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A Jewish Perspective on the Arts


 Dear Friends,

The artist expresses the desire and the potential within the human being to be creative. What is the source of this desire and potential? The beginning of the answer can be found in the Torah’s teaching that the human being was created in the image of the One God Who created the universe (Genesis 1:27). We were created in the image of the Creative One, and we therefore have within us the desire and potential to be creative. In this spirit, I received the following comments from Hazon participant, Malka Zeisel, who lives in Jerusalem:

“I truly believe that Hashem endowed each individual with some form of Creativity, and it is up to each of us to discover what it is – art, music, writing, flower-arranging, cooking, etc. If Hashem is the Creator of the universe, then maybe by each of us using our creative talents, we are expressing how we were created in God’s image, and uncovering our godliness, which I believe is part of our Purpose.”

Through the process of creation, the Creator gave life to the world, and we, who are created in the Divine image, are to “go in His ways” (Deuteronomy 26:9). The artist therefore has a sacred responsibility to emulate the Life-Giving One by engaging in creative forms of artistic expression which increase and/or enhance life; moreover, the artist is to avoid all forms of artistic expression which diminish and/or degrade life. 

The artist can gain a deeper understanding of this sacred responsibility through the following Torah message: After describing the Divine creation of the human being, the Torah reveals the Divine mission of the human being:

“Hashem God took the human being and placed him in the Garden to serve it and to guard it.” (Genesis 2:15)

The human being was given the responsibility to serve and to safeguard the creation of Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch therefore finds in this verse the following message to each human being:

“Everything bestowed upon you – mind, body, fellow human being, material goods, other creatures, every talent and every power – all are merely means to action, l’avdah u’l’shamrah, to further and to safeguard everything.” (The Nineteen Letters – Letter 4)

As Rabbi Hirsch indicates, every aspect of ourselves and our environment can be used to serve the compassionate and life-giving Divine purpose. All our activities can therefore become a sacred service, and our tradition teaches that the way to achieve this higher level is through our kavanah – the intention or consciousness which accompanies our daily activities. The Hebrew word kavanah is related to the word kiven – to direct, to aim toward a goal. From a Torah perspective, we are to perform all our activities with a sacred and altruistic kavanah – with the intention to fulfill the compassionate and life-giving purpose of our Creator. 

In the following statement, King Solomon reminds us that all our activities should be directed towards this goal:

 “In all your ways know Him” (Proverbs 3:6). 

In this spirit, Rabbi Yose, a sage of the Mishnah, says: 

“Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven” (Pirkei Avos 2:17). 

Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz was a noted 20th century sage of Mussar – Torah teachings regarding ethics and personal spiritual development. In his work, Daas Chochmah U’Mussar (chapter 5), he discusses a way in which our livelihood, with the right kavanah, can become a sacred service for the sake of heaven. As we know, there is a mitzvah to perform acts of chesed (loving-kindness), and he points out that our livelihood can also be a form of chesed. He writes:

“For example, if you sell items that people need, even though you take money to earn a living, your supplying them with necessary products is considered an act of chesed. The fact that you gain financial profit from a transaction does not negate the fact that you are doing chesed. What is important is that you have the intention in mind to help others with your actions, as well as earning money.” (Cited in “Consulting the Wise” by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, Aish HaTorah Publications)

We can apply this teaching to the creative work of artists, for there are various ways in which their work can benefit others; in fact, the very beauty of their work becomes an act of chesed, as it brings pleasure, joy, and inspiration to others. If artists start their day with the kavanah that they wish to do the mitzvah of chesed through their work, then their work becomes a sacred service, even if they get paid for their endeavors.

All of the above insights can help us to understand the sacred service of Betzalel, the spiritually-enlightened artist who served as the leader of the artists who were involved in the building of the Holy Tabernacle during the period when we were journeying to the Land of Zion. Regarding this leader of the artists, the Torah states:

“Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘See, I have called by name: Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with a Godly spirit, with wisdom, with understanding, and with knowledge, and with talent for every type of creative work.” (Exodus 31:1-3)

“I have called by name: Betzalel.” – The name “Betzalel” means, “In the Shadow of God.” This name alludes to his spiritual ability to emulate God. According to the noted sage, the Maharal of Prague, the Name of God which appears in this artist’s name refers to the Divine compassion which leads to overflowing Divine goodness and chesed. (Gur Aryeh on Exodus 34:6)  

The name “Betzalel” therefore reveals that this spiritually-enlightened artist had the ability to emulate the Creative and Life-Giving One Whose compassion leads to overflowing goodness and chesed.

I would like to conclude this essay with the following teaching about compassion which is especially relevant to our current situation when we are faced with enemies that are ideologically committed to our destruction, and that are actively pursuing this evil goal: According to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hebrew word for compassion – rachamim – stems from the word rechem – womb (Commentary to Genesis 43:14). Just as the womb was created to nurture and develop life, so too, the purpose of compassion is to nurture and develop life. But when compassion for those devoted to murder increases their ability to further death and destruction, then it is not true compassion; it does not serve the life-giving purpose of Hashem, the Compassionate Creator of all life. 

May we be blessed with a Shabbos of life and shalom.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen 

Hazon – Our Universal Vision:  www.shemayisrael.com/publicat/hazon