The two Torah portions that we read this week describe the act of building the Mishkan, the holy tabernacle that accompanied the Children of Israel in the wilderness. The commentators draw parallels between the building of the Mishkan and the making of the golden calf, which we read about a few weeks ago.
Indeed the Mishkan and the golden calf have much in common: both were made out of gold and precious jewels contributed by all the people and both were designed to provide a national focus. Yet the Mishkan was regarded as the highest form of creativity, and the golden calf as the greatest sin.
Why are the two viewed so differently, and what does this teach us about Jewish attitudes to creativity?
The parallel between the building of the Mishkan and the making of the golden calf is highlighted, so the commentators teach us, by the first word of each of the two portions we read this week:
- The word which starts our first portion Vayakhel (“and he gathered”) describes the way in which Moses assembled the people before commanding them to build the Mishkan. It is almost identical to the phrase “ Vayikahel ha’am ” used to describe the gathering of the people to construct the golden calf. (Exodus 35:1)
- The word Eleh (‘these’) which opens our second portion, in the phrase Eleh pekudei hamishkan (“ These are the instructions for building the Mishkan”) parallels the identical word used when the rebellious Israelites worshipped the golden calf– “ These are your gods O Israel” ( Midrash Shemot Rabba ).
The lesson drawn from these two parallels is that the building of the Mishkan was reparation for the sin of the golden calf. In other words, the calf is the model of sinful creativity, and the Mishkan the model of the correct way in which creativity should truly be challenged.
The lesson that the Mishkan is the correct model of creative expression has had a striking – and limiting – effect on Jewish art throughout the generations.
While, to our modern sensibilities, it is the golden calf which most represents the modern concept of art and of free creative expression, traditional Jewish art has been far closer in nature to the Mishkan. In particular, like the Mishkan which was not an end in itself but was rather a container for the holy tablets and implements, the traditional Jewish art forms have been vehicles and containers designed to adorn a higher purpose: music to accompany the holy prayers, illuminated manuscripts to adorn a religious text, and ritual objects to beautify the Torah.
The message for Jewish artists over the centuries has been that, while it is appropriate to beautify ritual aspects of Jewish life, allowing free creative expression is likely to lead us astray. As the American Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said: “Judaism’s aim is that we should make our lives a work of art”. It is surely no coincidence that the artist who built the Mishkan is called Bezalel, his name literally meaning “in the shadow of God”, a reminder that any human creativity is pale imitation of divine.
Is this cautious and limited approach then Judaism’s final word on the subject of artistic expression?
The haftarot – the additional biblical readings – that accompany our Torah readings this week suggest that it isn’t. They are taken from the book of Kings and describe another paradigm of creativity – the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The building of the Temple is strikingly different from the construction of the Mishkan in many ways. Unlike the Mishkan, in which every item is described as being made by Bezalel exactly “as God had commanded”, the artist in charge of the building of the Temple, Hiram of Tyre, was allowed to exercise his individuality. Indeed he is described embellishing his work with ornate carvings of leaves, palm trees, flowers and angels – none of which would have been allowed in the Mishkan.
The stark contrast between the sparse bareness of the Mishkan and the ornate beauty of the Temple suggests that there is a significant difference in the Jewish attitude to artistic expression when Jews are wandering in exile, and when they are building a home in Israel.
As long as Jews were wandering, in the wilderness or in exile, Judaism’s concern was that artistic expression might create an illusion of permanence, and lead the people to forget that their ultimate homeland was Israel. The message was brought home clearly in the building of the Mishkan, every item of which was made with carrying poles to highlight its temporary nature. But this concern need no longer trouble us when we are back home in Israel, so we can allow our creativity greater individualism. Outside the land all we had to adorn was holy ritual objects; in Israel we have the land itself. Beautifying it with artistic expression is also a mitzvah.
In others’ words
“Not the absorption capacity of the land, but the creative ability of a people, is the true yardstick with which we can measure the immigration potentialities of the land.”
David Ben Gurion
On a lighter note
The difficult situation of the Jews of the former Soviet Union gave rise to an entire genre of Jewish humour – “refusenik jokes”. One classic example, tells of a Jewish artist and his masterwork: ‘Lenin in Poland’: Some years ago, Leonid Brezhnev wished to commission a portrait to be entitled, “Lenin in Poland,” in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. However, Russian painters, being schooled strictly in the realist school, were unable to paint an event which never actually occurred. “Comrade Brezhnev, we would like to do it, but we cannot. It goes against our training,” replied each of the many artists approached by Chairman Brezhnev. Finally, in desperation, Brezhnev was forced to ask the old Jewish painter, Levy. “Of course, I prefer to portray actual events, but I’ll do the painting for you, Comrade. It would be my great honour.” Levy commenced work on the painting. However, every time Brezhnev visited his studio in an attempt to see the work in progress, Levy rebuffed his efforts, telling him that he never allowed his unfinished works to be viewed. Finally, the day of the unveiling arrived. Levy stood proudly by the cloth draped over his work. Brezhnev introduced Levy and gestured to his gift to the Russian people on the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, a picture commemorating Lenin’s historic visit to Poland. Everyone gasped as the cloth was removed to reveal a picture of a man and a woman together in bed. Brezhnev was stunned. “Who is that man?” he stammered. “Why, that’s Trotsky.” “And who,” Brezhnev inquired, “is that woman?” “That is Lenin’s wife, Comrade Brezhnev.” “But where is Lenin?” “He’s in Poland,” Levy explained.
Heard from Rabbi Leonid Feldman