By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
It was quite a few years ago that I spent almost every Sunday afternoon in one of the great museums of the city in which my family then lived. This particular museum possessed the most extensive collection in the world of the paintings of the French artist, Henri Matisse. My daughter, then 6 or 7, became so fond and familiar with the works of Matisse, that once, when we ventured into a new museum, she saw some Matisse works at a distance and began shouting excitedly, “Matisse, Matisse.”
It was on that occasion that I first encountered a fascinating gentleman whom I’ll call Ernesto. Ernesto, I later learned, was a brilliant Talmud student before the war, but had totally lost his faith as a result of his horrific experiences during the Holocaust.
With my black velvet yarmulke I was readily identifiable as an Orthodox Jew, so I was easy prey for Ernesto. “Jews know nothing about art,” he bellowed. “Matisse! How can you glorify Matisse? His art is only decorative. All Jewish art is nothing but decoration.”
Over the years I came to know him better and discovered that he had many “bones to pick” with Judaism, but that morning he confined his remarks to his disappointment with what he saw as the absence of fine art in the Jewish culture.
Frankly, I had never given much thought to the subject of art in Judaism. The best I could do was to refer to the person of Bezalel, mentioned in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20).
I quoted these verses to him: “…See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur…He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver and copper.”
He was unimpressed. “Bezalel was no more than a Matisse,” he insisted. For him, Matisse was the epitome of a bankrupt artist, one who could produce colorful designs but who had no message for the culture at large. “Besides pretty decorations for the Tabernacle, what did Bezalel have to teach us? What did he have to say to the human race?!” he shouted.
For the many years since that first encounter with Ernesto, who passed away 60 years to the day after his release from Auschwitz in 1945, I have asked the question: “What can we learn from Bezalel?” I have since concluded that Bezalel had a lot to teach us all, especially about the creative process.
Most creative geniuses throughout history have, in one way or another, rebelled against society. Creativity often sees itself as in opposition to conformity. The place of the artist is rarely in the contemporary culture; rather it is in the counter-culture. The creative artist, whatever his medium, typically sees himself as the creator of a new culture, one which will replace the current culture and render it obsolete.
Bezalel’s genius lay in his ability to channel his substantial artistic gifts to the cause of the culture that was being constructed around him. He was not rebellious. He participated in a national project as part of the nation, and not as one whose role was to find fault. He was able to combine creativity with conformity. He taught all subsequent artists that they need not limit their role to critical observation of society. Quite the contrary, they can cooperatively partner with society and bring their skills to bear in the service of what is going on around them.
This is the deeper meaning of the passage in the Talmud that reads: “Bezalel knew how to combine the mystical primeval letters from which heaven and earth were created (Berachot 55a).” Bezalel’s art was an art that “combined” letters, joining them together harmoniously. His was not the art that tears asunder the constituent elements of the world that surrounds him. His was the art that blends those elements into a beautiful whole.
Bezalel’s lesson is a lesson for all gifted and talented human beings. Somehow, the best and the brightest among us are the ones who are most cynical and most critical of the societies in which we live. We see this today in the harsh criticism that is directed at Israel precisely from the world of the academe, especially from the Jewish intelligentsia. Bezalel, on the other hand, was able to demonstrate that one can be sublimely gifted and use those gifts in a positive and constructive fashion, cooperating with others who are far less gifted, and participating in a joint venture with the rest of society.
This is a lesson in leadership which all who are blessed with special talents must learn. Special talents do not entitle one to separate oneself from the common cause. Rather, they equip one to participate in the common cause, and in the process elevate and inspire the rest of society.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union.