Alexander Gorlin’s journey with Kabbalah began in 1995 when he was hired to design a synagogue in Kings Point, New York. Seeking inspiration, he returned to ancient Jewish texts. It was in the Zohar that he found many concepts and themes that would color his view of architecture and design from that point forward. In his unprecedented book, Kabbalah in Art and Architecture, published by Pointed Leaf Press, he shows us how and where he sees the influence of Kabbalistic thinking around the world.
Gorlin illustrates concepts like vessels of light, the void and repair using some known and some speculative parallels in the works of Kahn, Gehry, Libeskind, Meier, Rothko, and Kiefer.
In this excerpt, Gorlin explores the concept of light in art and design.
The Breaking of the Vessels
In an effort to explain the apparent disorder and chaos of the world, great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, Israel, proposed in 1570 a dramatic concept equal to the Tzimtzum: Sh’virat Ha-Kelim, or the “breaking of the vessels.” The ten glowing vessels in the void eventually cannot contain the Divine light flowing into them, so they explode, breaking into myriad shards.
Renzo Piano's The Shard is an example of this fragmentary form of architecture—it even has "shard" in its name.
In the Kabbalah, the shattering of the vessels is part of the cycle of creation and destruction that began long before this universe. In a famous Midrash, a first-century commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Abahu wrote: “The blessed Holy one created and destroyed worlds before he created these, saying: ‘These please me. Those did not please me.’” In Judaism there is a long history of broken things, such as Moses breaking the first set of Ten Commandments and the destruction of the first and second Temples. In the Book of Isaiah, it was written: “And he shall break it as the breaking of the potter’s vessel that is broken in pieces; he shall not spare: so that there shall not be found in the bursting of it a shard to take fire from the hearth, or to take water with out of the pit.”
Like the Big Bang theory of the beginning of the universe, these containers shattered, and their contents spilled helter-skelter into the void. One Kabbalistic theory is that the light of the vessels was unstable, combining good and evil in a volatile mixture that blew up. This idea contends that the first emanation of the Divine light was a means for God to purify himself of the evil that was mixed in with the good. Evil is therefore construed to be an original part of the Divine, and was released when the vessels broke. In the Book of Isaiah 45:7. God says: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.”
As with everything in the Kabbalah, nothing is simple, so of the ten vessels of light, which correspond to the ten Sefirot, the upper three, being stronger, did not break. The lower seven bowls were completely shattered. Clinging to the broken shards, klipot, are sparks of the light left over from inside the bowls. These precious sparks are to be gathered and restored to their original place, higher in the cosmos. A broken world that must be repaired, or tikkun, is a Kabbalistic theme that that has reverberated throughout the centuries. And it is especially current today.
The Breaking of the Vessels is an idea that is both conceptual and visual, and is close to the recent Deconstructivist Movement in architecture that sought to mirror the fragmentary nature of contemporary culture in three-dimensional form. It was based on the literary theory of interpretation, which dissected multiple meanings of a text. Jacques Derrida, the 20th century philosopher, was one of the foremost proponents of Deconstructionism. His views were adopted by the American architect Peter Eisenman, who even collaborated on an architectural project with him. I met Derrida, who was Jewish, at a lecture he gave at the Cooper Union School of Architecture in new York, where I asked him about whether his ideas had any relevance to synagogue design. He answered: “Are they still building synagogues?”
Peter Eisenman's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum was based on the fragments of a broken globe.
Even today, few ideas express the mood of contemporary architecture and art so much as fragmentary form: Polish-born architect Daniel Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum in Manchester, England, has a design based on the fragments of a broken globe; German artist Anselm Kiefer made a series of paintings called Ha-Kelim (the vessels), which were shown in Paris in 2000; British sculptor Cornelia Parker’s 1991. Cold Dark Matter at the Tate Gallery in London was an exploded shack; and Italian architect Renzo Piano’s tower, the tallest in London and finished in 2012, has been named the Shard.
Lead image from Kabbalah in Art and Architecture, published by Pointed Leaf Press. Photograph by Peter Aaron / Courtesy of Alexander Gorlin Architects