Author Archives: Dan Schifrin

Dan Schifrin

About Dan Schifrin

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

The Case for Jewish Culture

This opinion piece argues that since most Jewish identify themselves as cultural rather than religious Jews, Jewish cultural arts should assume a central role in Jewish organizational and communal life. 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.

In San Francisco recently, several hundred mostly unaffiliated Jews crammed into a major synagogue to hear a night of foot-stamping klezmer music. Community leaders, not expecting such a large turnout, left scratching their heads, apparently unaware that a style of music inspired by shtetl [village] and ghetto life could draw so many young, secular sophisticated Jews into a synagogue.

Culture at the Heart of Jewish Life

But why should anybody be surprised at the effect arts and culture has on American Jews? The fact that a music concert should draw people to the core institution of Jewish life, people that might otherwise never or seldom attend shul, confirms what should be obvious: that the arts and culture are nearer the heart of Jewish life, and nearer the hearts of Jewish people, than many community leaders admit.

case for jewish cultureThe 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which indicated that more people identified themselves as “cultural” than as “religious” or any other category, further brings home the point. Our search for renewal and continuity should begin where people are often the most touched and inspired: the concert hall, the book of poetry, the film, the dance floor.

Arts and culture can help renew Jewish life because their dynamic, spiritual, and emotional nature can inspire individuals, create a sense of community, and provoke radically new ideas. This renewal can take the form of connecting with those outside the purview of Jewish institutional life, reenergizing those Jews within the community, and perhaps even bridging the gaps between different Jewish communities.

The Challenge of Jewish Culture

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.

The Arts in Jewish Culture

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.

arts in jewish cultureThe 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.