Kabbalah as a Source of Inspiration - Kabbalah in Art and Architecture

This book is a personal interpretation of the Kabbalah as a source of evocative ideas that have either inspired, or are illustrated by, significant works of art an architecture. The idea of esoteric Jewish mysticism having a place at the table of contemporary art has been raised previously, but not in the more comprehensive manner as presented here. Kabbalah, which in Hebrew means “that which has been received,” is the Jewish mystical tradition that stretches back at least 3,500 years. Kabbalists believe the secrets they possess were handed down since the time of Abraham, but the main body of teaching was not resolved fully until the medieval period of the twelfth century, culminating in the Zohar, the Book of Radiance, of 1280, and subsequently, in 1570, the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria in Safed, Palestine. The Kabbalah seeks to understand the mystical inner workings of God, and to direct initiates to an ecstatic experience of the Divine. It views the universe as a vast interconnected system of forces in which God and mankind have a direct relationship of checks and balances, with the actions of each reverberating on the other in mysterious ways. There are multiple levels of reality, from the visible world to the incomprehensible space of the divine. Ultimately, the entire cosmos is a code for the name of God and the Torah, his revealed holy scripture. In the Kabbalah, the Torah and its Hebrew words and letters are synonymous with God Himself, and therefore one of the mystic’s goals is to attempt to understand the hidden meanings behind the literal words of the Bible.

The Kabbalah is filled with metaphors pregnant with meaning for art and architecture, much of its imagery is at once abstract and richly literal in its descriptions of the heavenly realm. The Zohar is a poem of light and dark, a rainbow of colors and materials. There is ample reference to metaphors of the celestial world of chambers, houses, palaces, pillars, dwellings, and even interiors through the elaborate curtains concealing the ark of the covenant. Since the early twentieth century, there has also been an explosion of scholarship about the Kabbalah, initially led by Gershom Scholem, the great Jewish scholar of the Hebrew University in Israel. He opened the door to previously inaccessible material, from the 1920s through the 1980s, bringing the fruits of primary textual research to the English-speaking world. In fact, the publication of Scholem’s 1941 book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism opened the eyes of many artists and architects to the provocative and visual mysteries of the Kabbalah.

The book found a receptive audience already schooled in the art of the “other,” such as African primitive art and Surrealism. Interest in the Kabbalah has blossomed over the past twenty years, through Scholem’s students such as Professor Moshe Idel and with numerous publications and institutes devoted to spreading the word, as more people have been attracted to spirituality and mysticism as a means of transcending the everyday and disquieting aspects of the present. Research continues with a major ongoing English translation of the Zohar, by Daniel Matt, which has been subsidized by Margot Pritzker of the architectural Pritzker Prize family, an exposition of the Kabbalah by the literary scholar Harold Bloom, and of course, the promotions in our pop culture by celebrities such as Madonna. Until relatively recently, the Kabbalah was only for the Jewish devout, where its study was traditionally only allowed for men over the age of forty. It therefore remained a largely forgotten, if not strange part of the “occult” in the Western literary tradition.

My own journey into the proverbial “orchard” of the Kabbalah began as an architect faced with the task of designing a synagogue in Kings Point, NY, in 1995. Aware of the lack of an authentic style of design for synagogues due to the lack of opportunity of the Jewish people to develop a style of their own, often confined to physical ghettos or thrown out of their host countries. In the nineteenth century they often adopted the architectural style of the places in which they lived, either classical, Byzantine, or “exotic.” I chose instead to search beyond the themes of the Old Testament, such as the “burning bush” that became hackneyed images of synagogue design of the 1960s, for more authentic sources of inspiration. To my amazement, Scholem’s books revealed a world I had not known about before, as well as a series of ideas and concepts that were immediately relevant to the design of the synagogue.

The ark for North Shore Hebrew Academy, in Kings Point, NY, built in1999, is a cube of light fractured by two inverted triangles that evoke not only the Star of David but the pattern of the Sefirot as well. The Sefirot is also the diagram on the curtain in front of the ark, and the facets of the triangles recall the crystalline crown of Keter, the highest of intersecting points of light. The triangles of glass also serve an acoustical purpose, reflecting sound back to the congregation as they pray facing the ark.

As I studied the texts in more depth, it became apparent that many of these ideas had already been in circulation in the world of architecture, art and literature, especially at the beginning of the abstract expressionist period of American art in the early 1950s. These artists had been involved with the subconscious world of myths and images from surrealism and dreams through the psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. It was a small step to the mysticism of the Kabbalah, with its more abstract, conceptual ideas. In the American poet Alan Ginsburg’s famous poem Howl of 1955, he references “bop kabbalah.” In the 1950s, the American Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman, who was Jewish, entitled many of his paintings with Hebraic names. The artist also designed a synagogue for an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1961 with the theme of Tzimtzum, the Kabbalistic creation theme. The art historian Dore Ashton, who personally knew the Russian-born painter Mark Rothko, compared his use of light to the radiance of the Zohar. In 1963, the American architect Louis Kahn based a plan of a synagogue in Philadelphia on the Tree of the Sefirot. Architect Steven Holl acknowledged he studied the writings of Scholem for the design of his 1990 St. Ignacious Chapel in Seattle, Washington. Certainly most unusual is the German artist Anselm Kiefer’s explicit use of the most esoteric Kabbalistic themes for over twenty years. In literature, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges quotes from the Zohar, and in his 1949 story "The Aleph", he writes: ”In the Kabbala, that letter signifies En Soph, the pure and unlimited godhead; it has also been said that its shape is that of a man pointing to he sky and the earth, to indicate that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher.”

I was raised in a fairly traditional Jewish background, and while we were not strictly Orthodox, we kept kosher at home. My father had emigrated from Minsk, Byelorussia in 1924 and my paternal grandfather was a Rabbi, as are two of my uncles. The literature of the Old Testament was a constant presence in my upbringing. I went three times a week to Talmud Torah, Hebrew School, in Forest Hills, NY. There I was exposed to the architectural projects of the Bible, Noah’s Ark, the Tabernacle in the desert, and Solomon’s Temple. The relentless detail of each project held great mystery to my receptive mind, and of course I did my own reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem for a school paper. To my surprise, in my mid teens, my otherwise apparently rational mother took my sister and I to her very own Kabbalistic astrologer, a Mr. Obloe in an old apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan that was straight out of a Woody Allen film. We were informed that the astrologer had been the “family advisor” for two generations. This was my first direct exposure to a form of Kabbalah, although I must admit I was more mystified than impressed at his observations, limited as they were to the signs of the zodiac. Subsequently, I attended the Cooper Union School of Architecture, the virtual academy of the mysteries of modernism, where dean John Hedjuk held court as the chief keeper of the faith. Here Le Corbusier was God and his every word and mark on paper was studied with fetishistic intent. In this atmosphere, my long forgotten interest in the Bible as a secret source of architectural inspiration was revived, as I learned from Professor Joseph Rykwert how the Old Testament influenced architecture from the Renaissance to modernism in his book Adam’s House in Paradise. I also added my own observations in a paper published in the Japanese publication Architecture and Urbanism in 1985, entitled "Biblical Imagery in the Work of Louis Kahn." This experience culminated in my thesis for Cooper Union, which at least at the time, in 1978, seemed radical, entitled "Reconstruction of Ezekiel’s Vision of the Temple." In the face of absolute abstract modernism in the school I chose to revive history by a study of the detailed description of the Temple in Jerusalem in its apocalyptic glory as presented in the Book of Ezekiel. Of course, as the structure was symmetrical in plan, my thesis advisor, Raimund Abraham, strongly suggested it be “violated” in some way, so I placed it on axis with the subway lines in the Beaux Arts plan of Union Square in Manhattan. The sacred and profane city battled for dominance, as in William Blake’s poem "Jerusalem." At least I had made public my private obsession with my Jewish identity in relationship to my chosen path of architecture.

All of this lay dormant again for twenty years until, as noted above, I was commissioned to design a synagogue which revived not only my archeology of Biblical projects, but added a layer of Kabbalistic commentary to the mix. All this would be quite academic except for the fact that the synagogue was built for the North Shore Hebrew Academy in King’s Point, NY— formerly of East Egg fame in The Great Gatsby and once an anti-Semitic community. The building was inspired by direct themes from the Kabbalah, from the overall form to the details of the stained glass windows, the ark, its ritual curtain, and the eternal light. The later synagogues I have designed all have at least some reference to the themes in the Kabbalah.

This book is a re-reading of art and architecture through the lens of the Kabbalah. As the Kabbalah is a theory of correspondence with everything connected to everything else, it is not inappropriate to ascribe Kabbalistic meanings to art or architecture—in illustration, allusion, metaphor, symbol, or parallel even when clearly not intended, as in American architect Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao, Spain. Gehry told me he has wanted to design a synagogue for years, and when I asked him about the Kabbalah, he told me “he tried to study the Zohar, but it was too difficult.”

A brief summary of the basic themes of the Kabbalah follows with more detail in the introduction to the individual chapters. The earliest sources for the Kabbalah are the study of the first lines of the book of Genesis and the vision of Ezekiel that recounts the Divine “Throne Chariot.” These passages of the Bible were considered too “mind-bending” and were forbidden to be taught except to a select few. It was written that "one should not teach the Act of Creation to two or the Divine Chariot to one, unless he is wise and understands by himself." The world of mysticism was referred to as the “orchard”, from the Hebrew word pardes, that is an acronym for the four levels of interpretive meaning of the Torah: Peshat, Remez, Drash and Sod.

The interior of the North Shore Hebrew Academy Sanctuary is focused on the ark that radiates light diffused from a skylight. As the Torah is the light, so does the ark holding the sacred scrolls illuminate the congregation sitting in a radial pattern around it.

Peshat is the literal or simple meaning; Remez refers to an allusive meaning and also to gematria, the transposition of numbers from the letters, as in aleph=1, bet= 2; Drash is a more elaborate interpretation; and Sod is the secret, ultimate meaning. In the Talmud, a famous story relates that of four eminent Rabbis who entered the “orchard,” only one, Rabbi Akiva, “entered in peace and left in peace.” The dangers of the ascent, and subsequent descent, to or from a vision of God on his throne were too much for Rabbi Ben Zoma who went mad, Rabbi Ben Azai who died, and Rabbi Ben Abuya who became a heretic. Nevertheless, proceed with this book at your peril, you have been forewarned!

The vision of Ezekiel was set in 586 BC in Babylon, where the Babylonians exiled the Israelites after the destruction of Jerusalem. At the beginning of the book, Ezekiel beholds a vision of a strange flying chariot with four faces: a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. Above are “wheels within wheels,” the rims inset with eyes, and above them, “the appearance of a man on a throne” in vivid colors. This enigmatic image inspired an entire school of mysticism that sought the ultimate goal of witnessing God on his throne. The journey of ascent entailed the passage through the seven heavenly palaces, the Hechalot, which were guarded by ferocious angels and secret passwords. These images of ascension have their roots in Jacob’s dream: “Here a ladder was set up on the earth, its top reaching the heavens, and here messengers of God were going up and down on it.” The ladder is the mythical axis mundi connecting heaven and earth, and implies a series of hierarchical worlds. The idea of multiple worlds, where sacred shrines such as the Tabernacle or the Temple in Jerusalem are a copy of a heavenly model, is basic to the Kabbalah. The pattern below as based on the pattern above is a refrain repeated numerous times in the Zohar.

Including the world of daily existence, there are a total of four worlds, in ascending order: Asiyah (action) the material world in which we live; Yetsirah (the creation) the world of angels; Beri’ah (the formation) or the world of the Throne-Chariot; and finally, Atsilut (the emanation) or the internal world of God. Combining the four levels of meaning with the four worlds gets very complicated and this is only the beginning of the mystical labyrinth in which one gets entangled. After the mystical books of the Throne Chariot and heavenly Palaces, most important texts are: the third century Sefir Yestirah, the Book of Creation, the tenth century Sefer Bahir, the Book of Brightness, and most importantly, the Zohar, the Book of Radiance, which was attributed to Moses de Leon around 1280.

In the enigmatic but enormously influential Sefir Yetsirah, which according to different scholars is dated anywhere from the first to fourth century A.D.: the world was created “with thirty two mystical paths of wisdom… He created the world... ten sefirot of nothingness and twenty two letters of foundation.” The twenty-two letters are the Hebrew alphabet combined with ten sefirot that later Kabbalists would associate with “emanations” from God. Since God completely filled the space of the cosmos, the world is literally carved out. The Yetsirah uses the words “hewed” or “engraved,” as in writing. Creation took place specifically in Hebrew words and letters, the holy language of the Divine. Furthermore, the Torah, the revealed scripture of God, is a code for the entire universe, and equivalent to the secret name of God. God’s Holy Name, which has magical powers, has versions of four letters—called the Tetragrammaton—12, 42, and the grand 72 letter Name, the exact pronunciations of which have all been forgotten. One of the powers that the holy Name includes is to bestow life on inanimate material, the beginning of the golem legend. The concept of gematria, the system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase, transposes meanings to numerological significance. This intense emphasis on language, letters, and numbers is unique to the Kabbalah and was one of the concepts that was of great interest to Christian scholars during the Renaissance.

The idea of the ten Sefirot of light is elaborated in the Book of the Bahir, or Brightness, written in the twelfth century. The ten sefirot are the structure of the Divine usually portrayed as a geometric tree-like diagram of interconnected points of light. This network of forces are balanced left and right between, for example, Hesed (Mercy) and Din  (Judgment), and up and down, Keter (Crown) and Malkhut (Foundation). The Bahir also introduces the idea that one of the ten sefirot, Malchut also called Sheikenah, is female, so that gender dualism is now part of the fundamental nature of God. The medieval period of Kabbalah culminated in the Zohar that was considered for centuries one of the three foundation books of Judaism, alongside the Bible and the Talmud. It is believed to be among the devout to have been written in the early second century A.D., by Rabbi Shimeon Ben Yochai. However, Scholem and many modern scholars now believe that Rabbi Moses de Leon wrote most of the material in the late thirteenth century, claiming to have copied an ancient manuscript. In fact when a wealthy Kabbalist asked to pay de Leon’s widow for the original text, she said there was none and that he “he wrote from his own mind.”

To illustrate the Kabbalistic theme animating the design of the North Shore synagogue as a “broken vessel,” the beams separate and pull apart to let light flow into the spaces in between. The gaps are filled with stained glass in a fractured geometric pattern inscribed with Hebrew text and letters. The phrases are from Genesis and recreate the moment when language and light were in formation filling the void of the Tzimtzum with patterns of “circle and line.”

The Zohar is a poetic and evocative series of interconnected stories, homilies and mystical revelations about the nature of the Sefirot and the world of the Throne Chariot. It was written shortly before Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy of 1317, and some of its passages appear to echo the Zohar, as in, “Because the light divine so penetrates / The Universe, according to its merit, / That naught can be an obstacle against it” (Paradise, canto xxxii). The Zohar was originally kept secret, except to a small group of adherents, but gradually, after its publication in Mantua in 1558-1560, it became more widely available, eventually becoming one of the pillars of Jewish tradition. After the exile of the Jews from Spain in 1492, various groups of Kabbalists settled in Israel in the town of Safed where it was believed Rabbi Ben Yochai was buried. One of the great scholars was Rabbi Isaac Luria, also called Ari, the Lion. He arrived in 1570 and died only two years after in 1572. Through his radical teachings, disseminated by his students, he revolutionized Kabbalah. Luria deals with the time before the first lines of Genesis and posits the answer to the question: If God is everywhere, how can there be room for creation? Before, there was Ein-sof, the infinite. Then, rather than an active gesture of creation, God contracts within himself in an action called the Tzimtzum. This withdrawal creates a vacuum into which a single ray of light can enter. The light refracts into the ten Sefirot, and then flows into a series of vessels of light, which dramatically shatter because the light that they receive is too intense. This catastrophic event—Shevurat Hakelim, the Breaking of the Vessels—symbolizes the disorder of the universe. The shards that have fallen still retain some of the Divine light. Tikkun is the idea that it is mankind’s obligation to repair the world by “raising the sparks” through good deeds and the study of the Torah.

The interior of Temple Beth-el of North Westchester, designed by Louis Kahn in 1972 and added to and renovated by Alexander Gorlin, is an elevated cube of wood, which Kahn called a “balduchino” in his sketches. Light enters through twenty four square windows and the overall effect is an interpretation of the Polish wooded synagogues that were destroyed by the Nazis. During the renovation, a new square ring of light was installed at a higher elevation than the original, allowing space to have more breadth. The sanctuary recalls the instructions from a later part of the Zohar, the Ra’aya Meheimna: “A sanctuary must have windows, as Daniel had in his upper chamber where he prayed, corresponding to the ‘windows’ in heaven.”

For almost 300 hundred years, Kabblah became the heart of Judaism, with its blend of the mystical and the everyday. It was not until the Enlightenment and the liberation of Jews from ostracism that the influence of Kabbalah began to wane. The idea that Jews could become fully accepted members of the culture they lived in, and even assimilate completely, was dissonant with the intricate, transcendent world of the Sefirot. Historians of Judaism such as Heinrich Graetz dismissed Kabbalah as folk superstition. With the rise of Reform Judaism and its rationalist bent, large segments of Jews were further distanced from their mystical tradition.

Within the Christian world, beginning with the late Renaissance, there was great interest in the Kabbalah. This helped to circulate images and ideas that eventually found their way into occult circles in the late nineteenth century. These included the Theosophical Society of which Dutch painter Piet Mondrian was a member, the English poet William Yeats and the Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as the Russian mystic Georgi Gurdjieff and his pupil, Olgivanna Wright, the wife of Frank Lloyd Wright.

During the renovation, a new square ring of light was installed at a higher elevation than the original, allowing space to have more breadth. The sanctuary recalls the instructions from a later part of the Zohar, the Ra’aya Meheimna: “A sanctuary must have windows, as Daniel had in his upper chamber where he prayed, corresponding to the ‘windows’ in heaven.”

It is this lineage that explains why the architectural implications of Kabbalah have long been suppressed. Modern architecture triumphed through the rationalist philosophy of the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity, functionalism, and American architect’s Philip Johnson’s International Style reign at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Le Corbusier’s “machine for living” ruled the roost, leaving no room for the spiritual, the mythic, or the irrational.

Although the mystical and irrational in art has a long and respected tradition, from African masks and Surrealism to Mondrian’s association with Theosophy, the Kabbalah itself has been highly marginal. Especially after World War II, many Jewish artists chose to distance themselves for fear of being pigeonholed as Jewish, rather than as mainstream artists. Even when the painter Barnett Newman used explicit Kabbalistic themes in the 1950s and 1960s, the critic Harold Rosenberg took pains to dissociate him from it. Little has changed when, thirty years later in 1996, the critic Arnie Graafland wrote that “neither Libeskind nor Newman can be related to Kabbalic or Talmudic mysticism,” and then goes on to discuss these topics at length!

Finally, for myself, the Kabbalah as outlined by Rabbi Luria is not only a mystical system of the cosmos, but is a metaphor for the psychology of architectural creation. The rhythm of Tzimtzum withdrawal, vessels of light, the breaking of the vessels, and tikkun, restoration, is a concise diagram of the manner in which architecture is made.

Often, the architect or artist must withdraw and create a space around oneself in order to focus and concentrate ones energy, making their own Tzimtzum for that matter. Within that space of isolation, an illumination can occur: the “vessel of light,” the concept, the motivating idea in the fullness of glowing form. This recalls Frank Lloyd Wright’s story of how he came up with the idea for Unity Temple in Oak Park, IL, in 1904. He stayed up all night, and while drawing, listened to Beethoven for inspiration. To maintain the “vessel of light” is the goal, pushing through the limitations of reality to maintain the architectural thought is essential. The “breaking of the vessels” connotes confronting the idea with reality in the form of budgets, schedules, and the client, sometimes accepting compromise. Tikkun implies that a synthesis is possible, a restoration of the original idea, as architecture emerges into reality.

This all recalls Louis Kahn’s mysterious musings on the nature of architecture: “A great building, in my opinion, must begin with the immeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end be immeasurable. The design, the making of things, is a measurable act. In fact, at that point, you are like physical nature itself because in physical nature everything is measurable, even that which is yet unmeasured, like the most distant stars which we can assume will be eventually measured. But what is immeasurable is the psychic spirit… I think a rose wants to be a rose.”

The new glass entrance by Alexander Gorlin Architects mediates between the original Sanctuary by Louis Kahn on the left, and the new social hall and classrooms on the right. The entire plan of the old and new building was organized on the diagram of the sefirot with the Kahn building as the crown, the keter, of the composition, and the nursery school and playground appropriately under the auspices of Malchut, or the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God. The glass cube of the entrance was used so that it could glow as a vessel of light, a beacon symbolizing the restoration and reinvigoration of the congregation.


October 25, 2013

Alexander Gorlin

Durston Saylor