Vol. 10
2001

Response to Marc Bregman, "Aqedah: Midrash as Visualization"

Zachary Braiterman

For Marc Bregman’s excellent foray into the visualization of midrash to work, we are going to have to follow the advice of Edward Kessler when he writes, "although artistic interpretation is bound to the biblical text, it has developed its own rules of interpretation." At the same time, we need to consider quite skeptically any and all claims regarding the absolute difference said to distinguish visual from textual media. As a scholar of midrash, Marc pays close examination to the word play that informs the text. In doing so, he notes not so much the prevalence of visual experience per se, but rather to ideas about visual experience. "What did he see? "Do you see what I see," "Since you do not see." In particular, Bregman notes how spiritual vision goes beyond optical vision in the midrashic account of the Aqedah. Abraham and Isaac see God’s presence, his servants only deserts. Marc’s splendid analysis brings midrash into conversation, not just with visual art per se, but with the modern arts of surrealism and cinema --even as the rhetoric that attends this short essay works to privilege midrash over art.

I would have wished that Marc had done more to question the sharp distinction between plastic art and verbal text. With his own eye towards Christian sarcophagai and church decoration, he adapts a misleading dichotomy to the comparative study of Jewish narrative art and Christian graphic art. According to this schema, the mental/textual image proves highly "imaginative" in contrast to the graphic image that remains only "naturalistic." In this view, "the graphic artist portrays the scene to the eye." (4) By this, I think Marc means the physical eye. In contrast, midrash "portrays the scene to and through the imaginative faculty of the ‘mind’s eye.’" In setting up this opposition, Marc either ignores or overlooks an emerging scholarly consensus regarding the relationship between graphic and verbal images. For instance, the most "naturalistic" and apparently "unmediated" and "self-interpreting" graphic image depends upon a host of conventions that mediate meanings not always confined to the world of visible nature. Note the almost complete lack of perspectival depth in the sarcophagai and cathedral images discussed in Marc’s essay, the size of the lamb looms large (fig1), the dwarfed tree next to Abraham and Isaac (fig2), the schematic arrangement of the figures in a line. As such, it does not seem right to say that midrash reflects the mind’s eye and Christian graphic art the physical eye.

Indeed, the claim that the Aqedah image taken from Regensburg Pentateuch is "about as close as graphic art can come to portraying ‘seeing with the mind’" does not jibe with Marc’s own recourse to surrealism as a way to characterize the midrashic text. Why draw on the visual arts to interpret a midrashic text if they remain so limited? And will this not require great care when it comes to the use of adapting modern art styles to pre-modern texts? We don’t see in the midrashic account discussed by Marc the interest in dreams, the unconscious, and sex that might have justified the term "surrealism." But we can see the pent-up pathos that characterized the world of German Expressionism. Clearly, scholars in Judaic Studies need to pay far more critical attention to style. Indeed, the Beit Alpha Aqedah discussed by Kessler (fig.7) looks like nothing if not an image that Paul Klee might have created. The line that marks the misshapen figures lack the firm contours displayed in the sarcophagai depictions The oversized lamb posed vertically, Isaac floating, the child-like and schematic depiction of the palm trees, the interpenetration of language into the visual field, all of this calls into serious question any attempt to distinguish plastic art and narrative art in terms of "optical naturalism" versus the "mind’s eye." Marc’s turning Judaic Studies to visual art and to the idea of vision makes great and important sense, but this will entail spending much more time looking closely at pictures and their relationship to language, without privileging the latter over the former.