When scholar Arnold Eisen and painter Jill Nathanson decided to collaborate on a project, they began with a deceptively simple question: Does revelation have a visual component? Yes, the divine essence was revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai, but what, exactly, did the prophet see?
The fruit of the pair’s yearlong collaboration is “Seeing Sinai,” a work made up of four paintings by Nathanson and three commentaries by Eisen, the Stanford religious studies professor who was recently named chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. The project, earlier versions of which have been shown in Philadelphia and in New Haven, Conn., will be formally unveiled at the JCC in Manhattan on June 1, the eve of Shavuot, the festival that marks the giving of the Torah at Sinai.
Eisen and Nathanson began their project with a close reading of Exodus 33, which comes immediately after the story of the golden calf and of Moses’ destruction of the first set of tablets. In it, Moses again ascends the mount to ask for God’s forgiveness. Once it is granted, Moses, in an uncharacteristic act of impertinence, asks God if he may behold Him. “Please let me see your glory,” he says.
The section was one that Eisen knew well. As a student at the Hebrew University in 1975, he’d studied it with noted Bible scholar Moshe Greenberg. “We went line by line, word by word, sometimes letter by letter,” Eisen told the Forward. “It’s one of the theological high points of the Torah. It has God describing God. That happens nowhere else.”
Nathanson, a New York-based abstract painter, was less familiar with the text and was somewhat apprehensive about tackling it. She worried that depicting biblical scenes would require a kind of figurative painting, which, for reasons both aesthetic and religious, she did not want to do. “I really blanched,” she told the Forward. “But here I had this great teacher who had agreed to do a collaboration with me.” And so, she persevered.
The result was her first canvas (see above). Of the four she executed for the project, it is, at first glance, the most concrete. In it, we see Moses below and God above, with a seemingly unbridgeable band of gray in between. But the painting, in a sense, goes on to subvert its own ostensible purpose. Moses is represented with the line bearing his request to see God. But instead of providing God’s direct response to Moses, which is, “You can not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live,” Nathanson jumps to the following verse, in which God says, “Behold, there is a place with Me.” What Nathanson tried to capture in the painting, she said, was not a static relationship, a yes and no, but rather a kind of give and take. The painting’s bands of color, she said, “are like elastic bands, a push and pull. The story is about struggle.”
Eisen studied Nathanson’s canvas and penned the first of his commentaries. It is a piece of writing remarkable for what it is not. Written in neither a scholar’s voice nor that of a classical Bible commentator, Eisen’s commentary can best be likened to a novelist’s narration. “Every visit of divine speech exhausted him now,” Eisen writes of Moses. “Even the words which did not demand that he do battle, or climb higher, or challenge Pharaoh, or rebuke the Israelites yet again.” The language is writerly, playful. “The thunder lit only his mind’s sky,” he writes. In a nod to the collaborative task at hand, Eisen mixes senses: Sounds are seen; the light of the divine countenance is heard. The commentary, which Eisen said is unlike anything he’d ever written before, gave Nathanson fresh inspiration. “What he wrote,” she said, “was a breakthrough for the project.”
At its core, the story of Eisen and Nathanson’s collaboration is one of an encounter and its power to transform. Eisen had studied and taught the text in question for decades, but seeing it through the prism of Nathanson’s vision made it new for him, often by bringing to life concepts he had known how to express only verbally. Looking at her canvases, he would see Buber, Rosenzweig, Heschel. “There’s something in us which enables us to encounter God,” he said. “There must be a merger of what’s in us and what’s in God that allows this to happen. That’s what Jill captures in those paintings.”
Nathanson’s first canvas depicts God and man as being distinct, but her second and third paintings bring them together. God refuses to show Himself to Moses, but He offers instead a kind of compromise. “I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand until I have passed by.” Nathanson again worried about getting mired in the realm of the concrete — the rock, the hand. Eisen encouraged her to focus instead on the verbs. The advice reminded Nathanson of Maimonides, who taught that while we may not be able to know what God is, we can know what He does.
In her second painting, Nathanson focused on God putting, covering and uncovering Moses. Her third was devoted to the giving of a new set of tablets. The focus on movement, she found, conformed well with her existing artistic philosophy, which is one of imbalance, instability. “I think of a painting as a visual process rather than an image,” she said. “My aesthetic, as a painter, has been to paint the forces, to make the forces and the pressures palpable in the eye through color and structure.”
The suite’s fourth canvas is its least conflicted, its most exuberant. Moses descends, and his face is aglow; his very being is suffused with the divine. “As Moses was making his way down from the meeting with God, the two inscribed tablets in his hand,” Eisen writes, “far more of God was descending with him than the words of renewed covenant on the stone. For God had inscribed him, too, when they stood there together on the rock-face. Moses himself bore God’s words, inside and out.” The painting, a glorious yellow with green and orange woven through, again challenged Eisen to re-examine his previous visions of the text. “When I imagined Moses suffused with light, I imagined light the color of a light bulb,” he said. “Never did I imagine light as a rainbow.”
In discussing their project, both Nathanson and Eisen took pains to emphasize its sacred character. They spoke of striving to abide by the Second Commandment and its prohibition against fashioning a likeness of God. “Nothing has been represented,” Nathanson said. “It’s just words and colors, movements and energies — no different from kabbalistic diagrams.” As long as one does not paint God or use His name, Eisen argued, “reflecting upon Torah with word and image is a very pious act.”
Asked if he’s uncomfortable with having so personal and idiosyncratic a project appear so soon after being named head of one of American Judaism’s most august institutions, Eisen demurred. “I’m not just a scholar of Judaism, after all,” he said. “I’m a Jew. I’ve been giving divrei Torah [homilies] pretty much my entire adult life. I’ve been trying to step into the text, and when I discuss Torah in a synagogue, even as a scholar, I’m not speaking with detachment…. I’m happy to have this example out there of a Jew who is involved in creative ways with Torah, with Jewish tradition. People should know that the chancellor of JTS is a Jew who loves the Torah and tries to find meaning in it for himself and for others.”
Eisen and Nathanson will be discussing the project during the Tikkun Leil Shavuot all-night study session at the JCC on June 1 at 11:30 p.m.
Gabriel Sanders is the Forward’s features editor.