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Torah from Israel Terumah: The Value & Danger of Art Within Religion

Parshat Terumah details the elaborate craftsmanship and artisanship employed in constructing a Temple for G-d. Ornate fabrics, precious metals and resplendent colors were collected and integrated into this legendary structure. Never has a creative burst of human imagination served a more noble or lofty purpose that the “Mishkan” project. This week’s parsha provides an opportunity to carefully consider the value of art within our religious experience; it also affords a moment to consider some of the challenges which visual art poses to the religious mind.

Without question, we employ fine art and beauty to enhance our interaction with G-d. Dovid Hamelech poses a haunting question: Who can ascend the mountain of G-d (mi ya’aleh b’har Hashem)? Walking up this “mountain” demands entering a completely different realm- beyond human experience and certainly beyond the dreariness and bleakness of our world. By upholstering our religious ‘world’ with art and by enriching the mitzvah objects we carry “up the mountain”, we provide the best offerings of the human spirit as part of this magical religious rendezvous. The splendor of art enables our transition from the human territory into the magnificent realm of G-d. Our beauty and our art are attempts to encapsulate the majesty and splendor of standing before our Creator.

However, art doesn’t only create an environment which reflects the grandeur of G-d, it also catalyzes a range of human emotions essential to religious experience. Art has the power to evoke instinctive and non-verbal emotions and many of our religious feelings are so profound that they defy verbal articulation. Art allows these deeper sentiments to surface beyond words and beyond cognition. These visceral emotions infuse our religious moments with vitality and vigor.

In addition to evoking hidden emotions, art also possesses the capacity to stir multiple emotions and oftentimes contrasting emotions. Words are often binary in that they elicit a specific emotion. By contrast art can stoke conflicting emotions. So much of our religious experience is riddled with paradox: we feel success but also sense guilt; we desire G-d but also fear Him; we are elated by the joy of being commanded but we all yearn for freedom. Authentic religious experience doesn’t flinch in the face of these paradoxical emotions but embraces the duality. Our relationship HKB”H is so unique, and we are so different from Him that we will inevitably sense conflicting emotions. Art provides a conduit or a “voice” for these diverse and often dichotomous emotions.

Finally, art allows an “emotional unification” by enabling a joint emotional experience. The elegance of a Synagogue is experienced jointly, just as a beautiful Torah projects reverence to all who mutually observe it. In our attempt to stand before G-d as communities and not just as individuals, art bridges our experiences and creates emotional solidarity.

However, just as art enhances our religious moments it also poses certain challenges to religious minds. Man desires a relationship with his Creator but for most religions, this craving leads to paganistic corruption and avoda zarah. Any attempt to humanize G-d is a blasphemous violation of the core tenet of monotheism: that G-d is completely different from any human experience and lies beyond human thought or human imagination. Art has always been employed as part of Man’s attempt to distill G-d within the human imagination; art has always been a tool of idolatry ! Due to this danger, halacha strictly bans artistic representations of any item which can be associated with G-d or mistaken for a g-d such as: planets, humans and according to some opinions even animals. Art implies that G-d can be shrunken into human convention- an assertion which denies the infinity of G-d and the belief of His unfathomability.

However, halacha’s discrimination against visual art may stem from an added aspect. Having already delivered a comprehensive shiur about the halachot and prohibitions of religious art, Rav Lichtenstein remarked that perhaps Chazal’s discrimination against visual art wasn’t based solely upon the potential danger of pagan renditions. Visual art is a more “crude” form of imaginative expression as it limits us to visuals and leaves less room for personal interpretation. By contrast, music is far more abstract and invites the listener to provide interpretation and personalization. Perhaps, art is demoted in part precisely because it is indelicate when compared to the refined fluidity of music. Secondly, by entering our ears, music penetrates the depths of our soul while visual art may not infiltrate those depths of identity. In the Mikdash, visual art provided a backdrop or an ambience whereas music directly contributed to the daily ceremonies as well as the special holiday festivities. Perhaps the wide-scale prohibitions which Chazal imposed on visual art reflected a general preference for music as a purer and more refined art form.

Visual art may pose an additional danger. It may fixate our attention upon the world of beauty and physical appearances. In parshat Noach the Torah highlights the correspondence between “Yefet”- a son of Noach an ancestor of Ancient Greece- and the term “yofi” which means beauty. Greece was enchanted by beauty– both the aesthetic of physical appearance as well as the beautiful symmetry of a scientifically ordered universe. A Jew looks beyond physical appearances in an attempt to identify moral and spiritual energy. We aren’t gripped with the sway of physical beauty but inspired by the values and ideas which someone or something represents. Judaism is primarily a religion of ideas and not of optics. Art may shift our attention away from morality and spirituality while it locks our imagination onto physical appearances.

Beyond diverting our attention from moral ideas to physical beauty, art may also imprison us in the world of transience at the cost of the world of eternity. All physical forms of this world – as pleasant as they appear and as much as they enchant us- are transitory and fleeting. The beauty of this world wilts with every passing moment. Beauty leaps into our imagination arouses our delight but ultimately passes into extinction. Humans are meant to occupy a world of eternity – the ideas we represent and the endless mission we advance. Art may incarcerate us in a world which is ephemeral rather than thrusting us into a world which is eternal.

Art and beauty lift the human spirit and evoke deep and unspoken emotions. It is a vital component of a vibrant and lush religious experience. However, it incites an attitude which sometimes humanizes HKB”H, while it also threatens to fasten us to a fading world of appearances instead of liberating our imaginations to soar above the very limited world which our retina perceives.