Spiritual pixels: reconciling Judaism and NFTs
Exporting cultural richness online through the worlds of Torah and NFTs
By now you’ve heard quite a bit about NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and may have jumped into their world yourself. NFTs are a creative financial technology phenomena that arose from the creation of platforms for digital creators and the like to list and value their artwork. The NFT marketplace has grown to a global multibillion-dollar cultural hub in only a few short years. I want to focus on how Jews and Jewish creators are making a niche for themselves in this volatile yet meteorically growing marketplace, and why the future of Jewish NFTs is still something that is shapeable by all of us.
What is an NFT?
Firstly, NFTs are a part of a larger digital marketplace called cryptocurrency and follow the global digital ledger of transactions called the Blockchain. A lot of new vocabulary, but not overly complicated once you grasp a few simple concepts. I’ll share the way I explained it to my Bubbe.
Like what if I said that an NFT is like a unique stock certificate being issued by a newly public company to public investors. The price is set based on a formula that considers a company's net worth and its speculated future potential earnings, which becomes the stock’s initial public offering, IPO price. Crypto is the capital that this new marketplace runs on and the Blockchain is a decentralized securely-encrypted version of the daily stock market trading ledger.
With me so far?
Then I explained that we speculate how that company stock is valued based on how “well” traders, investors, and we think it will do. If the company releases an innovative product then its stock will likely go up. Could the same not be applied to artists, and especially Jewish artists? Just like public companies who trade stock, we build brands, produce unique products/services, and contribute to the global economy. NFTs, Crypto, and the Blockchain allow us to participate in a similar financial system that is peer-to-peer-based rather than operated and mediated by private brokerage and or national entities.
Lastly and, in my opinion, the most amazing aspect of NFTs is the utility or the perks attached to the purchase of an NFT. Besides the glory and crypto value of the NFT, utility provides tangible value to the intangible digital media asset. NFT artists may attach real-world artwork, merchandise, or special access to an event or content. Intangibly, the benefits include status in key social circles, connections with other like-minded communities, and the simple joy of the investment in a community or individual.
“But, aren’t we just day-trading jpegs, Mike?”.
What Can Be an NFT?
In short, anything that can be represented in digital form can be an NFT. The vast majority of NFTs now are jpeg images, but are also videos, audio recordings, writings, 3D models, interactive experiences in VR, video games, or computer code. Basically, any form of contemporary digital media that's out there.
But looking at the media side of NFTs is only half the story. Coupled with unique utility, the media representation really serves as a certificate for perks in real life. For example, an artist could sell an NFT of their latest painting and then offer a common utility like a print of the work. Or they could offer something uncommon like a dozen MasterClass painting lessons with the artist. The difference in these kinds of utility perks would greatly influence the value of the NFT in my example. So, if we couple amazing media art with unique utility, then boom - we have a solid NFT to bring to market. This is where great creative questions come into play to decide what is valuable and worth putting on the market.
How Are NFTs Jewish?
Since NFTs are globally-based and community-focused, they mirror global creative financial trends. Simultaneously, there is a current Renaissance-like explosion of both implicit and explicit Jewish creativity and cultural expression which has similar trends globally. By implicit and explicit, I’m referring to the 20th to 21st-century shift in defining what Jewish art is. But more so than ever, we are seeing artwork made by Jewish-identifying artists and the content, aesthetic style, or form is also Jewish. We are at a point where we are rapidly learning about the great intersections of the Jewish story around the world and that we actually share a common future. Creative explorations of the bespoke and sublime of Jewish life have exponential cultural and spiritual implications.
There are a few major ways that Jews are affecting charity and culture in the NFT space by combining acts of Tzedakah with Hiddur Mitzvot to offer unique utility perks to supporters with uniquely-beautified digital objects.
Firstly, by using the real-world tiered fund drive features in their utility offerings with their NFTs to fundraise for their own brick-and-mortar organizations and beneficiaries, the NFTorah project by TechTribe minted a series of 18 (chai) curated Torah portions into NFTs to raise funds to support Torah-studying communities in need. They cite that the “Torah is the oldest unbroken blockchain” and that the utility of the NFTs is tzedakah going to further the completion of a newly-scribed Torah scroll to be donated to a community in need.
While this project doesn’t put emphasis on the digital media asset side of the NFT, the 1-to-1 Torah parsha-to-NFT fundraising model is a strong case for why an NFT utility could be a real mitzvah in Tzedakah. Plus, it’s pretty cool to imagine a studious scribe painstakingly handmaking each Hebrew letter moments after receiving your contribution and the attached scripture.
Secondly, the visually-dominated platforms of social media and NFT marketplaces have ignited a surge in Judaica and Jewish-themed creative objects. It’s fair to say that this era of Jewish creatives is intentionally making Hiddur Mitzvot quite prolific and are not only pushing the aesthetic boundaries of beautification of our cultural and spiritual objects, but joyfully celebrating the strata of Jewish identities in the world in new and unorthodox spaces. We now see Jewish themes emerging in global pop-cultural arenas of music, art, and fashion. Many contemporary Jewish creatives mine Jewish texts, history, and politics to produce world-class traditional Judaica, fine art, street art, commercial art spaces, and cutting-edge digital experiences.
I observe all of this creative activity as a sublime visual-Midrashic-like expression of the contemporary Jewish experience in action. NFTs provide a greater platform for cataloging this evolving Jewish art and Judaica on the blockchain that has the potential to make a real-world impact on the artist and their communities.
Explicit Cultural Expression
Is Jewish art defined by the Jewish content and themes featured in the work, or is it because it was created by a Jewish artist?
Jewish art was famously hard to define in the 19th and 20th centuries because many Jewish artists expressed themselves implicitly and in encrypted ways, but were very much Jewish people and had Jewish identities. Perhaps the most appropriate of Jewish expressions for the modern and postmodern art eras.
The 21st century has been a unique time for Jewish culture worldwide. Some would say that we’ve rebuilt a digital silk road and have entered an era past postmodernism to what theorists call metamodernism. For the first time in centuries, we can access an incredible amount of our thought-to-be-lost texts and cultural artifacts, a continuously unfolding archeological history, and we can connect and collaborate with other Jewish communities living outside of our own in a global Jewish culture jam.
The simple googling of “Jewish art” will send you down a rabbit hole of wonderful world-class artistry both contemporary and historic. This makes me feel a little less alone in the Diaspora knowing that elsewhere and in Israel there are strong communities of Jews that are actively exporting cultural richness online and in real life. This set of global circumstances has spurred a rise in the amount of explicitly Jewish creativity worldwide which has cascaded into the NFT space. Meaning the art features Jewish content, Jewish cultural experience, and/or is made by a Jewish artist.
Jewish NFT projects include The Kiddush Club NFT Mensch collection, a JaDa organization NFT event at Miami art week 2021, to independent Jewish artists like MosheArt’s hamsa art becoming NFTs or myself in minting my Jewish Futurism artwork and digital experiences into NFTs. We take existing artwork and add that work as NFTs to our current output channels. Independent artists offer unique and interesting utility options, such as prints of the NFT art, access to exclusive content, or even providing the actual rights to the NFT artwork. These different perks would greatly impact the value of the NFT offered. As digital technology and utility offerings evolve into new spaces and screens, we’ll see this grow and evolve in value and utility.
You better believe how thrilled I am that I get to directly engage my audience with the Jewish art that I am making as original work, prints, merch, and now NFTs.
Where Is It All Going?
In the end, we’ve seen examples that demonstrate the promising qualities of NFTs that appeal to creatives, fundraising communities, and fin-tech communities. The examples I shared and the growing number of Jewish creatives, organizations, and institutions adding their NFT projects to the marketplace daily indicate that working with NFTs does actually extend the representation and creative utility of the Jewish experience into emerging global markets and spaces.
That sounds like a fantastic opportunity for high-tech Hiddur Mitzvot and Tzedaka that puts Jewish culture into the midst of new and innovative spaces and conversations on our own terms.
About the author
Mike Wirth is a visual artist, digital experience designer, and muralist, best known for his thoughtful murals, public art installations, and client-driven commercial design work that focus on major social justice issues and his identity as a Southern, Jewish-American.
Over the past 20 years, Wirth’s murals, published design projects, and digital museum exhibits have appeared in New York, Miami, Austin, Charlotte, NC, and internationally in Croatia, Poland, and Germany.
Currently, Wirth is a scholar at the Stan Greenspon Center for Holocaust and Social Justice Education and Professor of Art and Design at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. He's been investigating NFTs since 2015 and has been creating them for brands and non-profit organizations since 2021.