29 July 2015

From Selfies to Spirituality

Conceptual artist Mel Alexenberg offers the digital generation a way to find life's meaning by creating ‘spiritual blogs.’

By Rachel Neiman, Israel 21c,

Mel Alexenberg  is an artist, educator, writer and blogger working at the interface between art, science, technology and culture whose artworks are in the collections of more than 40 museums worldwide.

Alexenberg’s most recent project is a book and accompanying online project entitled Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life.

The book explores the interface between biblical narrative, kabbalah and digital technologies. It demonstrates how to create a blog by photographing God’s “divine light” … “as revealed in everyday life while crafting a dialogue between the bloggers story and the biblical story.”

For example, Alexenberg asked his students at Ariel University to photograph everyday examples of the seven divine kabbalistic attributes. Among the results:

Hesed (compassion/largesse/loving all): “… an elderly man responding to feral cats hungry for love and food. He pets each one and portions out food for them.”

Tiferet (beauty/aesthetic balance/inner elegance): “the birth of a calf, an awesome event expressing deeply felt beauty of seeing new life coming into the world.”

Hod (splendor/gracefulness/magnificence): “… the glorious feeling of young lovers kissing. She photographed their shadow as the hed (echo) of the event.”

Alexenberg’s own spiritual blog was created together with his artist wife, Miriam, to celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary. During each of the 52 weeks of their 52nd year, they posted six photographs that reflected their life together along with a Twitter “tweet” that related the weekly Torah reading to their shared five-plus decades:

“God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good. It was evening and morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:31)”

“On the first day of our honeymoon, we bought a cactus plant. On the 42nd year of our honeymoon, our daughter bought us this cactus.”

“He [Jacob] had a vision in a dream. A ladder was standing on the ground and its top reached up toward heaven; and behold! Divine angels were ascending and descending on it. (Genesis 28:12)”

“We enjoyed sitting together in the Metropolitan Museum of Art print room holding Rembrandt’s drawings and etchings of angels in our hands … Mel painted on subway posters and screen printed digitized Rembrandt angels and spiritual messages from underground. “

“Six days shall you accomplish your activities and on the seventh day you shall desist. (Exodus 23:12) The seventh day is Sabbath … you shall not do any creative work. (Exodus 20:10)”

“We can enjoy the technological wonders of our era knowing that we are free to tune out, turn off, and unplug on the next Shabbat.”

To learn more about how to create your own spiritual blog, click on the book cover on the side bar to reach the blog Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life

To learn more about Mel Alexenberg’s extensive body of work, see http://melalexenberg.com

Chaim Meiersdorf - Yeshiva University
Mel Alexenberg is simply a genius. I had the pleasure of watching him in action when I worked for him as Rabbi of the Yerucham Art College in the early 1980's. He had a special knack for synthesizing profound Jewish ideas with the plastic arts. The arts enhanced the Jewish message and visa versa. It is wonderful to see that Mel is keeping up the creative work, full speed ahead.

12 July 2015

Joy, Warmth and Good Humor

“I can feel your joy, warmth and good humor in your images. Your approach, while fundamentally spiritual and fired by a kindred spark as my own passion for seeing, is a mirror of a different sort of our mutual exploration of our humanity.” - Julie DuBose, author of Effortless Beauty: Photography as an Expression of Eye, Mind and Heart, Director, Miksang Institute for Contemplative Photography, Colorado

08 July 2015

The Old Will Be Renewed, and the New Will Be Sanctified

“Mel Alexenberg transforms what sounds like blasphemy - "capturing" God in photographs and restricting Him to two-dimensional images - into a mystical exercise as we open our eyes to the Divinity found in our everyday lives. The book's wonderful synthesis between spirituality and technology, heaven and earth, is exciting and thought-provoking.  Photograph God is a practical demonstration of Solomon's wisdom: "Acknowledge God in all your paths."  Alexenberg's affirmation of the spiritual potential of the Internet, blogging, photography, new technologies and social media, brings to mind the dictum of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel: "The old will be renewed, and the new will be sanctified." - Rabbi Chanan Morrison, author of Gold from the Land of Israel  

01 March 2015

Reads Like a Swift and Soulful Breeze

Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life is the most recent, and arguably one of art’s most complete and compelling integrations of the sacred and profane.  Mel Alexenberg shows the way to the divine via digital imagery and heightened perception of its presence in the moving face of every person, place, and thing. The book is packed with wisdom and learning about Talmudic tradition, creative expression, and cyberangels. It reads like a swift and soulful breeze. I love every “byte” of it." - Dr. Shaun McNiff, author of Earth Angels: Engaging the Sacred in Everyday Things and Imagination in Action: Secrets for Unleashing Creative Expression, the first University Professor of Lesley University, Cambridge

27 February 2015

Thinks Brilliantly Outside the Box

“For those of us familiar with the diverse and exhilarating work of Mel Alexenberg as an artist, educator and profound thinker, this latest book offers precisely the four things we would expect. The narrative thinks brilliantly outside the box. It synthesizes the realm of the abstruse and transcendent with the realm of the concrete and immanent. It crisscrosses disciplines, from science and technology to philosophy and mysticism to art as both historical and creative phenomena. Finally, the entirety is managed in a style both accessible and inviting. 
Those with prior knowledge of any or all of the disciplines from which Alexenberg draws will smile again and again in affirmation, and those entering without prior knowledge will be thrilled to understand things that they thought might be beyond them. This is one of those books that other thinkers will wish they had somehow thought about how to write, and to which readers of diverse sorts will simply respond by saying: wow!" - Dr. Ori Z. Soltes, author of Tradition and Transformation: Definition and the Historical Challenge of "Jewish" Art, Professorial Lecturer, Georgetown University, former Director, National Jewish Museum, Washington, DC

26 February 2015

A Scintillating Experiment in Creativity

“Mel Alexenberg offers a scintillating experiment in creativity.  His work is an invitation to deepen your spiritual sensibilities as you extend your imagination.  An interesting and relevant approach to spiritual practice and creative expression.” - Jan Phillips, author of God Is at Eye Level: Photography as a Healing Art and Finding the On-Ramp to Your Spiritual Path: A Roadmap to Joy and Rejuvenation

25 February 2015

Amazing Perspective on iPhone Culture

"Photograph God is so inspiring on many levels.  I really enjoyed it because it gives us an amazing perspective on our own existence, especially in the age of the interconnected iPhone culture. - Prof. Michael Bielicky, Head of Department of Digital Media/Postdigital Narratives, University of Art and Design/ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe

24 February 2015

Kabbalah and Contemporary Culture

Photograph God strikes a balance between Kabbalah and contemporary culture. It is replete with imagery from both universes.  It is literate, wise, and easily accessible.  Alexenberg offers us an elegant and devout example of an evolved Jewish Weltanschauung.  Make no mistake; this is a serious contribution to contemporary neo-kabbalah.” - Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of Kabbalah: A Love Story and God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning, Scholar-in-Residence at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco

23 February 2015

Digital Culture and Jewish Wisdom

“In his sophisticated and highly literate book, Prof. Alexenberg weaves in a playful way the threads between contemporary digital culture and traditional Jewish wisdom. In an original way, he invites us to connect the networked world of Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, WhatsApp and Blogspot, with the concept of the unseen God.  Using the metaphor of the camera, he provides interesting and surprising intersections between new-media culture and theological issues.” - Dr. Yael Eylat Van-Essen, author of Digital Culture: Virtuality, Society and Information, teaches new media at Tel Aviv University and Holon Institute of Technology, Israel

22 February 2015

Mystical Computer Program for Spiritual Seeing

“Whether we see this book as a book of art – a mystical computer program for spiritual seeing – or a book about art – to actually see it, we must consult the beautiful blog at http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com   Mel Alexenberg is a wonderfully accomplished worker on a great project: to make art a conduit for the Divine.  In this book he nourishes us with a generous sampling, and leaves us hungry for a full conspectus, of his work, thought and life.” - Rabbi Dr. Shimon Cowen, Director, Institute for Judaism and Civilization, Victoria, Australia

21 February 2015

Parallels in Christian Thought

"There are many parallels in Christian thought and deed that should allow this excellent book to resonate with many people of faith. When I picked up Prof. Alexenberg's book, I happened to be reading a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer by an anonymous 14th century Christian mystic whose words find a parallel in Alexenberg's exhortation to seek the Divine out in the world in all that you see and photograph, and with love.  He has succeeded in creating a program for photographers, on a daily basis, to explicitly weave their faith into their art and ultimately, back into their worldview with a fresh perspective."  - Bob Weil, co-author of The Art of iPhone Photography: Creating Great Photos and Art on Your iPhone

20 February 2015

Sacred Dimensions of Our Lives

“Alexenberg proposes that text and image—something as simple as photos taken with a smart phone, and multiplied in their resonance by the internet—can be used as a consciousness raising tool, at once personal and collective. With such simple means, we can attune ourselves to the sacred dimensions of our lives from moment to moment. In fresh, clear language, he brings his detailed knowledge of Torah texts and what he calls "the down-to-earth mysticism of the kabbalah" to bear on daily life, showing how the annual round of sacred readings from that spiraling scroll provides prompts for deepening our personal and artistic practice.” - Peter Samis, Associate Curator, Interpretation, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

25 February 2013

Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life

Mel Alexenberg's book Photograph God shows how the networked world provides unprecedented creative opportunities for integrating experiences of the spiritual in the mundane with biblical commentary and kabbalistic insights through digital photographs, a narrative blog form, and the Internet’s social media.
Abraham rushed to the tent to Sarah and said, “Hurry!  Take three measures of the finest flour!  Kneed it and make rolls!”  Abraham ran to the cattle to choose a tender and choice calf.  (Genesis 18:6,7)

Abraham ran after a calf that ran away from him into a cave that was the burial place of Adam and Eve. 
At the far end of the cave, he saw intense light emanating from an opening.
When he came close to the opening, he found himself standing at the entrance to the Garden of Eden. 
About to enter the pristine garden, he remembered that his wife and three guests were waiting for lunch back at the tent.
What should he do?  Should he trade Paradise for a barbeque?
The Bible tells us that he chose to return to the tent and join his wife in making a meal for their three guests.
Abraham realized that Paradise is what we create with our spouse at home. 
Other visions of Paradise are either mirages or lies.

Enjoy life with the wife you love through all the days of your life. (Ecclesiastes 9:9)
My wife, Miriam, and I worked together to create paradise in our vegetarian kitchen.
Adam and Eve had a vegetarian kitchen.
Spirituality emerged from our collaboration making a potato casserole for our guests.
We bought potatoes and scallions in Avi’s vegetable store and cottage cheese and grated yellow cheese in Bella’s grocery.    
We baked the potatoes in the microwave, sliced them into the baking pan and covered them with the cheeses. 
Miriam washed the scallions, cut them up, and sprinkled them over layers of cheese-covered potatoes.
After the casserole was baked, we served it to our guests. 

Photograph God in Your Kitchen 

This biblical narrative linked to revealing God in a contemporary kitchen is a posting from the “Torah Tweets” blog http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com that presents the core concept of this book that we can photograph God in all that happens in our everyday life.    Although its ideas are derived from the Hebrew Bible and kabbalah, its message speaks to people of all religions and spiritual traditions.   

The book begins by teaching you how to make an invisible God become visible through your creative lens.  It draws on the ancient wisdom of kabbalah to help you recognize that you have been looking at God all the time and often missed the action.  It helps you develop conceptual and practical tools for photographing God as divine light reflected from every facet of your life.

Just as a prism breaks up white light into the colors of the spectrum, kabbalah reveals a spectrum of divine light based upon the biblical passage “You God are the compassion, the strength, the beauty, the success, the splendor, and the [foundation] of everything in heaven and on earth” (Chronicles 1:29).   You will learn that photographing God is to creatively photograph these six divine attributes as they flow down into your life.
The  book invites you to connect your personal narrative to the biblical narrative.  It guides you in creating your own blog to document how your everyday experiences reflect biblical messages.   It teaches how to find fresh meaning in your life story by relating it to the biblical story.      

Having learned how to focus your lens on God wherever you look will help you create blog narratives gleaned from your reading the Bible creatively.   

You will be encouraged to explore imaginative ways for blogging photographic sequences that link two stories – the story of your life as it unfolds and the enduring biblical story.  You will learn creative ways to write accompanying tweet texts to disseminate worldwide through Twitter and other social media. 52 postings from the “Torah Tweets” blogart project that my wife, the artist Miriam Benjamin, and I created offers a model for your Bible blogging.

TorahTweets: A Postdigital Biblical Commentary as a Blogart Narrative   
Miriam and I developed the “Torah Tweets” blog to celebrate our 52nd year of marriage.  During each of the 52 weeks of our 52nd year, we posted photographs reflecting our life together with a text of tweets that relates the weekly Torah reading to our lives.  The Torah, the first five biblical books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), is divided up into weekly portions.  

This book invites other couples who find the Bible an inspiration to celebrate their relationship by creating their own blog.  Spiritual blogging can also be a meaningful way for individuals and families to reveal spirituality in their lives.

Our “Torah Tweets” blog is a dialogue between images and text.   The images are photographs of God as the moving force in our lives.  The text is composed of tweets, sentences of not more than 140 characters required by the Twitter social networking website.  Limiting the number of words in the "Torah Tweets" blog posts is a creative challenge that imitates the Torah itself which does not waste words.  Torah tweets are like bursts of bird song that sometimes gain a haiku-like poetic flavor.  140 is the numerical value (gematria) of the Hebrew word hakel, which means to gather people together to share a Torah learning experience as in Leviticus 8:3 and Deuteronomy 4:10.

Our year-long blogart project is a narrative art form that reveals a paradigm shift from the Greek to the Hebraic roots of Western Culture.   The conceptual background for the "Torah Tweets" blog is offered in my book The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press).   It explores new art forms emerging from the postdigital age that address the humanization of digital technologies.  My discussion of blogart reveals the contrast between static, moderate, passive Hellenistic consciousness revived in the Renaissance and dynamic, open-ended, action-centered Hebraic consciousness at the core of postmodern art.

A blog is a web log, an active diary of a living process in a networked world, rather than still life contained by a golden frame.   The “Torah Tweets” blog transforms the mundane into the spiritual, the ordinary into the extraordinary, and experiences of daily living into expressions of biblical values.  The blog begins with quotations that all present this idea from alternative viewpoints.

 Spiritual Dimensions of Everyday Life

"For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp." (Deuteronomy 23:15)

"Judaism does not direct its gaze upward but downward ... does not aspire to a heavenly transcendence, nor does it seek to soar upon the wings of some abstract, mysterious spirituality. It fixes its gaze upon concrete, empirical reality permeating every nook and cranny of life. The marketplace, the factory, the street, the house, the mall, the banquet hall, all constitute the backdrop of religious life." (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik) 

"It is not enough for the Jew to rest content with his own spiritual ascent, the elevation of his soul in closeness to G-d, he must strive to draw spirituality down into the world and into every part of it - the world of his work and his social life - until not only do they not distract him from his pursuit of G-d, but they become a full part of it." (R. Menachem M. Schneerson)

"If there is a religious agency in our lives, it has to appear in the manner of our times. Not from on high, but a revelation that hides itself in our culture, it will be ground-level, on the street, it'll be coming down the avenue in the traffic, hard to tell apart from anything else." (E. L. Doctorow)

"The first message that Moses chose to teach the Jewish people as they were about to enter the Land of Israel was to fuse heaven to earth, to enable the mundane to rise up and touch the Divine, the spiritual to vitalize the physical, not only as individuals but as an entire nation." (R. Abraham Y. Kook)

13 February 2010

Searching for God Exhibition

Mel Alexenberg, artist
Kuhn Fine Arts Gallery
Ohio State University - Marion Campus

Ohio State University students, visitors to the Searching for God exhibition, and people throughout the world are invited to participate in the Photograph God project by sharing their images and thoughts with others globally.

Photograph events in your everyday life that reveal the divine attributes of compassion, strength, beauty, success, splendor, integration. Send two photographs that document a process like a comic strip or storyboard sequence with a sentence identifying the place where the event took place and how it expresses one of the six divine attributes. For participation in the "Searching for God" exhibition, send your photographs as jpg images (300-400 pixels wide) and your text as a Word document to the Kuhn Fine Arts Gallery at Ohio State University.

09 May 2008

How to Photograph God

Kabbalah through a Creative Lens
Focus your camera lens on God and you will see God looking back at you. Seeing God is seeing divine light reflected from every facet of your life. The ancient wisdom of kabbalah will help you recognize that you have been looking at God all the time but missed the action.

You only see light. You have never seen your mother, father, spouse, or children. You only have seen the light reflected from them. You only see light passing through your eye’s lens, stimulating the rods and cones in your retina, and transmitting the forms and colors of those you love to your brain. Just as you enjoy seeing your loved ones from the light they reflect, you can find joy seeing divine light reflected from every place you look. This blog teaches how to see the spectrum of divine light through your camera lens.

Photograph God in Reflections of Reality
God does not exist in reality. God is reality itself. Rabbi David Aaron, who teaches kabbalah in the Old City of Jerusalem, explains in his book, Seeing God, that God is the all-embracing context for everything. In Hebrew, God is called Hamakom, which means “The Place.” God is the place where everything is happening. You do not exist alongside God; you exist within God, within the only one reality that is God. Everything is in God, God is in everything, but God is also beyond everything.

Seeing God is all about getting in touch with reality. If you want to photograph God, focus your lens on Hamakom, The Place, anyplace where you see divine light illuminating reality. Let your camera collect the light reflecting from the reality shaping your everyday life and you will find yourself photographing God in action.

To photograph God as the place where all action takes place, you need to redefine the English word “God,” a Germanic word conjuring up images of some all-powerful being zapping us if we step out of line. This is an alien concept in kabbalah. Names for God in biblical Hebrew are not really names for God at all. They are names linked to divine attributes. Hebrew speakers call God Hashem, literally “The Name.” When you read “God” here, think of the Hebrew word Hashem, The Name of the nameless One encompassing all of reality and beyond.

Photograph God as a Verb
God is a verb. God is no thing – nothing in the process of becoming everything. The great 16th century kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as The Ari, calls God Ha’efes Hamukhlat, “The Absolute Nothingness,” as well as Ein Sof, “Endless.” God is One, infinite nothingness and everything in the universe all at once.

You can discern God over time, in the flow, in the action, in the process of something becoming something else. The primary biblical divine name YHVH, usually translated as “God,” should really be translated as “Is-Was-Will Be.” YHVH integrates past, present, and future of the verb “to be.” It is associated with the divine attribute of inner beauty (tiferet). When beauty hidden in the mundane suddenly jumps out at you, catch the action in a series of photographs of Is-Was-Will Be. Don’t freeze the action in a still-life picture, nature morte (dead life in French).

Photograph living processes in a series of images like comic strip or storyboard sequences. Show before and after. Photograph KUZU. KUZU is YHVH in motion. The biblical passage beginning with “Hear, O Israel, YHVH is our God, YHVH is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), is written by a scribe on small parchment scrolls affixed to doorposts in Jewish homes. These mini-Torahs called mezuzot, a word derived from the root zaz, which means to move. Each scroll is rolled up with the biblical text on the inside. On the outside of the scroll at the place on the reverse side of where YHVH is written, the scribe writes KUZU to set God in motion.

K-U-Z-U is spelled with each of the four letters that follow Y-H-V-H in the Hebrew alphabet. K follows Y, U follows H, Z follows V, and U follows H. It is if we were to write GOD as HPE, H being the letter following G, P the letter following O, and E the letter following D. In addition to moving each of the letters in YHVH forward, KUZU is written upside-down to invite us to see God in motion from multiple viewpoints. Photograph KUZU.

Photograph God in Every Nook and Cranny of Life
Look for God in every aspect of your life. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century, teaches that you should not direct your glance upward but downward, not aspire to a heavenly transcendence nor seek to soar upon the wings of some abstract, mysterious spirituality, but to fix your gaze upon concrete reality. He emphasizes that you should not confine your search for God to houses of worship for you can find God penetrating into every nook and cranny of life. Photograph God in the details of empirical reality permeating your daily mundane activities.

Photograph God in Your Work and Social Life
Draw God down into everything you do. The Lubavicher Rebbe, Menachem M. Schneerson, the greatest contemporary Hasidic master, emphasizes that it is not enough to rest content with your own spiritual ascent, the elevation of your soul in closeness to God. You must also strive to draw spirituality down into the world and into every part of your involvement with it – your work and your social life – until not only do they not distract you from your pursuit of God, but they become a full part of it. Photograph God in your relationships with others.

Photograph God at Ground Level
In his acclaimed novel, The City of God, E. L. Doctorow echoes these rabbinic thoughts: “If there is a religious agency in our lives, it has to appear in the manner of our times. Not from on high, but a revelation that hides itself in our culture, it will be ground-level, on the street, it’ll be coming down the avenue in the traffic, hard to tell apart from anything else. It will be cryptic, discerned over time, piecemeal, to be communally understood at the end like a law of science.” Photograph God everywhere you go and in everything you do.

Photograph God in the Still Silent Voice
Living for seven years in the Negev desert, I would frequently walk through the desert mountains where a strong silence surrounded me and followed me. The silence grew more intense as I stopped to stoop down to get a close look at a tiny flowering plant emerging from the crevice of a rock. The Hebrew word for “desert” MiDBaR is spelled with the same letters as the word for “speaking” MiDaBeR. The desert speaks softly about delicate forms of life. In the desert, you can see the quiet voice of God. In the Sinai desert, “all the people saw the sounds” (Exodus 20:15) rather than heard them.

Standing on a desert mountain, the prophet Elijah saw a great powerful wind, smashing mountains and breaking rocks. After the wind came an earthquake and after the earthquake was fire and after the fire there was a still silent voice. Elijah saw God in the still silent voice, rather than in the mighty wind, rather than in the rumbling earthquake, rather than in the raging fire. (I Kings 19:11-12). Listen for the still silent voice as you photograph God in the intimate spaces and minute details of your life. Transform your vision of small ordinary events into extraordinary images.

Photograph the Spectrum of Divine Light 
Just as a prism breaks up white light into the colors of the spectrum, kabbalah reveals a spectrum of divine light derived from the biblical passage “You God are the compassion, the strength, the beauty, the success, the splendor, and everything in heaven and on earth” (Chronicles 1:29). Look for these six attributes of divine light flowing down into your life.

Hesed: Compassion / Largess / Loving All
Gevurah: Strength / Judgment / Setting Limits
Tifert: Beauty / Aesthetic Balance / Inner Elegance
Netzakh: Success / Orchestration / Eternity
Hod: Splendor / Gracefulness / Magnificence
Yesod: Foundation / Everything Integrated / Gateway to Action

Focus on episodes expressing these attributes as you walk through the streets, ride on a bus, shop in the mall, dance at a wedding, hike in the countryside, or come home from work. “God walks in the midst of your camp” (Deuteronomy 23:15). KeReV, the Hebrew word for “midst,” shares the same root as being “close” KaRoV. As you sense the closeness of God walking with you, create six sets of pictures revealing the spectrum of divine light that you see all around you.

Let God Look Back at You
Photographer Jan Phillips quotes from Rabbi Elimelech as she shares her thoughts about focusing her lens on God in her book on photography and creativity, God is at Eye Level: “Whoever does not see God in every place does not see God in any place…. My eyes find God everywhere, in every living thing, creature, person, in every act of kindness, act of nature, act of grace. Everywhere I look, there God is looking back, looking straight back.”

My students at Ariel University and Emunah College in Jerusalem created most of the photographic sequences posted in this blog.