Fifteen years ago, I wrote about what I considered the sad state of affairs that. in our modern American society that we seek to very carefully define lines between what we perceive as “true creativity” and simply “skills.” This troubles me no less today, and perhaps even more so considering the changes and shifts in society in the last two decades.
We have become a nation of specialists (and I, and my fellow generalists have become the “odd man out” as a result.) Artists create, artisans and craftsman do. Teachers teach. Designers imagine, engineers make real. And work is just work.
Since I first wrote this musing in 1998 I have had a variety of opportunities to work as a full-time teacher in Jewish settings. Every day and in every way at school I realized that teaching, no matter how people to try classify it and specialize it, is a truly generalistic profession in many ways. Still, even in education, specialists are generally preferred over generalists. (At some schools I taught a variety of subjects – music, Judaica, Hebrew. In other situations, I may have had only on primary teaching responsibility at the school, but also engaged in many other disciplines in the additional work that far too many of us in the Jewish world need to take onto survive. So the “generalism” continues to be pervasive in my life.)
Is it not the intent with which we do the work we do that truly defines the artistry of our work? As it says in Ex 36:2 “everyone whose heart was stirred to do the work.” The worker at the Saturn plant who can point with pride to a new car and say “I helped make that” has created what was, for him, a work of art. Can not the manager proudly point to the fruit of his efforts to increase productivity while still keeping employee satisfaction high and think of it as a work of art? For art is the work of the soul. Is that work any less an expression of the human soul than a sculpture, painting, musical composition? And what of the teacher? Their works of art are no less than human beings themselves! Is teaching technique or artistry? I know that in my own classrooms, it has always been a little of both.
We are human, and our values, our emotions, our desires, hopes and dreams manifest themselves in all that we do. Even the most seemingly mundane things. Because when they are done or created, ultimately, for the greater glory of G”d, they are indeed true works of art.
And so it is that I wonder what the Torah means when it repeatedly uses verb forms that say “he did this” “he did that” (Ex. 36:10-39:26.) Over 40 times. (And interspersed only a few times, a “they” and only once, Betzalel.” Then, oddly, the last five p’sukim describing the labors (ex 39:27-31) all use “they.”)
While the implication seems to be that “he” refers to Betzalel, I wonder if another interpretation is possible. That the “he” being referred to is G”d (we’ll just avoid the whole gender issue here, ok?) That all those who labored, who did so because there hearts were stirred, were just channeling creative energy from a higher source.
I have said many time in these musings, that when I play music at services, what comes through my fingers and from the keyboard is t’filah, and it often seems as though the inspiration comes from outside me. Need it be any different if I am teaching a class, typing a memo, repairing a car engine, cleaning floors, picking beans, etc.?
The highbrows of this world want to create a separation between art and craft, between art and simple labor. If, indeed, only “high art” were sacred and everyday work profane would their argument might have merit. But so many of the little things we do, every day, are holy, because we are G”d’s creations. The way Subway calls their employees “sandwich artists” might be a gimmick, but there’s more truth to that than may be obvious.
I know so many whose work and life are influenced by their passion, who are perhaps channeling G”d through what they do. Yes, some of it is through artistic works – singing, writing, playing an instrument, telling stories. Just as much of it is in how they live their lives every day. How they speak, how they think, how they act.
Every year around the High Holy Days we hear of the conflict between those who find only the “high art” style of music stirs them, and those who are equally moved by all kinds of music. While I am equally a fan of all styles of synagogue music, including the “high Classical,” I do think, the rest of the year at least, most congregants have demonstrated more of a preference for the more popular/campy/folk/rock style. At High Holy Days, many of these regulars worshippers have to set aside their preferences for those “once-a-year” congregants. (I won’t take sides in this debate. I think everybody should be open to expanding their musical horizons at all times!)
Which brings me to a point where I must observe that there are those in the Jewish music world who look down with scorn and disdain upon those who create music that is not classical in style. They view on the classical style as art, and perhaps see the popular musical styles as mere craftsmanship. They could be more wrong. I know, personally, many of those who create this popular style of synagogue music, and while some are good craftspeople too, all of them are artists.
Therein is one of the secrets. Creating good art does require good craftsmanship. Some artists even employ others to be their craftspeople, because they cannot do it alone. Artistry and craftsmanship are inseparable. One is not mightier or more worthy than the other, for neither would exist without the other. It takes G”d, and Moshe, and Betzalel, and Oholiab, and each and every one of us to bring G”d’s artistic vision to life. This is as true today as it was then. G”d is an artist, and we are made b’tzelem El”him, in the image of G”d. Therefore, there is artists in each of us. G’d is surely an artisan as well. And so, therefore, are we.
As G”d is joyous in all works. let us to be joyous in all our own works. And joyous in our appreciation of the creative work of others. Let each thing we labor to do be to us as a work of art, and may we see the same in all the works of others. Let us take the meaning of the word “art” away from the snobs, highbrows and effete of this world.
And let us not forget that, Torah tell us, there is a time when the work, when our daily creation of art, must cease, as we heed the word of Ex. 35:2
“Six days of the week you may work, but on the seventh day you must keep a holy Shabbat of Shabbats to G”d.”
Some might argue that this means I should not be playing the keyboard at services on Shabbat. It’s not m’lacha to me. It’s prayer and praise. There are also those who argue that Shabbat might just be the perfect time for unleashing their creativity. While it’s hard to argue with the idea that G”d did, according to Torah, indeed cease from creative activity on Shabbat, it’s not so clear that our own praxis for Shabbat must perforce require complete cessation of creative activity. We would have to turn off our brains and our bodies for that to happen.G”d may have ceased from creating the universe on Shabbat, but G”d the artist was totally present, and remains so on Shabbat. How can we offer our thanks and praise to G”d on Shabbat if we cannot be artistic and creative about it? How droll would our worship be if we truly eliminated all creativity and artistry from it on Shabbat?
May your Shabbat be filled with light and joy. And your week with your works of art, and enjoyment for the works of art of all others.
© 2013 (parts 1998, 2001) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Vayakhel-Pekude 5772 – Vocational Ed
Pekude/Shabbat Sh’kalim 5771 – Ideas Worth Re-Examining
Vayakhel 5771 – Giving Up the Gold Standard
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5770-Corroborative Detail
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5769 – There Are Some Things You Just Have To Do Yourself
Vayakhel 5768-An Imaginary Community?
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5767-Redux 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5766 – So How Did Joseph Get Away With it?
Pekude 5765-Redux 5760-Pronouns
Vayakhel 5765-The Wisdom of the Heart
Vayakhel/Pekude 5764-Comma or Construct?
Vayakhel 5763-Dayam V’hoteir
Vayakhel/Pekude 5762-Sacred Work
Vayakhel 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing