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.

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.

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Dan Schifrin

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