Seeing is believing?

An illustrated biblical commentary, although insightful, draws too heavily on kabbalistic symbolism.

Between Heaven and EarthBy Ilene Winn-LedererPomegranate Communications190 pages, $45

The Tower of Babel with the...
The Tower of Babel with the...

The Tower of Babel with the illustrator's signature cat's cradle motif. Photo: Ilene Winn-Lederer

Inthe beginning there was a mask, and a woman, and they created theheaven and the earth. At least, that's the way Genesis takes shape inthe opening pages of Ilene Winn-Lederer's new illustrated commentary, abold, sensual reimagining of the Jewish people's foundational myth incolor-laden scenes from the Pentateuch.

Given the daunting obstacles and the certainty that anytreatment 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 tounravel, is more often than not insightful and beautiful. Take theopening image, for example. The representation of God as a mask, withthe Shechina (the feminine aspect of the divine) as a flesh and bloodwoman behind him, is provocative and masterfully done, as is the imageof the sixth day of God's creation on the facing page; the wealth ofanimal life surrounding Adam and Eve, the unicorn, the eyes in thenavels of Adam and Eve.

You get the picture. The image is striking, laden with symbolicmeaning, but some elements don't quite add up in the context of a"Torah commentary." Winn-Lederer herself draws attention to thiscontradiction in the "Afterimages" section at the end of the book,stating that the "unique navels" were meant "to raise more questionsthan answers."

One could perhaps surmise that the eyes in the navelrepresent the prelapsarian state, where the sexual faculty of Adam'sand Eve's being, yet untarnished by sin, is as translucent as theirsense of sight. More probable, however, is the possibility that theeyes are meant to represent God's all-seeing presence, which, missingfrom the mask, is yet extant in the pre-fallen proto-parents, who,having been created rather than born, really have no need forconventional bellybuttons. The use of multiple eyes to indicate aubiquitous divinity occurs again in the image of the revelation atMount Sinai.

As for the unicorn, Winn-Lederer admits that its presence ismore whimsical - a nod to "legend" - than textual, although it doesmatch the King James Bible's translation of re'em, the Hebrew word for oryx.

ButI 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 evenargue, what designates a work as such. Rather let us return for amoment to the representation of God as a mask. This symbol, which atonce expresses an absolute presence and connotes a yawning absence, isintriguing and an elegant away of skirting the sticky issue of thegraven image, but it nevertheless forges an unhealthy, almost vulgar,literal affinity between creator and creature.

There would have been no need to raise this pointhad it not been for Winn-Lederer first taking issue herself with thoseartists, heirs to a grand tradition in the history of art, who haderred in "interpret[ing] the texts literally... or obscured contentaltogether." She also tacitly acknowledges that, while she wanted themto "raise more questions than [they] answered" (remember the eyes inthe navel), her illustrations were nevertheless meant to join those"brilliant works... complying with (or cleverly circumventing) theSecond Commandment prohibition against graven images."

Indeed, Winn-Lederer or, for that matter, anyone attempting tograpple with such a daunting task, must tread a very narrow bridge.Reading new insights into the most heavily interpreted text of all timewithout throwing off the mantle of traditional exegesis is hard enoughwhen done with the written word, and even more difficult if one employsthe visual medium. Here one constantly runs the risk of yielding a pileof constituent images that reveal the artist's private visual languagebut overlook the text's manifold inherences.

And the work does create a rich visual tapestry. Take, forexample, the image of the Tower of Babel, where four men are seenescaping to the four winds, driven away from the Escherian edifice byprobing tongues lewdly extended from the windows. Reaching up from thetop of the tower is the hand of Nimrod, the legendary rebel whoaccording to midrash instigated the project in the hope of toppling thekingdom of heaven, in a one-sided game of cat's cradle. The motif ispicked up again, this time in a reciprocal fashion, in the illustrationof Jacob's dream, where Jacob's hair becomes the ladder, suspended fromGod's hand. It also recurs elsewhere as an image of the sefirot,the divine attributes, linking heaven and earth. Other trulyilluminating visual rhymes occur throughout, often providingsurprising, 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 consciousattemptto infuse her illustrations with mystical meaning while still adhering,in her way, to the prohibition against graven images is not whollysuccessful. Besides the recurring problematic images of God as eyes oras a series of masks, the book is rife with small kabbalistic "hints"in the shape of letters and mystical symbols. These letters, each ofwhich is meant to refer to a sefira that comes into play in thedepicted scene, would have been sufficient markers of a divine "mood"on their own (although one can perhaps question whether a work of artthat stands on its own merit should reference another body of work soextensively and systematically). But, when coupled with the visualconjurations, often in the same scene, the kabbalistic symbols onlyserve to conflate.

In the end, the mask, although clever as a circumvention, isultimately an "expression," a face, which in its finality and totalitycannot truly refer to anything beyond itself. The use of these verycorporeal representations alongside the kabbalistic markers thereforeconfuses the symbolic order. This, in turn, instead of illuminating,effaces the very world that the symbols are meant to hark back to. Ifone may be allowed the liberty of borrowing from the artist's ownvisual and textual lexicon, the misuse of mystical signs is aone-handed game of cat's cradle which at once "obscures the content"and "leav[es] little to the imagination."