Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Upward Reaching

In response to my prior post on visualizing wisdom through artwork, I invited lab artists to share their thoughts on why they selected a particular image as representing wisdom.

Carolyn Light Bell shared her thoughts on why she selected the work of Milwaukee Artist Lab artist Berit Engen as expressing wisdom. The following work from left to right is Exile (By the River of Babylon), Yiddish Wisdom: If everyone pulled in the same direction, the whole world would fall down and Yiddish Wisdom: It is easier to guard a sack of fleas than a girl in love.
by Carolyn Light Bell

Berit Engen has depicted the upward reaching toward a greater energy. A supplication. Wisdom comes in knowing when and how to ask for help from powers greater than mine. The burning that comes from fire can be seen as both destruction and creation. Blueberries only grow from earth where fire has added nitrogen to the soil. In the same way, we bear new fruit from the death of our deeply-rooted hopes and dreams.

Ms. Engen’s work combines the elegance of Nordic design, which captures the order and simplicity of distilled natural beauty, with the movement and passion of Jewish experience, our constant striving toward God.

Her color and style are pleasing to the eye, capturing the insistent stretching up of all impulse. Her wisdom lies in knowing where to focus her talent—on what aspect of the human condition.

Rosyle Utan was particularly drawn to Barnett Newman's work and felt it expressed the concept of wisdom through challenging us to engage with the unknown. Below are her comments on her selection.

by Roslye Ultan

My response to making the selection of Barnett Newman, ONEMENT IV, 1953 (part of a series), for Art Lab discussion on the theme of wisdom – is/was indeed a formidable task. How does one begin to grasp in visual terms the ungraspable concept of wisdom? My first inclination was to go to the most expressive abstract works (Abstract Expressionism) of the Jewish painter/philosopher Barnett Newman—partly because our investigation is/was to search the annals of “Jewish” wisdom, and secondly because Newman did not try to offer an answer, but challenged us/the viewer to engage in a conversation with him/the art object in a vast spatial field unencumbered by any preconceived limitations. Rather, Newman offers/as well as seeks to understand the mystical inner workings of humankind through an ecstatic expanse of space into which he invites us to participate. I chose to go beyond what is known or seen into a more authentic source of primal inspiration – the awesome unknown/the place of doubt, of dreams, of myth which are conjured up when faced with a grand-field of intense blue divided by a white line (a Zip), me/you, struggling to find signs that might lead somewhere.

By Lynda Monik-Isenberg

I chose James Turrell's Skyspace in Austin Texas. It was an immediate reaction to the call Jay and I made for submissions. For me, James Turrell's artwork engages wisdom in intellectual, conceptual and emotional terms.  He 'provides' light the ephemeral substance that bring us life, that marks our days and actions, that allows us to 'see'; he isolates and focuses it and us - allowing his participants to consider light in its wholeness (color, shape, time, sustenance, insight...). The work is contemplative and quiet with meaning made by the participant. This piece reminds me  that wisdom is often simple, elegant, slow in coming and is born from interaction, reflection and quiet.

"My work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing." --- James Turrell

Youtube video

Phil Rosenbloom contributed Rodin's Gates of Hell and offered these thoughts.   

by Phil Rosenbloom

I chose Rodin's Gates of Hell because it depicts Rodin's concept of the Artist's role in society.  In the middle towards the top sits "the thinker" and he looks down on the rest of humanity in the form of Rodin's interpretation of Dante's Inferno.  The artist's job is that of the thinker, looking, observing and thinking about the human condition.  

Image by Anabelle Dureau

By Ann Ginsburg Hofkin

I found this on the Internet.  It made me gasp a bit, since it is an image that portrays various elements, some of which may be difficult to define and impossible to contain. That is how I view the concept of wisdom...attempting an understanding of this is an enormous and exciting challenge.

Several offered Ted talks which elaborate to a much greater degree on the piece they selected.  Anita Konikoff who chose Crochet Coral Reef (right) provided the Ted talk below on her selection.  More images are available on this site.

And Paula Pergament offered this stunning Ted Talk by Jason deCaires Taylor which gives new meaning to wisdom as an interaction with nature and time.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Visualizing Wisdom

December 22, 2015 by Susan Weinberg Our session actually began a few days ago with an assignment. We were asked to send in an image of someone's artwork that represented wisdom. Not so simple. First we had to think about how we visualized wisdom, then find an image that represented it. If you are a believer in "I'll know it when I see it" you likely spent some time scanning the universe of artwork in search of wisdom.

I began my search in the figurative and symbolist world looking at artwork by William Blake and Gustav Moreau. Interesting work, but nothing that said wisdom to me. Then I thought back to a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that I went on last week. The visit was prompted by one of their book based tours on the book Rez Life that took me to the Native American galleries.

Ah ha! I knew which piece I wanted to share but had a dilemma. I didn't remember the artist. Thus began my search through mediums until I quite by accident stumbled upon my selection, a piece by Ernest Whiteman based on petroglyphs and embodying the heart-line, a red neon line running from throat to heart, a plumb line of sorts. Whiteman talks of the heart-line as a life force that takes one on a path or journey and provides the balance between what we are given by nature and what we take from the earth. The traditions speak to harmony between man, animal and nature. "Clearly a wisdom based piece" I thought.
When we gathered this evening Lynda Monick-Isenberg and Jay Isenberg took us through a slide show of the images that had been submitted. They then broke the artwork into four groups, those that were more abstract, figurative, nature derived and other. We were asked to form groups according to our artwork. My selection was placed in the abstract group along with images of the Rothko chapel, Onement IV (blue rectangles) by Barnett Newman, Black Square by Malevich, Blue Nude by Matisse and tapestries on Exile and Yiddish Wisdom by Berit Engen.
We were asked to employ a process of critical response by identifying what we noticed, what it reminded us of, emotions it generated, questions it raised and the meaning or understanding that was conveyed by the work. For example for Matisse's Blue Nude we noted the ocean-like blue, a mood of contemplation and serenity and the negative space of the image. We were especially intrigued with Matisse's resilience in reinventing his approach in the face of physical limitations, certainly an element of wisdom. Rothko's work generated words such as radiance, reverence and enveloping and reminded us of eggs and shells. We were curious about the differences in creating work for a chapel rather than a museum.

Although all of the work we selected was composed of simplified forms, not all of it spoke to everyone in our group. The simplicity of the Malevich and the Barnett Newman eluded some of us in terms of meaning. Overall the gathering of work seemed to speak to both space and negative space.
We were then asked to move to another group of images, those of the natural world, and found that we struggled a bit. In our time discussing abstraction we all seemed to have turned into minimalists, finding the photographs less to our taste. The questions we asked included such queries as how do you convey grandeur without presenting it on a silver platter? How do you have wisdom without sounding trite? It is a delicate line to walk.

It occurred to me that perhaps our response was a function of the work we had originally selected and I wondered how those who selected the natural world images would respond to our more abstract choices.
When we considered the two groups our preference for minimalist and more abstract work was based on the idea that it allowed room for the viewer to enter. It was more subtle and asked the question, allowing room for contemplation and interpretation. Some of the natural world images illustrated the idea and were more familiar to us and hence we felt were less likely to engage the viewer to do some of the work. Our take-away was that we perceive wisdom in many different ways and perhaps have some innate preferences.

For the last portion of our session we were given a creative assignment, the forced connection. We were instructed to select our original image as well as one other that spoke to us. First we were to list the conceptual, emotional, intellectual, technical and design content of each work and then create new connections visually.
I was intrigued to discover that the work that I gravitated to outside of my own selection was that of James Turrell, a physical space at the University of Texas. Interestingly it echoed many of the themes of my original selection. Both made use of negative space through a cut out form and addressed concepts of duality, inside/outside, people/nature. Both presented a theme of balance and made use of circular forms as focal points. It was an exercise that made conscious some subconscious expressions.

We were then asked to create a visual representation that expressed new connections out of this process. Many chose to work with collage, often selecting Malevich's simple space to introduce another contrasting image. So often we struggle with how to express a somewhat abstract concept. This exercise not only identified imagery that we associate with wisdom, but allowed us to begin to recognize the themes that reside within our subconscious.
If you'd like to see the images we submitted please click here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Wisdom Stew

December 8, 2015  by Susan Weinberg

When I return from a lab, I often feel as if my task is to create a stew, so many different ingredients that somehow must blend into a whole.    My job is to cook them down into something that complements and blends into a savory mix, a wisdom stew.

Rabbi Davis began our discussion with a brief introduction to the Wisdom of Our Parents

Proverbs 1:8 My son, hear the instruction of your father, and forsake not the Torah of your mother.

What exactly does this mean? Rashi hazards a theory, understanding "the Torah of your mother" to mean the Nation of Israel and the sages' words who renewed and added to the Torah, creating fences.

Fences?  Our guest Jon Adams Ross offered a useful explanation of fences from acting parlance.  An instruction to act might cause one to freeze he noted whereas some acting prompts inspire action.  Fences allow freedom.  Boundaries define a playing field enabling us to act.

So are there different teachings from fathers than from mothers?   Some suggested fathers focused on the specifics, mothers applied it to the family.  Fathers addressed how to behave in the outside world, mothers understood the internal person and set the standards for how to interact with others.  Some saw it less as fathers and mothers, more as feminine and masculine energy.

Our attention shifted to our guest, Jon Adams Ross, also known as JAR.  Jon had joined us last spring as part of his work on a Covenant Foundation grant to create five new plays for five cities each inspired by a different patriarch or matriarch.  His way of working is through interaction with others.  Next week he will be doing a play on Abraham, later a play on Rebecca, then Jacob as part of the InHEIRitance project.  This is different than that book you may have inherited that stayed on your shelf, he noted.   His objective is to bring life to this inheritance.

"Let's talk about transmission," he said.  How does that happen in 2015?  How do we transmit wisdom without words?

He started us off with cave paintings.  Music was quickly added.  Food said another... kissing, crying, smiling, handshakes, dancing, eye contact, posture, image, all were added to our list.

He then moved us into an exercise with the assistance of David Sherman.  He whispered a brief instruction into David's ear and David walked briskly across the room.   What did he just do he asked?  This exercise was repeated with David looking over his shoulder and running, checking his watch, screaming and running away.  

Jon made the point that with transmission without words we can't control the story.  We as the actor or artist may have one idea, but it gets filtered through the experiences of the viewer.  They may see something else entirely.  He put this to the test with an exercise where we were to think of something we would want to pass on to the next generation. 

For me that something is family history as my Jewish family is rapidly diminishing.  As the family historian I hope to share that history with nieces and cousins who have some interest in our Jewish heritage.  Now we were asked to draw something that represents that.  I had already done a series of paintings on family history, one that included my grandmother blessing the candles, an image that was filtered through my mother's memory in its creation.  I quickly sketched this image.  We then traded our images to others who wrote what it said to them.  Keeping tradition, routine, consistency was the perception through someone else's eyes.  I chuckled. Totally foreign concepts in my family. I'd be happy with simple awareness.

As we went round the room to determine how each interpreted each other's drawings, a theme of connection was repeated again and again.

We are beginning our artist led sessions and the balance of the session was led first by Jonathan Gross and later by David Sherman. Jonathan’s focus was on the intuitive nature of wisdom, the origin of both hakima (wisdom) and yira (fear/awe).  He started us off with this quote from Albert Einstein.

Where the world ceases to be the scene of our personal hopes and wishes, where we face it as free beings admiring, asking, and observing, there we enter the realm of Art and Science. If what is seen and experienced is portrayed in the language of logic, we are engaged in science. If it is communicated through forms whose connections are not accessible to the conscious mind, but are recognized intuitively as meaningful, then we are engaged in art. Common to both is the loving devotion to that which transcends personal concerns and volition. 

Jonathan’s premise was that if wisdom is an adaptive characteristic it will persist.  His perspective was through evolutionary psychology and examined the complex mix of innate and learned behaviors that make up human behavior.  One aspect of the brain on which he focused was the temporal lobe that has the ability to infer intentionality.  Remember that viewer who may come up with a different scenario than was intended?  That’s the temporal lobe at work trying to decipher intention.  This is the part of our brain that comes up with both conspiracy theories and religious experiences.  And it is a touchy creature.  The cost of a false positive, detecting intention where none is meant is low, whereas the failure to detect intention could be much more serious.

One of the questions Jonathan posed was whether hakma (wisdom) was the effect of natural selection?  Judaism has survived through much of history without a common territory.  Has wisdom been essential to that survival?  If so, has it developed as a trait through natural selection? Did a tradition that valued wisdom, harbored within our religion, enhance the survival of those who employed it?  As an example of this wisdom, Jonathan referenced Solomon’s Wisdom, the recognition that ensuring survival of our offspring is a fundamental adaptive behavior.  (click here for a copy of his presentation on the Intuitive Nature of Wisdom).

David then spoke with us about Artistic Wisdom and posed three sentences for us to finish.

Artistic wisdom is….

My last moment of artistic inspiration was …

My last moment of artistic self-doubt was….

Just as the viewer who gets to impute their own perspective, the blog writer gets to do likewise.  So here were my responses….

Artistic wisdom is telling a story that reveals deeper truths and understanding.

My last moment of artistic inspiration was when I reached into my pocket on the way here and felt my mother’s glove.  Now I realize that takes a little more explanation.  As I was tackling the home of my late mother I ran across some fur lined leather gloves we had gotten in Italy years ago.  I took those gloves, molded to her hands and stuck them in my pockets. Now I discovered them once again and thought about how putting my hand in the glove was like holding her hand.  Which then took me into a mental riff on things and the presence they hold of another person. Perhaps that will show up in a blog or painting.

And my last moment of artistic self-doubt was yesterday as I re-read a writing project and debated if I could take it to the next stage.

So quite a savory stew of parents, fences and temporal lobes all blended richly into the wisdom encoded in our DNA and expressed creatively even in the face of doubt.

 Happy Hanukkah!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Wisdom Personified

November 24, 2015 by Susan Weinberg
Our session began with a task. Meryll asked us to try our hand at personifying wisdom either in words or image. I sat there stumped. My process is to circle around assignments until I find a way in. By the time I've found my entry, our time is usually up. Instead I decided to come at the assignment from a different direction. I began to describe my late mother, my model of wisdom, recounting the qualities that caused me to define her in this manner.

When we regrouped Meryll asked if our personification of wisdom had a gender. Many had in fact identified Wisdom as female, a natural lead-in to the Tanach which introduces us to Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 . We took a minute to read the passage and were asked to examine three aspects. What are the qualities of wisdom? Is there any theological issue that arises? Why a woman?

Wisdom is no shrinking violet. She stands at the gate of the city and shouts. She advocates for knowledge, uprightness, truth and offers words of fairness and clarity. Prudence is a companion to wisdom along with foresight. Resourcefulness, understanding and courage are counted among her attributes.

So why a woman? Hochma/Wisdom is in fact a feminine word in Hebrew. We noted verse 23 that talks of her in conjunction with the origin of the world, conjuring the idea of birth, echoed also in the word "fruit" in verse 19. Verse 30 intrigued us. Here Wisdom talks of her relationship with God. The word "Ahmon" can be translated in several ways, confidant, architect or a nurse who cares for a baby. Women were viewed as being on the border of civilization, on the edge, yet still within. Both exalted and vilified. One need only look to Proverb 7 and the Woman of Folly that it portrays, a bit of a hussy. Her counterpoint is presented as the Woman of Valour in Proverb 31.

We observed that many of the verses in Proverb 8 speak of wealth, perhaps metaphorically, but certainly this is not a wisdom that demands asceticism. Wisdom claims superiority over gold, silver and rubies and yet in verse 21 she speaks of filling the treasuries of those who love her. Her audience appreciated material goods which made this a meaningful metaphor. Wisdom knew her audience.
The origin of wisdom is ancient, the first of God's works of old (Proverbs 8:22). In Proverbs Wisdom claims existence prior to the earth, the heavens and the sea. Back to Genesis 1 where no mention is found. Yet another creation story has been introduced.

We sought insight by considering when this passage was written. Meryll reported that it dates back to the period after the destruction of the first Temple. This was a time of upheaval when structure collapsed along with the monarchy. Previously the priests and the Temple were the locus of sanctity, now that shifted to the family and the role of women took on more importance. It was not a coincidence that Wisdom was found at the crossroads and the gate to the city, for Wisdom is sought during times of change. Joel introduced a poem I Walked a Mile With Pleasure which considers how much more is learned from Sorrow than Pleasure. Wisdom comes out of transition and discomfort.

Having described Wisdom in words, we turned our attention to the visual
Sidduri Sabitu-Epic
imagery used to connote Wisdom. The Greeks had Athena, often associated with an owl. Mesopotamians had Sidduri Sabitu-Epic of Gilgamesh and the Egyptians had Maat whose form is reflected in the hieroglyphic for wisdom.

With that we shifted to our own visuals on wisdom. Lynda and Jay had asked us to bring magazines as source material and they now introduced us to a Visual Brainstorming exercise. We were offered a square template with which to frame images that we associated with wisdom. We then cut them out and pasted them into a square or oblong form composed of the squares we had selected. This was a very intuitive exercise and often quite visually pleasing. Some of us gravitated to certain colors, faces or line. I was surprised when one of my lab partners observed a theme of "holding" in my images, hands clasped around objects. Sometimes we are too close to our own creations to recognize the obvious.

And a postscript from Meryll on our discussion...
If you’re intrigued by the image of Lady Wisdom, there are two contemporary Biblical scholars who wrestle with the imagery.

• "Women and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs 1-9"
Carol A. Newsom in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel. Ed Peggy L. Day
• Women and the Feminine in the Book of Proverbs
Claudia V. Camp
It is also recommended that you look at Lady Wisdom’s antithesis—Dame Folly—who appears in Proverbs chapter 7. You’ll notice the contrasting images such as Lady Wisdom appearing in public at the gate of the City, at the crossroads versus Dame Folly who emerges in the dusk of the evening and lurks at corners. Newsom labels the two portraits a diptych.
Proverbs is traditionally attributed to King Solomon. He is said to have written Song of Songs in his youth, Proverbs in his middle years, and Koheleth(Ecclesiastes) in his later years. This tradition aligns with some of the comments made during the Lab about wisdom’s dynamic property.
If you scan a few chapters of Proverbs beginning with chapter 10, you’ll see the practical wisdom expressed in aphorisms that characterizes most of the book. Similar wisdom literature with practical advice existed in ancient Egypt (The Teaching of Amenemope, The Instruction of King Meri-ka-re) and in Babylonia (Counsels of Wisdom).

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Where Wisdom Begins

We began our session singing a round of "Let's Start at the Very Beginning" and indeed that is where we began.

Where does wisdom begin? we were asked. In the Jewish Bible there is no word for "religious". Instead we speak of "Yira haShem", fear/awe of Adonai. There is not a good translation of "yira" thus the slash between fear and awe, a subject for much discussion. Psalm 111:10 speaks of "yira" as the beginning of wisdom and the foundation for understanding. Mishle 1:7 speaks of "yira of Adonai" as the beginning of knowledge and further references those who scorn wisdom and discipline as fools.

The phrase first appears in the story of Abraham in Genesis 20:11 when he notes that there is no fear of God here and thus fears for his life. It also arises in Exodus 1:17 when the midwives fail to kill the male Hebrew newborns as ordered. In this context there is an awareness that certain behaviors are unconditionally wrong.

What does fear/awe mean? Some suggested humility. The wise person appreciates the fact that he doesn't know all. We are only wise if we start from that premise. Wisdom is about a relationship, something outside of ourselves. The self-centered person lacks wisdom. The wise person learns from others.

Fear is a heightened state of awareness, it opens us up. It is a beautiful fear, not the fear we so often speak of, but something different.

Some focused on word construction - awe and awful, an interesting juxtaposition. Is too much awe frightening? Perhaps more than we can comprehend? It was suggested that fear and awe have a yin/yang relationship. When we learn something we realize how much more there is beyond this small portion that we now grasp. Perhaps it is fear of the enormity.

Awe as a state of wonder was proffered. Knowledge is fostered by curiosity, wisdom is fostered by awe. When we fear we want to run from something, when we feel awe, we want to approach. As we concluded this discussion it was suggested that reverence is perhaps a better word to embrace both awe and fear.

With the ground set, we turned to others who have contemplated this question. (see handout-Beginning of Wisdom)

Abraham Joshua Heschel who wrote God in Search of Man notes that "the meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal."
The Pirki Avot 3:17 links wisdom and yira, neither can exist in the absence of the other and the Midrash Shmuel tells us that we have to use our wisdom for it to matter. Torah learning does not necessarily accompany wisdom.

One of the most interesting passages came from Menachem Meiri from the 13th century. While he speaks in support of the need for the commandments of the Torah, he also notes a natural inclination as necessary to perfect ethical behavior. Then he offers a sentence which seemed particularly modern - "For the commandments put a man in the right path only in a general way, they are unable to provide for subtle and new problems which constantly require the guidance of morality and ethics." It struck me as appropriate guidance for a judge.

We then turned our attention to Psalm 111 and Psalm 112. The first is public praise regarding God. The second addresses the experience of the man who has yire hashem. Within Psalm 111 we highlighted the phrase- "The works of the Lord are great, within reach of all who desire them." This phrase speaks to connection. It is offered and can be accepted if desired.

Our discussion then wandered into the growth of wisdom and how it can deepen with age, older and wiser we say and can only hope we gain the latter. Awe and fear grow as we face the enormity of the unknown. It was noted that death forces a focus, the "exquisitely beautiful frustration of being human" (Paula Pergament). The metaphor of the ocean was suggested, creating awe and also fear as we realize its power, both good and bad, as we stand at its edge.

We moved to our first participant-led section as Tuvia took us into the question of how wisdom relates to the arts. As an example of wisdom he told us the story of the noted Israeli poet Rachel Bluwstein and read her poem Meeting. Next to her grave is a metal box containing her poems that visitors can read. Tuvia shared a number of texts and images ranging from a Hassidic tale to the poem Desiderata. He noted that just because an artist may be accomplished in their particular discipline, doesn't make them a wise person, offering the example of Amiri Baraka, a poet laureate who made the outlandish claim that Israel knew about the World Trade Center bombing in advance. He left us with a question to consider - how we as artists can contribute to the wisdom and beauty in the world.

In our first meeting we had each brought something that we associated with wisdom and with our much enlarged group we still had several introductions to go. Jon shared a work by Simen Johan, a photographer whose work is a synthesis of sorts, not necessarily what it appears to be at first glance. Sandra recounted her journey from Mexico City to Florence to Minneapolis and shared an ornate mirror from her grandmother who left Russia. She noted that she sought her grandmother's presence when she looked into the mirror. A connection with ancestors seems to be an important theme in our search for wisdom.

David brought a Siddur and shared the first bracha which is a prayer for knowledge and intelligence, noting that was a basis for all subsequent prayer.

Aimee noted several connections to wisdom from an early recollection of observing a tree and sensing that its pattern could help to decode the universe. She also shared a photo of her daughter as an infant with Aimee's father near death, an inter-generational microcosm.

Rani tied it all together with a nautilus shell which reflects the Fibonacci Sequence which is found throughout nature. In the nautilus, the organism outgrows its chamber and walls it off and moves on, each step connected with what came before. Trees branch in a similar fashion.

I found myself thinking back to the quote from Heschel which talks of sensing in small things the beginning of infinite significance as well as one from Yosef ben Yehuda ibn Aknin from the 12th century. He writes "I have come to understand the wisdom that went into the forming of the limbs of my body and the power of my soul. Now then, if one can perceive the nature of God from a microcosm, how much more from a knowledge of all things created, the heavens and the earth and what is between them."

photo credit: Illuminated Nautilus via photopin (license)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

In Search of Hakhma

by Susan Weinberg 10/27/2015

"Echoes: Voices of Wisdom" is our theme this year, one that we haven't yet absorbed in its entirety, still struggling to recall it. We often resort to our short-hand version of "wisdom", yet "echoes" and "voices" frame it up and hint at where we find it.

In our last session we referenced the Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, which states, Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…(Talmud - Avot 4:1)

With that in mind we turned to text and the voices that use the term "wisdom", looking for context to determine its meaning. The Hebrew word for Wisdom is "Hakhma" (pronounced Hokma). I learned that quite recently during the retreat as I examined the stained glass windows in the former synagogue where we attended a concert. The creator of the "wisdom" window used the Torah to represent wisdom with the word below it. We too turned to Torah seeking the meaning of wisdom.

Meryll informed us that the wisdom books of the Tanach are the books of Job, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and Proverbs. I did a search for the word "wisdom" in the Hebrew Bible and found that these three books do indeed account for 50% of it.

We began our exploration identifying synonyms for wisdom. Some of us offered words, others sentences and concepts. Among them was the concept as discussed in the Indian culture of the ability to think and act where common sense prevails and choices are beneficial and productive. Another approach was in terms of a hierarchy of information with data at the bottom, then knowledge which is applied data, then wisdom which is the application of knowledge to achieve a desired result. These were very results oriented forms of wisdom, focused on action.

A more text focused definition was offered from the first bracha of the Amidah which says "You graciously bestow knowledge upon man and teach mortals understanding. Graciously bestow upon us from You, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Blessed are You Lord, who graciously bestows knowledge."

And then we offered a flood of words: truth, insight, perception, openness, knowledge, understanding, questioning, justice, judgment, integrative and action or doing.

With that grounding we began to examine passages from the Tanakh and Rabbinic literature. The first mention of wisdom in the Tanakh is in Genesis 41:33 where Pharaoh seeks a man of discernment and "hakhma", ultimately finding Joseph to make sense of his dreams and act as a problem solver and manager.

The next time hakhma is mentioned is in Exodus 31:1-6 where God speaks to Moses about a craftsman who he has endowed with a divine spirit of hakhma, ability and knowledge. We noted that wisdom was distinct from ability and knowledge as those qualities were noted separately and secondly that God was the giver of hakhma. Wisdom is associated with craftsmanship of precious metals, quite a change from the prior role of the Israelites as hard laborers, "shlepping" stone to build pyramids. In this post-slavery world the first people endowed with hakhma are artists. The same passage goes on to speak of hakmat lev, a wise heart, but in this context they are granted hakhma in order to follow commands, not an association we are prone to in today's world. As artists we may want to think in terms of hahkmat-yad, wisdom of the hands.

What do our sages say about wisdom? Rashi notes that hakhma is what a person learns from others. Associated words are T'vunah which is a wider understanding gained through intelligent application of what one learned, also known as ability. Finally there is Da'at, knowledge.

We were then asked to examine a passage in I Kings 2:9 where King David speaks to his son Solomon shortly before David's death. He is briefing him on who he needs to watch out for and to use his wisdom on how to deal with an objectionable person even as he urges him to deal with him rather aggressively. Finally we turned to the Haggadah's wise child who is referred to as wise due to his challenging and questioning tone.
The second half of our session was devoted to mind mapping applied to wisdom. With colored pencils and markers at our side we began free associating, capturing words associated with wisdom in a variety of formats. Many reflected the fluid and evolving nature of wisdom, egg shaped ovals, leaves and water. In our small group we determined that wisdom is relational and must be shared and touch others. We absorb it and also find it through carving, cutting away what is non-essential to shape it much as a sculptor. It is not just judgment, but must be tempered with feeling, kindness and giving in order to find our heart of wisdom.

Monday, October 26, 2015


Over sixty artists from five cities gathered in Milwaukee for the third Artists' Lab retreat. Music was central to this retreat with Joey Weisenberg leading the way, charming us with a joyful smile into participating in nigguns, drawing us closer until we clustered around him and song filled the room. Di, di, di, di we sang, our voices moving up and down with the melody. While the niggun, a wordless melody, is rooted in Hassidic tradition, Joey brings it to different arms of Judaism. Music proved to be the armature on which this retreat was built with our Shabbat services as well as other events enriched by Joey's melodic voice and welcoming manner.

So what else was this retreat? Certainly an expansion of our community. We had many opportunities to interact with our fellow artists, welcoming familiar faces and quickly forming connections with new ones. We started out by gathering close to the familiar people from our own lab, but we quickly broke out of our comfort zone in a session with Helene Fischman. Fischman did a series of exercises that married image and text as well as collaboration within our artist lab community. She moved us from words to image as we developed a visual response to each other's words. Finally we were asked to write of a moment when we felt pleasure in our creativity. We shared our narrative with another participant who was called upon to draw what we described. As I began to build a relationship with a new member from Kansas City I could feel the walls between our individual labs crumbling.

Our retreat was also an opportunity to interact with the city. We walked through the city to our lunch and then along the water to the Milwaukee Art Museum, located next to the water and very appropriately resembling a ship. When it is open the wings lift on either side. You need to wait for specific times to witness this unless you are Mick Jagger, who we were told got a special performance of the wings. While most of the museum was closed for renovation and the addition of a new wing, we were able to explore the Larry Sultan photography exhibition and have a behind the scene's tour of the work in progress.

It had a rather otherworldly feel to see artwork shrouded in wrappings, just hinting at what lay beneath, quite Christo-like with everything becoming a new kind of artwork seen through fresh eyes.While most of the artwork has to be protected from the light, the sculpture gallery is visually extended by the magnificent expanse of water just outside its windows.

After our tour of the museum we gathered for Havdalah, led again by Joey as Robyn held the havdalah candle aloft. As Joey invited us to gather close he told the story of a miracle in the temple where even though everyone was so close, when they bowed down they didn't bump into each other.
We concluded our day with yet more music, music of the Yiddish Theater. The performance was in the Zelaso Center which was once the synagogue for Emanu-El and still had the bones of its legacy with stained glass windows illustrating Jewish themes with a bit of an American twist. Freedom was illustrated by a bell. Wisdom, our theme for this year was of course illustrated by the Torah. As it was night, we had to look closely for the imagery.
Miryem-Khaye Siegel

The performance space was the perfect size, small enough to actually feel the music. It was an extraordinary event with three female vocalists who were each musically talented and had an excellent comedic sense which lent itself to many of the Yiddish songs. David Jordan Harris was kwelling a bit as the talented Miryem-Khaye Seigel had been his student.
Joanne Borts

We ended the day late at night and groaned a bit at the early start time for the following day. In an interesting juxtaposition we were taken to the new Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun campus, the same synagogue that was once housed where we heard the evening Klezmer performance. Our groans were quickly forgotten when we entered the space.

Breathtaking and spiritual best describe it. The first thing you notice is that there are no stained glass windows. Instead large vertical windows slice the walls surrounded by images created by Tobi Kahn. Through the windows trees draw your gaze upward. The overall effect is rather Zen-like.

It was a wonderful illustration of what can be accomplished when you incorporate the arts and represented the work of a number of those in the Milwaukee lab. Philip Katz of the Milwaukee lab designed the sanctuary and shared some of the elements with us. He actually grew up down the street from the old synagogue and his study of synagogue design led into his work with this project. He described the space as a blend of opposites, solid and void.

Nina Edelman did the richly colored Torah covers and the cover for the ark. Barbara Kohl-Spiro played an important role in making it happen.

The landscaping was also an important part of the facility as it functions in lieu of stained glass.

At the entrance to the building lies a sculpture by Richard Edelman. It is a shofar shaped of cubes. Before we left the facility we listened to Tekiah Gedolah blown on a traditional shofar magnified by the large sculpture.

Our sessions concluded at the JCC where we did some small group discussions, had an opportunity to see the lab show of the Milwaukee artists and to share our work with each other. Overall we gave the retreat an emphatic thumbs up and would encourage others to attend the next retreat. The takeaway was certainly a sense of greater connection with the entire lab of artists and a newfound appreciation for the city of Milwaukee.