Vayakhel – Art and Judaism

R’ Jonathan Sacks wrote that Bezalel and Ohaliab have been celebrated as the inspired craftsmen who used their skills for the greater glory of G-d. He wrote that the aesthetic dimension has been downplayed through the centuries because the Israelites worshipped the invisible G-d who transcended the universe.Even when He revealed Himself at Sinai, it was through the sound of words, but there was no form.


Image making was considered idolatrous, and this concern continued long after the biblical era. The Sanctuary was constructed for dignity and beauty. It was designed to inspire admiration and awe, with a continual light, impressive priestly robes, and burning incense.


Rambam wrote about the therapeutic power of beauty and its importance in counteracting melancholy. Art is a balm to the soul and R’ Sacks quoted from Rav Kook who wrote “Literature, painting, and sculpture give material expression to all the spiritual concepts implanted in the depths of the human soul, and it is the task of art to give the soul a means of expression”. Rav Kook saw the renaissance of art in Israel, as exemplified by the Bezalel Arts School in Jerusalem, as a symbol of the regeneration of the Jewish people in its own land, landscape and birthplace. An authentic Jewish aesthetic could only emerge in Israel, strengthened by and in turn strengthening Jewish spirituality, and not in the Diaspora.


Rav Kook was enthralled by the paintings of Rembrandt, particularly by his use of light, which he thought was like the “light that G-d created on the first day of Creation”.  R’ Sacks wrote that Rembrandt, who lived in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, saw light in the faces of ordinary people, without any attempt to beautify them. He wrote that “His work let us see the transcendental quality of the human, the only thing in the universe on which G-d set His image”.


R’ Sacks pointed to the semantic connection between the word for art- “omanut” and the word for faith- “ emunah”. A true artist is faithful both to his materials and to the task, so that we can “see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower”.


R’ Sacks also commented that Bezalel means “in the shadow of   G-d” . He wrote that “art is the shadow cast by the radiance of G-d that suffuses all things”. R’ Sacks quoted Goethe who said “Where there is much light, the shadow is deep”. Art can let us see the wonder of creation as G-d’s work, and the human person as G-d’s image. The Greeks believed in the holiness of beauty, whereas the Jews believe in the beauty of holiness – “hadrat kodesh”. This was not art for art’s sake, but art as a disclosure of the ultimate artistry of the Creator. “That is how omanut enhances emunah, how art adds wonder to faith”.


R’ AJ Heschel wrote that “the sense of the sublime is regarded as the root of man’s creative activities in art, thought and noble living. No work of art has ever brought to expression, the depth of meaning, the sublimity of reality, in the sight of which the souls of saints, artists and philosophers live”.


R’ Jonathan Sacks – Vayakhel- G-d’s Shadow-


R’ Abraham Joshua Heschel “G-d in Search of Man” 1955.


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