‘Picture this,’ says polymath

‘Picture this,’ says polymath

Teaneck talk to focus on Bible's 'vivid imagery'

“Holy, Holy, Holy,” one of David Gelernter’s paintings of Hebrew words. David Gelernter

A dove, with an olive branch in its beak.

A bush that burns, but is not consumed.

A sea that is split.

A chariot of fire.

Each of these familiar biblical scenes, says author David Gelernter, is an incredibly powerful visual image ““ examples of the “eloquent, articulate imagery” that characterizes the Tanach, the Bible.

The power of these images, he says, is part of what secured Scripture’s place as a foundation stone of Western civilization.

Taken together, they speak to a visual aspect of Judaism that is often overlooked, he says.

This Sunday, Gelernter will be speaking on “the arts of Judaism” in an event sponsored by the Jewish Community Council of Teaneck.

Gelernter is a unique polymath – an accomplished professor of computer science at Yale; an author whose books deal not only with computer science, but with Judaism and with the 1939 World’s Fair; an artist, whose work was included in his 2009 book “Judaism: A Way of Being”; and a polemicist, who writes for conservative publications including Commentary and the Weekly Standard, and whose book forthcoming in May has two working titles – “After Americanism: The cultural revolution comes home to roost” and “America-lite: How imperial academia dismantled our culture (and ushered in the Obamacrats).”

Gelernter also has the less welcome distinction of having been a victim of the Unabomber, suffering damage to his right hand and eye while opening a mail bomb in 1993. This was the topic of his 1997 book, “Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber.”

Save the date
Who: David Gelernter

What: Talk: “On the Arts of Judaism.”

When: Sunday, March 25, 8 p.m.

Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck

Sponsor: The Jewish Community Council of Teaneck

For his Teaneck talk, which draws on ideas in his book “Judaism,” “I want to talk specifically about the literary brilliance of Tanach and what it implies. It has been accepted for millenia that the Bible is a literary masterpiece as well as being a religious masterpiece.”

“When we say that it’s brilliant writing, we don’t necessarily draw the obvious conclusion. Brilliant writing is necessarily vivid. Vivid writing is pictorial. The language of the Bible is vividly pictorial. It presents powerfully striking images to our mind, asks us to think about them, picture them, draw conclusions from them,” he says.

This rebuts the idea – “which is very widespread among Jews and Gentiles” – that Judaism is hostile to images.

“Psalms would not be the basis of Western literature were it not written vividly. Though the image is in the text and expressed in words, it’s just as visual as any other kind of image. The only kind of image is a visual image,” he says.

This ties into his broader polemic about the importance of western civilization, and Judaism’s role in it.

“Jewish thought and literature created the culture of the west,” he says. “We have the duty of taking responsibility on behalf of Judaism of being the senior nation of the western world. It’s easier to say that Judaism is a separate topic off by itself. But in an age where artistic and spiritual leadership is so desperately needed, this is not a time for Jews to turn away from the challenge. We should appreciate what Judaism has accomplished, not only halachically and philosophically, but also artisticaly and culturally.”

As part of his presentation, Gelernter will be discussing his own art works, which feature Hebrew words.

“Words are a good basis for painting,” he says.

In Judaism, words are “powerful, articulate objects. The love of the language and even of the aleph bet transcends the actual meaning of the text. The meaning is always limited by the human mind’s capacity to read. There is a level of k’dushah (holiness) in the words, in the characters even, that transcends what we we understand.”

In the broader cultural context, “words are a good basis for painting” because after centuries in which art was devoted “to what you might call photographic illusionism, where people tried to depict real scenes, that whole variety of art collapsed early in the 20th century into decorating a plainer surface rather than creating a pseudo three-dimensional picture.

“The two dimensional world of the Cubists, of the Abstract Expressionists, is a landscape where words are natural inhabitants,” he says.

These days, he is particularly inspired by the pre-Renaissance, 14th century art of Italy, “particularly Florence and Siena. The world of art in general is coming to grips with the great achievement of pre-Renaissance artists, the perfection of medieval art, which was an art of decoration rather than an art of illusion.”

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