For peoples who have attained a state of aesthetic affluence in high art, where the luxuriant proliferation of genius obliges art museum curators to be as panicked about which masterly works to leave out of their collections as about which works to include, art criticism is an occupation of the leisure class. Such a felicitous situation, for various reasons, does not hold for the Jewish people. If one were asked to name world-class novelists who have written on Jewish themes, the names of Nobel laureates in literature like Shai Agnon, Nelly Sachs, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Imre Kertész would come to mind readily enough. If asked about filmmakers who have tackled Jewish themes and Jewish characters, the names would probably spill forth even faster. But who, after recalling the illustrious name of Marc Chagall, can name a second world-class painter of things Jewish?1

Which is why the work of Yoram Raanan forces the task of art criticism upon us, the Jewish people, as a dire necessity rather than as a luxury.

Is that so because it’s necessary for the Jewish people to attain to high art in painting? Since when?! Actually, the question is not as easy as it may seem. But a blessing given by the Rebbe to the painter Baruch Nachshon in 1965 offers a hint as to how to approach it. The Rebbe told Nachshon that “for many generations the art of painting had failed to find its ultimate rectification in holiness, but that with the help of G‑d he might come to bring about that long anticipated rectification.”2 In order to appreciate the “rectification,” the world-mending or tikkun, that takes place in the paintings of Yoram Raanan, as in those of Nachshon, these works must be framed in the context of the general dilemma of high art with which Western culture, “for many generations,” has rather antagonistically confronted the Torah.

High Art & the Jewish Allergy to Iconography

On the one hand, the plastic arts have always been perilously close to the craft of idolmaking—or, after idolatry fell and became unfashionable, close to the varieties of moral decadence that had theretofore been ingredients of idolatrous brews. For the greater part of human history, of course, there was no difference to speak of between idolmaking and the plastic arts. The idea of a “secular” artform originates in Western history in the Early Renaissance. But even during the five or six centuries that have elapsed since the Renaissance, which have certainly filled many museums with magnificent works of high art, how many of those works have served the purpose of adding a wholesome and life-affirming beauty to the world?

To be sure, it would be overly simplistic to dismiss all of Western art as unwholesome or inimical to life and to goodness. Were one to take a long stroll through the Louvre, for example, one would come across many ennobling scenes of lofty spiritual altitude and moral excellence. This was certainly the conclusion of R. Shalom Dovber Schneersohn after his visit to the Louvre in 1883. As his son relates, during this visit, the Rebbe Rashab even found himself mesmerized by a certain painting from the school of Raffaello Sanzio, discovering sublime ideas hidden in the biblically informed subconsciousness, or collective unconscious, of the artist.3

Nevertheless, considering the tradition of Western art as a whole, and with an eye to its baser unconscious impulses, its secret décadence, we are hard-pressed not to conclude that, in one way or another, this tradition has pursued an ideal of beauty that turns a blind eye to the primacy of life, a moribund gesture inaugurated by Eve when she saw that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil “was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired” (Genesis 3:6) even as she knew quite well that this beautiful sight somehow, through invisible channels, lead to death (v. 3).4 In its wonderful capacity to mesmerize the beholder, Western art has been able to promote all kinds of heroic, dramatic, romantic, erotic, morose and other self-indulgent values that are captivating, luxurious obstacles on the way to the Tree of Life and the principles of the Torah. As a result, Jews exiled amid high culture, especially the high culture of the long European exile, came to lean to the side of caution, avoiding high art, so that, arguably, even when they eventually assimilated into European culture they lacked the sensitivity and schooling to produce great painters at the same rate and volume that they produced great musicians and great writers. The long and deeply ingrained discipline in disgust with graven images, combined with a general wariness regarding anything after which human eyes all too easily stray (Numbers 13:39), engendered a kind of congenital allergic reaction to the plastic arts. So that today, a Jewish concern with art for the most part falls either to the side of furthering art ideals that have nothing to do with Judaism, or to the side of an innocent pleasure in surrounding oneself with the mishmash of shlock that comes in an assortment of glazes, chromes, embossments, chintzy frizzles and funeral-home color schemes, namely the over-the-counter Jewish “folk art” typically stocked among those kitsch shops known by the exaggeratedly elegant title of “Judaica.”

Art as a Torah Commandment

On the other hand, the active pursuit of artistic beauty is a biblical imperative. The purpose of Creation, as we know from Midrash, is the accommodation of G‑d in a dwelling place erected in our midst.5 As G‑d Himself tells Moses: “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) As G‑d is generally not given to ostentation, and as G‑d generally avoids all forms of eye-catching representations of things divine, one might have supposed that a dwelling place for G‑d would be a simple affair. A clean, unadorned, well-lighted simple structure made of common organic materials would seem befitting of the G‑d of Israel. And yet, perhaps surprisingly, chapter after chapter in the books of Exodus and Leviticus delve at length into the sumptuous details with which the Mishkan is to be constructed and the expensive materials that are to be used in its construction.6 The extravagant artistic undertaking, moreover, is not entrusted to the proficiency of any and every willing artisan.7 One artist of superlative genius and skill, Betzalel, is singled out for the task. And even Betzalel’s extraordinary inborn talents are not quite adequate to the task. His sacred commission proves to be the one occasion in the Torah that the faculties of divinely inspired insight (chochmah), understanding (binah) and knowledge (daat) are invoked, specifically in their three-ply unity, as a special dispensation from G‑d Above to raise human artistic genius to a the superhuman task of constructing a beautiful dwelling for G‑d. When King Solomon built the Bet HaMikdash in Jerusalem, furthermore, its grandeur and splendor were perfectly peerless (see I Kings 6). And of the Second Temple, the sages declare categorically: “He who has not seen Herod’s temple has not seen beauty.”8

The above dilemma of Jewish high art, therefore, lies in an imperative to rectify the decadence of high art in the non-Jewish world and thereby to point messianically toward a reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in all its glory, while, at the same time, staying clear of the perils of idolatrous representation and unwholesome objectification. And the same imperative then extends to Jewish art criticism, as a necessity and obligation to discern and encourage the fostering of high Jewish art.

Yoram Raanan and Expressionist Suggestivism

How does Yoram Raanan hearken to this imperative, making it work for him, as the deep momentum of his work, rather than simply as some externally-imposed “ought” to be obeyed? That is to say, besides the Jewish thematic content to which his brush is pledged—the biblical themes and portraits, the visions of the Temple, the Menorah, the marriage canopies, etc.—how has Raanan’s work managed to find a form and style that is adequate to its Jewish content? Success is achieved by several means.

To begin with, Raanan’s work is methodically expressionistic. More specifically, it is borderline abstract expressionism. (Raanan names the German Neo-Expressionist Anselm Kiefer as a compeer worthy of much admiration. And it might well be argued that what Kiefer has accomplished for the great “Anti-Sinai” of Auschwitz with grayness and opacity what Raanan has accomplished with light and transparency for Sinai.) Reminiscent of the “action painting” technique of Jackson Pollock, Raanan approaches his canvass, which lies prone on his studio floor, by raining down upon it with splashes of fluid acrylic paint, sometimes in alternation with sprays of water, to form streams and pools. As the work then beseeches more intimate attention, he gets down on all fours, channeling the paint in directions determined by a compromise between the will of the paint itself and a cathexis streaming from the artist’s being. Over the years, Raanan has told me, he has even moved away from working with a brush, preferring to use his hands and fingers to manipulate the paint. This intimacy with the material is the logical conclusion of the need to express. Paint as an extension of inner life, of what Chassidut calls pnimiyut.

Abstract expressionism proper, however, is said to have its source in the subjective state of the artist. So that, strictly speaking, Raanan’s process is not sufficiently self-indulgent to qualify as expressionism proper. He will tell you, with a laugh, yet free of both the artiste’s swagger or false modesty, that the source is to be found above. That it comes down like precipitation. It is not the upward and outward gushing of an inner fountainhead. “My lesson shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass.” (Deuteronomy 32:2) The first moment of art, as we know from the prototypical Jewish artist Betzalel ben Uri, is chochmah. This is the purely receptive part of the human intellect that looks up to the heavens for the flow of insight that will eventually be integrated into the intellect’s own machinations.9 Chochmah is the mind’s holy inspiration. And thus the eye of the viewer can indeed trace, quite literally, the inspired flow, from crashed paint-waves to paint-rivulettes and expanding chaotic capillaries, on the aqueous terrain of Raanan’s canvas. One senses the repeated passivity, the patience, the waiting.

Raanan tells me how he had to be saved from his own waiting. Frustrated by the overgrowth of unfinished canvases all over his studio, he once confessed to Meira Raanan, his Eve and Beatrice, that he was at a loss. “This is your process,” she assured him. More than one painting has waited for years ensconced somewhere in a sheaf of canvasses against a studio wall before it was taken out to be completed. Like Michelangelo’s statues, which had their own say about whether or not they would emerge from the stone, the paintings have a life of their own.

As exercises of abstract expression, of course, the paintings maintain a safe distance from the old itch with which the plastic arts made their debut amid idolatrous circumstances, the impulse to represent. But this self-restraint, again, is not an introversion from the external object into the self-indulgent subjectivity of the artist. The inward move is rather merely a necessary ruse whereby the objective world is rendered less worthy of being taken too seriously. Raanan does not let things dictate their petulant self-important wishes to him. The world can go ahead and have its temper-tantrums. His ear is cocked to the Torah alone. His work is avodah. And hence, by an irony proper to Jewish worldliness, he does in fact return to things, precisely to things, because things are given. Not “given” in the weak sense espoused by science. Given in the strong sense. Things are given by G‑d. And so the objective world is pulled back into the untamed explosions of color via a detour that avoids the usual route of representation.

To the onlooker who cursorily catalogues works according to the types of brush stroke that appear in art history books divided according to chapter, many of Raanan’s works10 will be “recognized” as fallouts of French impressionism. “Jerusalem Rose” recalls the landscapes of Cezanne.

Shir Hamaalot” makes one think of Monet’s garden or Van Gogh’s orchards and night skies.

The haunting emerald queen “Esther” suggests a figure by Gustave Moreau impressionistically etherealized.

But such judgements and associations are too hasty, or of dubious worth. None of these works constitute “impressions” of their objects. And not just because Raanan never had the good fortune of meeting queen Esther or of stepping foot into Solomon’s Temple. In all such cases, the objects, without ever having been seen and therefore without ever having made an impression, are simply given. Given by the Torah. Given by history. Given by G‑d. It is not by way of impressions of the external world, therefore, but rather by way of a world-transcending, imposed responsibility that Raanan shepherds his roaming expressionist splashes back into what appears like impressions of things, people and places. Raanan is aware that this makes his Jewish clients happy. Jewish art needs to be about Jewish themes. The client wants to know “what” this painting shows, who’s in it, what it’s about. So the painter obliges. But this awareness is not to be confused with pandering or even compromise. The desires of the clientele are part and parcel of a comprehensive, intensely Jewish awareness of a responsibility, a moral responsibility, of the painter to paint amid his people, for his people, about his people and the G‑d of his people.

Three Menorahs

The artistic tzimtzum, “self-contraction,” of the instinct for pure abstract expressionism—which genre Raanan claims to be his personal passion as an artist—into the more classical concern with objects, is where the magic lies. Its enchantment is felt precisely in the tension between the recognizable objects and the pure energy of the expression, sometimes tending towards the one, sometimes towards the other. The Temple Menorah to which Raanan keeps coming back is a good case in point. The Menorah of “Beha’alotcha 5774” is a warm, balanced composition depicting the concentric semi-circled Menorah in the tradition of Titus’s arch and The State of Israel’s escutcheon.

The symmetry is even closed from above with a luminous dome. By the same token, as a pictorial “representation” of the Temple Menorah it is inevitably a misrepresentation of the “true shape” of the original, especially when we taken into account the Maimonidean blueprint, endorsed by the Rebbe, in which the arms of the Menorah are straight rather than curved. A bold step away from such quasi-representational depiction is the scintillating Menorah of “Beha’alotcha 5775.”

Here the Menorah itself gives way to the many colors of light refracted in crystalline patterns in every direction. The Menorah itself is no longer visible. But one knows it is there because the scintillations are faithful to the geometric form of their light source and thus multiply the hidden form.

But even this does not prepare us for the Menorah of “Vayakhel 5774.” For here the tendency to pure expression is cut loose, so that the eyes of the beholder are transported to supernal heights at full rocket fuel throttle.

Standing before this masterpiece, one feels it must belong to the moment of the vision of the Menorah granted to Moses when he had to rub his eyes to adjust them to the fiery blueprint. There is no more symmetry here. There is barely any shape. The body of the Menorah is no longer hidden behind an excess of light—because the Menorah has itself become light, fire and light. This transcendent work effectively blinds the viewer. The thing, the candelabra, has been rendered transparent. Only the truth of its pure radiance remains.

In a letter by the Rebbe from 1951, we find a wonderfully poignant remark in the field of aesthetics which is particularly apropos and illuminating regarding this kind of expressionism.

“... the primary dexterity and craft of an artist in the craft of painting is his ability to tear himself away from the externality of the thing, not gazing upon the outer form. He must be able to penetrate inwardly into the thing and there perceive the inner dimension and essence of the thing. And he must be able consequently to translate this into a painting, so that the one who gazes at the painting should experience something revealed in the thing which he had not noticed before, since the interior of the thing had been deflected by irrelevant characteristics. In this way the artist reveals the essence and quiddity of the thing that he paints, and the one who gazes at it perceives it in an altered, true light, and he now grasps how he had previously stood in error.”11

The Menorah of “Vayakhel 5774” functions as a rectification of such an error. When we let our imagination regarding the Temple be guided by pictorial representations of the Menorah, where all the measurements have been taken into due account, we put our imaginative faculties in peril of being satisfied with an image of the Menorah as a piece of glorious furniture. The illustrator may take special pains to emphasize its gold luster, its imposing height, the baroque details of its workmanship, and so on. But none of this affords us an insight into the life of the Menorah. Such external details are nothing more than a portrait of a cadavre propped up in a chair. And thus Raanan “tears himself away from the externality” of the Menorah, transporting it into the realm of pure color and light and of expression without proportion, in order to give us a glimpse of the divine vital principle of design trilling within the core of G‑d’s candelabra.

This is, in a sense, a consummately chassidic painting. It embodies the teaching of ein od milvado, that is, the G‑d-intoxicated attitude to reality that says: “There is nothing besides Him!” (Deuteronomy 4:35) If the human eye, teaches Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “were permitted to see and to comprehend the vital principle and the spirituality within every created being, flowing into it from ‘That which proceeds out of the mouth of G‑d’ [Deuteronomy 8:3] and His breath, then the corporeality, materiality and tangibility of the created thing would not be visible to our eyes at all, for its existence is utterly null vis-à-vis the vitality and the spirituality which is within it.”12

Iconoclasm of the Human Form

But if Raanan’s work is capable of attaining transparency with “still life” subjects, his mastery in this regard emerges most fully in the way he handles the human form. The mastery involves a paradoxical effect: the evocation of a special type of transparency through a special type of opacity. But it’s only a paradox when one overthinks the effect. In the moment prior to thought, the naive “love at first sight” moment when the work of art appears as art and nothing but art, there is only transparency. The painting is populated by transparent human figures. As one transfers the moment of pure art into a thinking process, allowing the thought to put handcuffs on the moment of pure art and lead it away to an intellectual incarceration, as it were, one notices the trick, the apparently banal bit of kuntz—in the Yiddish sense of the word, not in the German sense of Kunst—whereby Raanan has “faked” the transparency by filling in his human figures with single solid colours, as if the figures has been wrapped in monochromatic prayer shawls or death shrouds, or dunked in ritual baths of paint. More often still, the forms are simply absent, mere upright shadows with no bodies casting the shadows. These masterful paintings are inhabited by pure shadow-men and pure shadow-women. And this tricky technique, according to the highly thoughtful observations of art criticism, will be appreciated for being a very effective means, achieved with a minimum of effort, in circumventing the old problem of iconography, the idolization of the human form which has been the driving force behind so much Western high art since the Greek sculptors surrendered themselves to a Bacchanalian adulation and attention to every undulation of youthful human musculature.

However, the banality of the trick is deceptive. The opacity of Raanan’s human figures is nothing more than the tricky aspect of the technique. To be sure, if one gets close enough to the canvass to scrutinize the brush strokes, one can confirm quite conclusively that the figures are opaque. Nothing more than solid, anonymous little masses of paint. If one dares to take a step back, on the other hand! Back from overthinking things! Back into the moment of pure art! Well, then, the entire concern with opacity falls apart as so much brittle pedantry. The pure shadows—if I may insist on this phrase—that constitute these human figures are in fact the very opposite of anything like opacity. The purity of the shadows is in fact what constitutes the transparency of the figures. One gets the uneasy feeling that the painting has somehow taken place in reverse. Shadow, typically, according to the normal order of painting, is something that the painter adds to, or rather factors into, the outlines of a human figure. The usual order is: proportion, form, color, shadow. Raanan’s figures, however, are built upon originary shadows, with the rest of the figures, their form and color, built atop, or out of, the shadows.

Likewise with other techniques of murkiness. Especially when the figures are large enough that the faces are discernible. Here too, the anatomy and pigmentation of a human face seems to be built out of an originary blurriness. Compare “Between Us,” in which Jacob is embracing Joseph in a multi-coloured wrapping, with Gustav Klimt’s iconic, over-exposed, “The Kiss.”

In Klimt’s piece, the fleshiness of the lovers, albeit a gaunt fleshiness, is boldly accentuated by the decorative two-dimensional stencil-work of the garments and background, as if the ornamental frame of the painting had crept, over time, like ivy, into the painting to highlight the fleshy faces. “Vayeshev,” in a sense, accomplishes the contrary. The tempestuous quiltwork of colours draws the eye away from the faces, as the faces themselves, seemingly smudged out, make no immediate demands upon the beholder. (A similarly striking effect, with haunting tones, takes place in “Esther.”) And then, almost as an afterthought, the faces reappear. But their delayed epiphany assures us that this is no typical smudge-job. In anything, the whole composition now appears to have grown out of an originary smudge. The faces are there, as pure countenances without features. And the shock of colors arrived to clothe the pure countenances by way of investiture.

Were one to doggedly keep insisting on the banality of this kind of technique, again, there would still be the gain, howbeit minimal, of having gotten around the problem of hard-core iconography. One might even be satisfied with the fact that such techniques of blurring, smudging, rendering opaque, and so on, subvert even the softer, less iconographic forms of worship of the human form which we find in works featuring classical fleshiness, a broad category under which we can group the works of such diverse styles those of Peter Paul Rubens, Tamara de Lempicka, and Egon Schiele. A Jewish art lover, in other words, has reason enough to be grateful for the practice of modesty, tzniyut, in Raanan’s painting. And not just as a matter of Halakha. No, fleshiness in art is an expression of a general cultural preoccupation with carnality—gashmiyut—which is a heavy impediment to spiritual living. Modesty in art is just one aspect of the general task of breaking the habits of obsessive carnality, and therefore of the general golus that oppresses the Jewish soul as status quo civilization.

However, whenever a Jewish spiritual teaching requires that a certain habit be broken, the teaching immediately specifies that this breaking is only the first of two necessary steps. In Chassidic teaching, the breaking of bad habits is known as iskafiyah; and this term is always complimented by is-hapcha, metamorphosis and sublimation. Iskafiyah and is-hapcha are the two basic gesture of tikkun, rectification. And it is the second gesture that completes the work of Yoram Raanan as rectification. A full sublimation, a full spiritualization of the flesh, and not merely modest covering-up, takes place in a second technique, beyond that of obscure transparency. For lack of a better description, and if the mouthful may be forgiven, I would define this technique of representing human forms, especially the human crowds that are Raanan’s specialty, as the silhouetting of prismatic incandescence.

Silhouette, Prism, Incandescence

Something like an inverted chiaroscuro is practised by Raanan whereby his human forms are made incandescent through color. That is to say, while in classical chiaroscuro—in the masterpieces of Rembrandt or Caravaggio—the human subject is made to glow by being enveloped in darkness, Raanan inverts the effect by plunging his human forms into the darkness of pure shadows so that the surrounding landscape is rendered incandescent, and yet this incandescence reflects back, in a semiotic manner, on the significance of the human forms.

Two sample pieces may serve as exemplary for examining more closely how this effect works: “Bechukotai 5774” and “Beshalach.”

We’ll forgo a consideration of which biblical moments are “represented” in these paintings. Let’s stick to the form. Each of these pieces arrests us with an overwhelming landscape. In terms of dynamism, we think of Turner’s storms. But it is the rich chromatic dimension that stops our breath: the fidelity to two dominant colors—yellow and purple here, blue and emerald there—and the infinitesimal play on the spectrum between the two colours; and, above all, the rupture of light through the colours as if from the other side of the canvass. The dominance of the landscapes in these paintings, measured in square feet, even puts pressure on us to classify the paintings themselves as “landscapes” pure and simple. But this is only our mind playing tricks with our hearts. The heart knows that, in truth, these works feature nothing but human beings. The landscape in such works—be it the Red Sea, the Temple, Mount Sinai, Jerusalem—serves as the background, made of light and color, to stage the drama of the kingdom of souls that is the one and only subject of the given work.

There is in fact something markedly scenographic about Raanan’s method in these human-scapes. Like stage scenery constructed with a profound affection and understanding of the script, or like a gown tailored to the uniqueness of the subject with a haute couture devotion that can only be found in the queen’s dressmaker, the landscapes are the element of chromatic light built to accommodate, raise, illuminate, spotlight and frame the dramatis personae on the stage. In this sense too this is art that is intensely Jewish, inasmuch as the art is an extension of reality, rather than a representation of reality. According to the cosmic principle of ein od milvado, the actual landscapes in which Jews have found themselves, historically speaking—the actual Red Sea, the actual mountain in the Sinai desert, Solomon’s actual Temple in Jerusalem—were nothing more than backdrops to human dramas, just as the human bodies of Jews were little more than costumes for the human souls in their vital light.

The landscapes as such are, strictly speaking, iridescent and luminescent, color and light. The specific quality of incandescence is created by the accommodation of the dark shadow-people who step into the landscapes. It is the human beings who glow. The effect is comparable, to some extent, to the phenomenon known among physicists as “black body radiation.” Light is emitted by a body, but the body itself remains dark. The body itself demures as a mere silhouette against a chromatic explosion of light. But the silhouette is not merely juxtaposed against this photochromatic background. It generates this background. The glowing world, or the world that is the glowing, that is the incandescence, is generated by the heat source hidden behind the silhouette of these human bodies, the heat in the soul.


Which brings me to conclude—with a strong prejudice. The prejudice of a state-of-emergency art critic. The first piece by Raanan that I encountered was his “Mount Sinai.”

This painting, to my mind, is an event. An event in the history of art. Everything in the foregoing analyses is really tantamount to preparatory reflections that enable me to revisit this one work, this event, again and again.

The silhouetting of prismatic incandescence attains to consummate mastery in this work. I would venture to say that this systematically developed technique, while it has been applied by Raanan to various key subject matters taken from Jewish history, is a technique that the artist came upon, or, as he would say, was given to him from above, for the ultimate purpose of painting this subject matter in particular. Which is highly apropos since, after all, this subject matter in particular does not belong to Jewish history in anything more than a nominal and didactic sense and is, far more significantly, the supra-historical “moment” to which Jewish history as a whole belongs.13 In this painting the technique and the subject matter become one.

Objectively speaking, the painting features two and only two objects: a mountain and a people. And even the distinction between these two objects is not altogether clear. Very little effort would be required to convince a child that the thing in the middle of the painting is a mountain and that the mountain is Mount Sinai. But the child will want to know why the mountain is made of light. And any overly adult attempt to offer an explanation is bound to abrogate or at least compromise the simple wisdom of the question. The mountain is made of light. Because this mountain-thing is hardly a mountain at all. In truth, it is the incandescence of Revelation. Matan Torah.

And because the crowd of Israelites “at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 19:17), or, as the midrash says, “underneath the mountain,”14 are not clearly distinct from the mountain itself, the same incandescence that makes the mountain appear like a colossal hunk of heated tungsten embodies the radiant peoplehood of the Israelites. It would be by the same myopic overthinking which only sees opacities that the people in this painting might be mistaken for human masses, a great “crowd” of people. The magic of Raanan’s silhouetting technique is that it can conjure up a mass of human figures, prismatically aglow, specifically as a kingdom. And even more specifically, in this painting, as a mamlekhet kohanim. “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of levitical priests, and an holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6)

It is this specifically levitical character of this people that makes their silhouettes visually inextricable from the mountain itself. “And Mount Sinai was altogether smoke, as the Lord had descended upon it in fire. And its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.” (Exodus 19:18) The incandescence of the blazing mountain, which is an externalization and reflection of the fire in the hearts of the people inwardly aflame with their levitical commission, is the incandescence of divinity as such. “Is not My word like fire? says the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29).

“The inner dimension and essence of the thing” which Raanan has managed to “translate into a painting” is the secret, incomprehensible to thought, expressed by the Zohar as follows: “Three layers are bound together: the Holy One, blessed be He, the Torah and the people of Israel. Each one, layer upon layer, is hidden and revealed. The Holy One, blessed be He, layer upon layer, is hidden and revealed. The Torah is likewise hidden and revealed. And so too Israel, layer upon layer, as it is written, ‘He tells His words to Jacob, His decrees and laws to Israel’ (Psalms 147:19). Jacob and Israel are two layers. One [Jacob] is revealed, the other [Israel] is hidden.”15

Raanan’s “Mount Sinai” can be read as a commentary to this oft-cited and profound Zoharic text. As the consummate silhouetting of prismatic incandescence, in content as well as form, the painting embodies the three “layers” that are bound into a single cloth. The people of Israel are the silhouettes encroaching upon the centre of the canvass from the sides and from the perspective of the viewer, almost beckoning to the viewer as a latecomer. The presence of the Torah is suggested in the prismatic illuminations, as if six hundred and thirteen “colors” (mitzvot) were refracted from the white light of the mountain’s core. And the presence of G‑d is the source of the white incandescence that is refracted and that gives the people their holy glow. Inscribed on the glowing prism—an inscription that Raanan won’t deny although he also refuses to take any credit for it—is a kind of Alef, the letter that traditionally stands for the Alufo shel olam, the Commander of the universe.

And fire and light, appropriately, is what binds and fuses together the three “layers” enumerated by the Zohar. The binding force, explains Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, is an amor Dei whereby “the soul is kindled and flares up towards the glory of the splendour of His greatness … like glowing coals of a mighty flame which surges upwards .... This is brought on by the preponderance of the element of divine fire that is in the divine soul.”16 Until Raanan was granted a painter’s peek behind the geographic and historical hardware described in Exodus 19, no artist—not Chagall in his gobelin tapestry in the foyer of the Knesset (1969) or his various other shtetl-square takes on “Moses Receiving the Tablets,” and certainly not Gérôme with his Batman comic-bookish “Moïse sur le mont Sinaï” (1900), or El Greco’s morosely Dantesque “Vista del Monte Sinaí” (1570), to say nothing of the sundry story-telling, allegory-clunky, chubby-cherubed, DeMille precursors of old masters like Rosselli (1482), Volterra (1555), Bol (1662), Herbert (1864), West (1784), etc.17 —not one artist, to my knowledge, has been able to adequately “explain,” with the humble medium of paint, how the essence of the revelation at Mount Sinai was this divine incandescence in the divine soul of the Jew. Matan Torah. The “moment” of total illumination. With a virtuosity and a stiff-necked persistence unprecedented by any other Jewish painting, Yoram Raanan’s expressionism has pursued the expression of light, epitomized in his “Mount Sinai,” with an instinctive knowledge that light has always been the cherished metaphor of the kabbalistic tradition because the Torah itself is the manifestation, this side of reality, of the Or Ayn Sof, the Infinite Light.

On Thursday, November 24, 2016, just three days after my initial visit to Yoram Raanan's studio, the village of Beit Meir fell victim to fires suspected to have been started by Palestinian arsonists. Yoram’s studio was entirely burnt down along with artwork created over a 40 year period. An article about his reaction to the fire and the loss of much of his life's work can be viewed here.