The Case for Jewish Culture

Arts and culture can help renew Jewish communal life.

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The arts, by definition, cross all divides to educate and inspire. Not every artist's work, because of content or sophistication, will be meaningful to everyone, but there are still many artists who could make valuable contributions to Jewish life. Archie Rand, the well-known painter, is one. His works, which include a mural at a Brooklyn synagogue and a series of paintings describing the weekly Torah portions, have made a striking impression on many Jews, shocking them into seeing Jewish life anew.

For Rand, the connection between the arts and spirituality is crystal-clear. As he said recently in Hadassah Magazine, "Belief is an essential component of artistic creation. Sometimes people think that passion, emotion, enthusiasm, subconscious psychological activity can exist totally removed from spirituality. You can't function as an artist and not have faith. It's inexplicable to me that the viewing public sees a division between religion and spirituality."

The arts and culture are also a way to meet people where they are--a strategy the community honors principally in the breach. If the community wants Jews at the JCC's, then they need to add to their "Introduction to the Prayerbook" class one on "Kabbalah and Art," or else lose those Jews to the phonies teaching Jewish mysticism in fashion showrooms in Manhattan and Los Angeles. And why not a class on the Jewish themes in the work of Louis Kahn, or of Arnold Schoenberg, or on the mutual influence of klezmer and jazz? You'd need a video hook-up to accommodate the overflow.

Because we are a people of the Book, despite the current cultural climate in America and the domination of the visual media, it is still through the word that much of our community will inevitably renew itself. And without an evolving language that is fresh and vital and relevant, the likelihood of passing down a tradition of holiness diminishes. This doesn't mean that new prayers must constantly be written, or that the classic texts shouldn't be read and discussed in Hebrew. It just means that the language must live in people's hearts and minds for it to touch them, and our artists, who are naturally so sensitive to this, can offer invaluable guidance.

I have been influenced by Buber's I and Thou, and the connections he makes between the freshness of language and of religious transcendence. For Buber, the tragedy of spiritual and relational life is when all interactions between people become objectified and we relate to everything and everyone as an "it." He advocates, instead, the much more difficult task of relating to people as "Thou," as manifestations of God, and this in turn becomes the model for seeing in people the manifestation of God.

The Arts as Gateway to Shared Jewish Culture

The implications concerning literature and the arts are clear: Stale language and a reliance on cant leads to wooden spirituality and static relations with God as well as with other people. Conversely, serious creativity must emerge out of a dialogue and sense of community that sees the face of God in other people.

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Dan Schifrin

Dan Schifrin is the former director of communications for the National Foundation of Jewish Culture.