THE BLOG
10/09/2014 11:57 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

An Introduction to Kabbalah: Light, Space and the Spirit

My book Kabbalah in Art and Architecture is a personal interpretation of the Kabbalah as a source of evocative ideas that have either inspired, or are illustrated by, significant works of art and architecture. Kabbalah, which in Hebrew means "that which has been received," is the Jewish mystical tradition that stretches back at least 3,500 years.

Kabbalists believe the secrets they possess were handed down since the time of Abraham, but the main body of teaching was not resolved fully until the medieval period of the twelfth century, culminating in the Zohar, the Book of Radiance, of 1280, and subsequently, in 1570, the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria in Safed, Palestine.

The Kabbalah seeks to understand the mystical inner workings of God, and to direct initiates to an ecstatic experience of the Divine. It views the universe as a vast interconnected system of forces in which God and mankind have a direct relationship of checks and balances, with the actions of each reverberating on the other in mysterious ways.

There are multiple levels of reality, from the visible world to the incomprehensible space of the divine. Ultimately, the entire cosmos is a code for the name of God and the Torah, his revealed holy scripture. In the Kabbalah, the Torah and its Hebrew words and letters are synonymous with God Himself, and therefore one of the mystic's goals is to attempt to understand the hidden meanings behind the literal words of the Bible.

My own journey into the proverbial "orchard" of the Kabbalah began as an architect faced with the task of designing a synagogue in Kings Point, New York in 1995. Aware of the lack of an authentic style of design for synagogues due to the lack of opportunity of the Jewish people to develop a style of their own, often confined to physical ghettos or thrown out of their host countries. In the nineteenth century they often adopted the architectural style of the places in which they lived, either classical, Byzantine, or "exotic."

I chose instead to search beyond the themes of the Old Testament, such as the "burning bush" that became hackneyed images of synagogue design of the 1960s, for more authentic sources of inspiration. To my amazement, Scholem's books revealed a world I had not known about before, as well as a series of ideas and concepts that were immediately relevant to the design of the synagogue.

As I studied the texts in more depth, it became apparent that many of these ideas had already been in circulation in the world of architecture, art and literature, especially at the beginning of the abstract expressionist period of American art in the early 1950's. These artists had been involved with the subconscious world of myths and images from surrealism and dreams through the psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. It was a small step to the mysticism of the Kabbalah, with its more abstract, conceptual ideas. In the American poet Alan Ginsburg's famous poem "Howl" of 1955, he references "bop kabbalah."

In the 1950s, the American Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman, who was Jewish, entitled many of his paintings with Hebraic names. The artist also designed a synagogue for an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1961 with the theme of Tzimtzum, the Kabbalistic creation theme. The art historian Dore Ashton, who personally knew the Russian-born painter Mark Rothko, compared his use of light to the radiance of the Zohar. In 1963, the American architect Louis Kahn based a plan of a synagogue in Philadelphia on the Tree of the Sefirot. Architect Steven Holl acknowledged he studied the writings of Scholem for the design of his 1990 St. Ignacious Chapel in Seattle, Washington.

Certainly most unusual is the German artist Anselm Kiefer's explicit use of the most esoteric Kabbalistic themes for over twenty years. In literature, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges quotes from the Zohar, and in his 1949 story The Aleph, he writes: "In the Kabbala, that letter signifies En Soph, the pure and unlimited godhead; it has also been said that its shape is that of a man pointing to he sky and the earth, to indicate that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher." In all, these artists have shown a path to an understanding of eternal themes that animate art and life. In future blogs, additional thoughts about how light and universal energy can be focused by the individual to direct their daily path will be explored.

Links to Kabbalah in Art and Architecture are here and here.