My painting of the giving of the Torah on Sinai appears on the book jacket of a terrific new book that’s said to be secular. I’ve been wondering about this.
In 2004-5, Professor, now JTS Chancellor, Arnold Eisen and I did an experimental hevruta study. We studied the revelation at Sinai through abstract painting. Eisen wrote commentaries on the biblical text based on new perspectives occasioned by the paintings. I painted, responding to our study. We read the section where Moses, after the incident of the Golden Calf, asks God to go with the Children of Israel, and then asks, for himself, to see God’s Glory. What ensues is the exchange about seeing: God says to Moses, “You cannot see my Face, for no man can see Me and live.” But then, God says, “There is a place with Me,” and God does, in some way, reveal Himself to Moses. The paintings seek to visualize. abstractly, about how and what Moses might have seen.
Of the four resulting paintings, three are now on view at JTS in the exhibition, “Reading the Visual, Visualizing the Text.” One is on the cover of the just published “Posen Anthology of Jewish Culture and Civilization,” volume 10, covering the period from 1975 to 2005.
The book, the first to be published in the series covering all of Jewish history, includes spiritual and religious culture alongside literature, visual art, music, popular culture and intellectual culture. Deborah Dash More, the volume’s editor, has stated that the selection included an aesthetic component. The Posen editors chose my painting, I think, on aesthetic grounds. That it includes words from the Torah didn’t deter them: they liked the painting and felt it could strongly represent the book.
In the JTS exhibition, the three paintings are hung along with Chancellor Eisen’s Commentaries on the Torah text, just outside the library, one of the greatest Jewish libraries in the world.
I was initially uncomfortable with the two different public settings, but I think that JTS is stretching towards the world of culture and aesthetic experience. Perhaps the Posen Foundation is stretching towards the world of creative religious thought. I’m a person who comes from the secular world; I grew up inundated with classical music and was educated in the secular world of Modernist aesthetics. I stretched towards Torah study, and, in a way, these paintings are an expression of love and gratitude for the incredible teachers of Torah I have encountered. These worlds are overlapping in all kinds of dynamic ways.
I think all Jews have some inner sense of the Sinai narrative. The painting, “And I Will Write on These Tablets” seemed to stumble into being, out of some inner awareness. Maybe it was my own way to find a balance between aesthetics and Torah; the world of the senses and Jewish law.
Jill Nathanson is a painter in New York City.