Wellsprings of Creativity: Art as Inquiry into the Tanhuma

Joseph Heinamann:

Aggadah represents a creative reaction to the upheavals suffered by Israel…It represents an attempt to develop new methods of exegesis designed to yield new understandings of scripture for a time of crisis and a period of conflict…(42).[1]

By developing a method of creative exegesis, aggadists were able to find in Scripture, which might otherwise have come to seem irrelevant to contemporary needs—the new answers and values which made it possible to grapple with the shifts and changes of reality (43).

The aggadist adds, deviates from, changes, or permutes the traditions he has received according to his own devices…(52).

…Aggadah as a way of thinking is fluid and open; the wellsprings of its innovative vigor and its spirit of independent creativity were never blocked off (53).

Michael Fishbane:

There is no authoritative teaching which is not also the source of its own renewal, that revealed teachings are a dead letter unless revitalized in the mouth of those who study them (19).

These excerpts gave me permission to use my own device to engage with midrash. The device I used, known as the Open Studio Process, is the means I used to access these texts. This process is a means of using art and writing to dialogue with one’s own inner wisdom and to move deeper into a given phenomena so as to engage with it and find what is unique and meaningful. By using this process I am able to create a bridge between my personal experience and the collective experience that resides in this midrash.

In following this process I first studied the midrash in depth in chevruta as well as in class. I then chose a line from the text that felt meaningful. Next, I created an intention using pieces from that line (ie. Delve into the connection between water and Torah) as well as acknowledgements of my emotional state at that time (ie. To have fun and not judge myself). The beauty of this process is that it allows you to bring your whole self to it, fully and honestly. When I acknowledge that I am afraid or anxious, for instance, it clears those emotions out of the way for a full engagement with the text. I then put the intention aside and began by putting marks of color on a page. Creating an image allowed me to engage in an experience of pleasure. Pleasure is a means of accessing eros, which is the life force energy. This sense of pleasure opened up a space in me for a deeper understanding of the text to arise. When the image felt finished, I engaged in the next step of the process, which is witness writing. This writing moved me out of the realm of emotion and back into the realm of the mind. Intention made a bridge into eros and the witness allowed me to climb back out and explain where I had been. I have found this process to be another means to enter the text, in a contemporary fashion, in a way that is meaningful and satisfying. Because this process allows for seeing images and hearing words, it gives the community a variety of entrance points to appreciate where a person is coming from.


Intention 1:

To take what I know about the midrashic method and explore how the creative process can be used as a form of midrashic inquiry. To gain new insight into midrash as a technique and into this text of Tanhuma on Beresheit in particular. To release anxiety and stress.

Witness 1:

With wisdom Gd created the earth. I see חכמה with her long flowing hair, outstretched arms, head tilted back. Birthing the light of the world, as if in ecstasy. Colors leap out in arcs, mimicking the arc of her swirling, heaving belly. Her vibrant life comes from rock, slate, immovable earth. But all earth moves over time. Light enters where cracks appear and wedge the splinters open until worlds can be birthed.

Immediately, small flowers crane their supple necks, anxious to grow into the ever-spreading light. Life cannot help but fill every vacant space it’s allowed into.

This is what was before anything was? Undulating, pulsing. Life, born of sheet rock and slate. She calls out to Gd to merge with her to bring the world into being. She gives shape and light, waiting for partnership to drop in, making ripples in the energetic mass, sending each wave into vibrating forms. נתיעץ בתורה? So tempting to see a scroll between her hands, but no. Where is תורה in this? תורה is the life appearing everywhere a crack appears.

Her hands are open, not clutching anything. She is open, vulnerable, moved, looking to Gd as partner, co-creator. Feeling energy and power as the world comes into being.

I can feel myself resisting the move of תורהß wisdom. Is this an homage to הכמה?

The Divinely feminine aspect of the creator that has been subsumed into words, parchment, language and grammatical forms? Or is this a broader understanding of what Torah encapsulates?

Is Torah the spiraling golden orb rising from her belly? Now the yellow orb becomes the center of consciousness, the rainbow arc—Gd’s skull. Gd emerges from wisdom, pulling in the rays of light. Maybe it reads “בראשית” with the beginning Gd was created. Cracks in rock like connective spinal cord. The wisdom/mind of Gd is the womb of חכמה.

To dive further into this midrash with the על קוצ וקוצ תלי תלימ. To understand where תורה as we know it relates to the creation of the world. Where is the connection between הלחות and חכמה? To have fun and not judge myself.



Witness 1a:

For some reason I thought this piece would focus on the אש לבנה, but what came out doesn’t seem to have white fire. I see a large letter “ב” with a city sitting inside of it. Mounds and mounds of halachot. The buildings rise tall and sit crouched in all crevices of the ב platform. Just like the flowers in the last piece, coming to fill every vacant space where life can grow. So here, הלכות comes to fill every space of life with directions for how to live. I see the spiral mind of Gd in the dagesh of the  ב but it seems disconnected from its source, its tail hanging in midair. All around the ב are cracks in the slate rock, with a portion breaking open for light to enter.

Once the base of the ב was set, construction began. First one building, now a whole skyline. Is it occupied by people? Is this midrash here to teach us that upon every letter, people come to pile up their needs and dependencies and morals and desires so that each letter becomes so laden with rules and feelings that it becomes a stagnant, lifeless city of skeletal building frames with its base structure crumbling all around it? Or does it come to each that every letter has the unique ability to help direct us on our path? That when we pay attention to each detail, curvature, or dot it is in these moments when we find truth? Perhaps it is in the meditative act of noticing each line and mark that we learn.

We learn next from this midrash that each line and dot is important because if but one mark is off, the word’s meaning could drastically change and our world could be shattered. And what does this mean? That within each letter is the possibility of life and death and it is up to us to employ these letters correctly? Or, that death and destruction could sneak up on us at any moments so we must pay very close attention to every stroke of the pen? Or, that paying attention is itself the heart of the matter and that when we don’t pay attention, even to things as seemingly as simple as a dagesh, then we are not paying attention to the truly major decisions that will shape the future of our world?

And then we see the move made in the text from מחריב to רחבה, that the opposite of destroying he world is to widen it. Maybe the way we widen is to move deeply into each letter. Explore its surfaces and opening, begin to set up shop. Over time, buildings are put up and neighborhoods established. As more and more people come, the surfaces are weighed down with infrastructure. Cracks form, the ground breaks open, and the world is widened. Or maybe the way we widen is to come to each letter, knocking on its doors and windows and platforms, and see where there is give. Find the hollow places and bang until we knock it down. Patience or force? Evolving or revolting?


Intention 2:

To learn more about תורה  and חכמה from the phrase אל תקרי אמון אלא אומן To enjoy this method of inquiry and not doubt its relevance and importance. To work with the differences between artist and midwife from the point of view of חכמה.

Witness 2:

Both of the paintings I have tried to make are revolting to me. Both images of female forms giving birth in some way. It feels too literal. It feels like heresy to have such a graphic image of a woman associated with the rabbis’ midrash. Why did they make the move from artist à midwife? Is Torah the midwife? It is upsetting how uncomfortable I feel with the image of the birthing woman. If חכמה is a woman, then that means Gd is a man? There is not a clear image in my mind. I am afraid to see what comes out because I think it will be portraying clichés and stereotypes. Has anyone else ever done art on this midrash? Why don’t I stop being afraid and see what comes out? I want to midwife this piece, but I feel like my own thoughts keep getting in the way, trying to control it.

Did the rabbis change artist à midwife because the wanted to ascribe less control to חכמה?



Witness 3:

Woman standing naked in The Garden, gently lifting back a curtain. Blue, like the sky, like the sea the Moshe parted. The sea like a veil between worlds: slavery and freedom, unconscious, unformed world and creation. Eve awakens, eats, becomes conscious, mortal, seeking, and starts removing the veils. Humans were one with the creator, both behind the veil. With an intimate knowledge of one another on a bodily level, but too close to really see. We are still in the process of lifting layers, waiting until we can be face to face again. But this time, we will really see. The veils can create a shelter of peace high above us. Is this how we come to know Gd?


Intention 3:

To explore the relationship of lifting the veils to the creation of barriers to the sea. What does putting limits on chaos look like and what role does תורה play?



Witness 3:

Barriers, boundaries to the chaos. The moon appears in the darkness, foreshadowing the coming days of creation where the sun and moon are made to rule over the sky. I see darkness giving way to chaos. But the chaos is beautiful, intense confetti of possibility. Creation was established by containing the chaos and it was founded on תורה. Is תורה the covenant between Gd and humans, visible through natural phenomena in every generation? A mix between the clouds and sun up high and the rain falling down to earth below. Where are the veils here? The darkness is a veil between chaos and תורה; it snakes along, outlining Gd’s covenant. Gently outlining it, but not covering or subsuming it. Providing contrast.

I thought the chaos would be scarier, darker. Instead, it contains every color, a hint at every possibility. I see allusions to the covenantal rainbow, so gentle and flowing, the promise of partnership; a peace offering at the end of a long struggle of rebirth as autonomous beings. Adam and Chava split to become two, the Sea of Reeds splits later on, another division bringing autonomy. The more we separate the closer we get to Gd.

What are the colors behind the moon? Golden sunrise and bright blue waters. Even as all this activity is occurring, the sun continues to rise and set, another day will come and this particular moment will no longer be visible. I hear Kohelet, but not in a sad, Sisyphusian way, more in a reassuring, cyclical way. There’s the sense of returning to the same place over and again, but each time with more openness and love.


Intention 4:

To play with the relationship between the shining radiance of Gd on Moshe’s face and the hidden: ויסתר and לקלסתר To relax into this project and act as midwife rather than as an architect.

Witness 4:

I intended to focus on hiddenness and brilliance, but what came is an image of הנתן הקדש ברוף הוא עם מעשה בראשית Gd striking a bargain with Gd’s works of creation. The mountains flipped upside down over Israel’s head, but already the scroll is between the people’s hands. The force of Gd comes tumbling through the crevice, pounding down the rocks. Why is the scroll blank? Is this the moment where the people have been given a chance to enter the covenant with Gd through תורה? And, with the mountains perched overhead, they are deciding whether or not to accept? Feeling the supple scroll in their hands, wondering if they should take the chance to see what might fill the pages?

Or have they, after a long and heated debate with Gd, accepted תורה, only to realize that, after all of their arguing and resistance, what Gd had wanted to give them was simply this open canvass for them to play and experiment on—as a mirror for self-examination and reflection?

I see the mountains with their sharp peaks perched precariously over ישראל, but the image feels oddly balanced. I do not get the impression that at any moment Gd may drop these spikes and destroy the people. Are the mountains here to contain the presence of Gd? Are they a form of הסתר? Without the mountains, Gd could not help but allow Gd’s presence to seep across the entire scene, clouding the air and inadvertently inscribing תורה with Gd’s own words and images. Mountains as a veil? How can a threat be a veil? Did the people even perceive it as a threat? Were they happy to have mountains hanging from the sky rather than Gd’s presence hovering over them? Rather than an ultimatum, could the mountains have been like the rainbow, a sign of the ברית  that if Israel accepted תורה Gd would let them fill its pages themselves?


Intention 5:

Delve into the connection between water and Torah. אשריכם זרעים על כל מים


Witness 5:

Started out with an idea of the פלגי מים (flowing streams) but instead of a flowing stream, out came rushing waterfalls. It looks like so much fun! In the top right corner, a girl sits at the peak of the falls, hands high in the air as she prepares to slide down. Effortless, flowing, free fall, total trust allowing for full opening and complete presence in the moment. How is water like Torah? How do we ride the wave, the rush of תורה (Torah) with hands up and still stay afloat? How do we know when we’re safe? We’ve seen the מים (water) of the מבול (flood). It would seem, then, that an incredible amount is hanging on the ברית.

The reciprocity of a covenantal bond is what allows for us to relax into the flowing waters of תורה without fear. I keep expecting to see an image of the nurturing power of water, but what has shown up is the playfulness and wildness.

We have so many reasons, so many traumas and abuses and hurts that have been inflicted in the name of תורה that perhaps many of us have given up on the thought of Torah as joy and freedom. It is always possible to dwell in the pain, the oppression, the suffocation. Those feelings and that anger are primed. But they can only serve us so long. Perhaps we let these feelings, this heaviness be as stones—full, important, and present. But as we shift our focus and intention, perhaps they recede from center stage and pile on one another as boulders nestling in against one another, climbing one on the next until a tall wall has been created. You can’t go under and you can’t go through. Only dynamic, moving force could find its way over and down. We are searching, so many of us who have despaired at seeing תורה and Gd so misused, that all we would have are the heavy, dark stones. But תורה is not this. It is the ever changing, always moving flow of life that is uncontainable. It invites us in for the ride. All who are thirsty come and drink. תמכיה מאשר

We almost believed them. Those who would contain, dam up, freeze the waters of Torah. But water is one of the most powerful forces on earth. Seeping in, freezing and thawing, it can widen a tiny crack into an expansive abyss. It is the only substance without which we could not live. It is the nectar of life. It can morph forms and sublimate; it cleanses us. It is in every habitat on earth and it is constantly cycling. Touching air, water, plants, ground, sky. Within us it circulates, and then leaves our bodies to soak in somewhere else. Even if you gather it up and try to wall it in, water will not stay. It knows no borders.

[1] All quotations taken from: Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick, Midrash and Literature, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.