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Torah Portion

Home > Torah Portion > Torat Hayim: THE ART OF RELIGION

By: Irwin N. Goldenberg
Department of Adult Jewish Growth

Torat Hayim
Vayak'heil/P'kudei, Exodus 35:1-40:38
Shabbat March 24, 2001 / 29 Adar 5761

Why did the Israelites build such an elaborate Tabernacle? Some condemn this act, saying that something grand was needed to assuage the Israelites' guilt for worshiping the golden calf. Others ask, Could not the treasures that were used for the Tabernacle have been put toward the better purpose of feeding the hungry?

But surely Moses, would not encourage a waste of resources. One of my personal mentors, Rabbi Levi Olan, whom I will paraphrase here, pointed out that Israel needed such a Tabernacle to carry them through the forbidding desert of their lives and to serve as a vision of the beauty that life can and should contain. The chochmat lev-those endowed with a heart of wisdom (translated as "skill")-build Tabernacles that heal those of lev namuch, a "depressed heart."

In the wilderness, the Israelites struggled with depression and hopelessness. Their bodies were battered by the hot, sandy desert wind and their mouths were parched by thirst. They were anxious about their uncertain future. However, when they stood in the Tabernacle, they probably experienced awe, wonder, and mystery to the point of hearing the angels singing, "Holy, holy, holy," just as we do in grand synagogues or cathedrals today. In tabernacles, one recognizes the presence of the beauty of holiness. As Olan said, "Religion is less a theology, philosophy, or code of behavior than it is an art. So Moses was right when he took all possible steps to make sure that the first sanctuary was a thing of beauty. In that rough wilderness, people needed something to open for them the possibilities of a better existence."

This may appear to confirm the Marxist view that "religion is the opiate of the masses." On the contrary, artists like Bezalel, the one mentioned in this week's double portion Vayak'heil-P'kudei, were prophets like Moses, endowed with ru-ach Elohim, a "divine spirit." (Exodus 35:31) They taught commitment to the ethical and holy life, not escape from moral responsibility. In our century especially, artists have been the true prophets, revealing that which we do not wish to see or hear. They possess a special sensitivity to the world around them, whereby the ugliness of a suffering humanity stands in contrast to the beauty that life should be. Thus, as world war hung over Europe, Picasso painted Guernica, an immensely ugly, horrifying work that protested the Nazi bombing of that Spanish town. It foreshadowed and warned of the terror that would engulf the world if the Nazis were permitted to go unchallenged, which they were. (After all, who heeds prophets?) After World War I, Benjamin Britten's War Requiem warned of the growing danger of sacrificing the young on an Abrahamic altar of war. Some of the modern, discordant music reflects our fragmented, discordant lives and points us to tikkun olam, harmonizing life.

The Moseses of our world give life direction through law by appealing to our faculty of reason. The experience of the art of Bezalels through synagogue music, magnificent or simple architecture, and handsomely crafted symbols, such as menorahs and Torah ornaments, speak to our souls. If they are successful, they should arouse us to turn toward holiness. They, like the prayers of our siddur, should inspire us to leave the synagogue with the determination to make our lives and the lives of those around us beautiful, saying with all of our "heart, soul, and might," "O God, send me!"

Questions for Discussion

1. Which contemporary artists intentionally disturb us by representing humanity's ugliness? Are they often regarded as chochmat lev, inspired with a divine spirit? Do they inspire us to work for tikkun olam?

2. Do our synagogues exemplify religion as art? Do our music and visual arts have the potential to inspire a vision of the beauty of holiness, which we call "spirituality"?

Irwin N. Goldenberg has been the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in York, PA, since 1973.

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