Life is most precious, but don’t diminish art’s value

Life is most precious, but don’t diminish art’s value

Rabbi David Katz
Rabbi David Katz

Vayakhel, Exodus 35:1-38:20

In 1980, when I began to date my wife, Nancy, she was already an accomplished painter, and her students were exhibiting at the Guggenheim Museum.  I liked her because she was creative and talented, but to be truthful, I was clueless as to why I should appreciate her field of work.  Though I did not say it out loud, I wondered why a shade of blue mattered, why purple or crimson should be of any concern, why shapes, tones and shadowing should take up anyone’s time.  Was art going to make the world better?  I, on the other hand, was a rabbinical student. My world concerned human beings and the right course of action — serious matters, which I considered to be much more important.

Two years later, Nancy and I married. I smiled when I told my friends that before meeting Nancy my life had consisted only of nouns and verbs and she brought adjectives into our marriage.

“Together,” I said, “we were a complete sentence — and even more.”

Nancy and I recently attended the showing of the Oscar nominated documentary short, “A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World’s Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor.”  Alice was a concert musician in Prague before she was deported to Theresienstadt.  She is now 110 years old and continues to play the piano every day at her home in London.  She is an inspiration.

But one thing Alice said in the film disturbed me.  She said, “Music is God.”

I know what she meant.  She meant that, like God, we humans create and when we do, we reflect divinity.  Still, her words seemed to reduce God in an inappropriate way.

Nancy and I also saw the new George Clooney film, “The Monuments Men.”    The story was based on true events in World War II when a group of art historians pleaded with President Roosevelt to allow them to find and rescue the great works of European art the Nazis were stealing and hiding.  One of our dear friends, Ken Lindsay, was actually one of these historians, and we felt compelled to see the film, despite the mediocre reviews it received.

At the conclusion of the film, Roosevelt asks Clooney’s character if saving a painting is worth even one life, and he responds, “Yes.” I grappled with that afterwards.

Questions about the place of art in Jewish life swirled within me and only became clear when I read this week’s Torah portion, Vayakheil.  Lo and behold, God actually commissions a work of art in this parshah. The artist is Bezalel, because he has been “endowed with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft.” His task is to design the Tabernacle — the place of worship that the children of Israel will use as they travel through the desert.

Says Moses to the people, “Take from among you gifts to the Lord, everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them –— gifts for the Lord: gold, silver and copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen and goats’ hair.”  (Exodus 35:4 ff.)   

Blue, purple and crimson — the colors are explicitly stated. This portion is filled with adjectives!

The Torah never defines the place of art in Jewish living. In later times, though, the great rabbis were forced to respond to Greek ideals and taught us to value art when it beautified a mitzvah (“hiddur mitzvah”).  So, today we are heirs to embellished hagadahs, engraved Torah breastplates, ornate Kiddush cups, beautifully molded candlesticks and imaginatively embroidered challah covers.  

But beyond creating art for the purpose of adorning ritual items, Jews have also created art for art’s sake. There were the  great Jewish painters Pissarro, Modigliani and Chagall.  Today, Israel has a national school of art in Jerusalem. It is called the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.  

We Jews are taught that rescuing a human soul takes precedence over rescuing a painting.  God is invisible and God’s invisible image in every human being is to be cherished above all.  But the value of art for the sake of beauty is not to be diminished for it gives us pleasure and joy and is the human reflection of God’s creative will.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)