Between Heaven and Earth
By Ilene Winn-Lederer
190 pages, $45
The Tower of Babel with the illustrator's signature cat's cradle motif.
Photo: Ilene Winn-Lederer
the beginning there was a mask, and a woman, and they created the
heaven and the earth. At least, that's the way Genesis takes shape in
the opening pages of Ilene Winn-Lederer's new illustrated commentary, a
bold, sensual reimagining of the Jewish people's foundational myth in
color-laden scenes from the Pentateuch.
Given the daunting obstacles and the certainty that any
treatment of such volatile subject matter is bound to offend,
Winn-Lederer's ambitious undertaking is commendable, and her art -
incorporating a wide range of symbolic orders - although hard to
unravel, is more often than not insightful and beautiful. Take the
opening image, for example. The representation of God as a mask, with
the Shechina (the feminine aspect of the divine) as a flesh and blood
woman behind him, is provocative and masterfully done, as is the image
of the sixth day of God's creation on the facing page; the wealth of
animal life surrounding Adam and Eve, the unicorn, the eyes in the
navels of Adam and Eve.
You get the picture. The image is striking, laden with symbolic
meaning, but some elements don't quite add up in the context of a
"Torah commentary." Winn-Lederer herself draws attention to this
contradiction in the "Afterimages" section at the end of the book,
stating that the "unique navels" were meant "to raise more questions
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One could perhaps surmise that the eyes in the navel
represent the prelapsarian state, where the sexual faculty of Adam's
and Eve's being, yet untarnished by sin, is as translucent as their
sense of sight. More probable, however, is the possibility that the
eyes are meant to represent God's all-seeing presence, which, missing
from the mask, is yet extant in the pre-fallen proto-parents, who,
having been created rather than born, really have no need for
conventional bellybuttons. The use of multiple eyes to indicate a
ubiquitous divinity occurs again in the image of the revelation at
As for the unicorn, Winn-Lederer admits that its presence is
more whimsical - a nod to "legend" - than textual, although it does
match the King James Bible's translation of re'em
, the Hebrew word for oryx.
I do not wish to quibble over such fanciful departures from the text.
Indeed, these are to be expected in a work of art and, one could even
argue, what designates a work as such. Rather let us return for a
moment to the representation of God as a mask. This symbol, which at
once expresses an absolute presence and connotes a yawning absence, is
intriguing and an elegant away of skirting the sticky issue of the
graven image, but it nevertheless forges an unhealthy, almost vulgar,
literal affinity between creator and creature.
There would have been no need to raise this point
had it not been for Winn-Lederer first taking issue herself with those
artists, heirs to a grand tradition in the history of art, who had
erred in "interpret[ing] the texts literally... or obscured content
altogether." She also tacitly acknowledges that, while she wanted them
to "raise more questions than [they] answered" (remember the eyes in
the navel), her illustrations were nevertheless meant to join those
"brilliant works... complying with (or cleverly circumventing) the
Second Commandment prohibition against graven images."
Indeed, Winn-Lederer or, for that matter, anyone attempting to
grapple with such a daunting task, must tread a very narrow bridge.
Reading new insights into the most heavily interpreted text of all time
without throwing off the mantle of traditional exegesis is hard enough
when done with the written word, and even more difficult if one employs
the visual medium. Here one constantly runs the risk of yielding a pile
of constituent images that reveal the artist's private visual language
but overlook the text's manifold inherences.
And the work does create a rich visual tapestry. Take, for
example, the image of the Tower of Babel, where four men are seen
escaping to the four winds, driven away from the Escherian edifice by
probing tongues lewdly extended from the windows. Reaching up from the
top of the tower is the hand of Nimrod, the legendary rebel who
according to midrash instigated the project in the hope of toppling the
kingdom of heaven, in a one-sided game of cat's cradle. The motif is
picked up again, this time in a reciprocal fashion, in the illustration
of Jacob's dream, where Jacob's hair becomes the ladder, suspended from
God's hand. It also recurs elsewhere as an image of the sefirot
the divine attributes, linking heaven and earth. Other truly
illuminating visual rhymes occur throughout, often providing
surprising, subtle insights and encouraging a second and third perusal.
Therein lies the book's strength.
Ultimately, however, one cannot escape the impression that Winn-Lederer's conscious
to infuse her illustrations with mystical meaning while still adhering,
in her way, to the prohibition against graven images is not wholly
successful. Besides the recurring problematic images of God as eyes or
as a series of masks, the book is rife with small kabbalistic "hints"
in the shape of letters and mystical symbols. These letters, each of
which is meant to refer to a sefira
that comes into play in the
depicted scene, would have been sufficient markers of a divine "mood"
on their own (although one can perhaps question whether a work of art
that stands on its own merit should reference another body of work so
extensively and systematically). But, when coupled with the visual
conjurations, often in the same scene, the kabbalistic symbols only
serve to conflate.
In the end, the mask, although clever as a circumvention, is
ultimately an "expression," a face, which in its finality and totality
cannot truly refer to anything beyond itself. The use of these very
corporeal representations alongside the kabbalistic markers therefore
confuses the symbolic order. This, in turn, instead of illuminating,
effaces the very world that the symbols are meant to hark back to. If
one may be allowed the liberty of borrowing from the artist's own
visual and textual lexicon, the misuse of mystical signs is a
one-handed game of cat's cradle which at once "obscures the content"
and "leav[es] little to the imagination."
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