This week’s Torah portion, parshat Ki Tisa, is filled with the definitions of Jewish art. We don’t often think Judaism is filled with artistic expressions because we’re not allowed to make graven images…or images of God…or images of things that others worship as God…so, anything.
But we forget that most of Jewish expression is actually artistic. We don’t read the Torah, we sing it. We sit at our Shabbat tables and sing blessings for wine and bread. We even get creative with sculptures when we braid challah – 3 strand braids or 4 strand braids or twisted or round – it seems trivial, but we all love a beautiful challah.
We are created with artistic souls, as proved by our kids. All children are artistic and only colour inside the lines to please the adult world. There are no lines constraining their artistic thinking. Several of my kids decided to express their artistic passions in our home, specifically in the wall to wall carpet. I’m not being sarcastic, I’m being quite literal. One of my daughters noticed the carpet looks different if you brush it up or brush it down. She discovered her preferred artistic medium. The carpet of an entire floor would be used to show grand portraits of cities or people that resulted from her moving her fingers through the carpet. It was beautiful, I beamed with pride, how creative, how artistic…how tremendously inconvenient! If anyone walked on the carpet, we risked disturbing her masterpiece and no amount of explaining could move her artistic soul one bit. We all had to walk around the edges of the rooms. Artists can be very headstrong.
One of my sons did a similar thing with pennies lined up on the carpet (he loved the colour contrast) and towers and citadels built with pennies (he preferred the 3D approach to art and I gained incredible insight as to how a Roman army would lay siege to a city). Usually a jar of pennies was a good idea – rookie mistake. Same problem with the carpet, same problem walking in the rooms.
I’d had enough when I walked into my youngest daughter’s room one day and noticed she was lying on her stomach, propped up on her elbows, creating a mosaic on her floor. Lying next to her on the floor was a pile of her hair. I froze, stared at it for a while and finally asked her if that was her hair. Without looking up, without breaking her concentration to speak, my 6 year old daughter simply said ‘uh huh’. Why is it not attached to your head, I asked. She told me it kept falling on her face and getting on her work so she cut it off.
For clarity, she had long hair that reached her hips. She didn’t give herself a haircut, she only cut the part that bothered her, so only a chunk was missing. I reached my ‘living with an artist limit’.
We bought disposable cameras (…back when the dinosaurs roamed…) and I told them they could take pictures of their art and they could pay to develop the film (it’s better when the artist suffers). I got my floors back.
We are all artists and our artistic visions have no limits – in our heads. Judaism does not discuss limiting our creative visions but we most certainly are told to limit our creative products. In this week’s parshah, we are introduced to directed artistic passion that brings others to inspired expressions of their own, as well as chaotic artistic passion that brings others to destruction.
While instructing Moses on how to create holy space, God introduces Moses to Betzalel, the artist that is inspired with the creative expression to form the articles of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. He has the skill and God will fill his heart with the inspiration. It is a passion project that results in artistic objects whose purpose is to move the observer from the mundane to the holy. It is the path, the journey, the window through which others can travel. It is transformative.
But later in this parshah, Israel notices Moses is late coming down from Mt. Sinai. We’re never quite sure how being punctual became the definition of Jewish behaviour, certainly that didn’t continue to inform our Jewish identities, yet, somehow, all of covenant is going to sit on Moses being late. He’s only perceived as late, he’s not really late because he never said what time he’d be back…but I digress.
The mob turns to Aaron and demands he make them a god. According to Aaron, he gathered gold, threw it into the fire and (poof) out came a calf. It is the description an artist would give of how the art forms itself as inevitable, the artist is but the instrument.
While God is teaching Moses how holy space is created through the inspired heart of an artist, Israel is demanding that Aaron create a profane object through mob pressure and fear. While God shows that the creativity of an artist can transform any moment into a meaningful one, Aaron creates something that transforms those moments into ones of betrayal and chaos. Juxtaposed examples of Jewish art and the power to transform.
Artists must express their passion, they are driven, they are inspired, but Jewish art is the result of transformative intent. Judaism commands us to engage with Torah, its concepts, its ideas, its values. We do not read, memorize, rinse and repeat. Engagement means we creatively explore, interpret and share. The pinnacle of text study is to create a ‘hiddush’, a newness, another doorway through which to explore a new thought, a new artistic moment. We create conceptual artwork that contains a spark of our being and we passionately debate and defend our artistic interpretations. Pluralism is hard because we’re trying to get Picasso and Van Gogh in a room together and have each credit the other’s vision as equal to their own.
So, embrace the artist within you, celebrate your childrens’ artwork, fill your fridge with your grandkids’ beautiful drawings as they beam with pride. When it comes from a giving heart with a transformative intent it opens the door to a new meeting place of meaning. When it feeds fear and panic, when it results from opportunistic intentions, it is the betrayal of a nation, a faith and each other.