Magazine article Tikkun

Kabbalah and Jewish-American Artists

Magazine article Tikkun

Kabbalah and Jewish-American Artists

Article excerpt

Check out the Judaica section in any bookstore. You will be surprised at the number of books concerned with Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Some are feel-good, New Agey; others are rigorous academic and religious studies. All reflect what seems to be an unquenchable desire for spiritual fulfillment as well as for a deeper connection to a Judaism that exists outside of the synagogue, the shtetl, and old traditions. Jewish-American artists have also responded in kind, turning to Kabbalah as a source of inspiration. In effect, and in an odd turn of events, nonmainstream Jewish religious concerns have replaced Jewish communal culture as a way for artists to identify as Jewish. Current curiosity about Kabbalah surfaced in the 1960s as part of the general interest in spiritualism and spiritual systems generally Eastern in origin, such as Zen, Yoga, and Buddhism. By the 1970s, Kabbalah and those aspects of Jewish history and religion found in the Torah and Talmud informed the works of an increasing number of artists. Like the general public, the artists' range of commitment has varied from "grazing" through various books, as one artist described the way he obtains information, to serious study with mystics and Hasidic rabbis, from California Kabbalah concerned with obtaining cosmic energy, good health, and good sex to the serious task of translating kabbalistic materials into English. Using a variety of styles, artists have not necessarily illustrated particular passages, but rather found in them points of departure for their visual meditations. As such, their work is not an isolated instance of Jewish mystical art in modern times, but part of the largely unstudied history of mysticism (Jewish, Christian, Zen, etc.) in recent American art.

Clearly, there is no single point of view, let alone a school or even representative figures in this recent Jewish mystical art, as each artist finds his or her own way in this vast and often contradictory literature. For the artists, mysticism is really a form of self-assertion, a coming to terms with the forces of the universe. In their differing ways, they use canonical texts to help them convert religious encounters from received dogma to living experience. They seek an immediate awareness of a relation with God, an awareness of the Divine Presence in the world, avoiding the intermediate step of synagogue worship. Old-fashioned objections, voiced by the ultra-religious, about the very fact of women artists exploring this subject matter or of images which approach too closely the Second Commandment restrictions concerning graven images, are of little relevance to these artists. Although Kabbalah is the source, the artists are post-traditional in their ways of thinking.

A case in point. California-based Bruria Finkel has been using kabbalistic imagery since 1966, when she was introduced to the writings of Abraham Abulafia, a thirteenth-century Spanish kabbalist. Since the mid-1980s, she has been making a series of wheel-shaped sculptures which contain Hebrew lettering and human hands. The wheels refer both to Ezekiel's vision of the chariot which supports the throne of God (I:4-15) as well as to the interpretations of Ezekiel's vision by Abulafia, who, in order to contemplate the presence of the chariot, and therefore the Divine, developed a method of meditating on the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet to invoke the proper ecstatic mood.

Finkel, who has been translating Abulafia's writings into English since the late 1960s, insists that her work is humanistic rather than religious in a ritualistic sense. For her the bronze wheels "represent time, place, and function as a bridge into ancient philosophies. The chariot, considered by the Kabbalah to be a symbol of the highest form of human attainment towards peace and divine influx, is configured by the four wheels and their pedestals." In effect, she visualizes what Abulafia might have imagined during his (and now her) meditations, a way to grow nearer to the cosmic stream of life, or at least to the power of the human spirit to evolve into higher reaches of contemplation. …

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