Latest Blog Posts ►

Artists of the Soul – Art and Judaism

All of us experience moments of poetry. These may come from events in our personal lives — a birth, a death, the reuniting of long-lost family. Or these moments of inspiration may spring from our sense of joy and wonder at the creation.

As an artist, however, I am not content to leave those moments of inspiration in the realm of the intangible. I want to give them a physical existence, to “mortalize” them as a photograph.

And once I have made this commitment to clothe my inspiration in earthly garb, there comes the difficult and frustrating process of wrestling with obstinate film and chemicals, to say nothing of the intractable depths of Photoshop®.

Also for the photographer, apart from the basic material constrictions, there is another level of constraint to deal with. As Edward Steichen said, “Every other artist begins with a blank canvas, a piece of paper… The photographer begins with the finished product.” I must coax from this world a spirit that is reluctant to epitomize for my lens. The photographer-as-artist tries to make visible the invisible — “to make seen what without you might never have been seen,” as Robert Bresson put it.

Art is inspiration wrestling with constriction, the constriction of the physical doing battle with the idea as I am try to coax that which is beyond the physical to reside within the physical.

It’s no wonder then that good art is rare.

However, without this struggle there is no art; the mind can dance, but there is no dancing partner. Art exists as a function of constriction, not in spite of it. That dance of the mind and spirit with paper and paint, that exquisite tension between the material and the ephemeral, is where art lives and breathes. Just as a flute only produces music by the constriction of breath through a metal pipe, and without that constriction, that limitation, there is no music, so all the plastic arts rely on the celebration of limits.

And, ironically, the more constricting the medium, the more poetic the product. To this day, black-and-white photographs are esteemed as “more artistic” than less limited color photographs. And photographs themselves are considered less artistically worthy than painting, because they are closer to reality and less restricted by the medium.

“In the image of God, He created him [man]” (Genesis 1:27). This verse in the Torah is often misunderstood as meaning that Judaism believes in an anthropomorphic God; that God has arms, feet, a head, and a back. Obviously this cannot be a correct understanding. God is a nonphysical, nonspiritual Entity of whose essence we can ultimately know nothing. However, whatever ends up in this world as a hand is but the lowest incarnation of something that starts off at the highest level as an aspect of God’s interface with His creation. Thus, to the extent that it is possible, God gives us the ability to know Him from knowing ourselves. As it says in the book of Job (19:26), “From my flesh, I will see God.” On one level this means that by reflecting on the miraculous nature of the body, the most complex and brilliant feat of engineering in the universe, I can sense the existence of a Creator. On another level though, if God created me in His image, that means that by understanding myself, I can understand something about God.

Thus ability to create — the ability to take the material world and make it speak the language of emotion, of inspiration — must be the most distant reflection of some characteristic of God.

The fact that art exists must reveal some aspect of the Divine.

Jewish mystical sources teach that when God created the universe, He “constricted Himself” to allow the appearance of something other than Himself. This concept is called tzimtzum — literally, “constriction.” (Needless to say, a true understanding of this concept is far beyond our grasp.)

In other words, this world and everything in it is God’s Work of Art.

Interestingly, the word for “artist” in Hebrew, tzayar, is related to the word tzar, meaning “narrow” or “constricted.”

This is the connection between being an artist and my religious life.

My life as a Jew is brimful of constrictions and restrictions. Rather than hamper and frustrate me, I find these very restrictions are paint and canvas for my soul. I believe that God put into this world a mystical ‘paint box’ called the Torah. The Torah allows me to turn this world into art. The commandments of the Torah empower me to make the physical world speak the language of the spirit. They are the media through which I can create a partnership with the Ultimate Artist in His artwork.

Subscribe to our blog via email or RSS to get more posts like this one.


RSS feed icon News Feed

RSS feed icon Email Updates

Twitter Twitter