmanship” (Exodus 35:31).   Bezalel and his partner Oholiav were granted the ability to teach other wise-hearted individuals to whom God bestowed a natural talent to collaborate in a communal artistic endeavor (Exodus 35:34, 36:2).  The Hebrew term for “art” in Exodus is M’LeKheT MaKhSHeVeT, literally “thoughtful craft.”  The word for “artist” in Song of Songs is written AMN, the same as the word amen which means “truth.”  In its feminine form, AMNH, means “faith,” and as a verb L’AMN means “to educate.”  Inherent in being an artist is being a teacher.

The literal translation of the name Bezalel is: “In the Divine Shadow son of Fiery Light son of Freedom.”  It honors the artist’s passion and freedom of expression paralleling the spirit of modernism.  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 the artist 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 participation in creating a shared environment that enriches local and global communities.  Unlike the quest for purity in modernism that separates individual from community, artist from teacher, aesthetic from social, and spiritual from mundane, postmodernism redefines the relationships between them.  In The Reenchantment of Art, Suzi Gablik, proposes that “what we will see in the next few years is a new paradigm based on the notion of participation, in which art will begin to redefine itself in terms of social relatedness and ecological healing, so that artists will gravitate toward different activities, attitudes and roles than those that operated under the aesthetics of modernism.” (1991, p. 27)      

The spiritual side of participation in social and ecological realms is participation with God in making our world a better one.  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, “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 Rabbi Soloveitchik, the first and central biblical commandment is that each person is “obligated to engage in creation and the renewal of the cosmos” (1983, p. 101). “The dream of creation is the central idea in halakhic consciousness – the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as a creator of world.  This longing for creation and the renewal of the cosmos is embodied in all of Judaism’s goals.” (1983, p. 99). 

Poet and spiritual leader Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who served as the Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel during the first half of the 20th century, draws on Job and the prophet Jeremiah to establish a special place of honor for artistic creativity in his book, Lights of Holiness:

"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). ( Kook, 1978, p. 216)

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 to the artist/teacher Bezalel who wasfilled with a divine spirit of Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, and a talent for all types of craftsmanship” (Exodus 35:31).  Wisdom and Understanding represent cognitive stages in the creative process that follow a pre-cognitive stage of will called Crown.  The next six stages in the creative process are affective stages listed in Chronicles 1:29: “The Compassion, the Strength, the Beauty, the Success, the Gracefulness, even everything [as the Foundation] of heaven and earth.”  The final stage is the Kingdom of time and space in which intentions, thoughts, and emotions are brought together and realized in the everyday world of action.  

These ten stages in the creative process, both divine and human, are called sephirot in the literature of kabbalah, the down-to-earth mystical tradition of Judaism.  In a holographic way, all ten sephirot are interincluded in every one of the sephirot to show that each stage of the process has aspects of all the others embodied within it.  There are 22 pathways interconnecting the ten sephirot, each represented by one of 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

A Kabbalistic Model of Creative Process

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 first appears in the Bible in the word maKBiL meaning, “parallel.”  In creating the tabernacle, Bezalel, Oholiav, and their artistic collaborators covered it with two large tapestries each having fifty loops parallel to each other and linked together with gold fasteners (Exodus 26:5 and Exodus 36:12).  One tapestry symbolizes divine Creation and the other 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.

Kabbalah is the hidden wisdom of biblical consciousness that we receive today from past generations going back to Mount Sinai.  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 explores how divine energies are drawn down into our everyday world through human creativity.  It provides a conceptual model of this downwards flow that can be understood through analysis of the creative process in art that has profound implications for art education since the biblical artist and educator are one and the same person.

Crown: Faith, Pleasure and Intention

The movement from the will to create to action in the physical world begins in the spiritual sephirah (singular for sephirot) of Crown (keter), the preformed preconscious realm of faith, pleasure, and intention.  Just as a crown floats above the head and is not part of the body, so Crown is an undifferentiated longing to create that precedes the cognitive realm.  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.  The precognitive realm of nothingness invites a sudden flash of insight that is the second sephirah of Wisdom. 

Wisdom: Inviting a Flash of Insight

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 a series of artworks, “Subway Angels”.  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 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 sephirah of Crown.  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 WisdomIn 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.

Understanding: Taking Form

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) to form a fertilized ovum of Knowledge.  This union of masculine Wisdom and feminine Understanding to create Knowledge is derived from the biblical passage, “Adam knew his wife Eve” (Genesis 4:1).  As soon as the synagogue service came to an end, I enthusiastically 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. 

Compassion and Strength: From Loving Openess to Setting Limits

The fourth sephirah of Compassion (hesed), loving everything and everyone, opens us up 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 (Melnikoff, 1935). At the time, Ron was archivist at Beit Harav Kook in Jerusalem, the residence of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.  It became clear to me that I needed to digitize Rembrandt’s angels.  I planned to 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).  The 11th century commentator, Rashi, points out that since the 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. 

Beauty: Aesthetic Balance

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.  The sephirah of Beauty is the aesthetic core of the creative process in which harmonious integration of openness and closure is experienced as beauty, splendor, and truth.  Pathways from all the sephirot converge at Beauty.   The closure of having chosen to have cyberangels fly out of subway placards gave me the splendid feeling that all is going beautifully.

Success and Gracefulness: Splendid Orchestration 

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” (Ginsburgh, website).  It is the wonderful feeling that all is going as it should.

Foundation: Integrating Everything

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 flow 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.

Kingdom: Noble Realization

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.”

New Beginnings

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 Kingdom, the realm of physical reality was being transformed into the first sephirah of Crown, 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 emptiness that I felt walking from the gallery where my “Subways Angels” were being exhibited engendered a flash of insight.  I would call AT&T to use their satellites to send computer angels on a circumglobal flight as a digitized homage to Rembrandt.  Beginning a new journey from Crown to Kingdom transformed my postpartum depression into joyous anticipation.  On the anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, his angel was digitized, dematerialized, and beamed from the AT&T building in New York to his studio in Amsterdam were it was rematerialized on his 350-year-old etching press where he had made the original.   Being a biblical image, it flew from Holland to Jerusalem and then on to Tokyo and Los Angeles (the city of angels) returning to New York five hours later.  Cyberangels not only can fly around the world, they can fly into tomorrow and back into yesterday transforming our concepts of space and time.  It was the morning of October 4th in New York when the angel took flight.  It was afternoon in Amsterdam and evening in Jerusalem.  The cyberangel arrived in Tokyo early in the morning of October 5th.  Crossing the international dateline, it lighted in Los Angeles and returned to New York in the afternoon of October 4th after having been in tomorrow  (AT&T, 1989).       

The kabbalistic model is a metaphorical way of thinking rather than a body of knowledge to be seized.  It offers choreography for a dance of the mind to be apprehended by the part of the mind that appreciates poetry and hears its inner music (Green, 2003, p. 59).  It provides a method for describing the flow of the downward moving triangle emanating from a spiritual realm from which insight emerges to realization in the everyday realm of time and space.  The kabbalistic model with its aesthetic core gains significance applied to artistic practice and art education.  


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