Re-Imaging the Ethical: Tzelem, Demut and A/r/tography

Karen Dresser

Ethics for the classroom is the process of becoming that sees the Other/other as we ourselves wish to be seen—with compassion, acceptance and lovingkindness.

We, like creation itself, are in a process of becoming. We strive to stand firm as humans made in the image of G-d, but we are not there yet. Even G-d is imagined by the kabbalists to be in a state of constant motion through the flowing properties of the sefirot, and in the fire of the burning bush as the Voice declares “Ehyeh asher ehyeh,” “I will be Who/What I will be.”

Maxine Greene, a forerunner in educational theory, and a great supporter of arts education, remarked that she is what she is not yet, and states, “For me, the child is a veritable image of becoming, of possibility, poised to reach towards what is not yet, towards a growing that cannot be predetermined or prescribed. I see her and I fill the space with others like her, risking, straining, wanting to find out, to ask their own questions, to experience a world that is shared.” Ethics for the classroom, then, become a matter of students and teacher striving towards being in the present by seeing the local and global communities as they are, while simultaneously striving towards that which is not yet—a healing of societal, political and other ills. It is the process of becoming that sees the Other/other as we ourselves wish to be seen—with compassion, acceptance and lovingkindness.

How then shall we begin to combine the notions of image, likeness and becoming into a classroom in which ethics can be taught through art?

I have found the practice of A/r/tography to be of great use in my Arts and Jewish Studies classes (Bible and Art, Holocaust Imagery, Kabbalah through Art). The first three letters in A/r/tography stand for Art, Research and Teaching. Rita Irwin ( writes that when teachers or students practice a/r/tography they “inquire in the world through an ongoing process of art making in any art form and writing not separate from or illustrative of each other but interconnected and woven through each other to create additional and/or enhanced meanings.” A/r/tography allows students to take responsibility for their own art, research inquiry, and teaching/text. This methodology can be used effectively for ethical change—the process of becoming the likeness of G-d. Through this lens, I propose that the “t” in a/r/tography indicates not only teaching, but teaching from the text of Torah, from which all Jewish teaching proceeds.

An atmosphere of continual inquiry rather than lecture is necessary. The history of bnei Yisrael begins with Moses’ questions: Why doesn’t the bush burn up? and “When they ask me, ‘What is [G-d’s] name?’ what shall I say to them?” Moses imagines that G-d that can’t be understood except through questions. Standing in front of the fiery bush that does not burn out, Moses is who he will be, just as the Voice in the bush is Who I will Be. Moses undergoes a process of character change as he continues to question G-d through the forty-year meditative expanse of the desert.

For ethics through art to work, tselem and demut are of utmost importance. Artistic images of humanity abound in museums, local galleries, on the walls of coffee shops and many times in our synagogues. Students begin to inquire about those images in general ways: Why did the artist choose to use paint rather than graphite? Why did the artist sculpt this piece rather than draw it? How does the artist represent our society? What does this piece say about being human? How can you grow in your own code of ethics based on middot found in Jewish texts? This inquiry is easily accomplished in any academic or arts-based class.

Ethics and A/r/tography is also suited for in-depth Jewish textual studies. I have included some of the strategies I use in my classes. The first two sections, Text-Study and Visual Art, represent the Art and Research in A/r/tography. The final section, Ethical Inquiry through Art and Writing, encompasses both Art and Teaching/Torah aspects—“to be in the process of” behavioral and spiritual change for oneself and for the sake of others.

I call it the lekh-lekha moment—when students are alone in-between what is said and what is not, and journey into the interpretive space of their own ethical “becoming.”


I introduce sometimes difficult stories from Tanakh with high school students, such as David and Batsheva. Using the text (II Samuel 11), we discuss the dynamics of power: Who had it when? What events signify the change of power? What does it mean to be “sent for” or “sent to” by someone in power? How is each character affected physically, spiritually and emotionally by events in the story? How is each one’s own power to become the likeness” of G-d promoted or prohibited?

Visual Art

Students find selected artistic interpretations of the story (all of which are accessible on-line): Rembrandt’s Bathsheba, Chagall’s David and Bathsheva (1956, in which the heads of the two are merged), Lika Tov’s Bathsheba and King David (in which Bathsheba takes the place of David’s eye). Introduce images of the pair as contemporaries: Ivan Schwebel’s David and Bathsheba (1932) and Mary McCleary’s David and Bathsheba (1992).

Students first describe what they see in the art pieces. Keeping with the David and Batsheva example, they next inquire about the artist’s interpretation of the story: Why did the artist use those colors? What objects are featured, and why (ex., the letter in Batsheva’s hand in Rembrandt’s painting)? What is of greatest importance to the artist in this painting, and how is this determined? Why did the artist choose this part of the story to draw?

Ethical Change through Art and Writing

Students then inquire about possible personal ethical lessons the David and Batsheva story and artistic representations hold for them: What meaning does the story hold for contemporary relationships? How does it translate into a dating situation? What are the ethics that are to be eschewed or sought after in the story and to which character did they belong? How can I change my own ethics for the better based on what I’ve read and seen here? Here, the subject of rape might come up with students, providing an opportunity for additional research into traditional, contemporary and feminist commentaries on the story. Students in my classes found that their own initial interpretations were wide-ranging: recalling the rights of the king; blaming Batsheva for bathing on her roof; castigating David for his unethical behavior in all aspects of the story. This diversity of interpretations gave them ample material for discussion, particularly concerning their own ethical behavior.

After the textual study and ethical discussion, students create a piece of art from various media that takes into account a personal process of ethical coming-into-being in the likeness of G-d. This is what Rita Irwin and Stephanie Springgay (Being with A/r/tography) refer to as rhizomatic assemblage, in which art making becomes a process of ethical reflection and response that relates to a greater audience than the artist alone, and continually reconstructs meaning and methods, opening it up to what Jacques Derrida (Writing and Difference) calls the “as yet unnameable which begins to proclaim itself.” This idea, when translated to biblical texts and art, is midrash-aggadah—an art-making process in which values and ethics are explored just as they are in the imaginative midrashic stories that are not halakhic in purpose. Through midrashic art, students examine and discover interpretive meaning in the white spaces of the text for themselves as they “create” a likeness of the text that furthers understanding of Buber and Levinas’ “the other”—the one who, though seemingly different from us, is likewise made in the image of G-d. I call it the lekh-lekha moment—when students are alone in-between what is said and what is not, and journey into the interpretive space of their own ethical “becoming,” opening themselves in that “white space” to the process of change for the sake of themselves, the future community of Israel, and “the other.”

Students inquire about art images: Why did the artist choose to use paint rather than graphite? How does the artist represent society? What does this piece say about being human?

Another text I have used successfully in my classes is the creation of ha-adam. In addition to comparing and contrasting the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, students are introduced to commentaries (Rashi, R. Samuel ben Nachmani, R. Jeremiah ben Elazar, the Zohar) that interpret ha-adam as first having been created as an androgynous being. Students then create their own art and artist statement. Inga Mamut, a senior, wrote the following based on her clay piece Androgynous (see photographs):


When reading commentaries about the creation of אדם in the Torah, I was captivated by a feeling of surrealism. It was as if my classmates and I were walking through Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and the exhibit’s name was Androgynous. Several sages created complicated explanations of the verses about how the first humans were made: that they were joined at the back having the inability to see the other; that חוה was created from the rib of אדם . Rashi says that G-d was like a baker and kneaded them out of clay. My sculpture tries to incorporate all the midrashim using clay as the medium. I attached the male and female bodies at the back, and the rib is exposed. My artwork, the sculpture, and the story are all about piecing things together, mixing them instead of separating, understanding, and accepting them.

R. Jeremiah ben Elazar explains that there is not a concrete separation of genders. Instead the androgynous creature shows that a person is a complex mixture of both female and male traits that cannot be exactly classified because there are “manly” girls and “feminine” boys. The mixtures that make up humans on earth are not all the same.

There was a time where things were thought of very narrowly. During that time different issues were faced by the different genders. There was no room for understanding the other person’s role. Now women walk miles in man’s shoes and vice versa. Society has been able to expand to let men be stay at home dads and moms providers of the household. At one point in history that idea was in itself unethical.

Unfortunately, society has not come far enough with being open-minded. There are still many communities that are targeted because of their differences. Some of these groups are the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and the transgendered communities. There is nothing less human about any of these people. Their biological mixing proportions are just different; therefore they feel differently and want different things for themselves.

Our world needs to deal with new issues. These issues should be world hunger, providing everyone medical care, fighting for equal rights and much more, not peoples’ differences or who chooses to love whom. People should stop looking at other peoples’ differences as problems. We all have differences, but our core structures are the same. We should learn to love each other and teach the coming generations to do the same. This is what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Indeed, this is also what it means to become the demut of G-d even as we are made in G-d’s tselem through a/r/tography.♦

Karen Dresser, MDiv, PhD, is Chair of Fine Arts at the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, North Carolina. She can be reached at [email protected].

Return to the issue home page:
HaYidion Ethics Autumn 2011
Fall 2011