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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: The Power Of Art


In Parshat Vayakhel we meet for the second time the man who became the symbol of the artist in Judaism, Bezalel: “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 God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills – 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 crafts’ ” (Exodus 35:30-33).

It would be Bezalel, together with Ohaliab, who would make the Tabernacle and its furnishings and be celebrated through the centuries as the inspired craftsman who used his skills for the greater glory of God.

The aesthetic dimension of Judaism has tended to be downplayed, at least until the modern era, for obvious reasons. The Israelites worshipped the invisible God who transcended the universe. Other than the human person, God has no image. Even when he revealed himself to the people at Sinai, “You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12). Given the intense connection – until around the eighteenth century – between art and religion, image making was seen as potentially idolatrous. Hence the second of the ten commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4).

This concern continued long after the biblical era. The Greeks, who achieved unrivalled excellence in the visual arts, were, in the religious sphere, still a pagan people of myth and mystery, while the Romans had a disturbing tendency to turn Caesars into gods and erect statues to them.

However the visual dimension was not wholly missing from Judaism. There are visible symbols, like tzitzit and tefillin. There is, according to the Sages, a meta-mitzvah known as hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the command) to try to ensure that all objects used in the performance of a command are as beautiful as possible.

The most significant intrusion of the aesthetic dimension was in the Tabernacle itself, its framework and hangings, its furniture, the cherubim above the ark, the menorah, and the vestments of the priests and the high priest – l’kavod u’letifaret (for dignity and beauty) (Exodus 28:2).

Maimonides, in The Guide for the Perplexed (III:45), says that most people are influenced by aesthetic considerations, which is why the Sanctuary was designed to inspire admiration and awe; why a continual light burned there; why the priestly robes were so impressive; why there was music in the form of the Levitical choir; and why incense was burned to cover the smell of the sacrifices.

Maimonides himself, in the work known as The Eight Chapters (the introduction to his commentary on Mishnah Avot) speaks about the therapeutic power of beauty and its importance in counteracting depression: “Someone afflicted with melancholy may dispel it by listening to music and various kinds of song, by strolling in gardens, by experiencing beautiful buildings, by associating with beautiful pictures, and similar sorts of things that broaden the soul…” (chapter 5).

Art, in short, is balm to the soul. In modern times the thinker who spoke most eloquently about aesthetics was Rav Kook. In his Commentary to the Siddur he wrote, “Literature, painting and sculpture give material expression to all the spiritual concepts implanted in the depths of the human soul, and as long as even one single line hidden in the depth of the soul has not been given outward expression, it is the task of art [avodat ha’umanut] to bring it out” (Olat Re’ayah, II, 3).

Evidently these remarks were considered controversial, so in later editions of the Commentary the phrase “Literature, painting and sculpture” was removed, and in its place was written, “Literature, its design and tapestry.”

The name Bezalel was adopted by the artist Boris Schatz for the School of Arts and Crafts he founded in Israel in 1906, and Rav Kook wrote a touching letter in support of its creation. He saw the renaissance of art in the Holy Land as a symbol of the regeneration of the Jewish people in its own land, landscape and birthplace. Judaism in the Diaspora, removed from a natural connection with its own historic environment, was inevitably cerebral and spiritual, “alienated.” Only in Israel would an authentic Jewish aesthetic emerge, strengthened by and in turn strengthening Jewish spirituality.

Perhaps the most moving of all remarks Rav Kook made about art came in the course of a conversation he had with a Jewish sculptor:

When I lived in London I used to visit the National Gallery, and my favorite pictures were those of Rembrandt. I really think that Rembrandt was a tzaddik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works, they reminded me of the rabbinic statement about the creation of light? We are told that when God created light [on the first day of creation, as opposed to the natural light of the sun on the fourth day], it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one end of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous in the World to Come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that God created on Genesis day.

I have often wondered what it was about Rembrandt’s paintings that so enthralled the Rav. Rembrandt lived in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, knew Jews and painted them, as well as painting many biblical scenes, though the closeness or otherwise of his connection with Jews has been the subject of controversy. Rav Kook’s admiration for the artist had, I suspect, nothing to do with this and everything to do with the light Rembrandt saw in the faces of ordinary people, without any attempt to beautify them. His work let us see the transcendental quality of the human, the only thing in the universe on which God set his image.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


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