Needed: Majestic mountains, Rembrandt and music

It is time for the religious community to put this matter back on its agenda.

July 14, 2016 15:02
Ultra-orthodox Jews

Ultra-orthodox boys study in school. The author says it’s imperative to foster an appreciation for beauty in nature, music and art in our education systems. (photo credit: REUTERS)

So many people fail to appreciate the profound and positive impact that nature’s beauty can have on the lives of those who take the time to marvel at it. Even many devout individuals, while impressive in their commitment to Torah and mitzvot, do not instill in their children a sense of wonderment at the elegance and grace found in God’s world: majestic mountains, lakes, forests, flowers, colorful birds, and so much more.

Parallel to this phenomenon, we also witness a widespread lack of appreciation for art and music. Religious school systems give little if any consideration to these matters, and they are not emphasized in most observant homes. This is a worrisome development, as this apathy toward aesthetics contradicts, in many ways, the very spirit of authentic Judaism.

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NATURAL BEAUTY, art and music exist to disturb our complacency. Their purpose is to awaken in us a sense of wonder. And while beauty, art and music facilitate that wonder, the role of religion is to provide us with the means to respond to it. Artistic expression and religious observance are both forms of protest against taking the world for granted.

The perception of objects as beautiful is an inexplicable phenomenon, and any attempts to rationalize the concept of beauty will be doomed to fail. The same is true for musings on the definition of art, which belongs to a world beyond words.

Real art does not reproduce the visible but rather reveals the invisible.

This failure of the rational mind to categorize and define puts man in direct confrontation with the ineffable; it warns him not to fall victim to the simplistic belief that science can give him insight into the mystery of our existence. Natural beauty and art can be conducive to religious awakening.

Music, too, in its most exalted forms, is a means of giving structure to our inner feelings, and can therefore help us get in touch with the mysteries of our internal worlds. Man is charged with the duty to stand in awe of God’s creation. Beauty, then, is one of God’s incredible kindnesses to us, as it renders our task both easy and immensely pleasurable.

The Talmud adds a dimension to our understanding of the role and importance of aesthetics: “Three things grant a man serenity of mind: a beautiful dwelling, a beautiful wife and beautiful furnishings” (Brachot 57b). Probably this statement relates to another remark by the Sages: “The world cannot exist without perfumers and tanners; happy is he who deals in perfumes, and woe to him whose trade is tanning [because of the unpleasant odors produced in the tanning process]” (Pessahim 65a).

Concerning music, we are told that “David would take the harp and play it with his hand, and Saul [the first king of Israel] would be relieved and feel well, and the bad spirit would depart from him” (I Samuel 16:23). Furthermore, the Sages must have had good reason to inform us that the Temple service involved a choir of Levites who filled God’s House with otherworldly music and song. Many chapters of Psalms begin with the phrase “Lamenatze’ah b’neginot,” – which 19th century Orthodox leader Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch translates as “To Him who grants spiritual victory through the art of music” (Psalms 4:1).

The Sages made a number of remarkable observations concerning beauty. The Torah commands the urban planners in Israel to leave 1,000 cubits of untilled land around each of the cities to be given to the Levites (Numbers 35:4), allowing nature to manifest its beauty. The Sages further mandate that one must remove all unseemly objects and even not plant trees in the immediate vicinity of a city, to ensure that the landscape will always be pleasing (Bava Batra 24b-25a).

BEAUTY – WHETHER in nature, art or music – can calm us when we are stressed, or inspire our creativity and spur us on to great accomplishments. Jewish educators should encourage our children to study and appreciate natural beauty, art and music. This should be done within the framework of the school and home, with emphasis on the religious significance of the aesthetic experience. With the proper perspective, visiting an art museum or taking a walk in the woods can effect real spiritual growth.

It is revealing that the Talmud calls on us to have beautiful furnishings in our homes. While many people do not have the financial means to spend on interior design, many are able, with less money, to make their homes warm and inviting.

All that is required is a bit of thought and creativity. To look at a Rembrandt and allow its beauty to wash over one’s mind is not just a sensory delight but a religious experience that God, in His kindness and wisdom, has granted His creatures.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his From Optimism to Hope, tells the following story.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the famous mystic and philosopher who became the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, was stranded in London during the First World War. As often as he could, he would visit the National Gallery and look at its Rembrandts. On one such occasion, Kook made a striking observation.

The Torah states that God created light on the first day, while He created the sun and the moon only on the fourth day! What, then, was the source of light on day one? To this, the Sages reply that the first light was a special Divine radiance that God set aside as a gift for the righteous in the world to come (see Rashi on Genesis 1:4). Kook commented that he was certain God granted some of that light to Rembrandt.

Today we are confronted with many artists and musicians whose only goal – motivated largely by a lack of real talent – is to shock. Consequently, their popularity will fade away, since each of their pieces can only shock us once. This does not excuse us, however, from completely ignoring the beauty that does exist within the world of art and music. To refuse to listen to a refined piece of music is to close oneself off from one of the most sublime experiences our world has to offer.

The following suggestion is attributed to American author and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons, and you will find that it is to the soul what the water bath is to the body.”

It is time for the religious community to put this matter back on its agenda.

The writer is the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, the author of many books, and an international lecturer.

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