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This article was originally published in
The Reconstructionist: A Journal of Contemporary Jewish Thought and Practice
and is excerpted with permission. The original article, with footnotes, can be found on the journal’s website.
The arts have been a fundamental part of Jewish life since the very beginning, in some ways so obviously that their significance is hidden. The first, of course, is that the Torah and the other biblical books are of an uncanny literary quality and power; the Hebrew language itself has been invested, over millennia, with a certain life force of its own. The Torah has been perfectly reproduced for hundreds of generations, and if even one letter of the Torah is wrong the entire scroll is invalidated. The attention to the origin and quality of the Torah parchment, the type of quill and ink, everything about the process is suffused with sensuality and an artistic passion, and suggests enormous reverence for the beauty of language as well as for the Torah’s religious content.
The Arts in Pre-Modern Jewish Culture
This attention to detail–also seen, for instance, in the instructions God gives to Bezalel, the builder of the Tabernacle–stems from the injunction of hiddur mitzvah, or the beautification of each commandment to the best of one’s ability. This injunction includes everything from selecting the most beautiful etrog [citron fruit] on Sukkot to composing the most beautiful melodies for prayers. King David, the author of the Psalms, was a musician before he was God’s and Israel’s servant, and one assumes he was picked for holy duty, in part, because of what his music said about the quality of his heart.
The significance of the arts–especially literature–took on a more complex, intellectual, and even burdensome role after the Jews first experienced exile.
As David Roskies has noted in Against the Apocalypse and The Literature of Destruction, and Alan Mintz in Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature, literature has traditionally been a way for Jews to maintain a sense of continuity in the face of terrible communal rupture. At the same time, this Diaspora literature–commentary, poems, midrash, prayers, responsa and other works–provided a standard way for individuals and communities to understand their persistent tragedies and wanderings in a way that gave emotional, spiritual and creative release. The spiritual impulse of a people living in their own land was replaced, by and large, by the urgent need to remember and continue. And literature served the needs of a community struggling with unprecedented angst and dislocation.
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