The Challenge of Jewish Culture

A deep bias against art pervades the Jewish community.

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The author argues that the Jewish community has had a long-standing suspicion of the cultural arts. He examines what he sees as the roots of that suspicion, and parts of his analysis are provocative–indeed, are meant to provoke. This article was originally published in The Reconstructionist: A Journal of Contemporary Jewish Thought and Practice and is reprinted with permission. The original article, with footnotes, can be found on the journal’s website.

Despite their potential for renewal, arts and culture are generally neglected, and to some extent even feared, in communal Jewish life.

There seems to be lodged in the Jewish psyche a deep bias against appreciating art for its own sake, a fear of “merely” enjoying the aesthetically pleasing. An anecdote: During Sukkot a few years ago, I was invited to eat with a religious family in New York. The family, and the neighbors who joined them, were part of a yeshiva community, learned and pious Jews. Many of them also owned advanced secular degrees.

The evening’s main discussion was this: How does one choose one etrog over another if both of them satisfy all the legal requirements? After an hour of discussion, during which diners quoted this text and that, I naively blurted out, “Can’t you just pick the one that seems the most pleasing?” The answer: Moshe Rabbenu [Moses Our Rabbi] could just choose the etrog that pleased him the most, since he was a prophet. Everyone else has to rely on a legal checklist, and hope that the most appropriate etrog will somehow emerge.

Anxiety About Aesthetics

One can’t discuss Jewish ideas about art without noting the proscription against idolatry. This concern is more obvious for architecture and the visual arts; in a visual context one could literally worship a profane image. We see the continuing relevance of this fear in a book like Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, about a young Hasidic painter who must choose between art and religion, and whose seduction by the aesthetic muse leads to the psychological destruction of his family. But the fear runs deeper. As Norman Finkelstein tells us in The Ritual of New Creation, Cynthia Ozick’s greatest anxiety may be her suspicion that imaginative literature of any kind is a type of idolatry, even if that literature sets out to describe the power of a transcendent God.

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Dan Schifrin is the former director of communications for the National Foundation of Jewish Culture.

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The author argues that the Jewish community has had a long-standing suspicion of the cultural arts. He examines what he sees as the roots of that suspicion, and parts of his analysis are provocative–indeed, are meant to provoke. This article was originally published in The Reconstructionist: A Journal of Contemporary Jewish Thought and Practice and is reprinted with permission. The original article, with footnotes, can be found on the journal’s website.

Despite their potential for renewal, arts and culture are generally neglected, and to some extent even feared, in communal Jewish life.

There seems to be lodged in the Jewish psyche a deep bias against appreciating art for its own sake, a fear of “merely” enjoying the aesthetically pleasing. An anecdote: During Sukkot a few years ago, I was invited to eat with a religious family in New York. The family, and the neighbors who joined them, were part of a yeshiva community, learned and pious Jews. Many of them also owned advanced secular degrees.

The evening’s main discussion was this: How does one choose one etrog over another if both of them satisfy all the legal requirements? After an hour of discussion, during which diners quoted this text and that, I naively blurted out, “Can’t you just pick the one that seems the most pleasing?” The answer: Moshe Rabbenu [Moses Our Rabbi] could just choose the etrog that pleased him the most, since he was a prophet. Everyone else has to rely on a legal checklist, and hope that the most appropriate etrog will somehow emerge.

Anxiety About Aesthetics

One can’t discuss Jewish ideas about art without noting the proscription against idolatry. This concern is more obvious for architecture and the visual arts; in a visual context one could literally worship a profane image. We see the continuing relevance of this fear in a book like Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev, about a young Hasidic painter who must choose between art and religion, and whose seduction by the aesthetic muse leads to the psychological destruction of his family. But the fear runs deeper. As Norman Finkelstein tells us in The Ritual of New Creation, Cynthia Ozick’s greatest anxiety may be her suspicion that imaginative literature of any kind is a type of idolatry, even if that literature sets out to describe the power of a transcendent God.

Cultural Conflicts Today

In many ways American culture is extremely conflicted in terms of how it views art and its religious and spiritual potential. On the one hand, embedded in the American psyche is work of the Shaker community, which connects art with deeply spiritual beliefs, as well as the tradition of “Negro spirituals,” which have dramatically influenced the history of American music. On the other hand, we belong to a society that wants to abolish federal funding of all arts and culture, and whose defenders must now resort to the most utilitarian of arguments–that the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts help prime local economies when an arts institution receives a government grant. One need only compare the cultural budgets of the U.S. with France or Germany to see the relative value placed on arts and culture.

There is also a split in America over the use of the arts for the creation and renewal of community. Witness the ongoing, bitter dispute between African-American playwright August Wilson and theater director and critic Robert Brustein–about whether the theater exists to transcend differences or to build identity–to see how charged the issue is.

Today’s emphasis on film, television, and other visual media, and the immediate gratification they promise, has also dissociated most people from the sacredness of language. As religious and spiritual values have declined in importance in America, the need for powerful religious language has become less important. And so there are fewer people interested in seeing language as a holy vessel, or exploring and molding language in that manner….

An Absence of Interest

In what ways does the Jewish community neglect the arts or not view them with sufficient sophistication? Let’s look briefly at the articulation of Jewish communal policy in this regard: basically, there isn’t any. Very few standard works on Jewish communal life address the issues of art and culture. Daniel Elazar’s important work Community and Polity, for instance, which articulated a vocabulary of Jewish communal organization, has not a single reference in the index to either culture or the arts. And even though the landmark 1990 National Jewish Population Survey indicated that a huge percentage of American Jews defined themselves as primarily “cultural,” there has been no formal elaboration of that finding. And if the impoverished arts budgets for most Jewish day or Hebrew schools are thrown into the mix, the picture looks even worse.

The National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) is the only national Federation-affiliated agency that has as its mission the promotion of the arts and culture as a viable strategy for Jewish community-building. But even the NFJC, which was founded in 1960 primarily to coordinate archiving and preservation activities, has only in the last decade begun to talk about the creation of art and culture, not just their study and preservation, as a communal imperative. The NFJC, in conjunction with Brandeis University’s Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Institute for Community and Religion, is now undertaking the first national survey of Jewish cultural life, which will evaluate what people mean by “arts and culture,” quantify cultural production by category, and study any connections between culture and Jewish identification….

Fear of Culture

Arts and culture frighten institutionally because they don’t fit neatly into boxes. The American Jewish polity, by contrast, labors hard to create categories and divisions, from religious denominations to national organizations, even when the distinctions between them are virtually meaningless. I heard a joke recently that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will soon be joined by the Conference of Presidents of Minor American Jewish Organizations, in order to create another level of centralized community authority. The unfortunate truth is that our community ethos is more accurately captured in the prose of organizational memos than in poetry.

Even though there is no formal communal position on arts and culture… a number of observations can still be made about the American Jewish community and the arts.

First, there is an element of fear regarding the arts, associated with the potential influence of a shockingly superficial popular culture. Within the more traditional segments of the Jewish community, the fear of being spiritually annihilated by film, television, advertisement, and pop music has grown enormously in recent decades. Many Orthodox families do not even own televisions, placing themselves in the 99th percentile among Americans, and their association of the most challenging art with plummeting standards of decency or even grossly impolite language has grown.

Second, there is the sense that the arts may lead to an overemphasis on the spiritual, which many see as a dangerous, and growing, tendency. Professor Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary has often spoken of the three dimensions of Jewish life -the intellectual, the behavioral, and the spiritual–and the fear many (including himself) have of a Judaism that errs on the side of spirituality. At a recent lecture he expressed the concern that much of Jewish spirituality today veers toward the “anti-intellectual and the narcissistic.” Some note, with obvious displeasure, that Nahman of Bratslav and the Bal Shem Tov were radical religious thinkers because they were literary innovators of the first rank.

Third, contemporary Jews have turned their fear of joy and of “letting go” into an obsession with the Holocaust and an interpretation of history which focuses, not without some justification, on bloodletting.(Long before the Holocaust, Jews focused on what Salo Baron (borrowing from Cecil Roth) famously called the “lachrymose view of Jewish history.” And during certain periods like the middle ages, the creative response of the Jewish community was to focus on martyrdom and embrace their share of affliction. See Hurban, p. 84 -105.)

This idea may come as a shock to those who think Jewish life is full of joy, and who see in Jewish history the victory of exuberance over execution. But there is in the Jewish psyche a deep fear that security and freedom will soon be taken away; a certainty that Job, not Elijah, is the guide to our people’s history.

Fourth, and on the most universalistic and individualistic level, there is the issue of being psychologically open to the world, even in a post-Holocaust era. Israeli writer David Grossman’s profound comment about great literature–that which affects and teaches you before you have a chance to erect defenses–speaks precisely to this issue. Individuals, by and large, eschew profound works of art (or engage that art only superficially) not primarily because they find those works to be irrelevant or boring. Instead, we run for cover because we fear what will happen when we let our defenses down. And if that is so with individuals, how much more so for a Jewish community for whom change is as frightening as the hounds of anti-Semitism we always believe are at our heels.

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