The subway car roared at breakneck speed as artist Avner Moriah traveled from New York’s Lower East Side to his studio on the Upper West Side. Throughout the ride, he tightly clutched a roll of high-quality white paper, which he had just bought at a downtown art supply store. It was a seminal journey for Moriah, as his odyssey to illuminate the entire Torah was about to take shape.
“I thought to myself: This blank, lifeless paper will soon be imbued with God’s spirit,” recalls the 69-year-old artist. “I was blessed with the amazing opportunity and challenge to add my own artistic layer to the story of humankind. I was ready.”
“I was blessed with the amazing opportunity and challenge to add my own artistic layer to the story of humankind. I was ready.”Avner Moriah
The project, which he began in 2006, took 15 years to complete. Already a renowned landscape artist, this secular Israeli, whose artworks have been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, had to reinvent himself when his wife, Andi, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001.
The odyssey to Illuminate the entire Torah
His frequent outings into Israel’s countryside to capture the mystery and majesty of the land onto his life-sized canvases had to be curtailed with her diagnosis. Instead, his time over the next decade was consumed with her doctors’ appointments, endless tests and treatments, a bone marrow transplant, and an array of unpleasant side effects.
He pivoted to illuminating Jewish classics as an outlet to express his artistic gift as he juggled the demands of being a primary caretaker. But he was in uncharted territory. Not only did he have to work in a scaled-down, book-sized format, but he also had to delve intimately into traditional Hebrew texts with which he was only marginally familiar.
Creating his acclaimed Moriah Haggadah was his maiden artistic foray into illustrating venerated Hebrew books. “The central motifs of the Haggadah – the journey from slavery to freedom, and the cycle of life – were echoed in our struggle with Andi’s cancer,” he says.
Five years of remission in the early 2000s gave the couple hope. When her illness returned, Moriah’s artistic routine again stopped in its tracks and every ounce of the couple’s strength was devoted to her battle for life.
“As she responded to her bone marrow transplant in 2006, in cycles of destruction and rebirth, I realized that the doctors treating her were put in the position of making decisions regarding life and death that were only slightly less profound than God’s in His creation.
“It was then that I decided to take on the challenge of illuminating the Torah, and I began working on the Book of Genesis, whose central motif is the creation – the gift of life.”
To acquaint himself with the complexities of the biblical text, Moriah sought out the distinguished scholar, Prof. Yair Zakovitch, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During the many hours that they spent together dissecting the verses of the Torah, images and themes began to sprout in Moriah’s imagination.
After each meeting, he returned to his Har Adar studio in the Judean hills, where he created hundreds of preliminary studies that formed the basis of a visual index. He then collaborated with master calligrapher Izzy Pludwinsky, who transformed the thousands of Hebrew verses into a scriptural tour de force.
Work on his Illuminated Book of Exodus continued seamlessly after Genesis, which was created in times of pain and turmoil – but also great hope. “My wife’s 2006 bone marrow transplant had succeeded and we seemed to be on our way to a new beginning,” he recalls.
But that hope would be dashed as he continued to work on his Exodus volume. The side effects of his wife’s treatments were fierce, with little respite. Once again, the poignant narratives of the Torah became a source of strength and personal significance for Moriah.
“I was determined that failure was not an option. And so, like Moses climbing up and down his mountain, I persisted. And like that generation of Israelites who were not to reach the Promised Land, hope remained just beyond our reach. Andi succumbed to her illness in 2011.
“Looking back on the days, nights and years of caring for Andi, I see that the choice to continue my odyssey from Genesis through to Deuteronomy is also the story of my personal burning bush. It is the light that ignited this artistic journey and continues to illuminate it till this day.”
FOR ZAKOVITCH, observing how Moriah transformed biblical narratives into image and color was like witnessing a modern-day Bezalel, the biblical artisan, at work. Of their collaboration, Zakovitch writes: “Avner’s hand is not only guided by the language of the Torah. He dips his brush into the language of his fellow artists from the past. As we look at his paintings, we find suggestions of ancient Near Eastern art, and the cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia that flanked the Israelite nation.
“Keen eyes also will recognize the deep influences of European art and Avner’s ongoing tribute to Paul Klee and his distinct style, as well as continuing dialogues with the likes of El Greco and others.”
For Moriah, exploring the deeper layers of Jewish texts with Zakovitch was an eye-opening process. “Before I started, I didn’t know much about biblical scriptures,” admits the Jerusalem native. “He was my candle to the texts.
“I am very secular,” he says adamantly, “but in a crazy way I found a way to fall in love with the biblical texts. My secularism gave me the freedom to make my own interpretations of scripture. I wasn’t confined by traditional understandings.”
In addition to depicting a particular narrative in the Torah, Moriah often added his own creative, visual commentary to his vibrant illuminations by juxtaposing themes and scenes described in other biblical accounts. For instance, on the first page of his Illuminated Book of Exodus, he compares the two midwives – who defy Pharaoh’s edict to kill the Israelite males during childbirth – with Queen Esther. The common theme? “Women are the ones who save the people of Israel,” Moriah explains.
Later in his Exodus volume, Moriah compares the slaying of the Egyptians’ firstborn with the Genesis account of Abraham as he is about to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar.
In his scene of the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea, Moriah brackets his illustration with images of mythical Mesopotamian figures. He notes that both the Exodus story and the Mesopotamian account tell of a sea that splits, with people drowning, as well as the promise that the survivors will build a Temple.
Touches of humor also permeate his illuminations. For the plague of lice, he illustrates a sphinx scratching itself from the critters. In another impish drawing, the plague of boils likewise “infects” these stone statues.
Since in Jewish tradition there is a prohibition against depicting an image of God, Moriah had to come up with his own visual metaphor. To solve the issue, he drew an extended hand, or a fierce wind, to convey God’s spirit.
MANY OF these monumental volumes have been acquired by some of the world’s most prestigious libraries and collections, such as the New York Public Library, Yale and Harvard libraries, Oxford University Library, the Jewish Theological Seminary library and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
In 2012, he presented his Illuminated Book of Genesis to Pope Benedict in a special audience at the Vatican; in 2017 he again journeyed to Rome to present his Illuminated Book of Exodus to Pope Francis. Both books are now part of the Vatican Library. This past July, he traveled to Spain, where his Genesis volume was given to King Felipe VI.
The fact that his books are part of the collection of the Christian church, which persecuted and demonized Jews for centuries, has deep significance for Moriah, whose own grandparents fled Nazi Europe to British Mandatory Palestine.
The church, he posits, is now “doing a heshbon nefesh,” the Hebrew term for “soul-searching.” Their acquisition of his artworks represents his “small contribution to the church’s reconciliation with the Jewish people and the idea that there is now an open dialogue,” he adds.
As he reflects on the 15 years it took him to complete this monumental endeavor, he says he would not hesitate to embark on the project all over again, since he gleaned deep personal insights as he engaged with the Hebrew scriptures.
“Some of our journeys may seem clear from the outset; others are unknown and unexpected. With every step, we rely on our inner light to guide us. This is the beauty of life.
“There were moments of grace throughout Andi’s illness, and others of profound disappointment – and ultimately a failure that I would have to endure. I stumbled and rose repeatedly, guided by my internal fire – my art – and faith in my path to complete my Illuminated Torah. I’ve learned through this journey that in each of us, there is something of a Moses.”
To view more of Moriah’s extensive artwork, see www.avnermoriahprints.com.