Every JEW is an ARTIST (9:27)
What is the true purpose of Jewish art?
Every JEW is an ARTIST (9:27)
Which of these statements is true? 1) Torah has been an inspiration for Jewish art. 2) Torah severely discourages and limits the use of art.
On the one hand, Moses introduced the idea that G-d should be “adorned” with beautiful religious implements. (Exodus 15:2) The first artists (Betzalel and company) mentioned in the Bible were contracted to design a Sanctuary for G-d. (Exodus 35:31) Inference: Decorative items for ritual purposes are firmly rooted within Judaism.
On the other hand, the Second Commandment reads, “You shall not make any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or the earth below.” Implication: Judaism is antagonistic to art. But, upon further study, this verse forbids imagery only if used for idol worship. True, the text does not specifically permit representational art for other purposes; and hence the ambiguity concerning the propriety of artistic endeavor.
Surprisingly, human figures do appear in 3rd century Syrian synagogue murals. However, Jewish visual art did not acquire a ‘Kosher’ stamp, until the 11th century, when Rashi allowed two-dimensional wall frescoes depicting Biblical scenes. (Shabbos, 149a) In the next century, Maimonides permitted three-dimensional animal sculptures. (Avodas Kochavim.3:10-11)
In Medieval Europe, religious intolerance excluded Jews from the world of art. Western art was Christian art commissioned by the Church or nobility. So instead of painting and sculpture, artistically talented Jews used art for utilitarian purposes: to make a living. They became jewelers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, engravers, ceramicists, weavers, embroiderers, glassblowers, wood-carvers, calligraphers, and illustrators of Hebrew manuscripts.
Kabbalistically speaking, creative expression can be traced back to the Biblical persona of Noach. When spelled in reverse, Noach (נח) becomes Chen (חן), meaning grace or beauty. CheN itself is an acronym for CHochmat Nistar, hidden wisdom. CheN thus denotes inner beauty.
Of Noach’s three sons, we read, “G-d shall enlarge Yafet. He shall dwell in the tents of Shem. Cham shall be their servant.” The name Yafet, the progenitor of Greek and Western civilization, is related to the word Yafa, visible or surface beauty, while Shem correlates to Shma, hearing, and Cham to CHomer, matter and tactility. Just as Noach’s family includes three sons, so too CHen, true artistic beauty must incorporate these three modalities; the visual, aural, and tangible.
In different cultures, one modality tends to dominate. Ancient ethnic art is largely tactile, albeit symbolic (i.e., African masks from the family of Cham). Modern Western art is primarily visual. Jewish art, CHen, requires a union of modalities. Example: At the climactic Giving of the Torah at Sinai, “The people heard that which was normally seen and saw that which was usually heard.” In Judaism, the sense of sight is not always limited to surface perception. It is associated with insight. While, most cultures see the external and hear the internal, in Judaism, the opposite is true. Panim, face and P’nim, internal are the same word.
This dynamic interplay of the aural and visual, where perception penetrates beyond the surface to the interior, is essential to Jewish art. So though G-d’s “enlarging of Yafet” allowed Cyrus, a descendants of Yafet, to build the Second Temple, the Divine Presence was manifest only in the First Temple which King Solomon built.
Though Yafet, the master of the visual arts “constructed a glorious edifice,” (Succot 51b) he could not create a perfect beauty. Only King Solomon’s First Temple, the epitome of splendor, actualized the ideal of CHen. For Jewish art not only combines the different senses, it connects the physical and spiritual dimensions of our lives.
Thus the words for spirit, ruach (רוח) and matter, chomer (חמר) are intimately related when inverted. (In Kabbalah, the letters ‘vav’ and ‘mem’ are also interchangeable.) Whereas in certain traditions you have to renounce physicality in order to attain spirituality, in Judaism they are essentially one. Jewish art, then, is about the spiritual nature of one’s encounter with the physical world.
This unique interchange necessitates an active involvement on behalf of the viewer, since Jewish art is a multi-media, all-involvement event. Compare the passive spectator of traditional Western theatre to a Passover Seder. We follow a Haggada, but it is not a text in the classic sense. We drink four cups of wine, we cry over bitter herbs, we chase an Afikomen. The audience and the performers are the same people. It is a multi-sensory, multi-media event.
The Temple in Jerusalem embodied that same totality of experience. One smelled the incense, ate the sacrifices, heard the Levites singing, etc. Thus the Sanctuary established the essential prototype of Jewish art: 1) Man does not create for the sake of art alone; 2) art reveals the spiritual in the physical, the ruach in the chomer.
Sadly enough, true Jewish art did not flourish during much of our history. Many non-Jewish factors contributed to this phenomenon. Under Islamic rule, much of art was off-limits. In the Christian world, the illiterate masses required pictures, while Jewish children who could read the Biblical stories made depiction unnecessary. A more encompassing reason: Unlike churches, ornate art in synagogues did not exist because of political and economic weakness of Jewish communities, plus their own desire not to draw attention.
In the twentieth century, Jews are no longer restricted by the outside world. Consequently, Jewish artists have proliferated. The Rebbe addressed one such artist. “The essential quality of an artist is his ability to detach himself from the superficial appearance of the image ... [and] penetrate the true essence of the object and transform his impression into a picture with physical dimensions.
“This artistic production reveals to the viewer that which he could not recognize on his own, an essence that was obscured by superficial layers. Only an artist has the skill to reveal the inner dimensions of an object, thus enabling the observer to see it with a different perspective, and to realize the limitations of his previous awareness.
”In short, one who is divinely gifted, whether in sculpture, painting or another artistic endeavor, has the privilege of being able to convert inanimate objects (such as paint, brush and canvas) into a vital form. In a deeper sense, this implies the ability to transform the material into the spiritual…In the esoteric teachings of the Torah the entire creation emanates from, and is constantly sustained by, the word of G-d. However, because of the process of divine concealment, His word is hidden, and only the material substance is visible.
“Therefore, the challenge (as well as the goal) is to become aware of the G-dliness extant in all objects, and in so doing, minimize the concealment of the true G-dly reality.” (Igros Kodesh, Vol. 4, p. 223)
This is the true purpose of Jewish art, and indeed, of all life. In that sense, every Jew is required to be an artist.
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