White Fire: The Power of Jewish Learning through the Arts

By Jody Hirsh

[This is the third article in a series about the importance of Arts in Jewish Education, written by grantees of The Covenant Foundation.]

Traditional Jewish wisdom tells us “There are seventy faces to the Torah.” (Numbers Rabba and many other sources.) In fact, traditional Jewish study has long been comfortable with the idea that any Torah text – a story, a law, a verse, a word, and even a “mistake” or a misspelling can be interpreted in seventy entirely different and often contradictory ways. The wisdom of the Torah is endless and diverse.

When it comes to art, however, we tend to be less flexible.

“What does it mean?” people will ask, as they gaze upon a painting or sculpture, as though one single wise answer will unlock the work of art in question, and its single distilled meaning will become clear.

This notion of multiplicity of meaning is the core inspiration of the Jewish Artists’ Laboratory of the Midwest. The lab is a network of professional Jewish artists in six cities in the Midwest – Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Chicago, and Cleveland – now in its sixth year. In each city, a group meets twice monthly to study a theme related to Jewish life, and to create works of art for an annual exhibit/showcase based on their study. The artists include painters, printmakers, sculptors, fabric artists, musicians, poets, playwrights, choreographers, mixed media artists, photographers, and more.

The Laboratory offers us two tremendous opportunities in one: 1) It is a way to engage Jewish artists in learning that can strengthen their identities, and create a community of Jewish artists, and, 2) It is a way of bringing Jewish expression to the community at large through exhibits and ancillary programs and activities.

Our “texts” are traditional Jewish texts: Bible, Talmud, and Commentaries. But they are also works of art, modern poetry, music, theater, and video clips among other art forms. We apply the same rigor in discussing the works of art that we do to Torah study. Last year’s theme, for example, was “wisdom.” Our texts included Torah, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Pirkei Avot, and other traditional texts. But we also included the poetry and music of Leonard Cohen, the work of Ben Shahn, popular Israeli songs, and more. And in every case, whether the “text” is the Torah or a painting, we relate it to ourselves as Jews and as artists.

What’s more, we have created a community of Jewish artists in the Midwest. Midwestern artists often feel isolated – as Midwesterners removed from the artistic establishments of the coasts, and as Jews in a Midwestern world of secular artists. For our artists, this has been a profound experience in each individual community, as well as being part of a community of over 100 Jewish artists in the six Midwestern cities. We regularly hear from our participating artists that this experience has changed their lives.

The impact on the overall community, as well, has exceeded our expectations. Hundreds of people come to our openings, and hundreds more see it as a destination, or as they pass through the JCC. At the Milwaukee JCC, it’s particularly exciting to observe the reactions of children as walk past the exhibit in our hallway gallery. They all have a favorite work of art in the exhibit. And they all bring their parents to see the exhibit.

Art is often seen as decoration, or as entertainment in a superficial way. The impact and power of art, however, is much greater. Art – and Jewish art – has an immediate impact. It can be mediated with educational materials or discussions, but it can have an impact all on its own with no mediation. It can have an effect as someone passes through, glancing at the work of art, or as someone stands in front of the work of for an extended time. It can provoke thought. It can connect people to a world of Jewish thinking, history, tradition, and more. For the artists, the creation of art can comment on themselves as Jews, or on the world, or on thought, or on history, or on identity. Art can create a common experience that forms a bridge between the artist and the viewer, and among viewers. The Jewish Artist Laboratory is a way of reaching everyone, and helping them strengthen their identities, seek Jewish knowledge, and create community. In fact, Jewish culture and the arts is a powerful common denominator of all Jews.

Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish said, “The Torah given to Moses was black fire written on white fire.” (Jerusalem Talmud) The medieval mystics refined this notion even more. “So far,” they tell us, “we have only understood the truth and the meaning of the black fire – the actual words of the Torah. The real meaning is hidden in the white fire – the white space between the letters. We have not yet evolved to the point where we understand the white fire.” Perhaps Jewish art is, in fact, that white fire.

Jody Hirsh is the Judaic Education Director at the The Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the director of the Midwestern Jewish Artists’ Laboratory Network.