The Arts in Jewish Culture

Cultural arts have been a part of Jewish life since our beginnings.

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.

Modern Questions of Identity

The situation became more complex during the Haskalah [the Enlightenment, running from the late 18th through early 19th centuries], one of a number of Jewish responses to modernity, when the idea of being a secular Jew as we understand it first became a possibility, and the tension between renewal and continuity became more pronounced. It was during this period, especially in Germany, that demonstrating mastery of the “culture” of the host society became a way to gain acceptance. Heine, Mendelsohn, and Mahler are only the best known of many artists who became masters of their respective arts, through which they gained the opportunity to influence the surrounding culture (after they or their family formally converted, of course).

It was at this time, with the increased possibility of assimilation, that Jews began to divide their sense of identity into different categories. The Haskalah idea of being “a Jew in the home and a man in the street” meant that Jews would by necessity have multiple identities, with this rich confusion leading to a more ambiguous cultural production. In what way, for instance, could Heine’s work be seen as Jewish by his Jewish contemporaries? How do we understand the generations of Jewish families revered Heine? What did they tell their kids about the relationship between art and community? These are questions we could very well ask today about our secular Jewish artists.

In 19th-century Eastern Europe, as David Roskies explains in A Bridge of Longing, Nahman of Bratslav can be seen as a conflicted Jewish artist on the cusp of modernity, as well as the founder of Yiddish literature. But how do we understand Hasidic stories and early Yiddish literature, Roskies asks, if Nahman’s religious parables draw heavily from non-Jewish folk sources? This is a textbook example of how the conflicted, the spiritual, and the new all come together to energize huge groups of Jews (those who became Hasidim or drew on Hasidic ideas) while infuriating their mitnagid opponents. [“Mitnagid” is the name given to the movement that opposed the Hasidic movement. The name literally means “those who oppose.”]

The Arts and Jewish Self-Understanding

In the 19th century, the arts became even more crucial to the community’s recreations of itself. The flowering of Yiddish literature, for instance, was a way to maintain continuity with a culture already fading away; and the renewal of the Hebrew language and literature, among other things, was an expression of newfound self-determination.

Both in late 19th century America, and in Weimar Germany, an emphasis on scholarship and history, and the creation of institutions to promote them, helped reenergize communities searching for new answers to the question of why they should remain Jews. This emphasis on the intellectual was not radical; but its promoters realized that Jews needed to reconnect to Judaism through an association with broader cultural and intellectual ideas and venues. So the creation of The Jewish Encyclopedia in 1905 in America gave Jews a sense of pride in the sweep of their civilization, while Franz Rosenzweig’s Lehrhaus [a Jewish educational institution], sensitive to the biases of the German Jewish middle class, hired well-known doctors and physicists, revered citizens, to teach about Jewish life.

Even more compelling, perhaps, was the way in which Martin Buber resumed the Lehrhaus under the Nazis (and recreated it yet again in Jerusalem in the early 1950s) as a way to maintain community and raise spirits when, one could argue, there were more pressing problems than an unexplicated poem. But Buber–and Rosenzweig before him–believed that culture led to the strengthening of community, and that a sense of community is what makes the difference between a withering civilization and a thriving one.

Cultural Insecurity

The enormous insecurity of German Jews at the beginning of this century, despite the cultural brilliance of that community, further indicates an ingrained conflict about a Jewish relationship with the arts. The best example of this is composer Arnold Schoenberg’s musical response, in the form of his opera “Moses and Aaron,” to Wagner’s pronouncement in his infamous essay “Judaism in Music” that Jews could never be “true” creators because they are essentially parasitic. Any outward shine of brilliance, Wagner said, merely reflects their ability to mimic and adapt. Underneath, they are only critics and commentators, never artists.

Freud, a man of letters as much as a scientist, grappled mightily with this idea. During the late 19th and early 20th century, the German medical establishment viewed Jewish creativity as pathological, indicative of a diseased and degenerate nature. According to Sander Gilman, much of Freud’s work was an attempt to disprove this “fact,” and return the Jewish creative mind to a normative place in history.

We also cannot forget the importance of the arts for the secularists of the past century– including the Yiddishists, Zionists, socialists, and other radicals–who saw the renewal of language and languages as a key to their respective visions of a new Jerusalem. For the fans of the Yiddish stage in New York, or the radicals who first learned of Isaiah’s moral teachings from Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing,” the arts were a window into Jewish life and a sign of its continuing importance and relevance, and perhaps– as for Irving Howe, Arnold Schoenberg, and many others–a way back in.

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