Midrashic Art

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"Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it…" say our sages about the Torah. From rabbinic times forward, we have stories and commentaries that record the rabbis' explorations of and reactions to sacred texts. Termed midrash (investigation, searching out), these teachings, a form of art in themselves, turn the text inside out, exploring all of its nuances and commenting on its meaning by answering unanswered questions found in the text.

Midrash is a literary genre that uses allegory and imaginative narrative to fill in those places in the text where the stories do not feel complete. In the last several decades, many artists, clergy, educators, and scholars have been creating what they refer to as "contemporary midrash." Their work uses the process of investigating biblical and other scared texts to draw out meaning for people today; to re-animate biblical stories and characters and to add contemporary voices, visions, and concerns to the legacy of commentary.

Unlike classical midrash, which is a purely literary form, contemporary midrash takes many forms, including dance, drama, literature, theater, and the visual arts. Because the visual arts have not always been widely embraced by Jewish religious culture, contemporary fine artists working in this genre are often charting new territory in using visual images to comment on sacred texts.

Unique Artists, Unique Styles

Visual midrash can be found in a number of contemporary places: displayed in Jewish art galleries and museums, illustrating Jewish books, and sometimes as part of a lesson in a Jewish school or adult-education program. This movement to integrate visual imagery into a dialogue about our texts and our reactions to them is a deliberate attempt to recognize the power of art to combine our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual understandings of text.

An example is the work of artist Archie Rand. Rand's expressive paintings depict biblical characters--such as Eve, Moses, and King David--in comic-book style frames, with Hebrew text written in cartoon balloons and boxes. He creates a new visual language that integrates pop-culture sensibility with serious investigation of biblical dilemmas, challenging the viewer to imagine how these ancient texts relate to our own moral and spiritual predicaments.

Rand's biblical characters appear in modern dress, and his juxtaposition of contemporary and ancient symbols forces the viewer to think about biblical text in a metaphorical manner. One of his paintings, for example, quotes from Genesis, "And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam no fitting helper was found for him"; it portrays Eve wandering in a barren land, surrounded by dinosaurs.

Another artist creating visual midrash is Tobi Kahn. A painter and sculptor, much of Kahn's work has explored Jewish religion and identity, some of which comments on biblical texts. Kahn says of his work: "Although Judaism has emphasized words, language, and interpretation, I have found the visual elements of the tradition equally illuminating. For me, the life of the spirit is integrally bound up with the beauty of the world, with the rituals and symbols that are a Jewish medium to transcendence. Like language, what we see can be a benediction.

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Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a freelance writer and educator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of two books of plays for children: The Magic Tanach and Other Short Plays and Extraordinary Jews: Staging Their Lives as well as The Creative Jewish Wedding Book.