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.