Mission Statement

ewish. Spirit. Art.  Ever look up at the starry sky? God is the greatest artist! And for Jews, the Jewish spirit is God’s favorite medium. And art can help you and your students experience God’s presence in our world in all its infinite variety and beauty.
What flows through your mind as you gaze up at the night sky? Wonder at the vastness and beauty of the starry carpet overhead washes over me every time I peer into the too-bright city sky, or gaze up from sands of a still, dark desert…and every time, my spiritual conversation with the Creator of our universe begins anew.   That  conversation might be directly with God, or it might be with the cosmos—those stars—and often it is a conversation with a beloved text. How can we spark spiritual conversation for our young people? For adults searching for meaning in life? Before you peruse the seasonal menus above, let’s explore the possibilities of using art to help students of Jewish education to find new channels into this lifelong spiritual engagement, to complete themselves by nourishing their spirits by connecting to “something greater,” building character, relating to our classic stories, our traditions, feeling part of the millennia-old historical community of Judaism.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72) found the root of Jewish spirituality in the same kind of wonder that I feel as my eyes encounter the limitless night sky. Wonder—undiminished by the scientific understanding of the mechanics of the physical phenomenon—is the beginning of radical amazement, the sense that existence and our consciousness of it are suffused with mysteries we do not understand. Such wonder grows into the radical awe of God that inspires our prayer. Quoting the morning prayer, Modeh Ani (I Thank You), Heschel suggests that “the sense for the ‘miracles which are daily with us,’ the sense for the ‘continual marvels,” is the source of prayer….This is one of the goals of the Jewish way of living: to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things.”(1)  Medieval Kabbalists found not only admirable qualities that humankind might emulate, but even divinity itself in the ordinary, wondrous things of the world. R. Bahya ben Asher of Saragossa, a late 13th century judge and kabbalist, wrote that because Israel’s God subsumes all powers, the divine name Elohim, the God of Creation, is plural. Exploring the hidden meanings of the first two verses of Braishit/Genesis, he suggested that every element of Creation was first drawn from and continues to emanate from divine Wisdom. Not only humankind, but all of Creation feels the need to express wonder and awe at the power of our Creator.(2)

Jewish ritual, prayer and text study are all traditional paths into these wonder-filled spiritual conversations searching for divine wisdom, each path in different measures for each person. But there’s yet another path! Aesthetic joy felt and experienced through the arts, not only enhances each of these traditional paths (think of hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of a mitzvah), but through the direct emotions conveyed through the fine arts. Song has always enriched our spiritual experience; think of the ecstatic joy of a congregation singing during Kabbalat Shabbat, or the sonorous gravity of Kol Nidre, to name just two examples.  The visual arts equally lead us into the whole spectrum of immediate spiritual emotions—from ecstasy to pain, awe to dread to serenity. When the imagery within the art is filled with imagery embodying the whole panoply of Jewish life and thought, the table is indeed laid for a feast of rich emotional and intellectual nourishment and wonder-filled spiritual conversation.

Illuminated manuscripts are especially suited for exploring the many aspects—aesthetic, emotional and intellectual—of the spiritual conversations we pursue throughout our lives. My illuminated paintings not only vibrate with color and gold, but draw out the concepts buried in each story, poem or prayer, expressing each concept with imagery drawn not only from the text, but from related biblical texts, rabbinics and modern bible studies, archeology, and many aspects of modern culture, including the sciences. The visual midrash created by the melding of visual art and thought illuminates the relationship between Jewish thought and daily life and offers new modes of thought that we may integrate into our own spiritual conversation.

Consider, for instance, the Daled painting in my 2018 book, All the World Praises You: an illuminated Aleph-Bet book, adapted from the delightful and profound medieval classic, Perek Shira.

“The grass [desheh] says: ‘May the glory of the Lord last forever; May the Lord rejoice in His own deeds.’”

The author chose this ecstatic praise of God from Psalm 104, one of the most expansive, most optimistic views of Creation in all of Tanakh. This 35-verse song celebrates our God for creating a world of perfect natural order and balance. Modern bible commentator, Amos Hakham, suggests that “the central idea of the psalm [is] that contemplating the splendid order of creation brings a person to revere, fear, love, and surrender himself to the Creator.”(3)  The fact that Perek Shirah’s author matched this grand verse from Psalm 104 with something as lowly as grass raises a thought-provoking tension.  Biblical texts often treat grass as a great blessing, while others, such as Psalm 37, regard it as insignificant and impermanent: “Do not be troubled by evil men; do not be incensed by wrongdoers; for they soon wither like grass, like verdure fade away.” This contrast between great and small, between ephemeral and eternal, suggests that even the smallest, least-substantial among us can sense and praise the God that enables and suffuses all Creation.

The painting plants our eyes at ground level, and we scrutinize a dense clump of grass. A worm, ants, and a gangly daddy long-legs crawl out from between the blades, a tiny lizard clambers up onto a strong blade, while ladybugs and a honeybee (my Hebrew name!) prepare to alight into the warm summer air. What do we experience through this illumination? Happy childhood memories of warm summer afternoons in a garden? Delight in the complexity of the simplest things? Amazement at the Creator responsible for this world? A new vision of our daily connection with both the earth and its Creator? Can you imagine encouraging kindergarteners to feel God nearby when they ruffle through the grass in your school’s play-yard? How would the child express this wonder?

Whether we meditate upon these paintings and books privately or with others, their fusion of words, paintings and colors, of vision and touch, leads us into  the whole panoply of Jewish experience. In the class setting, these moments sharing and discussing the individual illuminated pages flower into opportunities to merge our own experience and intuition—as individuals and as a group—with the prayers or stories and their images, to immerse ourselves in their emotions, whether ecstatic or troubled. The class experience enables students and teachers to compare our reactions and strengthen our abilities to perceive, experience and express our new sense of Jewishness. However distant the tale or the text’s author, we find new ways, new modes, not just of learning about our Judaism, but of building our characters, reveling in our spiritual conversation with the Jewish people, with the Divine.

Explore the seasonal class menus through the toolbar  above, contact me and plan your students’ year of feasts!

I’d like to thank Avi West, the Senior Education Officer and Master Teacher, at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington for his gracious input to this menu, and acknowledge inspiration by Striving for Shlemut: An Emerging Focus for Jewish Education program of the William Davidson Graduate School of JTS.


SOURCES

(1)Abraham Joshua Heschel. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 1955, p. 48-49.

(2)Seth Brody, trans. and ed., Rabbi Ezra ben Solomon of Gerona: Commentary on the Song of Songs and Other Kabbalistic Commentaries. Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan: 1999. See “R. Bahya ben Asher of Saragossa, Commentary on Genesis 1:1-2,” p. 212.

(3)Amos Hakham. The Bible: Psalms, with the Jerusalem Commentary, Vol. 3: Psalms 101-150. Mosad Harav Kook, Jerusalem: 2003 p.52.



Ketubot

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