Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Vayakhel: Culture, Counter-culture, and Creativity

It was quite a few years ago that I spent almost every Sunday afternoon in one of the great museums of the city in which my family then lived. I no longer remember what first stimulated my interest in art, and specifically in the type of art known as Impressionism.  But I know that I relished those Sunday afternoons, as did my youngest daughter, then no more than six or seven years old.

The museum we frequented possessed the most extensive collection in the world of the paintings of the French artist, Henri Matisse.  My daughter became so familiar and so fond of the works of Matisse, particularly his colorful “cutouts”, or paper cut collages, that when we once ventured into a new museum, she saw some Matisse works at a distance and gained the admiration of everyone in the crowded gallery by shouting excitedly, “Matisse, Matisse.” I glowed with pride as the others present exclaimed, “What a precocious child!”

It was on that occasion that I first encountered a most fascinating gentleman. I’ll call him Ernesto. Ernesto was a tall hulk of a man, who, I later learned, was a brilliant Talmud student before the war, but  who had given up the all religious observance, and indeed almost all connection with the Jewish people.  He had totally lost his faith as a result of his horrible experiences during the Holocaust.

With my black velvet yarmulke I was readily identifiable as an Orthodox Jew, so I was easy prey for Ernesto. “Jews know nothing about art,” he bellowed. “Matisse! How can you glorify Matisse? His art is only decorative. All Jewish art is nothing but decoration.”

I must confess that I had no clue as to what he was talking about.

We soon sat down together at a nearby bench and he began to share his story with me. Over the subsequent years I came to know him better and discovered that he had many “bones to pick” with Judaism and was in a perpetual rage against God. But that morning he confined his remarks to his disappointment with what he saw as the absence of fine art in the Jewish culture.

Frankly, I had never given much thought to the subject of the place of art in Judaism. The best I could do was to refer to the person of Bezalel, mentioned in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20).

I quoted these verses to him: “…See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur…He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver and copper.”

“Surely,” I argued. “The figure of Bezalel, so prominent at the very beginning of our history, is evidence that art has a central place in our tradition.”

Not only was he unimpressed, but he responded with a rant that seemed as if it would go on forever. “Bezalel was no more than a Matisse,” he insisted. For him, Matisse was the epitome of a bankrupt artist, one who could produce colorful designs but who had no message for the culture at large. He contrasted Matisse with Picasso, who had lot to say, in his art, about the political world in which he lived.  He concluded his tirade by shouting: “Besides pretty decorations for the Tabernacle, what did Bezalel have to teach us? What did he have to say to the human race?!”

For the many years since that first encounter with Ernesto, who by the way, passed away sixty years to the day after his release from Auschwitz in 1945, I have struggled with that challenging question: “What can we learn from Bezalel?”

I have since concluded that Bezalel had a lot to teach us all, especially about the creative process. He was able to do what so many others who are blessed with great creative talents have not been able to do.

Most creative geniuses throughout history, and I say this fully expecting some of you to object with examples to the contrary, have either been misfits in society, or have, in one way or another, rebelled against society. Creativity often sees itself as in opposition to conformity. The place of the artist is rarely in the contemporary culture; rather it is in the counter-culture. The creative artist, whatever his medium, typically sees himself as the creator of a new culture, one which will replace the current culture and render it obsolete.

Bezalel’s genius lay in his ability to channel his substantial artistic gifts to the cause of the culture that was being constructed around him. He was not rebellious and certainly not withdrawn. He participated in a national project as part of the nation, and not as one whose role was to find fault. He was able to combine creativity with conformity, and that is no mean feat.

One lesson that he taught all subsequent artists is that they need not limit their role to critical observation of society. Quite the contrary, they can cooperatively partner with society and bring their skills to bear in the service of what is going on around them.

This is the deeper meaning of the passage in the Talmud which reads: “Bezalel knew how to combine the mystical primeval letters from which heaven and earth were created (Berakhot 55a).” Bezalel’s art was an art that “combined” letters, joining them together harmoniously. His was not the art that tears asunder the constituent elements of the world which surrounds him. His was the art that blends those elements into a beautiful whole.

Bezalel’s lesson is not just a lesson for artists. It is a lesson for all gifted and talented human beings. Somehow, the best and the brightest among us are the ones who are most cynical and most critical of the societies in which we live. We see this today in the harsh criticism that is directed at Israel precisely from the world of the academe, and sadly, especially from the Jewish intelligentsia. There is something  pernicious about great intelligence that makes one unduly and unfairly critical of the world within in which one resides.

Bezalel, on the other hand, was able to demonstrate that one can be highly gifted, indeed sublimely gifted, and use those gifts in a positive and constructive fashion, cooperating with others who are far less gifted, and participating in a joint venture with the rest of society.

This is a lesson in leadership which all who are blessed with special talents must learn. Special talents do not entitle one to separate oneself from the common cause. Quite the contrary: They equip one to participate in the common cause, and in the process elevate and inspire the rest of society.