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The Framework of Creativity – Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5774

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Religion and Creativity: A modern dilemma?

I recently read an article by a writer and a student of religion called Connor Wood, who suggests that religious practise thwarts creativity in individuals.  His thesis is that as a result of the time and energy religious people expend in maintaining common understandings, communal relationships and required modes of behaviour, there is naturally going to be less opportunity for them to explore new horizons, think radically, or just be boldly creative.  In response to his original blog, people cited many religious ‘creators’ such as T.S.Elliot, Jon Sebastian Bach, Michelangelo to name a few, as examples of when religion can produce highly creative and innovative individuals.  Connor responded, again arguing that religion had much to offer by way of stability and social institutions but, besides for a few extraordinary individuals , had little to offer by way of man’s autonomous ability to be radically creative.  His view articulated best in the last paragraph of his article:

But while I respect the organizing function of religion and tradition, it’s not enough for me. I’d love to be both emotionally stable and wildly creative. This was why I wrote the original post. The ancient tension between rigid Apollonian order and wild Dionysian ecstasy hums beneath the surface of every culture; we have to make sacrifices in one realm to advance in the other. But I’m optimistic that we can learn a way around, or at least through, this conundrum. We humans do amazing things. We fly in airplanes and send astronauts to the Moon. Through studying our history, our evolution, and our spiritual traditions, I think that we can learn to harness our creative energies even as our outer lives are calm, stable, and nestled in webs of relationships. After all, we’ve already got an exemplar: the artist who contradicts my model, J.S. Bach.[1]

This debate is not a new dilemma, it is as old as man himself, though today it is simply stated in modern terminology.  It is a tension that exists from the moment of man’s creation and manifests itself throughout the Mishkan narratives.

Rav Soloveitchik: The two paradigms:

Rav Soloveitchik, the renowned Talmudist and thinker of this century, in two of his most well known essays delineates these two dimensions of man.  In his essay The Lonely Man of Faith, he shows how from the moment of man’s creation he is endowed with two contradictory roles.  The differing accounts of man’s creation in Chapters 1 and 2 of Bereshit, allude to two different roles and tasks of man.  Rav Soloveitchik outlines the differences between the two accounts, illustrating two types of man.  Adam 1 is a creator, an initiator, made in the ‘image of God’.  Endowed with the Divine imperative to ‘conquer nature’, he is obsessed with discovering new and innovative ideas on ‘how’ to control the world around him. Adam 2 is created from the ‘dust of the earth’.  He is given the divine mandate to ‘maintain and guard the garden’, he does not ask ‘how’ but ‘why’, he is ‘religious man’.  In search of truth, suffering existential loneliness, his redemption is not discovered in the great arts or scientific discovery, but rather in covenantal relationship.  Man is not one or the other.[2]   Within every human exists both these dimensions. The destiny of man, as God has mandated, is to oscillate between these two modes of existence, to live with this dialectical tension and to listen to both of these voices.  From the moment of creation, man is both a creator in the divine image, who aims to reach the stars and a humble creature rooted to the ground, simply content in maintaining the status quo.  The dissonance between these two extremes is the essence of the religious experience.  This is exactly what Connor was expressing in his article, he is searching for a way to combine the two; Rav Soloveitchik’s answer to him is that this is the fundamental dilemma of man throughout the ages mandated by God at the moment of creation.  In this week’s Parsha, at the moment when we must be ‘creators’ in constructing a sanctuary for the Divine sprit to dwell in, we are also reminded of this dialectic.

The Mishkan, Shabbat and Creation:

The Mishkan narrative is closely related in many ways both to Shabbat and to the Creation of the world.  The parallels offer a profound response of the dilemma Connor Wood states as the ‘problem with religion’.  Let’s highlight the linguistic and literal connection before discussing the thematic connection.  Firstly, as we already mentioned last week, the structure of the Mishkan narratives are surrounded by the command of Shabbat.  Shabbat in its essence is a reminder of God’s creation of the world.

Chapter 25 – 31       – The command to build the Mishkan

Chapter 31:12-17     – Shabbat

Chapter 32-34          – Egel narrative

Chapter 35: 1-3        – Shabbat

Chapter 35 -40         – The construction of the Mishkan

The fact that Shabbat is intrinsically linked to the Mishkan project, is not by chance.  As well as the ideas we explored last week on the connection between Shabbat and ‘being’, there is another realm of relationship between the two.  Chazal link the prohibition of ‘melacha’ – a certain type of work connected to Shabbat, to the ‘melacha’ of the Mishkan.[3] The word ‘melacha’ is used copiously in describing the construction of the Mishkan and hence the Talmud in Shabbat deduces the 39 melachot – 39 forbidden activities on Shabbat-from that which were used to create the Mishkan.  Chazal are not only linking the Mishkan to Shabbat in a Halachik manner, but by doing so are linking the two ideas thematically.

As we also know Shabbat is linked  to God’s creations of the world:

Shemot 31:17

It shall be a sign for all time between me and the people of Israel, that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and on the seventh day, He ceased from work.

Nechama Leibowitz[4] in her commentary to Parshat Terumah, points out many additional parallels between the Creation in Bereshit and the construction of the Mishkan.  One such example as noted by modern commentators such as Rosensweig, Buber and Cassuto, is the significance of repetitive words in any given narrative.  In particular the account of the Mishkan, has the root ‘asah’ -to make- occurring two hundred times.  In the Creation narratives in Bereshit this root occurs seven times.[5]   The correlation between these ideas is significant in appreciating the purpose of the Mishkan.  The creation of the world was the space God made for man in his universe.  The Mishkan is the space we make for God in our world, both within our society and within ourselves.  It is about the need of man to be creative, and yet to ensure,  a space is still left for the Divine.  The subversive parallel to creation and Shabbat is of profound importance.  At the moment of absolute creativity, we are reminded of the obligation to ‘stop’.  Shabbat forces us to abstain from becoming  only Adam 1.  We are forced to refrain from any creative activity, and by doing so we recognize our limitations. We listen to the voice of Adam 2 reminding us to reconnect with those around us, and to submit ourselves, even if only for a day, to God’s control.  Abraham Joshua Heschel poetically expresses this idea as follows:

How proud we often are of our victories in the war with nature, proud of the multitude of instruments we have succeeded in inventing, of the abundance of commodities we have been able to produce.  Yet our victories have come to resemble defeats. In spite of our triumphs, we have fallen victim to the work of our hands; it is as of the forces we have conquered have conquered us.

The Sabbath as a day of abstaining from work is not a depreciation but an affirmation of labour, a divine exaltation of its dignity.[6]

Hence the relationship between Shabbat, Creation and the Mishkan comes to remind us again of the imperative in maintaining the complex balance between spontaneous, unadulterated creativity and stringent frameworks within the edifice of any religious experience.

Bezalel: On craftsmanship and shadows:

A final theme in Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei, which also explicates the theme we are discussing is the appointment of Bezalel and Ohaliav as the ‘artisans’ chosen to oversee the Mishkan project.

We are told of their appointment in our Parsha:

Shemot 31:

א וַיְדַבֵּר ה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.  ב רְאֵה, קָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם, בְּצַלְאֵל בֶּן-אוּרִי בֶן-חוּר, לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה.  ג וָאֲמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ, רוּחַ אֱלֹקים, בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת, וּבְכָל-מְלָאכָה.  ד לַחְשֹׁב, מַחֲשָׁבֹת; לַעֲשׂוֹת בַּזָּהָב וּבַכֶּסֶף, וּבַנְּחֹשֶׁת.  ה וּבַחֲרֹשֶׁת אֶבֶן לְמַלֹּאת, וּבַחֲרֹשֶׁת עֵץ; לַעֲשׂוֹת, בְּכָל-מְלָאכָה.  ו וַאֲנִי הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי אִתּוֹ, אֵת אָהֳלִיאָב בֶּן-אֲחִיסָמָךְ לְמַטֵּה-דָן, וּבְלֵב כָּל-חֲכַם-לֵב, נָתַתִּי חָכְמָה; וְעָשׂוּ, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ.

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 3 and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, 4 to devise skilful works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, 5 and in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work in all manner of workmanship. 6 And I, behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and in the hearts of all that are wise-hearted I have put wisdom, that they may make all that I have commanded thee:

Bezalel is appointed, together with Oholiav to help construct the Mishkan.  The verses, however convey a strange, almost contradictory message about their role.  On the one hand they are commanded to ‘לחשוב מחשבות” – to think thoughts, or perhaps in modern terminology ‘think big’.  There are given the three attributes of בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת- wisdom, understanding and knowledge.  They must employ all means of human wisdom, autonomy of thought and bold understanding to create the unthinkable – a home for a transcendent being in a temporal realm.  Yet just one verse later God states ‘You shall do all that I command you to do’.   So what is the role of these artisans? Are they to be bold creators, or simply submissive instruction followers?  How can we reconcile these seemingly dissonant commands?

The answer I believe is the key to understanding the dilemma as presented by Connor, and other religious critiques today, as well as a paradigm of our religious duty as individuals.

The Mishkan is the place created by man for God.  It is a world where God and man meet, the mortal meets the immortal, the mundane meets the Holy, creativity meets obligation.  Of course man is meant to be creative, not just in an artistic way, but in every area of human endeavour be that business, cognitive development, psychological understanding or scientific research.  Not only is man authorized to be autonomous and creative, but he sanctioned to be so.  However there is also a realm where that creativity and autonomy must be controlled, set in a framework, safeguarded.  That is God’s realm.

Bezalel and Oholiav are described as having three qualities that allow them to create the Mishkan – Chochma, Tevunah and Daat.  These are the same qualities given to Shlomo when building the Temple (Melachim 1 7:14), as well as the traits used by God to create the world:

Proverbs: 3: 19-20

יט  ה”בְּחָכְמָה יָסַד-אָרֶץ;    כּוֹנֵן שָׁמַיִם, בִּתְבוּנָה. בְּדַעְתּוֹ, תְּהוֹמוֹת נִבְקָעוּ;    וּשְׁחָקִים, יִרְעֲפוּ-טָל.

The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens.  By His knowledge the depths were broken up, and the skies drop down the dew.

In order to create the Mishkan, the artists were given the very qualities used by God in creating the world.  In our creativity we are shadowing God, it is a Divine gift, a Godly trait to be creators.  Creativity suggests defiance  of boundaries, contravening norms and non compliance of rules and regulations.  And throughout Parshat Pekudei after every unit we read the words ‘כאשר צוה ה” את משה – They did as God commanded Moshe’.  How can it be that strict adherence to the details and letters of the law can still yield creativity?  The answer I believe, comes both by looking back at the creation story and by a better understanding of who Bezalel was.

Bezalel: The Grandson of Chur and Miriam: A heritage of perspective shifting:

The verse that introduces us to Bezalel describes him as the grandson of Chur.  According to the midrash in Shemot Raba 48:4, Chur was married to Miriam, hence Bezalel was the grandson of Miriam.  Whenever the Midrash exposes family connection, one has to ask what their message is.  What thematic connection do Chazal see between these two people? Miriam as we have noted previously possessed an ability to ‘see’ reality differently,  to expose something ‘underneath’ the surface, she had the ability to see’ beyond’.[7]   Miriam carrying her drum, singing the people to freedom, used her music, song and joy to re-imagine reality, recreate it.  She was perhaps what we call the first ‘chassid’ – joy through music.  What is music – music, poetry, art, they are all means of seeing beneath the surface, uncovering a truth of something that was always there but never truly seen – of channelling reality.

Her grandson Bezalel has her DNA;  he is also an artist, someone who takes an existing command, a structure and interprets it in his own dynamic and creative way.  An artist will continuously face the problem of translating an idea into something tangible/physical. With the Mishkan this question is magnified – how does one take God – the ultimate ‘idea’ and translate His abode into something physical and tangible.  It requires audacity, courage and boldness, all the characteristics of both Miriam and Bezalel.  Ramban exposes another dimension to the appointment of Bezalel.[8]  The generation that left Egypt were slaves, none of whom had any formal training in the arts and perhaps more poignantly, they psychologically felt they were trapped by the limits of slavery.  Bezalel, who is one of the youngest of Am Yisrael, was a child of the exodus.  He has not been exposed to years of slavery, his creative capacity has not been suppressed by slavery and hence he lives with the intuitive feeling of the artist that anything is possible.

Halacha and Creativity:

In recent weeks there has been a flurry of debate surrounding the role of orthodox women within traditional Judaism.  Whilst I do not want to engage in the intricacies of the arguments, I very much hear the fundamentals of the dispute in our Parsha.  For thousands of years we had been a nation in exile, we became docile, subservient and very much trapped by the oppressiveness of the foreign governing bodies.  Innovation and creativity were not a priority.  Since returning to our land in the late nineteenth century and becoming an independent people again, we have begun to flourish, be it in poetry, art, sport, technology or science – creativity is in abundance.  And yet Halachically we are still in many ways existing in a ‘Galut’ mindset.  Modern thinkers such as Rav Soloveitchik, David Hartman, Eliezer Berkovits all emphasised the creativity in the Halachik process.[9]  Halachah is a process that must utilise man’s most innovative, autonomous creativity as Rav Soloveitchik expresses in his essay:

Halakhic man is a man who longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original.  The study of Torah, by definition, means gleaning new, creative insights from the Torah (Hiddushei Torah)…..the dream of creation is the most central idea in the Halakhic consciousness – the idea of the importance of man as a partner with the Almighty in the act of creation, man as creators of worlds.[10]

Yet there also exists within Halachik man a tensions between the framework – a priori principles, and man’s creativeness, as he explains:

The fundamental opposition between the ontological outlooks of homo religiosus and halakhic man is reflected in the very being of these two personalities; it pervades their entire characters.  The tendency toward subjectivity, toward blurring of forms and boundaries, towards the confusion of domains-the lower with the higher, the corporeal with the spiritual, the revealed with the concealed – of homo religiosus and the thrust towards objectivity and lawfulness, toward a firmly established creation, well formed, possessing boundaries, statutes and judgements of halakhic man, mould the images of these two godly individual.[11]

The tension expressed in the pasuk of Bezalel’s appointment between man’s innate creative capacity and adherence to the requisite Divine structure, is exactly the tension we see expressed by Rav Soloveitchik above and we are seeing so evidently today.  There are the ‘traditional’ frameworks and the accepted Halachik definitions that define orthodox women’s relationship to religion and yet there is an increasing need for women who excel in every other area of their lives, to seek more from the religious arena.  There is a search for new horizons, for innovation and reinterpretation.  The change will come, it must come.  But it must also be bought about through a balance between the existing structures and bold initiative, both in Halacha and in paradigm shifts.  To achieve this is no small task and requires both audacity and a great deal of humility –  both aspects of a religious personality.

The very name Bezalel conveys this exact dialectic.  We are all Godly creatures, created in His image, endowed with pure creative potential, and yet we are also בצל-אל -In God’s shadow.  A shadow – grounded, only a limited reflection of the ultimate reality.  What we create is a shadow of God’s creation, and we must always be mindful of the totality of His existence hovering over us.  Creativity within the framework of God’s laws and dictates does not need to lead to subversive results, if done with wisdom, knowledge, audacity, deep understanding and humility it can lead to the greatest innovation possible.[12]


[2] Today we see man as a whole leaning towards Adam 1 existence, as mentioned in a previous post, man has forgotten to hear the call of Adam 2, and instead focuses all his energy of covering up his existential yearnings with tangible success or career building.

[3] See Shemot 35:2-3 – the prohibition of melacha and fire on Shabbat.

[4] See Nechama Leibowitz: New studies in Exodus p471-486

[5] The number seven having special significance in the torah and hence emphasising its importance.

[6] A.J.Heschel: The Sabbath p28

[7] See my article on Parshat Beshalach and Parshat Yitro at  Miriam and the other women in that generation managed to perceive a reality of redemption in the midst of terrible oppression.

[8] See Ramban on Shemot 31:2

[9] The notion of human autonomy in interpreting and creating Halacha is certainly not a new concept.  In Gemara Baba Metzia 59b the famous story of the oven of Achnai is recorded.  There Rabbi Yehoshua together with the rest of the Rabbi’s contest Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion.  Rabbi Eliezer brings all kind of miraculous proofs to show his opinion is correct, including a Bat Kol – a heavenly voice.  In the end the Rabbi’s disregard what he says completely announcing that Halacha is not in heaven.  The entire narrative is geared towards a recognition of man’s God given ability to be a creator in the Halachic process.  What these modern thinkers recognised, quite correctly, was that the Halachic process had for many reasons become stagnant and stringent.  There was and still is an urgent need to claim back the dynamic, creative, interpretative autonomy to the Halachic process.

[10] Rabbi.J.B.Soloveitchik: Halakhic Man p99 (put as a footnote)

[11] Page 66

[12] For an interesting article on the importance of creativeness within frameworks see Nathan Lopez Cardoza: Thoughts to Ponder: Johann Sebastian Bach, Spinoza and Halacha

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