JEWISH SPIRITUAL ART
Abigail’s art works can be viewed in the galleries of her works on the page of this website titled “ABIGAIL’S ART”, where they are divided into various categories and some, but not all, of them have been provided with brief written explanatory comments.
For those who wish to engage with the symbolism and underlying meanings of Abigail’s works at a deeper level, the present “JEWISH SPIRITUAL ART” page contains text that introduces viewers to the subject of Jewish spirituality that informs much of her work; and the next page, the “KABBALAH ART” page, provides a more detailed and specific explanation of the highly esoteric mystical concept of Kabbalah that is the focus of much of Abigail’s art.
INTRODUCTION TO ABIGAIL’S JEWISH SPIRITUAL ART
Abigail’s art is profoundly influenced by the Jewish tradition in which she was raised. While her art is intended to provide a strong and enduring spiritual message, Abigail’s interfaith studies have led her to realise that many of the underlying principles of Judaism resonate at various levels with those of other religions, and she embraces this commonality.
The two basic premises of mysticism are a belief in the inter-relatedness of all nature and existence; and a belief that humans have immortal souls that allow them to think, imagine and dream at a visionary level beyond the ordinary and mundane. Mystical speculation departing from these basic premises enables one to see beyond differences in the beliefs, dogmas, practices and conceptual languages of the various different religious traditions, and to rather concentrate on the commonality that can be found in many of their underlying beliefs. This, in turn, leads to an approach that the different religious traditions are alternative pathways or avenues on the road to a common higher spiritual reality; and that one should strive to learn from and seek points of reflective agreement with other faiths; and thereby raise questions and matters for contemplation and reflection that will conduce towards perfecting one’s own faith.
In this vein, and while her works have a strong Jewish flavour, many of her symbols of religious feeling and experience are executed in a way that has universal appeal; that is outside of any particular spiritual tradition and does not proselitise or portray religious dogma. Her works can therefore be appreciated on two levels. Firstly, as works of spiritual art at the purely visual level, which is accessible to all viewers who can ascribe their own meanings and interpretations to them. Secondly, at a deeper philosophical or academic level, they explore esoteric aspects of Judaism that are generally only within the knowledge of a specifically Jewish audience or an audience sensitised to commonalities existing between Judaism and other religions.
The subjects of Abigail’s works include many and diverse aspects from within the Jewish tradition: scenes from the Bible; the legends; the land of Israel; the festivals; and, the concepts of ‘joy’ and ‘suffering’ (as can be seen from her Holocaust series of works). A particular focus of her work is Kabbalah, the mystical tradition within Judaism; and this is specifically discussed on the separate “KABBALAH ART” page of this website which explains that Kabbalah – the mystical aspect of Judaism – and art are both universal languages of the human soul. Abigail’s Kabbalistic illustrations are inspired by the verses of the principal text of Kabbalah, the Zohar, which is true to Judaic orthodoxy. Its constant topics include longing for the eternal; reuniting with G-d; enlightenment through love; and the merging of oneself with the universal spirit of the world.
The text below explains certain fundamental principles pertinent to Jewish spiritual art, which Abigail subscribes to and which are incorporated in her art.
THE SECOND COMMANDMENT PROHIBITION AGAINST THE CREATION OF GRAVEN IMAGES
The Second Commandment prohibition against the making of graven images is the starting point for any discussion of Jewish spiritual art, and gave rise to a dilemma for Jewish artists as to whether it is possible for Jewish art to be reconciled with the Second Commandment? If the prohibition was literally interpreted, would this mean that Judaism should only be an auditory religion without a visual tradition?
History shows that the answer to these questions is that the prohibition on the creation of graven images only had a limiting effect on Jewish artistic subject matter and that, despite it, a rich artistic tradition developed within Judaism from Biblical times. This is evidenced by the varied methods and forms of art that were used by Jewish artists to adorn synagogues over the centuries, and to decorate and embellish religious articles such as Bibles, machzorim, siddurim, haggadot, megillot illuminated manuscripts and the like.
While the prohibition has always been universally interpreted to prohibit the making of any iconic representation of G-d, it is a matter of individual interpretation as to exactly how it should be applied in practice. In addition, over time the prohibition was enforced with differing degrees of intensity by the various governing kings and leaders for, as with all rules regulating matters of creative expression, it seems to have been used or abused by leaders according to how it affected their particular needs and objectives. It is apparent, however, that the only art that was really forbidden was art that could and would be used for idol-worship; all other art was welcomed and encouraged, and came to be regarded as the doing of a mitzvah (a good deed that conduces to harmony in the cosmos).
THE IMAGINATIVE FACULTY AND MYSTICAL VISIONS
Another dilemma created by the Second Commandment prohibition was whether the Jewish mystics could record their depictions of G-d without transgressing the prohibition? The paradox they grappled with was to find a permissible way of doing that which no one can and should do, namely to see the invisible G-d. Compliance with the prohibition became the driving force for these mystics, who determined that no iconic representation could be made of G-d and that the only acceptable way of visualising Him was through the imagination. Although Jewish philosophers and scholars have differed as to precisely how the imaginative faculty operates, there is general consensus that the visualisation of G-d within the imagination evades any sense of idolatry.
The Jewish mystics were therefore forced to envision G-d in their imagination, and this process inspired them to experience intense personal visual revelations of G-d that were hidden from ordinary human experience. The distinguishing feature of these visions is that they were not experienced through any of the five senses, but rather through the imagination, which is the medium through which spiritual entities become visible by mystical contemplation. The imagination causes the absent to become present and enables the mystic to encounter the physical in terms of the spiritual. Abigail employs this same mystical imaginative process when creating her works of art.
The Second Commandment prohibition caused Jewish mystics to obsess about the imaginative visualisation not only of that which they were not allowed to see, but also of that which they were not able to see with the physical eye. As a result, the concept of utilising the imagination to visualise G-d, which was initially employed in relation to the prohibition, came to play a formative role in the development of an entire new Jewish mystical tradition within Judaism, together with an accompanying body of now ancient mystical literature that abounds with descriptions of the various ways in which G-d appeared to the mystics in their imaginative mystical visions. Although Plato and Aristotle did not accord imagination its rightful place of importance in the human make-up, they at least theorised about it and left a framework for later philosophers, including Medieval Jewish philosophers, to enlarge upon.
The physical shapes of G-d described by the mystics in the mystical literature are considered to be only representative, and therefore not as constituting idolatry. They include many instances of G-d becoming visible in material form at the moment of prophecy, with the commonest vision of G-d being as an Anthropos – a form resembling a human or the first human. Envisioning G-d in anthropomorphic form began with Biblical Ezekiel and subsequently recurred in a variety of different visions right through to more recent Hasidic literature.
The phenomenon of mystical visions obviously differs from religion to religion and from person to person. As with other mystics, Jewish mystics relied upon the texts of their own religion in order to have visual experiences, and they were strict supporters of halachah (the Jewish Law). Their mystical writings therefore treat the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) and the other affirmed texts of Judaism as the absolute authority, and these remain at the core of all Jewish mystical writing. Having said this, the mystics did push the boundaries of orthodox Judaism to its limits and advanced many novel, radical and revolutionary ideas in pursuit of their mystic path. However, the body of Jewish mystical texts that developed over time and which came to be accepted within the wider religion always remained strictly consistent with orthodox scriptures.
What the mystics did was to present the content of the founding texts of the religion in a new and more personalised guise that provided a different way of understanding existing doctrine. Adherence to the affirmed texts of the religion and to halachah, coupled with his learning, enabled the mystic to attain closeness to G-d by experiencing a vision of the kavod (glory) of G-d.
Judaism was originally conceived of solely as an auditory religion, which is apparent from the Biblical phrase “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with G-d, and the Word was G-d”. However, Philo of Alexandria (who died in 50 AD) disturbed this understanding by explaining that the auditory and visual senses actually combined in a synesthetic method at the time when Moses received the Torah from G-d on Mount Sinai. This explanation provided mystics with an awareness that the word and the image of light emerged from above at the same time with equal importance; and a consequent belief that visual images were part of G-d’s creative process. In this way, the symbolic use of bright light to represent the presence of G-d became a feature of mystical visions in Biblical and mystical literature, and through which humans became able to mystically experience G-d.
This mystical understanding of the role of light in the creative process is reflected in the cosmic system of the Kabbalah that came to the fore in the 13th century, which postulates that at the time of the creation G-d emanated 10 bright lights from Himself, called the 10 sefirot, through which He manifested Himself in the physical and metaphysical universes. This symbolism of G-d as light is reflected in the name of the principal text of the Kabbalah, namely the Zohar, which means brightness or bright light. The feminine aspect of the single male indivisible G-d of Judaism that came to the fore in Kabbalah, named the Shekhinah, is regarded as G-d’s representative in the lower world. She is associated with the 10th sefirah and is symbolised as a bright light similar to that of the angels and of the Anthropos, whose light was described by Saadia Gaon, one of the greatest medieval Jewish philosophers, as “also the light of the Shekhinah”.
The divine lights of the sefirot are therefore the essential aspect through which G-d is able to enter the lower world. Despite the fact that each sefirah appears as a single flame of light, with its own individualistic characteristics and colours, the sefirot represent G-d as one single light. As G-d’s light is too bright for us to gaze upon in its true brilliance, the sefirot were dimmed for our benefit and, as such, are regarded as concealing the kavod (glory) of G-d. This configuration was a further Kabbalistic paradox for the mystics as, on the one hand, they regarded the sefirot as preventing them from seeing the divine; yet on the other hand, they realised that the sefirot enabled them to imaginatively envision the divine.