Buddha Meets the Kabbalah in San Francisco

Jewish Museum Explores Century of Spirituality

Generation of Watchers: Nam June Paik’s 1989 ‘TV-Buddha,’ currently on display as part of “Beyond Belief” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, cleverly anticipated the social media era.
Courtesy of Contemporary Jewish Museum
Generation of Watchers: Nam June Paik’s 1989 ‘TV-Buddha,’ currently on display as part of “Beyond Belief” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, cleverly anticipated the social media era.

By Menachem Wecker

Published July 03, 2013, issue of July 05, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Barnett Newman’s steel sculpture “Zim Zum 1” typically resides on the roof of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It now sits across the street, on the ground floor of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where it is the first piece to confront viewers of the exhibit “Beyond Belief: 100 Years of the Spiritual in Modern Art.”

Newman’s title references the kabbalistic notion of “retraction,” wherein divine sparks were enclosed in containers called kellipot, Hebrew for “shells,” to make space to contain the world. Walking between the steel “walls” of Newman’s sculpture — which evokes Richard Serra’s “Torqued Ellipses”— the sense of claustrophobia mimics the divine withdrawal.

“Under the tension of that ‘Tzim-Tzum’ that created light and the world, [each person] can experience a total sense of his own personality before the Torah,” reads a quote from Newman featured in a CJM wall text. The quote betrays the awkwardness of the Jewish artist — famous for his “Stations of the Cross” — when it comes to some of the Jewish texts he drew upon.

“Zim Zum 1” has never been lent to any place before, according to James Leventhal, deputy director of development at the CJM. Leventhal led a preview of the exhibit with curator Karen Tsujimoto. “Beyond Belief,” which will be on view from June 28 to October 27, is the first of several exhibits on which SFMOMA is collaborating with area institutions during the two and a half year renovation of its building. “Closed for construction, yet more open than ever” is the museum’s motto.

SFMOMA “precast its net” on its own collection, and presented CJM curators with a large list of works containing spiritual aspects. The curators selected the works they wanted to include. The exhibit is organized in 10 sections: Genesis, Divine Architecture, The Secret Language, Presence, God in the Abstract, The World To Come, Without End, Master of Time, Hidden and Revealed, and Loss and Redemption.

At the entrance to the Genesis section is “TV Buddha” by Korean American artist Nam June Paik, in which a Buddha sits in front of a television set, locked on a channel featuring the Buddha. The Enlightened One watches himself on TV, an image that almost seems to cannily anticipate the social media era.

Many of the other 50-odd artists in the exhibit are not Jewish, and works in “Beyond Belief” have Native American, Christian, Buddhist and Islamic roots. One standout is Beirut-born artist Mona Hatoum’s “Pin Rug,” a mat inspired by an Islamic prayer rug and composed of stainless steel pins — each nearly 2 inches tall — that point upward. Needless to say, the rug would be an uncomfortable one to kneel on and pray, and the piece is also a risky inclusion for a Jewish museum. (Hatoum, after all, was part of the “Imaginary Coordinates” exhibit in Chicago that the Spertus Museum closed early.)


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.