Friday, May 30, 2014

Visual Poetry

In an earlier lab we were introduced to the concept of shiviti through movement. This week we experienced it as a visual poem. Shiviti is a means of meditation and prayer through a visual representation of words in the form of calligraphic image. I was feeling quite knowledgeable that I even knew what shiviti were, when I learned there were yet more layers of meaning, a gradual unfolding.

Had I been proficient in Hebrew, perhaps some of this awareness might have struck earlier for I learned that all shiviti make use of Psalm 67. There is a reason for that. We were asked to count the Hebrew words in each line of the psalm after the first line which is a musical direction. A clear and symetrical rhythm emerged. 7-6-6-11-6-6-7. We then summed those words to arrive at a total of 49. What period was the focus of this psalm? Why the harvest for we are told in line 7 "the earth has yielded her produce". Next week is Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah, but also a time of harvest at the time this was written in the 6th century BC. We count the days from Passover to Shavuot, counting the Omer. And how many days are there? - 49. We were then asked to observe the symmetry within this poetic form. Each line is written in couplets, the second phrase amplifying the one before with lines 4 and 6 repeating. Because of its symmetry this psalm is used in shiviti. It is often called the "Menorah Psalm" as this symmetrical structure lends itself to this visual form.

In addition to Psalm 67, the other essential element of a shiviti is the verse of Psalm 16:8. The verse of the Psalm is, "I have set God always before me", a natural prelude to prayer. While other text may also be included, these two components are found in all shiviti.

I resonate with this. I love the intrinsic logic of numbers and words, the rhythm and buried meanings, the deciphering process. And in the vein of mysteries... Early in the Psalm we encounter the line echoing the familiar benediction, "May God be gracious to us and bless us. May he cause his face to shine upon us. selah." Rabbi Davis informed us that "selah" was an untranslatable term. It is believed to represent a pause to emphasize the passage immediately before and most of its 74 mentions are found in the Psalms. Some posit that it comes from two Hebrew words: s_lah, "to praise"; and s_lal, "to lift up." Others believe it derives from the Hebrew root word for "to hang", meaning to weigh.
There is much to weigh in this psalm and far more than I've related here as greater meaning is read into the words and letters. There is actually a process you can read more of for how one uses shiviti in meditation.

We closed with a beautiful passage from Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel in which he advises us to "mediate on the wonders of creation, at their divine life - not like some dim phenomenon that is placed before your eyes from afar. But know the reality in which you live. Know yourself and your world. Know the thoughts of your heart, and of all who speak and think. Find the source of life inside you, higher than you, around you, the wondrous splendor of life in which you dwell. "

You can find the handout with a passage from Robert Alter- The Art of Biblical Poetry and the entire quote from Rav Kook from the Orot Hakodesh.

To view information on lab artists and lab discussion links and handouts, please go to the Jewish Artists' Laboratory website.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 25 artists exploring the theme of Light through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Light is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

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