The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Matter and Spirit in Works of Jewish and Israeli Art

In my proposed lecture, I will review works by Jewish American and Israeli artists that incorporate Hebrew letters. I intend to explore these works of art in depth in an attempt to determine whether the Hebrew letters integrated within them are simply meant to be decorative or are designed to convey a metaphysical type of communication between words and image – matter and spirit.Why would an American Jewish artist include Hebrew letters in a painting done in the United States, where most people cannot read or understand Hebrew? Why would a modern artist devote great effort to assume the work of a sofer (a scribe, like those in the Middle Ages whose writing in Hebrew in illuminated manuscripts was thought to be holy and magical)?Why would an Israeli artist who was raised as a secular Jew regard Hebrew letters as having mystical and magical significance and why would such an artist allude to the Talmudic midrash about Bezalel, who was chosen by God to build the Tabernacle because of his unique knowledge of the artistic powers of the Hebrew aleph bet. Why would an Israeli artist educated in the Israeli religious school system, who was familiar with Talmudic and Midrashic sources but chose to live a secular life, have used Hebrew letters and texts to create powerful images that expressed his rebellious feelings and episodic negativity.My lecture will revolve around a discussion of the approach toward Hebrew letters that can be found in modern paintings, bearing in mind the thoughts expressed by one of the foremost mystical writer of our times, Rabbi Ha-Cohen Kook, in his 1917 book Rosh Milin (The Head of Words): “The Hebrew letters are in effect pictorial images that allude to mystical ideas that have not yet been drawn. They are preceded by notions that surround us and open new vistas that lead to spiritual experiences,” which engender the creation of works of art that bridge concepts of matter and spirit.