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Soul Art

September 6, 2009 | by Riva Pomerantz

Rabbi Yonah Weinrib has devoted his life to interpreting and portraying Torah through art.

Van Gogh painted flowers and wheat fields; Chagall painted goats and flying, ethereal figures; Rabbi Yonah Weinrib paints spirituality and expressions of Godliness. Quiet, unassuming, and permeated with humility, Weinrib has devoted his life to interpreting and portraying Torah through art.

His works range from beautiful renditions of the Grace after Meals to painstaking micro-calligraphy interpretations of Jewish passages and prayers, and intricate, eye-opening illuminations of Jewish philosophy and tradition. His work illustrates how art and calligraphy contain much more than meets the eye.

"Beauty brings the viewer to a higher dimension."

"Art is a work of the soul, reflective of a deeper sense of where a person is coming from," Rabbi Weinrib explains. "In Jewish thought, art is about the spiritual beauty and the essence it embodies. The external is only a way to exalt the inner spirit. And, of course, beauty brings the viewer to a higher dimension."

The idea that art is a means to an end is one that every art-lover appreciates. But how often does that "end" lead us to God's doorstep? In Rabbi Weinrib's work, the answer is very often. He weaves together commentary -- both contemporary and classic -- upon which he bases his artwork. Sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, he infuses it with the spiritual meaning that surrounds it.

His newest project, The Illuminated Torah, is a case in point. The text is illustrated in interpretative detail, meshing allegory, commentary, and insight into the actual artistry. Every word conveys several facets of meaning, depicting the living, breathing, multi-hued nature of Torah as an endless, eternal wellspring of inspiration.

And while many artists are only too eager to have their works reflect back to them, Rabbi Yonah Weinrib has another agenda entirely. He hopes that people will attribute his life's work back to the real Source of all beauty and talent: God.

"When someone says, ‘Wow! Look at that artist!', I say, ‘Wow! Look at the Artist --God!' Whatever talent is contained within a human being comes directly from his Creator, no question about it. When we use our talents as a tool to serve God and pay tribute to the gifts He has given us, then that talent reflects back to its exalted Source, creating endless beauty."

As part of his work, Rabbi Weinrib travels the country, speaking about his work and his outlook on portraying Judaism through the visual arts. Jews from all backgrounds are drawn to his pieces, some without knowing quite why. "It seems to touch their soul, and after a few minutes of hearing the interpretive message behind the art, they intuitively feel it."

"I've never seen anything like this before," remarked a woman at a San Francisco exhibition of Weinrib's work. "This is something much more than...just physical."

"These Jews are connecting to their heritage," explains Weinrib. "They are seeing the magnificence and subtleties that result when weaving together art and deeper meaning. It's a fusion that reveals a much grander picture of not just the art -- and certain not the artist -- but rather, the beauty of Torah."

"A colleague of mine wanted to know where I get my ideas from. I told him: ‘From the Torah'. This man was so taken by the idea that Torah could be a means for stimulating creativity and self-expression that he asked if we could start learning together. Many people underestimate or are simply unaware of the shades of meaning that every verse --even every word -- contains. The symbolism I find in researching relevant commentaries, or examining other works on Judaism, leads me to determine how to portray every aspect, down to color and picture and detail. Artwork is a powerful method for sharing the depth of the text."

His use of Torah in interpreting Torah lends important perspective. "Torah isn't a history book or a storybook. It's a text that teaches lessons for life. It's the manual for all human existence. No wonder the ideas are endless!"

The range of his published works reflects the breadth of his subject matter and the scope of Midrashic literature and commentary. Rabbi Weinrib has explored the Jewish life cycle with his popular texts on the Jewish wedding, Bat Mitzvah Treasury and Bar Mitzvah Treasury, a collaboration with popular writer, Rabbi Yaakov Salomon. Themes and external trappings are left to party planners; these volumes focus on tradition, custom, rituals, laws, historic celebration and character development. The inspiring imagery and profound commentary add the spiritual overtones to these often celebrated, yet seldom understood life cycle events. His volume on Hallel: Song of the Soul, shares King David's lyrical verses recited on Festivals and Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the Jewish month) through artwork and insights. The Illuminated Megillah on Megillat Esther peels back layers of concealment to reveal the hidden dimension of the Purim story. The Illuminated Pirkei Avotis a classic work on Jewish ethics, explaining Judaism's most extensive collection of ethical teachings. Tens of thousands of his editions on Grace After Meals have enhanced Shabbat tables from New York to Australia. His magnum opus, The Illuminated Torah deftly weaves imagery and insight to share the wisdom of the Torah and Midrash against a magnificent artistic backdrop.

Every artist is influenced by his surroundings, and Rabbi Weinrib is no different. During times of personal challenge, his art is a refuge, a haven of meaning and inspiration. But he is perpetually determined to focus his artist's eye outside the art, beyond the physical beauty, just as he strives to look beyond the physical pinch of life's challenges.

"My father, an Auschwitz survivor, recently passed away. There was no question that my father was a man who channeled the unspeakable horrors he suffered during the Holocaust into something totally different -- he was an incredibly sensitive person with a real zest for life. One day, we were walking together in the hospital, during a time when he was very sick, and my father turned to me and said, ‘It's such a beautiful world!'" His voice accents his emotion. "When we can be attuned to everything we see around us, in the entire Creation, we can see that it really is a beautiful world, no matter what. Just like in art, we use contrast to bring out the beauty of a painting, so, too, God uses ‘contrast' in our lives -- challenges, trials, and pain -- to bring out the beauty for us to appreciate. If everything was always rosy, we would never be able to appreciate the complexity and real splendor of life."

His brushstrokes can convey even the deepest tenets of Judaism; an ingeniously executed motif may contain a lofty spiritual thought that breaks barriers and binds the viewer to his Creator. For Rabbi Yonah Weinrib, art is Judaism and Judaism is the most moving art you'll ever glimpse.

Click here to purchase one of Rabbi Weinrib's works.

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