By Rabbi Adina Allen
Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
This week, in Parashat Yitro, at the foot of a shaking, quaking, smoking Mount Sinai, the Israelites receive the word of God and are given the Ten Commandments—the foundational ethical and religious code for how to live as a people in service to God. The first two commandments are set up to enforce monotheism as the religious system, declaring that God is the only god. Then, before the prohibition against coveting or adultery or even murder, the Israelites are instructed, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).
What was the role of this prohibition for the Israelites then, and what, if any, role might there be for image-making in our religious and spiritual lives today?
The question of the role of image-making is a particularly potent one for me given my life and work as co-founder and Creative Director of an organization that offers art-making as a Jewish practice for spiritual connection and social transformation. Behind me as I sit at my desk and write this is a wall covered with pieces of artwork I have made over the past three years. Swirls of color, energetic lines, abstract shapes mixed together with more recognizable forms that exist on earth and beneath the seas—eyes, a key, a human hand, a beating heart, a bucket dipping down into a deep well. As of this moment, there are more than forty pieces hanging up, each made in a virtual communal art-making session. These pieces were created using the Jewish Studio Process, the core methodology of our work, which brings together beit midrash textual inquiry with art-making as a way to process, deepen and expand the learning. Foundational to this practice is the belief that anyone and everyone can do it—one need not be an artist or scholar to draw forth meaning and draw down images; to make meaning of the mystery for others and for ourselves.
Engaging in art-making after studying text gives the words we have explored and the questions we’ve raised time and space and a place to land — on the page and inside of us. As Carl Jung said, “Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” As we create, still percolating on the material we studied, connections that we weren’t previously aware of, resonances between the text and our lives, start to surface. Sometimes this happens simply from the meditative practice of keeping our hands busy so that our minds can continue to meander through the learning. Other times this happens through what emerges in our art — without having intended to, a particular image becomes recognizable on the page, or the way certain colors blend together or various shapes look may evoke a reaction or insight that connects back to the text, offering us a new layer of meaning. Through the process of allowing color and line to arrange themselves on the canvas, the words from the text rearrange themselves within us. In this practice, image-making opens each of as a site for the ongoing revelation of the meaning, magic and multiplicity of the Divine word.
At Sinai, having escaped the narrow confines of Mitzrayim yet having not yet made it to the Promised Land, the Israelites are in a state of formation. The decades of desert wandering are the time in which they are discovering who they are as a people and what their collective political and religious life will look like. It is here that the call to monotheism comes and the prohibition against image-making comes. Rather than subsets of the community worshiping discrete deities in our own homes or at our own altars, God instructs the Israelites to come together as a people through centralized worship. One way we might understand this insistence towards monotheism is that the Divine is helping the Israelites move away from seeing gods as individual things—rock, tree, statue—in order to experience God as everything.
Midrash teaches that at Sinai “God spoke like a picture visible from all angles, everyone looked at it and it gazed back at each of them.” Here, image and word are brought together. The experience of God’s speech is “like a picture;” the words of revelation come through this picture of God. God is one, yet the image of God is refracted through the hands, hearts and minds of the many—through each of us. The only way to see the picture in its entirety is for each of us to share the part of the image that we are able to view. Rather than taking us away from connection to the Divine, each image opens up ever-more facets of the mystery of God.
While in biblical times keeping God abstract and out of reach may have served to protect the nascent idea of one God as it was coming into being, at the time in which we are living right now, we are in need of ever-more ways to connect to, experience and sanctify the innumerable expressions of God in this world. When I look at the artwork on my wall, I am transported back into the text I was studying at the time. Like photos from a trip, images are a reminder of and a portal to a particular moment and to the insight and feeling that we had when creating it. The contours of the image are like a topographical map of the terrain we’ve traveled.
As a spiritual practice for today, image-making connects us to something bigger and beyond the self—to the community of fellow travelers we were with when we created it, and to God, who permeates both the inherited words of text and the way those words moved through us on that particular day. The process of creating images through art-making is a powerful way of taking the Divine oneness that monotheism gifted us and opening ourselves as channels for the multitudinous ways that this singular Force shines uniquely through each of us and into the world. May it be so.
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Rabbi Adina Allen, co-founder and Creative Director of Jewish Studio Project, is a writer, educator and facilitator who focuses on the place where spirituality, creativity and the natural world meet. Adina’s work is grounded in and in service to the ongoing creative vitality of Jewish texts and tradition and the belief that creativity is an essential resource in the work of catalyzing collective liberation and social change. Adina’s work is widely published and she is a recipient of the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize for Jewish Educators. She was ordained by Hebrew College in 2014 where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow.