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Vayakhel (5768) – The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty


Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the spirit of G-d, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship.” (Ex. 35: 30-33)

In last week’s and this week’s sedra we encounter the figure of Bezalel, a rare type in the Hebrew Bible – the artist, the craftsman, the shaper of beauty in the service of G-d, the man who, together with Oholiab, fashioned the articles associated with the Tabernacle. Judaism – in sharp contrast to ancient Greece-did not cherish the visual arts. The reason is clear. The biblical prohibition against graven images associates them with idolatry. Historically, images, fetishes, icons and statues were linked in the ancient world with pagan religious practices. The idea that one might worship “the work of men’s hands” was anathema to biblical faith.

More generally, Judaism is a culture of the ear, not the eye (for a more nuanced view, however, see Kalman Bland: The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual). As a religion of the invisible G-d, it attaches sanctity to words heard, rather than objects seen. Hence there is a generally negative attitude within Judaism towards representational art.

There are some famous illustrated manuscripts (such as the ‘Bird’s Head Haggadah’, Bavaria, circa 1300) in which human figures are given bird’s heads to avoid representing the full human form. To be sure, art is not forbidden as such. There is a difference between three dimensional and two dimensional representation. As R. Meir of Rothenburg (c. 1215-1293) made clear in a responsum: ‘There is no trespass [in illustrated books] against the biblical prohibition . . . [illustrations] are merely flat patches of colour lacking sufficient materiality [to constitute a graven image]’. Indeed several ancient synagogues in Israel had quite elaborate mosaics. In general, however, art was less emphasised in Judaism than in Christian cultures in which the Hellenistic influence was strong.

Positive references to art in the rabbinic literature are rare. One exception is Maimonides who, in the fifth of his ‘Eight Chapters’ (the introduction to his commentary to the Mishneh tractate Avot) says the following:

If one is afflicted with melancholy, he should cure it by listening to songs and various kinds of the melodies, by walking in gardens and fine buildings, by sitting before beautiful forms, and by things like this which delight the soul and make the disturbance of melancholy disappear from it. In all this he should aim at making his body healthy, the goal of his body’s health being that he attain knowledge.

The very terms in which Maimonides describes the aesthetic experience make it clear, however, that he sees art in strictly instrumental terms, as a way of relieving depression. There is no suggestion that it has value in its own right.

The strongest statement of which I am aware was made by Rabbi Abraham ha-Cohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of (pre-State) Israel, describing his his time in London during the First World War:

When I lived in London, I would visit the National Gallery, and the paintings that I loved the most were those of Rembrandt. In my opinion Rembrandt was a saint. When I first saw Rembrandt’s paintings, they reminded me of the rabbinic statement about the creation of light. When G-d created the light [on the first day], it was so strong and luminous that it was possible to see from one end of the world to the other. And G-d feared that the wicked would make use of it. What did He do? He secreted it for the righteous in world to come. But from time to time there are great men whom G-d blesses with a vision of that hidden light. I believe that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his paintings is that light which G-d created on Genesis day. (Jewish Chronicle, 9 September 1935).

Rembrandt, as is known, had a special affection for Jews (See Michael Zell, Reframing Rembrandt, and Steven Nadler, Rembrandt’s Jews). He visited them in his home town of Amsterdam, and painted them, as well as many scenes from the Hebrew Bible. I suspect that what Rabbi Kook saw in his paintings, though, was Rembrandt’s ability to convey the beauty of ordinary people. He makes no attempt (most notably in his self-portraits) to beautify or idealise his subjects. The light that shines from them is, simply, their humanity.

It was Samson Raphael Hirsch who distinguished ancient Greece from ancient Israel in terms of the contrast between aesthetics and ethics. In his comment on the verse “May G-d enlarge Japeth and let him dwell in the tents of Shem” (Gen. 9: 27), he comments:

The stem of Japheth reached its fullest blossoming in the Greeks; that of Shem in the Hebrews, Israel, who bore and bear the name (=Shem) of G-d through the world of nations . . . Japheth has ennobled the world aesthetically. Shem has enlightened it spiritually and morally.

Yet as we see from the case of Bezalel, Judaism is not indifferent to aesthetics. The concept of hiddur mitzvah, ‘beautifying the commandment’, meant, for the sages, that we should strive to fulfil the commands in the most aesthetically pleasing way. The priestly garments were meant to be ‘for honour and adornment’ (Ex 28:2). The very terms applied to Bezalel — wisdom, understanding and knowledge – are applied by the Book of Proverbs to G-d Himself as creator of the universe:

The law and the Lord founded the earth by wisdom;
He established the heavens by understanding;
By His knowledge the depths burst apart,
And the skies distilled dew. (Proverbs: 3: 19-20)

The key to Bezalel lies in his name. It means, ‘In the shadow of G-d’. Bezalel’s gift lay in his ability to communicate, through his work, that art is the shadow cast by G-d. Religious art is never ‘art for art’s sake’. Unlike secular art, it points to something beyond itself. The Tabernacle itself was a kind of microcosm of the universe, with one overriding particularity: that in it you felt the presence of something beyond – what the Torah calls ‘the glory of G-d’ which ‘filled the Tabernacle’ (Ex. 40: 35).

The Greeks believed in the holiness of beauty (Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,-that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”). Jews believed in the opposite: hadrat kodesh (Ps. 29: 2), the beauty of holiness. Art in Judaism always has a spiritual purpose: to make us aware of the universe as a work of art, testifying to the supreme Artist, G-d himself.

Excerpt from The Faith Lectures – Revelation – Torah from Heaven – 26th March 2001

Chief Rabbi:  Now let us move on to the positive point. I want to begin with an extraordinarily powerful and enlightening paragraph from the great 19th century Jewish historian, Heinrich Graetz. Listen very carefully to what he says:

“The pagan perceives the divine in nature through the medium of the eye and he becomes conscious of it as something to be looked at. On the other hand, the Jew conceives God as being outside of nature and prior to it. The divine manifests itself through the will and through the medium of the ear. The pagan beholds his God: the Jew hears Him.”
That is, I think, a wonderfully perceptive remark which must set us now on the trek to discovering what is Judaism. Incidentally, that analysis is carried out by lots and lots of people and I don’t want to quote them all. Life’s too short.

So you have, in other words, two kinds of culture. You have the culture of sight. You have a culture of sound. You have a culture in which the central intellectual act is seeing – the Greek theoria means ‘seeing’. Theory is something you see. Or the Latin – idea. You know how you go – round the corner from you is a video shop? The word ‘video’ – the ‘v’ is a soft consonant which gets dropped. It comes from the same word as ‘idea’. And idea is something you see. Greek culture is a sight-oriented culture. Judaism is the paradigm of a ear-oriented culture in which the primary act is not seeing but listening.
Now what does a visual culture produce? [Interjection from audience: “Statues and … ” – inaudible] Statues. Paintings. Architecture. Sculpture – and spectator sports. The most dignified of which (I daren’t say anything about football because my team always lose whenever I do.) – but theatre. Theatre. Drama. In other words, those are the visual arts and of all of those, in every department, Greek culture reached a pinnacle that has rarely if ever been surpassed. They were the greatness of Greek culture.
In Judaism, where’s the art? Where’s the architecture? Where are the paintings? Where’s the drama, the theatre? There isn’t any. And this is fascinating because this shows us that Judaism is a culture not of the eye but of the ear. And it is not just, as you might think, because the third commandment prohibits the making of graven images. It is not just that. It goes much further. It goes into the very texture of biblical narrative.

Let me ask you a question. What did Abraham look like? Anyone know? Tall? Short? Fat? Red hair? What did Moshe Rabbenu look like? We haven’t got a clue!
You know that, as Eric Auerbach pointed out in a very famous essay he wrote called “Odysseus’s Scar” which is in his book called “Mimesis”. Homer is full of vivid descriptions of the surfaces of things. You see, when you read Homer.

But when you read Tenach, you don’t see anything very much. The text is what he calls “fraught with background”. Anything interesting is left out of the text and you have to supply it from your own imagination. The Jewish text, the biblical text, is fraught with background. Or let me give you a different point. In other words, the prohibition against graven images even applies to visual descriptions in Tenach. You never get a description of somebody unless it is strictly necessary for the narrative. When do you need to know that somebody is beautiful? When somebody might threaten to take his wife and kill him – or to explain how come they fell in love at first sight. So we discover that Sarah was beautiful; that Rivka was gemilut chassidim; that Rachel was beautiful. But beyond that, ‘beautiful’? What does that tell you? We still don’t know what colour was her hair.

In the “Sunday Times” this week, apparently Cleopatra was short, fat and ugly but she was seductive anyway. One way and another, Jewish culture is so non-visual that we don’t know what anyone looks like. Walter J. Ong – who is not a person you may have read but who has written some wonderful books: one called “Orality and Literacy”; another even better called “The Presence of the Word” – points out that sight deals in surfaces whereas sound deals, at the literal and metaphorical sense, with interiors.

Marcus Freed: Chief Rabbi, your statement that there is no Jewish art, sculpture or drama –

Chief Rabbi:  No, no. Sorry! – you have remedied that –

Marcus Freed: Apart from it being bad for business – I really just wanted to ask if it was exactly that straightforward, the distinction between Jewish culture and Greek culture, based on three main examples.
One: the extreme focus on visuality that is given in the Gemara Baba Metzia that talks about Rabbi Yochanan and asks the question about “What is male beauty?” – and it goes through different ideas of beautiful men culminating in Rabbi Yochanan’s story. Although it concludes that beautiful men have beards is, I think, the Gemara’s answer!
Then there is the whole area of festivals with the culmination of Purim spiels. And there is the mitzvah of menorah: the mehadrin min hamehadrin answer is the visual answer of eight lights rather than one. Or the aesthetics of the etrog. Or the aesthetics of the lulav, and so on.
Then, finally, the Gemara in Menachot where Eliyahu HaNavi [Elijah the Prophet] answers the question about who in the market place will gain a place in the olam haba [world to come] and it says that it is the ‘badchanim’, the jesters, who will gain redemption because they make people happy.
So, that is my question.

Chief Rabbi: Marcus. Listen! Of course, you are doing great stuff here. You’re doing the Jewish thing! Marcus, amongst his many talents, is a playwright and dramatist and actor-manager and all the rest of it. He also acts in lovely dramas which bring out ethical issues for the new Money and Morals curriculum. That’s it. Judaism is drama. But it is not drama on the stage. But now we are in a culture where we have to use that instrumentality and I am in favour of using all cultural instrumentalities. What I think Judaism misses most right now is a first-rate religious film director. A first-rate religious poet. You read Yehuda Amichai. You read Amos Oz’s latest book “The Same Sea”, which he gave me a couple of weeks ago. These great minds. How come we are not using them – as you are using them Marcus – to enhance our Jewish values?
That is why I have entered into a dialogue with Amos Oz which will become a public dialogue in Israel in May and I would have loved to have had a dialogue with Yehuda Amichai, but he died first.

So, therefore, yes. But your ultimate point is so correct. It is the Gemara in Sanhedrin you were quoting that the ben olam haba is the person who cheers other people up. It is the comedian. It is the humorist. I cannot tell you how moving it was when last Wednesday I was addressing the 45 Group. That is Ben Helfgott’s group: Holocaust survivors. They wanted me to speak about my book “Celebrating Life” because it cheered them up.

Somebody got up and told me this story of how he had been in a concentration camp and how he had said to his friend throughout their years of surviving that it was humour that had kept them alive. I will one day give you a lecture on Jewish humour. But in the meanwhile that is only done by people with not a great sense of humour: Bergson and Freud being two very obvious examples! But humour, I think, has a spirituality all of its own. So, Marcus, I say: Use your many, many wonderful talents to bring a Jewish presence to the arts. I will even give you “Certified under Chief Rabbinate supervision” [laughter] – not that it will do very much for you!

And I will finally end with your remark about beards! I don’t know if any of you remember the Gulf War? We were in Israel during the whole of the Gulf War and as the days were coming close, we got gas masks. Everyone had to have a cheder atum, a sealed room, and then put on one’s gas mask. We didn’t know until the 39th and final scud had landed whether any of them would contain chemical or biological weapons. The trouble was that a big announcement was put out on the radio, “If you have a beard, the gas mask doesn’t work!” So, what happens? The first siren sounds. The first scud missile lands. Everyone else, the kids and Elaine, are in the sealed room with their gas masks on – and I’m shaving off my beard! [Laughter]

I have to tell you that it was the most wonderful thing – because it was terribly stressful: our kids were young at the time and it was a stressful experience. But as soon as we took off our gas masks, they all shrieked, “Mummy! Who’s that strange man here?!” And Elaine said, “Oh, how romantic! That’s the fellow I got engaged to!” Anyway, the next morning I went out in the streets of Jerusalem to see what I assumed would be a unique sight, never seen in 4,000 years: Jerusalem without beards! Because, after all, the radio told everyone that if you had a beard you should shave it off! Do you think that they were all without beards? A nachtige tag! I was the only shlemiel in the whole of Yerushalayim who listened to instructions.