NEGATIVE SPACE: What is Missing in Today’s Judaism
by Arielle Rothbard
During the spring of my senior year of high school, my photography teacher invited our art class to a gallery. There were 50 pieces: all different sizes, shapes, colors and textures. Each had a subject and space around that subject.
One 8″x10″ shot grabbed my attention from where it hung a foot above eye level. The starkness of the snowy expanse covering 95% of the frame would normally bore most viewers, but the piece’s redemptive strength was tucked away in the lower right-hand corner. Three miniscule men stood ice fishing. I glanced to the left, noticing the bright blue ribbon dangling alongside the photo. Apparently someone else liked it, too.
Every art piece necessitates negative space. Gene Moore’s window dressing boom in the 1950s at Tiffany’s began with Moore de-cluttering the sparkling mass of jewelry, giving every piece its own display. Each piece could shine: the focal point of its own, spacious window. Revolutionary!
Negative space is an art term. It doesn’t mean the space is negative in the sense of being depressing or contributing “less than zero” (the mathematical definition). Negative space simply serves the purpose of allowing the true subject to stand out in strong contrast.
Negative space is the tool of definition. While the subject is the focal point of any art form, what is missing will often help the subject speak louder. For example, when beginning a new idea within an essay, hitting the return key a second time denotes a change better than using a transitional word or phrase. This allows the readers to ponder what they have just read.
But a piece of art, a person or a movement cannot be completely defined by what it is not. A blank palate or an unhewn stone is unfinished if no subject appears. Negative space must emphasize something already present.
Modern Jewish teaching, particularly in its cultural and sociological aspects, often defines itself by what it rejects: Jesus (Yeshua). Currently, in the mind of most Jews, the only qualification to call oneself a Jew—whether one follows Adonai, Buddha, or nothing—is to reject the possibility of Jesus for Jews. But if everyone who is descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (a biblical definition) is a Jew—including atheists, for example—how is a Jewish believer in Jesus not a Jew? Why should belief in Jesus be the disqualifier?
The Jewish people were established by God. God chose Abraham, the father of a seemingly small and insignificant people, to glorify himself. The Jewish people would ultimately bring the Messiah, salvation, to the world. As a Jew who does believe in Jesus, let me paint you a picture of how Jesus fits into the frame.
We were given the Torah—God’s good and perfect law. Because of our lack of holiness, being human, we were unable to keep that law. We needed a Messiah, a means of connection with God. The sacrificial system was temporarily instated with a high priest as mediator, a placeholder for the one who would eternally unify the Jewish people, and everyone else, with God.
Even the high priest made atonement for himself before sacrificing a second animal for the people. The shedding of blood, a substitutionary measure for wrongdoing, was necessary to seal the gap between us and God. That scarlet life force ran into the hollows around the altar, a picture of filling our empty, incomplete hearts. We were covered temporarily, whiter than the snow in my favorite photograph.
But God’s requirement for reconciliation did not change when the temple was removed from the picture in 70 A.D. Jesus’ death and resurrection 40 years prior took the place of the sacrificial system. To compensate, an over-crowding of Jewish subject matter sprang up—suffocating the pre-existing laws by embellishment and addition. These new rules became a tangle of form and line without definition, often without biblical context. In Conversion to Judaism: A History and Analysis, Bernard Bamberger reflects on this predicament, “We have an abundance of Jews without Judaism.”1
But which Judaism? The modern, rule-bound version, or the biblical, Messiah-based version?
The Messiah, Yeshua, our eternal high priest, came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17), not to add more regulations. Yeshua came as an eternal solution for our sin, whereas animal sacrifice was temporary. Only he can fill the void in our hearts that defines us as incomplete. The Jewish Scriptures (Tanakh) point to Yeshua; the New Testament then becomes that imperative corner-detail on the canvas of Tanakh.
Many Jews today do not follow the Jewish Scriptures or the Jewish religion. Judaism is not synonymous with being Jewish. Modern Judaism lacks Jesus; Jewish people don’t have to.
It’s funny how my favorite photograph and my belief in Yeshua as Messiah have two commonalities: strong subject matter, and of course, negative space. In art, technically there is always something present in negative space, but it is secondary—often out-of-focus—to complement the actual subject. If we put Judaism on a canvas, the cultural, rabbinic, and sacrificial backdrop would fill the canvas, but in the corner, in stark relief, would be the biblical fulfillment of our faith: the Messiah Yeshua, who really ought to be the focal point.