The Jewish Press

Posted 11/19/2003 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 conference. 

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 intellectual life.

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]

Issue: 11/26/03

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 personality."

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 world."

"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 said.

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 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 important one.
"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 NYC."

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."

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