Innovative Ways that Visual Art Can Deepen Judaic Learning in High Schools
The visual arts are an excellent medium for maintaining and deepening high school students’ interest in Judaic studies. Art produced by the students themselves will make Judaic material more meaningful and memorable to them, as it requires the application of both independence and creativity. Frequently, teachers assign art projects as assessment of learned material: posters, dioramas, illustration-laden book reports, and the like. But art has great potential to develop student abilities even more deeply.
Paper cut by the author
Art in the classroom does not just have to reflect what students have learned or the content of the curriculum. Art can also create that learning. Teachers can give an assignment for students to create their own piece of art illustrating a passage studied. This is most effective with biblical texts, as they often contain subtle detail and visual imagery. Students are forced to consider details that might have passed them by when reading the words for conceptual understanding. After creating the art, students might further their learning by seeking answers to questions that arose during the process.
This encourages skills building: students identify and distinguish details in the verses and use textual analysis. Very astute or artistic students may also notice an overall visual impression of a scene which yields further questions, predictions and research of possible answers. For most such assignments, art teachers may use their discretion to choose what media they deem an appropriate match for the subject matter.
For example, students can be asked to paint the world as they imagine it based on the first three verses in Bereishit. Upon deciding how to depict the background and coloring of the scene, a student might notice for the first time that the world was initially dark and not just tohu vavohu. A student would also be forced to consider what tohu vavohu means.
A teacher can assign different students to depict the text according to different commentaries. For example, one student or group of students is assigned to render the verses according to Ramban’s idea that the world started with primeval matter which was then formed into real items. Another student or group could be asked to illustrate Rashi’s notion of light and darkness as interspersed with each other prior to the establishment of day and night.
Such an assignment could be given regarding the giving of the Torah as well. Depicting the scene according to the peshat could lead students to notice the imposing nature of the event, as opposed to the rosy scene often envisioned by preschoolers. This can lead to meaningful lessons about why that is the case, as well as yield a deeper understanding of how the Jewish people must have felt approaching the scene on that day. Students may include a rendering of the well-known midrash about Har Sinai blossoming. They might get creative in depicting the shofar getting progressively louder, or the famous comment by Rashi that the Jewish people stood ke-ish echad be-lev echad, as one person with one heart.
Teaching about the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is perfect material for incorporating art with Judaism. It is a challenge to figure out how to teach such subject matter which seems rather dry and technical, but visualizing it can make it more meaningful. While it would be a bit much to expect any high school student to create a thorough painting of the Mishkan and its vessels, an alternate version of this model could be used for this topic. There are currently a few books that illustrate the Mishkan and its vessels in intricate detail. Certainly such illustrations are necessary to properly understand the chapters describing the Mishkan.
But as pieces of art, any page of those books can be examined visually to enhance student appreciation for the Mishkan. Rather than studying the material solely through the words of a text, students can gain an entirely new perspective on the Mishkan by learning what it actually looked like. Each student can choose or be assigned a particular vessel or segment of the Mishkan to study. They would then analyze the illustration of it and note either questions or impressions they glean from their observations. One student may be struck by the gleam of all the gold in the vessels. Another may be perplexed by the colors embroidered in the curtains, or the images of the cherubim. A third may realize the stark feel one would get upon entering the courtyard whose curtains were entirely white.
The student would then study commentaries interpreting the significance of their item. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in particular has a thorough and interesting interpretation of the Mishkan which is very in tune with its visual impressions. Teachers might select appropriate passages from this lengthy commentary.
In all these projects, students of art can be encouraged to utilize the elements of color, line, size and composition to portray or interpret the passage as meaningfully as possible.
This model would more naturally be assigned to an art class where students are already producing realistic images, and in such a case there could be collaboration between Judaic studies and art teachers. An art teacher who knows a given class is studying Mount Sinai in Chumash, for example, could assign the project described above at that time. However, any Tanakh class could have this assignment as one of a few assessment options from which to choose.
Psalm 137 by Moshe Zvi Berger HaLevi
An alternative model requires more abstract but also more creative thinking. Students of art know that art can be symbolic. An image can stand for an idea, and abstract forms can communicate emotions. This is apparent from the work of various abstract artists, whose work might be studied by an art class in conjunction with this Judaic studies curriculum (though the Judaic curriculum is not dependent on an in-depth study of modern art). For example, Wassily Kandinsky used abstract forms and colors to communicate human emotions, ideas and spirituality. In his drip paintings, Jackson Pollock used the process of how he placed the paint on the canvas to express his inner troubled mind. Marc Rothko’s “sectionals,” his paintings of soft-edged shapes made of shimmering color, were meant to be universal statements about the human condition. It is possible to apply these methods and others to Judaic content.
As part of a unit on symbolic or abstract art, an art class can join forces with a Judaic studies class to stretch the students’ abilities to visually represent their learning. Students might begin by studying works of artists such as those mentioned above and/or Moshe Tzvi Halevi Berger, who created a separate piece of art corresponding to each of the 150 Psalms. His work utilizes Jewish and general symbols, color and shape to represent themes and messages in each Psalm.
After analyzing his work, students can either select conceptual passages of their choice or be assigned a passage to illustrate. I offer two examples I myself did as an art student in Stern College.
In the first, I painted a visual rendering of the Rashi that states that God created the world first with His trait of Din, harsh justice, and then changed to using Rachamim, mercy (Bereishit 1:1). I illustrated this using principles of design I had learned. The top of the painting was dark, with black and red colors intermixed, as these colors typically symbolize Din. They appeared in small, straight lines to represent the original state of the world, which was more distant in the past. In art, things in the distance appear smaller. The straight form also represented Din. As the painting developed downward, the lines gradually transitioned into whitish-pinkish curvy lines. By the bottom of the painting, the lines were larger, appearing closer to the viewer and thus representing the latter period of creation, with mercy. The colors and softer, round forms of the lines represented mercy as well.
In the second example, I created a colored paper cut with four panels, each representing a different season according to Judaism. I used what I knew about the major holidays and tone of each season to construct the panels. Each used different shapes and groups of colors to communicate the feel of that time in addition to forms of holiday items compatible with that season. In the resulting piece, each panel has small images or pieces of the colored paper which cause each panel to lead into the next. This communicates the cycle and interconnect- edness of the Jewish year.
These two models described provide rich opportunities to develop students’ thinking skills as well as to endear both fields of study to them. They illustrate the deep understanding of both Judaic material and art skills that can be developed and displayed through merging art and Torah studies.