This week's Artists' Lab had two special attendees added to our mix. We were rejoined by Rabbi Davis, albeit on crutches after a fall on the ice. Our facilitator Avi joined us also, this time carrying her infant son, the newest creation she has been working on these past months.
In the Jewish tradition of questioning, Rabbi Davis began our session by posing one. Think about a movie you saw that might have been based on a book. Which was better and why?
The jury was mixed. It was proposed that books allow us to fill in the blanks with imagination. This was quickly countered by the argument that a film creates a new space for us to reimagine. We were urged to allow room for the power of a different medium and ultimately acknowledged that there is power to both words and image.
The rabbi directed us to passages in the Bible where there is witnessing versus hearing. We visited the giving of the Ten Commandments and then the retelling by Moses.
In Exodus 19:11 Moses is summoned to prepare the people to see God and in 19:16 God is described as thunder, lighting, fire and smoke.
In Deuteronomy 4:12 Moses retells the experience of witnessing God, yet even then it was as a witness of fire and a voice. "And the LORD spoke unto you out of the midst of the fire; ye heard the voice of words, but ye saw no form; only a voice."
With amusement the rabbi pointed out the passage in Exodus 24: 9-11 which concludes with “they beheld God, and did eat and drink”, a not too uncommon theme for many Jewish occasions, apparently one with an ancient tradition.
He concluded this perusal with Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema which means "Hear".
Which is more powerful we were asked, hearing or seeing?
Again we debated. Hearing was perceived as a more communal experience. Perhaps a partial experience, requiring our other senses to be complete. And a primal sense, the first sound we hear is our mother’s heartbeat.
The rabbi noted that there is a bias in Judaism for hearing, we retell our stories as part of a long oral tradition. When we say the Shema we cover our eyes, focusing on the hearing. Ear people more than eye people. Word people more than art people, particularly because of restrictions on graven images which were viewed as applying to figurative imagery. More often he noted Jews adopted the standards of the cultures within which they lived.
He turned our attention to a prayer book that was somewhat unusual. It was filled with photographic imagery. "Did we like it or was it distracting?" he asked. Again there was no unanimous response. He told us that the images are considered a Midrash, a commentary on the passages that they illustrate. Interestingly when we turned to the Shema there was no image, visual silence, a covering of our eyes.
In the book’s commentary Rabbi Grumet notes that Deuteronomy focuses on the world of words because they create meaning and allow for transmission between people and generations. Visual experience by contrast is fleeting.
Rabbi Davis noted that many Christian communities are exploring visual prayer, beginning to think of their buildings as canvases and projecting images. The cathedrals of old certainly grasped the concept embodying the holy in the very structure of their buildings.
In the case of the illustrated prayer book, we are encouraged to respond to a visual of a sunset and when we see a sunset, associate it with the holy. In the everyday there is the holy and the visual itself becomes a prayer.
I often retrace our path as the flow intrigues me. Movies vs. Books. Hearing vs.Seeing. Word vs Visual. Each level drilling down looking at different aspects of a concept. I like this manner of inquiry, circling around looking at it from different perspectives.
The second part of our session was a revisiting of our sketchbook project. Marty Harris joined us and shared examples again. As I looked at these examples I noted that often an image extended slightly into the next page leaving a hook for the next participant to work with and adding to the sense of flow. Some of our group has dived into this project with gusto. I’m still conceptualizing. "Don’t think too much", they advised."Aargh! Too late for that", I thought. I am still circling around my idea, looking at it from different perspectives much as we did in our inquiry today. How to express it is a question yet to be answered.
To view information on lab artists and lab discussion links and handouts, please go to theJewish 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.