A Religious Approach To Art and the Aesthetic

This weekend, I had the great honor of driving up with some friends to Detroit to visit my friend Boris, who had just had a son. It was pretty awesome, seeing him and his wife, seeing the new baby, etc etc. On the way back, I decided to do something I hadn’t done in a while, which is, listen to my mp3 player the whole time. Music used to be a much bigger part of my life than it is now, and for reasons I can’t entirely explain, my music taste kind of froze when I left my teenage years, and now music is just something I play when I’m doing something else, for the most part. I don’t know why or how this has happened, but it has. But the other day, for a moment, I was back in that mode of really appreciating good music, where I’m listening to a song and just end up repeating it for 5 times in a row because I’m just in awe of how great it is. And that day, that song was Voodoo Child (Slight Return) by Jimi Hendrix. It’s just Jimi Hendrix being awesome, his unbelievable technical skill paired with a real sense of soul behind it, taking a very basic blues song and pushing it farther than anyone had, will, or could possibly ever hope to push it. I found myself needing to play that song, over and over and over again, not because I hadn’t listened to and paid exclusive attention to every searing note played by that guitar, because I had. I listened to it over and over because, this may sound cheesy, there was something about that song that hit me right in my soul, not anything I could put into words necessarily, not something that expressed a particular emotion, like the guitar solo in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Scar Tissue that is the single most perfect expression of “loneliness” I’ve ever heard. No, it was something beyond that, it was a perfection that didn’t need to represent anything, didn’t need to be anything other than itself. What I was hearing was beauty, and that Hendrix song was, and is, friggin’ beautiful, and God put it here for it to be heard and admired by his creations, and that is pretty damn cool of him. And thus I found myself having A Religious Experience listening to Jimi Hendrix in some godforsaken corner of Ohio. 

So I’d like to write about where such an experience, one that finds divine beauty in the humanities and aesthetics, fits within a religious worldview. Classical Jewish sources actually tend to be mostly light on the subject, with a bunch of different kinds of art being halakhically problematic, music also frowned upon, and fiction not really existing so much. This is not to say its entirely negative, as we shall see, particularly with the advent of Chassidus, but there’s a very strong “misnaged” streak, as it were. But its important, to figure out how to make sense of art and the humanities as a religious person, especially considering the unprecedented importance they have in our culture, where people not only have incredible access to music, movies, books, art, and the like, but often use them as a crucial part of their identity, as fans of this band or this TV Show. Additionally, in terms of Modern Orthodox Judaism, much ink has been spilled about reconciling Judaism with Science and Knowledge, but your average Modern Orthodox person comes much more in contact with art and the humanities than the sciences. What often seems to define Modern Orthodoxy is not whether a person is a scientist, but whether they watch movies. So we need to formulate an approach that accounts for that reality, that can ascertain whether there is any validity or basis for appreciating the beauty of a Jimi Hendrix song or not. Is Jimi Hendrix even something I should be listening to instead of Yaakov Shwekey or the Yeshiva Boys Choir or whatever, even if I find both of those inferior and extraordinarily annoying? 

I’m going to start off with this picture my wife took of a picture in the art museum of Berlin:

This is a self-portrait by Rembrandt, of Rembrandt (obviously). 
Now, despite what you may be led to believe by this post, I’m not really an art person, especially an Art capital A person. I appreciate the things I appreciate, I like the music I like, I like the books I like, and I don’t really have much appreciation for the Great Art of Western Civilization or whatever. Perhaps this is to my detriment, I can accept that. So, browsing through an art gallery of the Great Art of Western Civilization was not the most exciting thing in the world for me. But when I saw that they had Rembrandt, well, now I was excited. Because it’s not every day you get to see The Divine Light of Creation in person.
What’s this about Divine Light of Creation? 
Rav Kook, when he was stranded in England during WWI, apparently visited art museums in England, and took quite a liking to Rembrandt. He remarked to one A. Melnikoff:

I really think that Rembrandt was a Tzadik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works, they reminded me of the legend about the creation of light? We are told that when God created light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one and of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous when the Messiah should come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty.”

So, that’s an interesting statement you don’t hear every day, isn’t it? The divine light of creation, which lights up the world from one end to another, too strong for our imperfect reality, hidden away for the Messianic Era, for the righteous, and a 17th century Dutch guy who could paint pretty pictures. What does Rav Kook mean here? So let’s unpack Rav Kook’s statement a bit. What are the qualities of this light? It is strong, obviously, too strong for our imperfect reality, where the wicked might abuse it. It exists before our reality and after it, but only rarely during it, when great people can tap into it. With such a light, you can see from one end of the world to the other.

At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night. On some the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day. This was the degree of prophetic excellence attained by (Moses) the greatest of prophets, to whom God said, “But as for thee, stand thou here by Me” (Deut. v. 31), and of whom it is written “the skin of his face shone,” etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 29). [Some perceive the prophetic flash at long intervals; this is the degree of most prophets.] By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived. This is the case with those of whom we are informed, “They prophesied, and did not prophesy again” (Num. xi. 25). There are some to whom the flashes of lightning appear with varying intervals; others are in the condition of men, whose darkness is illumined not by lightning, but by some kind of crystal or similar stone, or other substances that possess the property of shining during the night; and to them even this small amount of light is not continuous, but now it shines and now it vanishes, as if it were “the flame of the rotating sword.” 

-Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, Introduction

The Rambam writes about our world being like the thick darkness of night, occasionally illuminated by brief flashes of light, which makes things as clear as day. A select few have a continuously recurring light leading to clear vision, some of have frequent flashes of light, and some can get only the occasional glimpse of light. That light, to the Rambam, is the light of prophecy, which is attained by people to varying degrees. People have the ability to grasp divine knowledge that reaches beyond their time, beyond their place, beyond their specific context, to catch a glimpse of the world as it looks illuminated from one end to the other, from creation to the messianic era. What I’m saying is, Rav Kook knew that Rambam, and knew exactly what he was saying when he talked about the divine light of creation; he was referencing a kind of quasi prophecy (without checking the sources quoted here, admittedly, it seems to back me up). Art is a quasi prophecy in that it can tap into timelessness, things whose beauty and humanity transcends the context they emerge from. Prophecy is being able to see the big picture of God’s plan in its complete form. Art is being able to bring back a taste of it. I’ve always liked to say that I’ll admit to Rashi having ruach hakodesh as long as Shakespeare has it too, as both had the unique ability to create something that contained enough of this vision of the world “from end to end” that they struck a nerve in the human condition that endured. With Shakespeare, I like to illustrate this with one of his greatest speeches, Shylock’s speech in A Merchant of Venice. 

He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

This is one of the most stirring speeches ever committed to the page, a challenge in the face of persecution and discrimination, put in terms of the essential unity and shared experiences of all humanity. It is uttered by a bad guy who is a completely unsympathetic character except for this speech. It’s like Shakespeare almost couldn’t help endowing his characters, even his villains, with the kind of essentially human traits that endure long past the time he lived in. 

This brings us to a Pachad Yitzchak I like. Rav Hutner is especially relevant here, because he seems to have had a much deeper appreciation for the humanities and the aesthetic than other Jewish thinkers. He enjoyed going to the opera, wrote poetry in his notebooks (including the text for the popular song “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh”), would occasionally demand a chauffeur stop a drive through the catskills so that he could write a poem based on the views he was getting, who hired full bands for the Purim and Channukah celebrations in his yeshiva. With that, It seems to me that his thought is more appreciative of the creative than other thinkers. But what I really want to get into is his thoughts on song, which I have mentioned previously he observes is primarily sung at the downfall of the wicked. In Pachad Yitzchak Pesach, Maamar 15, he attempts to explain why song is the appropriate response to the downfall of evil. He developes an idea that the power of speech is the connection between the natural soul (nefesh t’vii), involved in the regular function of the body, and the spiritual soul (nefesh ruchani), involved in thought, spirituality, imagination, etc. Ie, it is a physical action that is impossible without intellect, and vice versa. This tie is referred to with the word “peleh”, which appears as a synonym for speech in a number of places. He then relates this to the topic of song:

And one who understands this matter will better understand the concept that song is said upon the downfall of the evil. The regular understanding is that we sing when evil is defeated because we are happy that evil is defeated. Certainly this is correct. But there is further depth to this concept. Because just as there is this concept of “peleh” within a human being, there is also this concept by the ways the universe is run. Also in the ways of the universe there is an idea of a tie between the natural and the spiritual. The way of this world, of evil succeeding, is the natural way of things occurring. The way of the world to come, of evil getting its just desserts, is a spiritual (moral) way of things occurring. So when events occur and we see the downfall of the wicked in this world, that is a connection between the natural order and a higher, more moral order….And now we see the connection between the downfall of the wicked and the singing over it. Because what is song if not speech except the full development and glorification of the power hidden within it? So when evil is defeated in the world, and that connection between the natural order of things and a higher, more moral world is revealed, man also evolves the same aspect within himself. And the power of life contained in speech….girds glory, and song bursts forth. And then it is found that song said by man and the downfall of the wicked go hand in hand”

To Rav Hutner, then, song, and perhaps, by extension, art, is a symbol of the physical world trying to break free of its temporality and grasp transcendence. Which is, when you think about it, quite similar to what religion attempts to do. 

So, back to my Jimi Hendrix Religious Experience, which I only now realize is quite a good pun on his band name. Anyway, what are we to make of it as religious individuals? I would say that what I was experiencing, an appreciation of the sublime beauty of Hendrix’s guitar, was a flash of divine light, by whose illumination one can catch a small glimpse into a harmonious world of the future, where good has defeated evil, where the world is full of the knowledge of God, where Jimi Hendrix is still alive and Justin Bieber isn’t. This is our starting point. Now, we can start discussing which music really does have that element to it, which music does not, and whether any of the Jewish music today can really said to provide such sublime beauty (No.). But, I’ve written enough, and while this is a bit more cluttered than I like, I think there may be an interesting point to be gleaned here. This isn’t a finished product.

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