A Jewish Perspective on the Arts: Part One



This new letter in our series is dedicated to the memory of my father and teacher, Shlomo Ben Avraham. His yahrtzeit – the anniversary of his passing – is on the 2nd of Teves, which in most years coincides with the Eighth Day of Chanukah.


My father had a joyous appreciation of all forms of beauty, including the beauty within the creative artistic expressions of human beings. He did not accept, however, the concept of “art for art’s sake” – a popular concept within modern western culture; instead, he conveyed to me through both word and example the following message: All forms of beauty should inspire us to become more sensitive, loving, and giving human beings. When I began to study Torah, I developed a deeper understanding of my father’s message, and some of the insights which I gained appear in this letter:


Dear Friends,


Before I moved to Zion, I served as the director of the Martin Steinberg Center of the American Jewish Congress – a center for Jewish artists in the performing, visual, and literary arts. The following statement appeared on the front of the brochure about our center:


“It has been said that the arts are the garments of a people’s soul. From the beginning of our history, Jews have expressed their spirit through poetry, music, dance, crafts, and other forms of art.”


The above statement served as an introduction to the work of the center, and it also leads to the following insight: Just as the garments one wears can express the spirit of one’s soul, but they are not the soul itself, so too, the arts of our people can express the spirit of our collective soul, but they are not the soul itself.


As we have been discussing in this series, the Torah is the soul of our people and our land. This insight leads to the following question: What does the inner wisdom of our soul teach us about the role and meaning of the arts? This question is particularly relevant for Chanukah, for a major source of conflict between our people and the Hellenist Greeks who ruled over Zion was our differing approaches to the arts and all forms of physical beauty.


These Hellenist Greeks venerated physical beauty, and they viewed human pleasure in this beauty as the greatest good; moreover, they viewed the creative achievement of this beauty as the highest human goal. They themselves were very creative in this area, and they sought to educate humankind through their sense of beauty. In response to this Hellenist view, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch cites the following Jewish view:


“However, the education of humankind through the sense of beauty is not the highest goal. A civilization cannot endure if the sole standard by which to measure a person’s actions is the satisfaction of his own aesthetic sense. There must be an ideal outside of the human being, an ideal that shines forth with its own light. Only the recognition of what is good and true in itself can lead the human being to the heights of his calling.” (Commentary to Genesis 9:27)


Rabbi Hirsch also writes:


“Greek wisdom made human beings conscious of their destiny to work for an ideal by means of self-perfection, but that ideal was the sensual beauty in art and enjoyment. The Divine Jewish law makes human beings conscious of their destiny to work for an ideal by means of self-perfection, but that ideal is the emulation of God in thought and deed.” (Collected Writings, Vol. 1, Kislev 3)


Our Torah teaches that the human being was created in the Divine image, with the capacity to emulate the Divine compassion, love, and justice. From the perspective of the Torah, all forms of human creativity, including the arts, should strengthen our ability to become the higher and giving human beings we are meant to be.  


According to our tradition, the wisdom of the arts is a gift that the Creator gave to the Greek people; however, this wisdom is to serve the higher Divine ideals that we, the people of the Torah, are to represent to the world. To better understand this tradition, we need to discuss two of Noah’s sons: Yefes, the ancestor of the Greek people, and Shem, the ancestor of our people. (A listing of their descendants appears in Genesis 10:1-32, and Genesis 11:10-32.)


Rabbi Hirsch explains that the names, Yefes and Shem, reveal their personality traits (commentary to Genesis 6:10). In his explanation of the various nuances of the name “Yefes,” Rabbi Hirsch points out that this name is also related to “Yafeh” – a Hebrew word for beauty. Yefes therefore denotes the emotions and the imagination which are attracted by beauty.


In his explanation of the name, “Shem,” Rabbi Hirsch writes that it means “a name, the conception of a given object.” Rabbi Hirsch explains that human wisdom consists of the ability to give names to things – to express the underlying conception of each thing and thereby assign to it its spiritual place within the universe (ibid). Shem was therefore a deep thinker who sought to understand the spiritual essence and purpose of all things. This characteristic of Shem leads to the discovery of the higher ideal which enables human beings to recognize what is good and true and thereby reach the heights of their spiritual calling (commentary to Genesis 9:27).


Rabbi Hirsch offers the following insight regarding the historical influence of Yefes and Shem through two influential peoples that descend from them: The aesthetic trait of Yefes fully blossomed with the emergence of the Greek people, while the spiritual trait of Shem fully blossomed with the emergence of the People of Israel – a people that proclaim the higher ideal among the nations in the Name of Hashem (commentary to Genesis 9:27). As we discussed previously, the term “Hashem” – the Name – is a respectful way of referring to the most sacred Divine Name which expresses the compassionate and life-giving Divine attributes which we are to emulate and thereby fulfill our own higher purpose within the universe.


Greece and Israel express the special traits of Yefes and Shem, and as the Chanukah story reveals, these differing traits led to a severe conflict when the Syrian Greeks tried to eliminate the special trait of Israel. Our tradition teaches, however, that there can be a partnership between these two traits, and our sages find a source for this idea in the following blessings that Noah gave to the ancestors of Greece and Israel, Yefes and Shem:


“May God give beauty to Yefes, and may it dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27).


The above translation is found in the Talmud (Megillah 9b), and the sages explain that Noah is saying: “May the beauty of Yefes dwell in the tents of Shem.”


This blessing reveals that we, the people that descend from Shem, are to incorporate the aesthetic qualities of Yefes into our service of Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One. In this way, we proclaim to all peoples that all forms of artistic expression are to serve the compassionate and life-giving purpose of the One Who created us all.


The “tents of Shem” within the Land of Zion are to serve as models of this altruistic service. When this goal is achieved, one will not find within these tents human beings who engage in art for art’s sake; instead, one will find human beings who engage in art for the sake of the compassionate and life-giving purpose. This is the true beauty of being human.


As the headlines remind us, we are now living in a very dangerous and difficult period. May we therefore be blessed with a month of life-giving blessings, true shalom, and a Chanukah of true beauty.

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings:


The Hebrew word “hadar” refers to both splendor and beauty. An example of this word appears in the following statement of David, King of Israel:


Kol Hashem b’hadar – the voice of Hashem is in all things beautiful. (Psalm 29:4 – translation of Rabbi Hirsch)


Through the higher consciousness of Shem, we can discover within beauty the voice of Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One, Who calls upon us to “go in His ways” (Deuteronomy 26:9).


2. “May God give beauty to Yefes, and may it dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27). – As we mentioned above, this translation is found in the Talmud (Megillah 9b), and the Talmud explains that Noah is saying,

“May the beauty of Yefes dwell in the tents of Shem.”  Based on this interpretation, the Talmud derives the following law: Although we write the Torah scroll in Hebrew, we are also permitted to write it in the classical Greek language, for as Rashi explains in his commentary on this teaching, “The Greek language is the most beautiful language of all the descendants of Yefes” (ibid).

Maimonides, however, states that since the beauty of the ancient, classical Greek language has been corrupted, we now write the Torah scroll only in Hebrew. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Tefilin 1:19)


2. At the Song of the Sea, Moshe and the Children of Israel sang:


“This is my God and I will beautify Him” (Exodus 15:2 – translation of Rashi).


According to the Talmud, this verse is teaching us that when we fulfill the mitzvos of Hashem, we should “beautify” each mitzvah (Shabbos 133b). For example, the shofar that we use on Rosh Hashana should be a beautiful shofar. Maimonides states that this “beautifying” principle also applies to the mitzvah of tzedekah – the sharing of our resources with those in need. He writes:


“When feeding the hungry, one should give of the best and sweetest food on his table. When clothing the naked, one should use one’s most beautiful clothes.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Isurei Mizbeiach 7:11)


3. The Torah describes how those men and women among our people who were blessed with spiritual and artistic wisdom were involved in the building of the Holy Tabernacle and its vessels; moreover, they also made the beautiful garments which the Kohanim wore during their sacred service in the Tabernacle. The following verses are from a passage which describes the appointment of Betzalel, who served as the leader of the artists:


“Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘See, I have called by name: Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with a Godly spirit, with wisdom, with understanding, and with knowledge, and with talent for every type of creative work.’ ” (Exodus 31:1-3)


“And I, behold, I have put with him Oholiav son of Achisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and into the heart of all who are wise of heart, I have placed wisdom, and they shall do all that I have commanded you.” (31:6)


4. In the next letter, I hope to discuss how we can transform all our activities, including our artistic endeavors, into sacred acts of Divine service.

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