In this week’s Torah portion, God explains that God has called not only Betzalel and Oholiav to execute their craft on all the holy items that need to be built, but that “in the heart of all who are wise-hearted, I put wisdom so that they will make all that I have commanded.” (Shemot 31:6)
Many people have tried to figure out what distinguishes humans from animals: some have postulated it is our “higher emotions,” but it turns out animals have those (and people have recognized that for a long time); some have suggested it is our intellect – but if that is so, then it is intellect of degree, not kind, for animals are able to solve problems in all kinds of ways. Some have suggested it is language – but it turns out that many animals are able to use not only vocabulary, but syntax, and some even have names for one another. Some say it is morals – but clearly anyone who has ever had a dog knows that an animal knows when it has done wrong.
What I have never heard of an animal doing is expressing the drive to create – to create beauty through art, or to have a craft and make the utilitarian things we need beautiful.
The Torah calls certain individuals chochmat-halev “wise-hearted.” But all human beings have a certain measure of this drive. We all yearn for beauty, and many yearn to create things of beauty. What makes some individuals “wise-hearted?” Instead of simply enjoying the beauty, or perhaps relegated their yearnings to small gestures, they turn their lives into their craft, dedicating time to learning the skills it takes to create not just the occasional beautiful object – and then they send it out into the world, to be regarded by others, to be judged, and to be used.
And when we do this, when we choose a skill and hone it, turning it towards creation, we are b’tzelem elohim, acting in God’s image. For what was God’s creation if not a gesture of art? For a human, art is limited. If we are especially skilled, and work hard, and lucky, too, then perhaps our works will live on after us, at least for a time.
For God, creation is both temporary and permanent – in medieval times some in Arab lands there was a Muslim philosophy that the world was created and destroyed and created anew at every moment. And in the God’s-eye sense, that is true: the sunset that we saw tonight will never be seen again, the child grows to adulthood, species come into being and go extinct. And yet, the universe endures. In its beauty, for a time, God has our regard, and when we are wise-hearted, perhaps for a flicker of God’s eye, we have God’s.
“Start working on this great work of art, called your own existence”- AJ Heschel
A Life well lived is an art: with guides on perspective, scale, composition, ect.
The great artists know when to break the very rules they follow, it’s the breaking of pattern and expectation that creates interest, wonder, and awe.
Such is life.
So what is religion? Specifically, what is Judaism? What is Halacha, Jewish law, ”THE way,” “THE path?” To be sure, there is more than one set of rules to follow in order to make great art, just as there is truth to be found in more than one religion. Great art borrows from other great art. Similarly, ‘no religion is an island’ (again Heschel); we borrow and share, and are deeply influenced by the religion and culture that surrounds us. Halacha then, is “a set of rules” that gives life structure and meaning.
But we have to remember that rules, patterns, are appreciated more when disrupted, challenged. It is the disruption of pattern that makes us take note of both the new and the expected. Fundamentally, our psyche is trained to take for granted the expected and to pay attention to the unique, the surprising, the break in a pattern. Such is the excitement of new love (as described in a New York Times piece on marriage, “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.” The summary: exciting for 2 years, boring and expected for about 20, with a renewed excitement at empty nest. –I’ll simply disagree for now – there is so much more to blissful married life).
In any artform, including Life, including specifically Jewish life, the better you know the rules, the more masterful the impact in breaking them. An analogy: Consider the power of a well placed single word paragraph.
English teachers can’t teach you that.
Consider Spielberg’s girl in the red dress at the end of Shindler’s List. The color adds meaning both to the innocence preserved and to the ominous nature of the otherwise black-and-white film.
In the Bible, the law of primogeniture, the rule that says that the oldest inherits, is constantly overturned: Abraham is not the oldest, Isaac is not the oldest, Jacob is younger than his twin Esau and has to trick and steal to inherit. Even King David, the rightful king of Israel, is the youngest. Why does the Bible so often highlight the breaking of this rule? Because rules gain meaning when the possibility of breaking them also exists.
It is said that there was once a very pious Jew who when he would read the verse, “…and do not be seduced by your heart or led astray by your eyes,” he would start crying (Numbers 15:39, the third paragraph of the Shema prayer said twice daily).
“Why do you cry,” he was asked?
“Because,” the pious man replied, “my entire life I have done exactly what the letter of the law has required of me, and in so doing, I’ve never had the opportunity to fully understand this verse.”
Years ago I chose not to wear my kippa (head covering). I wear it everyday, just about wherever I go. I wear it as a reminder of God, as a symbol of humility, that God is above me, and as an identification with the Jewish people. Driving a U-Haul across the country almost twenty years ago, I pulled into a truck stop in Oklahoma. I decided to put my kippa in my pocket. I wondered to myself why I was doing that? Am I not proud of being Jewish? So, I was wondering about this as I approach the register inside the station. The man in front of me was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt – just like me! I’ve always wanted to be a long-haul trucker. I had this great sense of authenticity. I fit in – until he turned around. His shirt was open and revealed a giant swastika that covered the entirety of his barrel chest. I became very conscious of the kippa in my pocket. All of its symbolism was somehow all the more powerful in my pocket than it is day-to-day in my life in Los Angeles, or New York, where I was headed.
“Profane one Shabbat so that one can keep many Shabbatot” -Yoma 85B
It seems that our religion, so often associated with the strictures of laws, might be better described as teaching the artful breaking of laws.
I content that there is an essential paradox at the heart of a meaningful life: Breaking with tradition and law, has the very real possibility of strengthening tradition and the power of the very rules being broken.
There are white Jews, Black Jews, Asian Jews, and Arab Jews – but blue Jews? No, no such thing exists. Which is exactly why artist Siona Benjamin paints them. Blue is the color of water and sky. It belongs everywhere and nowhere, so when Benjamin paints her figures are often blue. If the Jews are blue, one cannot simply assume a race or identity to them, they could be anyone, at any time.
Born in Bombay, Benjamin grew up amidst Hindus and Muslims and attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. She understands the ability of Jews to blend into their environment. An accomplished artist whose fine brushwork and vivid colors evoke the cultural themes of her native land, the subject of many of her paintings engage the stories of Jewish texts. One look at her illustrations for the story of the biblical Queen Esther and I find myself considering this familiar tale from an entirely new point of view, how did she not stand out? What makes us able to choose not to see difference?
At this time of year Judaism can seem overly cerebral. Lots of praying, listening, talking and of course the exception to the rule, the eating. But the moment we finish with Yom Kippur we prepare for Sukkot. By contrast to High Holidays, Sukkot is about doing. It celebrates the very physical work of the harvest. It has us building physical structures and taking holy objects in our hands and shaking them about. Even the eating, with the moving in and out, is much more physical.
And then there is the art. A Sukkah is meant to be decorated. Sure you can just buy a few premade chains or hang apiece of fruit, but you can also take the opportunity to stretch your Jewish thinking and engage with art as text or in creating new art. There is a tradition of inviting ushpizin, mythical guests from the Jewish past into our Sukkot. Peruse Benjamin’s art online and ask yourself how her depictions of Jewish biblical figures might shape your own take on these potential guests, or inspire you to create your own artistic interpretations and representations. Who might you invite from ancient or even modern Jewish history? What would they look like? How would you depict them?
Those lucky enough to be in Northern California can come hang out with Benjamin and make art at Sukkot Under the Stars. But even if you are not in the area, or not even building a Sukkah, take some time this season to gather some friends, create and consider the possibilities inspired by Siona Benjamin and her blue Jews.