Jews and Art

   J. J. Gross, in a recent Jerusalem Post column, lamented the near-complete absence of American Orthodox Jews from the world of arts and letters. There are few, if any, Orthodox Jewish musicians or artists, novelists or poets, and still fewer parents who would encourage their children to make such an unusual career choice. (Read it at

     Gross, a recent oleh himself (last March), realized this anomaly when he began studying clarinet in Israel, and his instructor wore a kippa, as did many other students. He decries the lack of artistic creativity on the part of Orthodox Jews in America, or even a genuine interest in the arts, and bemoans the high cost of living Jewishly that deprives young Jews of the capacity to follow their muse and instead dispatches most to medicine, law, business, etc. And a shame it is. So why don’t US Orthodox Jews share these passions ?

     In Israel, by contrast, there are schools – even yeshivot – that cater to religious students who are artistically-inclined. There is a Rosh Yeshiva who is an acclaimed novelist (alas, but one). There are conservatories and even a film school for the religious population. The young are even encouraged to pursue (what we would construe as) offbeat careers that enable them to express themselves and uncover latent aptitudes and abilities, thereby enriching both their lives and society itself.

    Gross attributes the American Orthodox reluctance to embrace the arts as stemming from a lack of “courage.”  Herewith is his argument: Clearly there is something else that fundamentally differentiates Israelis from Americans, and Americans who make aliya from those who don’t.
     Economic excuses for avoiding aliya are an anachronism. This country’s economy is booming while America’s is on the wane. The cost of Orthodox living is significantly lower here. The weather is better, the food fresher and health care is universal. Plus, the cost of university tuition is relatively tiny, and the likelihood of on-campus assimilation is nil.
    What then keeps the 95% who do not make aliya stuck in Teaneck and Englewood, Riverdale and the Upper West Side, Flatbush and the Five Towns? They march religiously in the Salute to Israel Parade, send their kids to Bnei Akiva and NCSY, come to Jerusalem for Succot or Pessah, yet insist on staying in a declining America.
   I believe the answer is courage. Diaspora Jews are not blessed with a surfeit of courage. They are geniuses at risk aversion. They choose safety in numbers, safety in professions, safety in neighborhoods, safety in the cars they drive. None ride motorcycles.
    Israelis and American olim have far greater courage – above all, the courage to enlist in the IDF, not to mention the courage to camp out in the forest or undertake a six-month trek in the jungles of South America. By contrast, even younger Diaspora Jews prefer cruises and luxury hotels with three meals a day and round-the-clock tearooms.
     Choosing painting over law, music over medical school, writing over banking takes courage. One chooses an art because it is a passion, not because it comes with a guarantee. The kind of young man who volunteers for Golani or commands a tank is not easily intimidated by the risk of being a poor writer or filmmaker.
     It appears to be a combination of expediency and fear that derails American Orthodox youth from pursuing the arts. We can only wonder at the staggering loss of genius that would enrich us as a people, and make this world a better place.

   Well, now that he personalized it by mentioning Teaneck, I can respond…

    Firstly, for goodness’ sake, Mr. Gross just made aliya last March, not even ten months ago. Could he please wait just a little longer before he begins lecturing American Jews about aliya? I don’t know who he is, how old he is, where he is from, what precluded his aliya until last March, and I recognize that one of the joys of aliya is the freedom to condescend to American Jews. There are some pleasures that are foregone because of aliya, and those deprivations are minimized through indulging the pleasures of the ego and looking down on all others who haven’t made aliya.  But please, decorum itself dictates that there should be a moratorium between the time of aliya and the time of permissible condescension. It is insufficient merely to walk off the plane, clear customs, receive your te’udat zehut, and encounter your first obstacle (or ten) with an Israeli bureaucrat. I would suggest a waiting period of at least one year, maybe two. After all, the recent oleh had the identical character traits of his derided targets – until just a short time ago.

    Secondly, there clearly are Orthodox writers and novelists who have achieved general success (the Kellerman’s, for two), as well as Orthodox painters, artists, architects, etc., although not many. So, too, there are Orthodox classical musicians. Most of those that I know personally are baalei teshuva, who in some cases had to renounce or limit many of their career opportunities because of their commitment to Shabbat. That is the definition of courage, perhaps requiring even more raw courage than traipsing about aimlessly through the Amazon or the Himalayas, and also underscores Gross’ concession that many careers in the arts can neither pay the bills nor are necessarily compatible with Torah observance. There are Orthodox motorcyclists (and jungle hikers and bungee jumpers) – but let us not conflate foolhardiness with courage.

   Thirdly, Gross misses the main point, which is surprising, to say the least, for someone who apparently is enamored with all aspects of Israeli life and has successfully made aliya. Jews can be more prominent in the arts in Israel, and less so (or not at all) in America or the rest of the world, because that is the way it is supposed to be. The Jewish soul can only flourish completely in the land of Israel, both spiritually and artistically. Undoubtedly, he is correct that Jews in the exile have not pursued the arts professionally (except for the occasional band musician), nor produced the poets, painters, composers, etc. for which he longs. But that is because the Jewish soul is constricted outside the land of Israel, and therefore there cannot ever be a full expression of Jewish culture outside the land of Israel.

   One need only glance at the Jewish (i.e., non-Torah Jews) influence on American culture to recognize the truth of this statement. For the most part, neither the Jews of Hollywood nor the celebrated American-Jewish novelists bring any great glory to the world of Torah or to the Jewish people. Their representations of Jews and Jewish life are often awash in ignorance and self-hatred, and too often mired in decadence and debauchery. The exceptions (Robert Avrech, for one) stand out, because they have been mostly successful in bringing the true, inner dimension of Jewish life – or framing universal issues with a uniquely Jewish sensibility – into the public sphere. Bear in mind, though, that there is a limited market in American for Torah “culture,” as opposed to the land of Israel.

    For sure, the Jews of Israel have the capacity to mass market Torah-oriented culture – books, plays, paintings, productions – to a wider and more receptive audience, but only the Jews of Israel are so blessed. As Rav Kook wrote in his letter to the newly-founded Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design (1907, from Letters, 158), Jews in the exile have to concentrate on physical and spiritual survival and cannot indulge in the Jewish creative spirit. But, “one of the clear signs of revival” is the revitalization of “Hebrew art and aesthetics in Israel.” Rav Kook perceived the growth of the arts in Israel as beneficial not only in providing employment to many families, but also because it will “nurture the sensitivity for beauty and purity with which the precious children of Zion are so blessed, and it will uplift many depressed souls, giving them a clear and illuminating view of the beauty of life, nature and work…” (Of course, Rav Kook admonished them that art should be used for noble, not degrading purposes, and that they were only limited by Jewish law in the prohibition of sculpting a complete human face – which they promptly ignored.)

     Furthermore, the Jewish “genius,” it is important to add, is not to be found in the creative impulse but in the moral and intellectual realms. Art never existed in Jewish life for its own sake but only as a tool to stimulate a person’s connection to, or reflections on, the Creator. Art is the spice of life, but Torah is life itself.

     Rav Kook saw it as natural and proper that Jewish arts and creativity should only – could only – flourish in the land of Israel. That is the way it should be, and that is, overwhelmingly so, the way it is. That fact should be celebrated throughout the Jewish world, without the need to in the process belittle the American Orthodox Jew, who will yet ascend to Israel for the most positive and virtuous reasons.




3 responses to “Jews and Art

  1. If you are interested in rav kook and art..then this may be of interest to you

  2. What’s weird here is that Gross completely misses the phenomenon he’s seeing. Off the top of my head, I can think of quite a few young writers who were raised Orthodox. Shalom Auslander, Nathan Englander and Avi Steinberg are three, which would already be a gross over-representation of published authors coming out of the yeshiva system. But what all three also have in common that they are no longer Orthodox.

    It’s not that Orthodox Jews lack the courage to write a novel, it’s that we (even the more modern who accept that novels are a social good) ascribe a negative value to that activity due to the effect it will almost inevitably have on our religious life.

  3. I’ve spent the last week and a half researching visual arts done by Orthodox Jews that still respect the second commandment. On this journey, I have been astounded with the prevalence of Antisemitism on the internet and in books, explaining the Jewish “volkgeist” and its lack for artistic sensitivity.

    Thank you so much for this article. I was just about to change research topics because it has been so discouraging.
    You speak words of wisdom, no doubt from the amount of time and dedication put into study.

    First of all, I’ve found a number of very skilled artists, Adam Rhine being one of my favorites.

    But on a different note, to not rely on the senses, particularly the overly-prized visual sense, is incredibly misunderstood, but a triumph in so many remarkable ways. One thing I found somewhat humorous was an [almost] positive quote by Freud, who didn’t have a lot of nice things to say about anyone or anything, describing the second commandment’s effect on people like this:
    “the prohibition against making an image of God… was a triumph of spirituality over the senses.”

    Thanks again!