The Jerusalem Report, Sept. 17, 2007

Seeing and Hearing

Mistaking the Temple for the Tabernacle points out Susan Nashman Fraiman’s (“Seeing is Understanding” August 20) limited understanding of relationships between the visual and auditory modes of experiencing in Judaism.  There is no mention of the Temple in the Torah, but rather a human-scale, Logo-like, structure of mostly wood and cloth that was deconstructed, placed on a wagon, moved to a new site and reconstructed.  Moses conveyed to Bezalel information on how to build the Tabernacle (mishkan) not what it looked like.

In Judaism, visual and auditory senses are linked through action, through the kinesthetic integration of sense modalities.  The story of the Jewish people begins in the Torah with Lekh Lekhe: “Walk yourself away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that you will come to see” (Genesis 12:1).  Seeing creatively requires moving away (both physically and psychologically) from what is most familiar in order to experience the world from fresh viewpoints. 

Seeing isolated from our other senses is a distancing experience.  The visual sense requires that we keep objects away from us in order to focus our eyes on them unlike the senses of hearing, touch, small, and taste that can be experienced through direct and intimate contact with the physical world.  Seeing is integrated with hearing after receiving the Ten Commandments – “all the people saw the sounds’ (Exodus 20:15) rather than “heard the sounds.”  Tradition transforms the most powerful statement of auditory experience in the Torah to a visual one.  “Hear, O Israel, God is our Lord, God is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4) is linked to the verse in Isaiah (40:26) read on the same Sabbath. The Hebrew word for “hear” SheMA (spelled shin, mem, ayin) is seen as an acronym of Se’u Marom Aynaykhem – “raise your eyes on high.”

Unlike the Greek focus renewed in the Renaissance of seeing beauty in the outer forms of the human body and nature, Judaism invites us to experience beauty as tiferet, the most connected, most intimate, innermost core of the ten emanations of divine light spiraling down into our everyday lives.  This Jewish viewpoint was expressed in my LightsOROT art exhibition created at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies for Yeshiva University Museum.  Rudolf Arnheim (mentioned in the Jerusalem Report article) wrote the introduction to the exhibition catalog.  My extensive research and teaching about the visual experience in Jewish thought and experience at MIT, Columbia University, Bar-Ilan University, and Ariel University Center in Samaria, is presented in my newest book, The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness.

Mel Alexenberg

Petah Tikva, Israel