Rembrandt, Moses smashing
the Tablets of the Law, 1659
Nurit Karlin, Untitled
Ben Shahn, Alphabet of Creation
Perhaps most familiar to the viewer are realistic tablets with readable letters as in Rembrandt`s famous 17th century oil painting, where the anguished Moses is about to smash the tablets. He is, in effect, breaking the covenant with God, tearing up the contract between God and Israel, because of the infidelity of the people around the Golden Calf. Has Rembrandt chosen to expose the second tablet, revealing his own entangled domestic situation?
The other two artists in this trio are moving us away from such familiar figural art. Nurit`s cartoon challenges us to decipher seemingly familiar iconography, of the tablets and the writing. But, just as in some dreams, we can`t quite make out what it says. She is expressing the uncertainty of the Divine message.
In the third figure, Ben Shahn has eliminated the tablets entirely but not the letters. Influenced by the Sefer Hayetsirah, where the Torah is described as black fire on white fire, he views the alphabet as the tool for Creation whose purpose is Matan Torah. His “Alphabet of Creation” is the scribe setting down letters of the Torah in black ink on white parchment. The amorphous whiteness of an empty page now takes shape around the black letters. Something of God`s unknowable whiteness is revealed by setting down the figure against the ground – so the Torah, you may say, is black fire against white fire. The viewer can see the figures of the Hebrew alphabet in black – alternatively, the viewer can focus on the white around the letters, the background to grasp something of the infinity of God.
To complete the movement from concrete to abstract, we have two final works.
Michael Sgan Cohen, Ye Ho Va Ha, 1980
Mark Podwal`s Aleph grows out of the mystical tradition that we didn`t hear all 10 commandments or even 2; we heard only the first letter (aleph) of the first word (anokhi, I) of the first commandment. (I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt…)
How can we hear an aleph? Make your throat as if you`re going to pronounce a vowel – there`s a closing of the glottis, in preparation for an opening to say the word – that closing, on the verge of opening, is the silent aleph – the potential of everything, but the actuality of nothing.
The intent of this tradition is to stress the utter mystery of the revelation How fitting therefore that the aleph also refers to first three words (names of God) of the first commandment (אnokhi אdonai אlohechem).
Another contemporary artist, Michael Sgan-Cohen, also conveys the ineffable silence of Matan Torah (contrast the bedlam of Shalom of Safed) by painting four mouths pursed to form the four letters of the unpronounceable name of God – here the very letters of that name are seen as the essence of the revelation
In the Birds head Hagaddah, the two tablets, literally given to Moses by the outstretched hand of God, quickly become five—namely the five books of the Torah. Thus we have returned from the mystical plane to the rational earthy concerns of halakha (Jewish law).
This seamless movement from two to five is telling us that for the Jews of medieval Ashkenaz, the 10 commandments are the abbreviated essence of the Torah, the guidelines, which become the books of the Torah.
Birds head Haggadah, Matan Torah, ca. 1300
But the five books are not the end. In this contemporary drawing by Mark Podwal, the letters move through the Torah and beyond: the never-ending road of commentary. Take note that the road is vertical, symbolic of the connection between humanity and God.
Mark Podwal, Dalet – Derasha, 1978
And finally, a unique, psychological insight is provided by this illustration from an 13th century illuminated manuscript of Maimonides` Mishneh Torah.
Kaufmann Mishneh Torah, Moses at Sinai, 1296
The children of Israel, captive under the glass-like Mt. Sinai, see God through a window which is also a mirror (aspeklaria). Israel sees that God is not only transcendent, but also imminent. Israel grasps that God is also within each of them, (read us) as they accept the Torah from the hands of Moses.
We have selected a lively variety of Torah-giving surprises and questions to talk about for many Shavuot all-nighters. Think about the following questions and others that can serve as the basis for further discussion:
1) How do art and language enable us to communicate with God?
2) What is the relationship between art and the word?
3) How do mystical and rational modes of thought work together?
4) Which of the images comes closest to expressing the ineffable? Explain your choice.
5) How do you personally relate to revelation? Write a poem or create a collage.
6) The giving of Torah is marked by a specific date. Why is there no date in the calendar for receiving the Torah?
7) Comment on Martin Buber`s statement that the real miracle of Sinai was synchronicity – nature and the spirit of the people were in synch.