FROM AMPUTATION TO WHOLENESS:
A CALL TO ART FROM THE TORAH WORLD
The Jewish Press
By Richard McBee
"We have inherited an amputated visual culture,
viscously cut off from our artistic forefathers we have
every right to lay claim to," exclaimed Archie Rand,
artist and professor at Columbia University. In a
passionate and articulate account, Rand recounted a
sweeping history unknown to many. From the Jewish
muralists in the third century CE, Dura-Europos
synagogue to Camille Pissarro, one of the founders of
Impressionism and an important influence on Vincent
Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne, Jews have played an
important role in the visual arts. Rand demanded that we
recognize and capitalize upon this crucial role, especially
in Jewish education.
Concerning the New York School of Abstract
Expressionism, easily the most important movement in
mid-20th Century culture, Rand noted that, "A
significant percentage of the important artists were Jews.
We need to celebrate the Jewish artists," Rand
demanded of an appreciative audience at the ATID
(Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions)
conference held at the Center for Jewish Culture on
Sunday, November 9, 2003.
This conference, entitled "Creative Spirituality:
Jewish Education and the Arts" organized by Rabbi
Chaim Brovender, president of ATID and for many years
Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat HaMivtar (Brovenders) in Efrat,
Israel, may be one of the most significant events in the
growing reawakening of the Jewish arts.
The gathering, cosponsored by Yeshiva University
Museum, brought together practicing artists, yeshiva
educators, museum curators and rabbinic leaders to
explore the role and potential of art in Jewish education.
Rabbi Brovender linked the unique quality of beauty
found in nature or created artworks, to the uniqueness
found in the truth embedded in Torah. Paradoxically,
neither is ever totally satisfying; we always feel a need to
experience more beauty and truth.
The newness of each encounter adds to the unique
quality of each experience in learning Torah and viewing
beauty and art. Rabbi Brovender suggested that, since
the nature of Torah and the nature of beauty have
similarities, perhaps the teaching of art could enhance or
reinvigorate the teaching of Torah in yeshivas.
Earlier, Sylvia Heshkowitz, director of Yeshiva University Museum, related
the famous story of Rav Kook’s reaction to the paintings of Rembrandt in the
National Gallery in London. Rav Kook was deeply moved by the paintings,
marveling at the quality of light that Rembrandt achieved. It seemed to him that
Rembrandt had uncovered a portion of the "hidden light of creation."
If indeed Kook’s appreciation was correct that Rembrandt in his creativity had
somehow accessed and had communicated a mystical understanding of the light God
created on the first day and had set aside for the righteous in the World to
Come, art could be considered a vital tool to draw one close to Torah.
Belshazzar’s Feast (1635) oil on canvas
by Rembrandt National Gallery, London
Rabbi Brovender carried the insight even further in
an analysis of an abstract painting by Mark Rothko.
Brovender commented that the Rothko painting, one
large field of maroon color in the upper half of the
painting floating above a darker color on the bottom,
demanded our attention. These large luminous works,
often thought of as evoking a metaphysical experience,
compel our further investigation because, "he poured his
neshama into these pictures."
The very difficulty comprehending these abstract images causes us to
struggle towards the painting’s meaning, revealing, according to Rabbi
Brovender, that "Truth is not simple, even when you are holding on to
the Torah." We must struggle in the creative process of encounter,
search and introspection whether we are learning Torah or viewing or
creating art. This vital link was explored throughout the
Untitled (1953) oil on canvas by Mark Rothko
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Rabbi Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University and Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS,
commented on the traditional Hasidic receptivity to music and art through the
concept of avodat Hashem b`gashmiut. The notion that we can serve God beyond the
performance of commandments, through all aspects of our lives including artistic
creativity, set the stage for a presentation of Rav Soloveitchik`s views of art
and aesthetics by Rabbi Shalom Carmy of Yeshiva University. The Rav’s views of
art were complex and not entirely positive. There was the suspicion that art,
the aesthetics of both the natural world and that created by man, could
overwhelm the intellect and hamper study of Torah.
Nevertheless, the Rav believed that Talmud Torah
demanded imagination, spontaneity and creativity, citing
the need for a "polyphonic diversity rather than the
discipline of a military march." Clearly, his emphasis on
these qualities would imply his openness to creativity as a
Torah enhancing value. Most revealingly, Rav
Soloveitchik felt that in prayer, "Only the aesthetic
experience linked with the exalted may bring man into
contact with God."
After a series of hands-on-workshops that
emphasized exploration of techniques as "means of
expression" and a break for lunch, the conference
continued with presentations by educators and artists
chaired by Gabriel Goldstein, curator and art historian at
Yeshiva University Museum.
Tobi Kahn, artist and professor of Fine Arts at the
School of Visual Arts, and artist in residence at SAR high
school in Riverdale, addressed the need for art education
in yeshivas. Ninety percent of students "don`t know how
to see," meaning that they are unable to encounter and
interpret complex visual phenomena. By teaching
students "how to see and raising their visual
consciousness," Kahn is expanding both their creative
capacity in the visual world and in all areas of their
For Kahn, who advocated visual arts programs in
yeshivas over at least the four years of high school, "the
creative process is a gift from God," whether learning
Torah or making a painting. His objectives seemed to
address both education of appreciators of art and
creators of art. For him, "making art is an additional way
of davening." The intimate relationship between
creativity and spirituality is paramount. Creative
interaction is the central process.
Rabbi Alan Stadtmauer, principal of the Yeshivah
of Flatbush High School, addressed issues of establishing
a realistic curriculum for the study of art in high school,
commenting that the study of art exposes adolescents to
a certain kind of vulnerability that is common in both
experiencing art and seeking spirituality.
Rabbi Moshe Simkovich of the Stern Hebrew High
School of Philadelphia echoed this sentiment. He spoke
of a certain, nervous suspicion evidenced by parents
about the use of art as an entranceway to spirituality.
These educators understood that both the use of art as a
creative means to access spirituality and as a creative end
in itself could be fraught with complex issues new to
yeshiva education. Yet all agreed that it was well worth
the effort to encourage this kind of creativity, at the very
least, because of its potential for reinvigorating the
learning process and connection to Torah.
Towards the end of the afternoon session, Archie
Rand speculated on the importance of the first Jewish
artist, Bezalel. He noted that we are first told about him
high up on Mount Sinai, just as God has finished
commanding Moses about all the details of the
construction of the Mishkan (Exodus 31:1). Bezalel,
"filled with a Godly spirit, wisdom, insight and
knowledge" and his assistant Oholiab, "wise-hearted,"
will craft "all that I have commanded you."
Jewish art is born at the very moment we are given
the means to serve God. Within moments, Moses will
descend the mountain and smash the tablets crafted by
God Himself. But Jewish art and artists will live on, first
in crafting the Tabernacle in the wilderness, then in the
Temple and throughout the ages, making objects to fulfill
commandments, illuminations for countless books,
murals and mosaics for synagogues and finally, to the
cornucopia of Jewish artwork we have today. As a
"People of the Book," immersed in the ethereal holy
Torah, we focus on deeds and concepts, immune to the
lure of crass objects and images. And yet, Jewish art is
the exception - born on Sinai - in which we engage in
the aesthetics of the visual world.
The rabbis, educators and artists at this conference
believe that the process of creatively engaging in the
visual experience, appreciating and making art, can
stimulate and nourish the spirituality of Torah. Surely
then, that same process applied to specific Jewish
content, the vast store of Torah, commentaries and
Jewish knowledge, can give birth to an art that, itself will
become a form of Torah learning, a visual Midrash, a
visual davening, even a visual Avodat Hashem.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and
writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with
comments at www.richardmcbee.com.]
Jewish Art, Forever or for Never?
By Menachem Wecker
What do Rembrandt and Rothko, Kant and Kierkegaard, Aristotle, Conrad
and Sister Wendy have in common?
Well for one thing, they dominated the ATID (Academy for Torah
Initiatives and Directions) conference Sunday, November 9 at the
Yeshiva University Museum (YUM), much to panelist Archie Rand's (Senior
Professor of Visual Arts, Columbia U.) disappointment. "Take the
history books and cut all the goyim out," he said. "You'd be
hard pressed to find a goyish artist now."
ATID Founding Director Rabbi Jeffrey Saks (ordination, M.A., Yeshiva
U.) initiated the conference-"Creative Spiritualilty: Jewish
Education and the Arts"-by declaring the term spirituality
"slippery," for it "has been used as the opposite of
'intellectualism,'" whereas "In fact they are not opposites
but two components which must work in tandem to grow as a religious
Even early on, Saks acknowledged his opposition. "Not everyone who
is committed to Jewish education...agrees with what we are doing
today," he said, even recognizing that he "may have been
'preaching to the converted.'"
By the mission of the day, he would probably mean what YUM director
Sylvia A. Herskowitz explained as "to increase awareness of the
role of Art in Jewish Life, offering palpable experiences in the
aesthetics and culture of diverse Jewish communities around the
"Our Museum's mission is to offer a one on one experience with
beauty, with the ethos and esthetics of past generations and Jewish
communities-and with the fresh 21st century talents of contemporary
artists seeking to express their Jewish identities," Herskowitz
Arguing that "chronology plays a role in ideology," Yeshiva
University Chancellor Dr. Rabbi Norman Lamm discussed a "collapse
of ideas" as it unfolded between Hassidim and mitnagdim. He
explained that the Lithuanian world never championed the Arts for the
most part. "I would be shocked to know that any member of the
Soloveitchik family played any instrument," he said.
Lamm concluded that art, if taken as "a holy act" does play
an important role in the Jewish experience. "No part of the human
personality should be excluded from...Jewish expression," he said
echoing Kook's introduction to Song of Songs.
Yeshiva University Professor of Jewish Studies and Philosophy Rabbi
Shalom Carmy provided the philosophical backdrop for the conference,
with particular attention to Rav Soloveitchik's thought. Although he
argued that "halakhah is suspicious to a degree of art as a
release in certain contexts because art runs the risk of overwhelming
human judgment," Carmy did mention a distinction in the Rav's
thought between polyphonic and military music.
What should be painfully obvious by now is the lack of attention to
l'art pour l'art, despite the appeal to her inferior Doppelganger, Art
Appreciation. Enter ATID President and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat
HaMivtar Rabbi Chaim Brovender, poster child for the conference.
"I am definitely not an artist," he admitted. "I've
never really exhibited any aptitude for drawing."
"For me Talmud Torah is primary. It gives me more than anything
else; however I'm aware that the definition of Talmud Torah in the
Nefesh HaChaim...is not achieved for everybody."
Brovender's speech then took a turn for the Hellenistic. Invoking
'beauty' time and again, it was clear that he meant some form of ideal
beauty. "Beauty always strikes as something unique," he said,
very much counter-Delacroix. "The beauty of vision is a function
of its newness. If one says, 'Oh yes, I've seen it already' then he
probably hasn't seen it at all."
Then he spoke of truth-Talmudic Truth to be sure, not an aesthetic one.
"I would imagine that beauty and truth can enhance each
other," he said, but with the expected Talmudic caveat,
"maybe the truth in beauty will help overcome the hurdle in Talmud
Torah." This was all the more perplexing in light of his
acknowledging "another sort of studying art."
And then, much to this reviewer's amazement and delight, Rabbi
Brovender delivered an art lecture-complete with all the frills, even a
laser pointer-on Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." In it, he
found "a message about humanity." I picture Rembrandt
overturning in his grave, especially at "you can paint a still
life, but you can't silence life."
He then turned to Rothko, in whom he found "a new way of entry
into the souls of the students." "Rothko poured his neshama
into these," Brovender said of Rothko's paintings. I wonder, maybe
we can find a way of entry by showing the students photos of Rothko
lying dead on his wide canvas with two bloody machetes?
The program took a turn for the interactive, with conference members
trying their hands at some actual drawing. Director of ATID Initiatives
Shoshana Golin informed the audience that, "Everyone can draw, but
not everyone can see."
"Being able to see is a skill," she said. One person who had
trouble seeing was Mark Singer of Baltimore. "The arts are very
much about the 'doing,' l'maisa. Over-theorizing just reduces an
essentially right-left brain integrated experience into some
linear-analytic construct. The whole point is to use one's faculties in
a different way," he said. "I believe that the essential
character of the experience of true Tefila is much closer to an
artistic visionary/auditory experience than a linear-cognitive
experience...when we try to get our arms around the aesthetic
experience words fail to convey the mitzius."
A panel discussion followed. To artist Tobi Kahn it is all about
different types of communication. "The more languages you can
speak the better," he told me, citing the visual one as a very
"There is always going to be 10% of a class that aren't linear
thinkers," he argued. "I am interested in the 90% that can go
through life and not learn how to see." Tobi's solution for the
aesthetically blind? "It is important for kids to see an artist
who is living an artistic lifestyle only because it's important for
them to see that it is an option."
YUM Curator Gabriel Goldstein presided over the panel. He showed a
video interview where Sister Wendy said, "We're all in danger of
living on zombie-level...Art lets you out of your cage so that when you
come back you know there is more."
Archie Rand spoke of a "revolution [that] must start in
classrooms." To Rand, who says that "I've always felt about
drawing that it is my way of davening," visual evidence of God in
this world is imperative. "Art is something that not only can Jews
do, but they must," he said.
Rabbi Alan Stadtmauer, principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush High
School attended to the pragmatic. "How do you define these
curricula and how is it different from good teachers," he asked
about an arts program.
Rabbi Moshe Simkovich of Stern Hebrew High School of Philadelphia
called for ensuring that art became part of the school's mission.
"The challenge now is to create an understanding that this is
important amongst a wider group of people," he told me. "Or
perhaps to adequately support a number of schools that would specialize
in art teaching at younger ages than college - and not just in
Archie Rand told me, "I was very encouraged to read that the
Rabbinate is taking the necessity of Jewish aesthetics seriously,"
and although everyone-myself foremost-found the conference to be of the
utmost importance, some harbored reservations.
Jewish Press art critic and artist in his own right, Richard Mcbee
charged Brovender's essay with failing to distinguish "between
teaching people to be appreciative of art and creators of art."
Even though he found the speech to mend some of the frayed edges-much
as I found myself feeling-the question still remained unanswered.
Others questioned Archie Rand's Jewish aesthetics plug. "Can
somebody really understand art without coming to terms with the rest of
art history? Yes, contributions of Jews may be undervalued, and that
needs repair for eveybody's sake," Simkovich offered. "But I
don't think the answer is to deliberately ignore other art/artists,
which is how some people understood his rap. It'd be like studying only
Jewish scientists - a very demanding, exciting regimen, but incomplete
to say the least. Or philosophy without Kant, even if you could link
some of his thought to Jewish perspectives."
Saks looks to the future where "the project will include more
focused workshops and seminars, practically oriented; production of
curricula and resources, etc."
"In hindsight (and for the future)," he notes, "I would
have run another session with concurrent panels/workshops, allowing
people to focus more on their specific needs, e.g., some want to 'talk
tachlis' others are still holding at developing a rationale for the
role of art in their school."
Visit www.atid.org for more on the organization,
as well as the video/audio links and/or transcripts,
which will be posted there soon.