Imagining the Bible

Artist Avner Moriah provides a unique perspective on biblical texts.

Paintings by Avner Moriah (photo credit: PR)
Paintings by Avner Moriah
(photo credit: PR)
ACCORDING TO the sages, when Moses went up the mountain to receive the Torah (celebrated in the upcoming Shavuot festival), the desert mountain unexpectedly burst into teeming plant life. This was one of the paradoxes of that day when the people “saw the voices”: the world of the senses was turned upside down, as was nature itself.
When artist Avner Moriah came to paint this scene, he visualized the mountain as green, with the people standing in awe beneath it, and Moses hidden in the swirling clouds above. It is a powerful image which Moriah conveys with commendable simplicity.
But did Moriah know of this ancient tradition of the flourishing mountain? “Not at all,” he explains to The Jerusalem Report, adding, “I am dyslexic when it comes to the written word. I painted Mount Sinai green because it was in my genes. I knew it without learning about it.”
Moriah studied under the emeritus professor of Bible Studies at Hebrew University, Yair Zakovitch, but would on occasion surprise his teacher. “Often,” recalls Moriah, “he would ask ‘where did you get that idea from?’ as I presented another of my illustrations.”
Only after he had finished his illustrations for the Pentateuch, all fifty-four of them, did he turn to Dr. Shula Laderman, academic advisor of Judaism and the Arts at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, to write an accompanying commentary.
“I did not use traditional commentaries,” Laderman confesses to The Report. “Rather, I followed Avner’s paintings and explained them according to the images that he conjured up.
“It was intriguing to see how he chose what to illustrate. He followed his instincts as far as subject matter, color etc. and, surprisingly, they often brought out novel aspects of the texts since his language is graphic and not the result of some preconceptions that may have limited his interpretation.”
As a secular Israeli, Moriah was familiar with the Bible, but only when he began illuminating it did it reveal itself to his skeptical mind. “As I read each of the weekly portions, I began to see that whatever the topic, the genius of the Torah is in its use of words and phrases, and the connections between subject matter that occur many portions apart. I came to realize that, if nothing else, the editing is divine.”
The co-operation between the secular artist and the religious art academic resulted in “The Illuminated Torah: Paintings and Essays on the Weekly Portions,” a richly fruitful encounter between visual and textual dimensions of the text. It is both a pedagogical and aesthetic treat, for both artist and writer offer a different view of the Five Books of Moses, one in which innovation and tradition meld in a unique and often surprising way.
One example is the painting for the portion of “Ki Tissa” which is a similar scene to the one for the earlier portion of “Yitro,” showing the Children of Israel arrayed before Sinai.
But this time Moses is revealed, breaking asunder the tablets of stone on which are written the Ten Commandments.
He is disgusted with the people who have rebelled. He is on the edge of giving up in exasperation. Thus Moriah has Moses appear as a figure in blue over the golden calf and the text alongside the passive people positioned below, as though a radical separation had occurred between the main players in this drama.
In an earlier painting – depicting the dream of Jacob, Moriah catches Jacob at the lowest point of his life. He has been abandoned by, or left, everything that is precious to him.
And suddenly he has this dream which transforms him forever. He has experienced a different type of reality.
Interestingly, Moriah also hints at the Tower of Babel – whose top, like the ladder in Jacob’s dream, “touched the sky.” But here, unlike at Babel, the tower/ladder does not compete with God. Rather God assures Jacob that his future will be a rosy one, hence the flowery foliage in the picture, in complete contrast to the arid Tower of Babel.
Many of the portions lend themselves to graphic interpretation. But even with the third book, Leviticus, which focuses on animal slaughter and priestly ritual and which for the most part is very far from our own experiences, Moriah was not fazed. “People said to me that Leviticus was an impossible book to illustrate, but I saw it as a challenge.”
Thus for the portion of “Shmini,” he presents the animals that may and may not be eaten in graphic form, so they appear as a check list to which the Israelites had to conform in order to keep kosher. In “Kedoshim,” he depicts a man planting a tree, as Adam was commanded to do in the Garden of Eden, but here to stress the obligation to care for the world of nature in order to be holy.
Another way Moriah analyzes a particular text is to make graphic comparisons between different portions. Thus in “Behar” he contrasts the experience of the Children of Israel in Egyptian slavery with the laws governing the “slave” in Israel, and demonstrates the difference in the concept of slavery between the two civilizations, the one inherent in a hierarchical society, the other governed by the far more humane rules of the God of Israel.
Throughout the book the texts are illuminated (as opposed to merely being illustrated) by the subtle hand of a contemporary artist reflecting on the meaning of the biblical texts for our own age. The commentaries by Laderman are often superb in teasing out what is only hinted at in Moriah’s often puzzling but provocative paintings. For example, without Laderman’s text accompanying the illustration for the portion of Pinhas, it would be difficult to understand that we are seeing a comparison of the story of Zelophehad’s dowry-less daughters with the story of Ruth and Boaz and the necessity in both narratives to perpetuate the name of the deceased – even if you were a woman.
The co-authors maintain that the book is a perfect present for a bar or bat mitzva, but it is also one which people of all ages could study to their advantage