As someone who showed no interest at all in making pictures when I was growing up, it’s hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I’ve worked almost my entire adult life as a visual artist. Additionally, as an article by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardoza recently reminded me, Jewish tradition has always had a very uneasy relationship with sight and is much more confident with hearing (I guess I’m lucky that I’m also a life-long guitarist…..)
One of the great conflicts in Jewish history, the Chanukah story tells of our triumph over the Greek culture which temporarily ruled our land. On a much deeper level, Greece represents western philosophy and science which relies almost entirely on empirical principles. The scientific method validates only that which is empirically verifiable, in other words, only that which we can observe, i.e. see.
In itself, this approach is valuable and has brought much good into this world, both in terms of rational government and, of course, the technological/medical advancements which have greatly enhanced human life. On the other hand, it can, and arguably is right now in the process, run amock. Aflood with deadly weapons, ecologically potential catastrophes, it can also lead to unprecedented death and destruction.
It’s often said that science (or business or government, etc.) has no conscience, but when you think about it, that’s obvious. Empiricism is, by definition, superficial, albeit we have been able to examine the surface in ever-greater detail. It lacks a moral sense because it’s really a separate, independent, but not complete system. It’s unable to look “inside the heart” of anything. For that, we also need a way to engage with the intuitive/poetic/spiritual channel, which, of course, is equally valid and equally incomplete as the empirical.
תא שמע, Ta Shema, Come and listen, the Gemara tells us when it explains the heart of the discussion. Listening requires real engagement and processing to decode the information. Vision seems much more direct. And although vision was used to first get our attention, as we “saw the thunder and the sound of the shofar“, the Torah itself was given to us by voice. In fact, just before the Revelation, we’re warned not to even gaze upwards. We need to delve deeply into the meaning of what we are receiving and not be satisfied with a cursory, superficial overview. In fact, the third commandment prohibits us from creating a visual representation of God.
On the other hand, when the Zohar wants to make a point, it says תא חזי, Ta Chazi, come and see! As I learned many years ago from the late Rabbi Chaim Zimmerman zt”l, considered by many in traditional yeshiva circles as the talmid chacham, scholar, of the generation, the halachic, legal, aspect of the Torah can be seen as the bark of a tree, that which is visible and immediately interacts with the world. Kabbalah, the mystical tradition of which the Zohar is a major foundation, is like the inner core of the tree, invisible, but providing nutrients and animation to the entire tree. So, perhaps, the type of seeing that we should aspire to is looking beneath the surface, examining underlying structures and relationships.
Although I devote a lot of my Torah studies to what is generally considered Kabbalah, by no means would I claim the title of kabbalist. For many years (until I realized the pretension), I used to call my photography business Art is the Spiritual and my goal was to discover and explore and present these inner connections. That is still what I do when I work visually. It’s only now that I’m starting to understand better what I’ve been doing all these years.
It’s based on the firm belief (remember, Judaism defines belief as a work-in-progress, a challenge and a struggle) in what we call hashgacha pratit, divine individual oversight. One conclusion this leads to is the realization that each of us is, uniquely and individually, presented with exactly what we need at each and every moment in order to allow us to make the choice, bechira (free will), that will best further our journey towards תיקון עולם, tikkun olam, bringing the paired microcosm and macrocosm, עולם קטן, olam katan (small universe, i.e. each individual person) and אדם גדול, adam gadol (“great human”, i.e. the greater universe), closer to ultimate perfection. That means, along with other things, that everything we experience, and the way we experience it, is just the way it should be and that it contains valuable lessons for us. In other words, everything that the world presents to our eyes has the potential to teach us deep insights into the greater reality.
In those moments when I’m truly seeing, moments which I realize are a personal beracha, blessing, I seem to be in a hyper-aware state. Not only does everything in my vision appear to be in exactly the right place in terms of the separate elements, the background and the light, but the relationships between luminosity, textures and placements seem highlighted. If I have a camera with me, I, completely intuitively, am able to create the frame in just that balance point that brings everything together, that tells the story of what everything is and why it’s there. The ultimate effect is awe, יראה, yira, which is based, not coincidentally, on the root letter that mean to see.
True art, as opposed to wall decoration, is much more than merely making a pretty picture of a pretty scene. It really means to utilize what our eyes present us to, ultimately, to have a deeper relationship, and to enhance the viewer’s relationship with The Creator, with the universe, with the universal field in which all exists. In other words, rather than stopping at the surface, the very definition of superficial seeing, true seeing, תא חזי seeing, leads us to deep understanding and relationship.