For the week ending 4 December 2004 / 21 Kislev 5765

Artists of the Soul

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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All of us experience moments of poetry.

They may come from events in our personal lives the re-uniting of long-lost family, a birth, a death. Or these moments of inspiration may spring from this world of teeming splendor, from our sense of joy and wonder at the creation. Some of us, however, are not content to leave those moments of inspiration in the realm of the intangible. We feel the need to give them a physical existence, to immortalize them, or better, to "mortalize" them in words, in song, in paint, or as a photograph.

And once we have made this commitment to clothe our inspiration with earthly garb, there comes the difficult and frustrating process of wrestling with stubborn charcoal and canvas, obdurate gouache, obstinate film and chemicals, to say nothing of the intractable depths of Photoshop[1].

View from Lifta towards the tomb of Samuel the prophet 2004

Art is inspiration wrestling with constriction, the constriction of the physical doing battle with the idea. For in whichever medium the artist chooses to clothe his muse, he must struggle with the characteristics and the limitations of that medium. After all, he is trying to coax that which is beyond the physical to reside within the physical. Its no wonder then that good art is rare.

However, without this struggle of vision-constricted-through-media, there is no art; the mind can dance, but there is no dancing partner. Art exists as a function of constriction, not in spite of it. That dance of the mind and spirit with paper and paint, that exquisite tension between the material and the ephemeral, is where art lives and breathes. Just as a flute only produces music by the constriction of breath through a metal pipe, and without that constriction, that limitation, there is no music, so all the plastic arts rely on the celebration of limits.

And, ironically, the more constricting the medium, the more poetic the product. To this day, black and white photographs, limited to differing shades and contrasts of light and dark, are esteemed as more artistic than less limited color photographs[2].

"In the image of G-d, He created him.[3]" This verse in the Torah is often misunderstood as meaning that Judaism believes in an anthropomorphic G-d; that G-d has arms, feet, a head and a back. Obviously this cannot be a correct understanding. G-d is a non-physical, non-spiritual Entity of whose essence we can ultimately know nothing. However, whatever ends up in this world as a hand is but the lowest incarnation of something that starts off at the highest level as an aspect of G-ds interface with His creation. Thus, to the extent that it is possible, G-d gives us the ability to know Him from knowing ourselves. As it says in the book of Job, "From my flesh, I will see G-d.[4]" Not only does this mean that by reflecting on the miraculous nature of the body a person can arrive at a belief in a Creator (for the human body is such a complex and brilliant feat of engineering that Darwin himself despaired of his "Origin of Species" when confronted with the human eye), but the fact that G-d created us in His image means that by introspecting on the nature of who we are, we can understand something about G-d.

Thus mans ability to create, the ability to take the material world and make it speak the language of emotion, of inspiration, must be the most distant reflection of some characteristic of G-d. In other words, the fact that art exists reveals some aspect of the Divine.

What is that aspect?

Jewish mystical sources teach that when G-d created the universe, He "constricted Himself" to allow the appearance of something other than Himself. This concept is called tzimtzum - literally "constriction."[5] In other words, this world and everything in it is G-ds Work of Art. It is the place where He constricted His Inspiration by tzimtzum to produce a physical incarnation of His Will the universe. The ultimate Artist is G-d. However, when an artist of flesh and blood paints a picture on a wall, he cannot infuse his creation with a living spirit, with a soul, innards and intestines. An earthly artist can only create a static world. Show me an artist whose paintings can multiply and proliferate or a playwright whose characters have free choice to make decisions that will influence the course of the play![6]

The ultimate Artist is G-d. G-ds artworks move and breathe. His creations are not only alive, but they generate life.[7]

The Talmud says that "if you never saw the Second Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), you never saw a beautiful building in your life.[8]" The Beit HaMikdash was called the "eye of the world." The eye is a physical organ but it receives something that is about as non-physical as you can get - light. The eye is the gateway to a non-physical existence called light. The Beit Hamikdash was called "the eye of the world" because it was the portal for the Light. The Beit HaMikdash was the most beautiful building not because its of its dimensions and proportions or its finishes but because it represented the tzimtzum of Hashem in this world. "what house could you build me and what place could be My resting place?[9]"

G-d constricted Himself to allow the existence of the universe. This act of tzimtzum was the first and greatest artwork. As we are created "in the image of G-d", it must be then that we possess a parallel ability in earthly terms. One aspect we have already noted - the universe is G-ds work of art. However, there is more.

Chanuka is the festival that contrasts the artists of the body with the artists of the soul. If the Greeks "wrote the book" on the art of the physical, the Jews are still learning the Book of the Soul.

The Greek view of Judaism goes like this: "How restrictive! You cant eat scampi. You have to pray at certain prescribed times. You must eat at certain times and fast at others. You cant gossip. You cant enjoy the pleasure of the looking at the human body. You cant even pick up a telephone on Saturday." (Thank G-d!) The life of a Jew is brim full of constrictions and restrictions. It is these very restrictions, however, that allow our souls to sing. G-d put into this world a mystical song. It is called the Torah. The Torah is the score, the notes and semibrieves of existence. The Torah allows us to turn this world into art. The mitzvot are the raw material of the artist of the soul. They restrict us but they are the paint and canvas that give us the power to make the physical world speak in the language of the spirit. They are the media through which we create the ultimate art that can exist, because they allow us to form a partnership with the Ultimate Artist in His ultimate artwork.

They are the tools of the artist of the soul.


  1. And for the photographer, apart from these basic material constrictions, he has another level of constraint to deal with: As Edward Steichen said, "Every other artist begins with a blank canvas, a piece of paper...the photographer begins with the finished product." He must coax from this world a spirit that is reluctant to epitomize for his lens. The photographer-as-artist tries to make visible the invisible - "to make seen what without you might never have been seen." (Robert Bresson) How many pairs of boots are worn out, how many hundreds of boring negatives are exposed until we are blessed with that decisive moment!
  2. This could be one reason that photographs are themselves considered less artistically worthy than painting, because they are closer to reality and less restricted by the medium.
  3. Bereshet (Genesis) 1:27
  4. Iyov (Job) 19:26
  5. Needless to say, a true understanding of this concept is far beyond our grasp. It can only be understood properly by the greatest and holiest of each generation.
  6. Luigi Pirandellos "Six Characters In Search Of An Author" toys with this idea. However, in reality we are still watching Six Actors in Search Of A Job.
  7. Berachot 10a
  8. Bava Batra 4a.
  9. Yishayahu 66:1

The View From Lifta

Why does the light playing

on this particular patch of grass

touch my heart?

What makes it

the essential patch of grass,

the patch of grass?

Why do I need to make a photograph of it?

Or the clouds.

What are the unspoken messages

of those great candyfloss giants

tiptoeing across the night sky?

What of the dust rising

from the distantmost turn of the road

on its way

to the tomb of Samuel the Prophet?

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