Arts in Jewish Culture
Cultural arts have been a part of Jewish life since our beginnings.
By Dan Schifrin
This article was originally published in The
Reconstructionist: A Journal of Contemporary Jewish Thought and
Practice and is excerpted with permission. The original article,
with footnotes, can be found on the journal's website.
The arts have been a fundamental part of Jewish
life since the very beginning, in some ways so obviously that their
significance is hidden. The first, of course, is that the Torah
and the other biblical books are of an uncanny literary quality
and power; the Hebrew language itself has been invested, over millennia,
with a certain life force of its own. The Torah has been perfectly
reproduced for hundreds of generations, and if even one letter of
the Torah is wrong the entire scroll is invalidated. The attention
to the origin and quality of the Torah parchment, the type of quill
and ink, everything about the process is suffused with sensuality
and an artistic passion, and suggests enormous reverence for the
beauty of language as well as for the Torah's religious content.
The Arts in Pre-Modern
This attention to detail--also seen, for instance,
in the instructions God gives to Bezalel, the builder of the Tabernacle--stems
from the injunction of hiddur mitzvah, or the beautification of
each commandment to the best of one's ability. This injunction includes
everything from selecting the most beautiful etrog [citron fruit]
on Sukkot to composing the most beautiful melodies for prayers.
King David, the author of the Psalms, was a musician before he was
God's and Israel's servant, and one assumes he was picked for holy
duty, in part, because of what his music said about the quality
of his heart.
The significance of the arts--especially literature--took
on a more complex, intellectual, and even burdensome role after
the Jews first experienced exile.
As David Roskies has noted in Against the Apocalypse
and The Literature of Destruction, and Alan Mintz in Hurban: Responses
to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature, literature has traditionally
been a way for Jews to maintain a sense of continuity in the face
of terrible communal rupture. At the same time, this Diaspora literature--commentary,
poems, midrash, prayers, responsa and other works--provided a standard
way for individuals and communities to understand their persistent
tragedies and wanderings in a way that gave emotional, spiritual
and creative release. The spiritual impulse of a people living in
their own land was replaced, by and large, by the urgent need to
remember and continue. And literature served the needs of a community
struggling with unprecedented angst and dislocation.
Modern Questions of Identity
The situation became more complex during the Haskalah
[the Enlightenment, running from the late 18th through early 19th
centuries], one of a number of Jewish responses to modernity, when
the idea of being a secular Jew as we understand it first became
a possibility, and the tension between renewal and continuity became
more pronounced. It was during this period, especially in Germany,
that demonstrating mastery of the "culture" of the host
society became a way to gain acceptance. Heine, Mendelsohn, and
Mahler are only the best known of many artists who became masters
of their respective arts, through which they gained the opportunity
to influence the surrounding culture (after they or their family
formally converted, of course).
It was at this time, with the increased possibility
of assimilation, that Jews began to divide their sense of identity
into different categories. The Haskalah idea of being "a Jew
in the home and a man in the street" meant that Jews would
by necessity have multiple identities, with this rich confusion
leading to a more ambiguous cultural production. In what way, for
instance, could Heine's work be seen as Jewish by his Jewish contemporaries?
How do we understand the generations of Jewish families revered
Heine? What did they tell their kids about the relationship between
art and community? These are questions we could very well ask today
about our secular Jewish artists.
In 19th-century Eastern Europe, as David Roskies
explains in A Bridge of Longing, Nahman of Bratslav can be seen
as a conflicted Jewish artist on the cusp of modernity, as well
as the founder of Yiddish literature. But how do we understand Hasidic
stories and early Yiddish literature, Roskies asks, if Nahman's
religious parables draw heavily from non-Jewish folk sources? This
is a textbook example of how the conflicted, the spiritual, and
the new all come together to energize huge groups of Jews (those
who became Hasidim or drew on Hasidic ideas) while infuriating their
mitnagid opponents. ["Mitnagid" is the name given to the
movement that opposed the Hasidic movement. The name literally means
"those who oppose."]
The Arts and Jewish Self-Understanding
In the 19th century, the arts became even more
crucial to the community's recreations of itself. The flowering
of Yiddish literature, for instance, was a way to maintain continuity
with a culture already fading away; and the renewal of the Hebrew
language and literature, among other things, was an expression of
Both in late 19th century America, and in Weimar
Germany, an emphasis on scholarship and history, and the creation
of institutions to promote them, helped reenergize communities searching
for new answers to the question of why they should remain Jews.
This emphasis on the intellectual was not radical; but its promoters
realized that Jews needed to reconnect to Judaism through an association
with broader cultural and intellectual ideas and venues. So the
creation of The Jewish Encyclopedia in 1905 in America gave Jews
a sense of pride in the sweep of their civilization, while Franz
Rosenzweig's Lehrhaus [a Jewish educational institution], sensitive
to the biases of the German Jewish middle class, hired well-known
doctors and physicists, revered citizens, to teach about Jewish
Even more compelling, perhaps, was the way in which
Martin Buber resumed the Lehrhaus under the Nazis (and recreated
it yet again in Jerusalem in the early 1950s) as a way to maintain
community and raise spirits when, one could argue, there were more
pressing problems than an unexplicated poem. But Buber--and Rosenzweig
before him--believed that culture led to the strengthening of community,
and that a sense of community is what makes the difference between
a withering civilization and a thriving one.
The enormous insecurity of German Jews at the beginning
of this century, despite the cultural brilliance of that community,
further indicates an ingrained conflict about a Jewish relationship
with the arts. The best example of this is composer Arnold Schoenberg's
musical response, in the form of his opera "Moses and Aaron,"
to Wagner's pronouncement in his infamous essay "Judaism in
Music" that Jews could never be "true" creators because
they are essentially parasitic. Any outward shine of brilliance,
Wagner said, merely reflects their ability to mimic and adapt. Underneath,
they are only critics and commentators, never artists.
Freud, a man of letters as much as a scientist,
grappled mightily with this idea. During the late 19th and early
20th century, the German medical establishment viewed Jewish creativity
as pathological, indicative of a diseased and degenerate nature.
According to Sander Gilman, much of Freud's work was an attempt
to disprove this "fact," and return the Jewish creative
mind to a normative place in history.
We also cannot forget the importance of the arts
for the secularists of the past century-- including the Yiddishists,
Zionists, socialists, and other radicals--who saw the renewal of
language and languages as a key to their respective visions of a
new Jerusalem. For the fans of the Yiddish stage in New York, or
the radicals who first learned of Isaiah's moral teachings from
Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing," the arts were a window
into Jewish life and a sign of its continuing importance and relevance,
and perhaps-- as for Irving Howe, Arnold Schoenberg, and many others--a
way back in.
Dan Schifrin is the former director of communications
for the National Foundation of Jewish Culture.
Reprinted with permission from The Reconstructionist:
A Journal of Contemporary Jewish Thought and Practice.