Fifteen years ago, at a scholar-in-residence weekend in Southern California, Chaim Potok asked the question: Is Jewish life meant to be vertical or horizontal?
Potok, a respected scholar as well as a best-selling novelist, posed this question about Jewish life after describing the arc of secular modernity in spatial terms. Classic Western culture, he explained, has been conceived in vertical terms — God and kings above, with the rest of us down below. In recent centuries, however, these icons have been toppled, and our orientation is now mostly horizontal — God inside and around us, democracy our political theology.
Potok didn’t exactly answer his own question, although he placed recent Jewish cultural and religious shifts in the context of our culture’s increasing horizontality.
This horizontality has only increased since then. If the author and columnist Thomas Friedman is the closest we have to a bellwether of our civilization, then his best-selling book “The World is Flat” says it all. In addition, as Potok wouldn’t yet have been able to glean, the Internet has promoted the idea of infinite association, where the bias is toward flat linking, as opposed to deep penetration. (Interestingly, Potok was the first person with whom I worked on virtual literary chats when this technology first became widely available).
Jewishly speaking, the visual metaphor of up-and-down makes a lot of sense. God has been most often portrayed as living in the heavens, with the language for spiritual uplift vertically oriented. We “look up” to our teachers and parents; we make “aliyah,” literally “to ascend,” when moving to Israel; Jacob the patriarch imagined angels climbing a ladder, not crossing a bridge.
By the same token, there is a lot of horizontality built into traditional Jewish life. For instance, we read from a Torah scroll, continually unspooled, as opposed to a book. The levels of commentary expressed visually in the Talmud are flat and associative. Even the Talmud story about God being told not to interfere with the deliberations of the rabbis, as they argue over the meaning of a law, suggests that the real spiritual energy is oriented among people over a flat table.
The increasing reliance on the Internet as a metaphor for human life leads us further into interesting visual metaphors for Jewish horizontality. Just as the idea of infinite global links defines the Internet, and the idea of the global economic and cultural network is the basis for world culture, the Jewish people’s history as a network of traders and correspondents has come to be seen as a precursor for the contemporary condition.
Underneath this discussion is, I think, the worry that our culture’s Internet-fueled horizontality is making depth of thought and concentration of purpose more difficult. This is on top of the concern that Jewish life has become too superficial, lacking in any true hierarchy of learning and values.
My travels through this spatial conundrum have been immeasurably enriched and complicated by the odd nature of my workplace. Day after day I wander the galleries of Daniel Libeskind’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, struck by the architect’s strategic disorientation of Hebrew letters, and Jewish ideas about space.
For instance, the building is shaped out of two huge Hebrew letters — chet and yud — which we expect to read horizontally, but which must be navigated vertically. More subtly, and perhaps even more compelling, is his creation of an enormous lighted wall, spelling out the word PaRDeS in Hebrew.
Pardes, which means something like orchard in Hebrew, is associated with the wanderings of Rabbis Akiva, Ben Zoma, Ben Azzai and Elisha Ben Abuya through a metaphysical garden of spiritual tests. The idea of this flat journey is upended by the traditional use of PaRDes as an acronym for the four levels of commentary. In addition, Libeskind’s towering letters suggest wild flowers springing up to heaven.
This inspired ambiguity over the vertical vs. the horizontal plays out at the bottom of the letters. Depending on how you view it, the letters appear to penetrate beneath the ground, demonstrating solid vertical roots, or transform from a vertical to horizontal orientation, spreading out onto the concrete floor. The first interpretation, to some observers, suggests “Jewish depth”; the horizontal orientation, for others, certifies its lack, a rootless Jewish life.
At the end of the day, the question of whether Jews are a north-south people or an east-west people begs the larger question: Are we still a people for whom wandering and movement, whether physical or metaphysical, is central to our identity?
Whatever the ambiguity of Daniel Libeskind’s PaRDeS wall, there is no mistaking the central metaphor of the museum’s auditorium, a series of criss-crossing lines designed as a medieval trade map to Jerusalem. In this context, traveling east toward Jerusalem is also a movement toward a spiritual true north. The horizontal and the vertical merge.
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
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