Parashat Terumah: Art and religion

Beauty also inspires powerful religious emotions which are sometimes difficult to express.

 BEAUTY IS fleeting. (photo credit: Drew Dizzy Graham/Unsplash)
BEAUTY IS fleeting.
(photo credit: Drew Dizzy Graham/Unsplash)

Parashat Terumah showcases the elaborate craftsmanship and artisanship on display during the construction of the mishkan.

Ornate fabrics, precious metals and resplendent yarns were all spun into an artistic masterpiece. Engineers and artisans, carpenters and seamstresses all brought their creative talents to this lofty project. Human creativity and aesthetic sensibility were indispensable in the crafting of a house for God. 

What role do art and beauty play within religion? Can aesthetics and physical beauty be merged with piety and devotion? Does art pose potential hazards for religion? Why does Judaism appear to treat visual arts with ambivalence? 

ANY RENDEZVOUS with God transitions us to a different realm – beyond human experience and beyond the bleakness of our ordinary world. To stand before God, we must fashion a space of majesty and grandeur. With imagination and creativity, we hope to construct a grander place to meet God. By upholstering our religious “space” with beauty and by decorating it with art, we create a “higher ground” of splendor and majesty upon which this rendezvous can occur. 

Without beauty, standing before God can become a listless experience. Beauty creates gravitas, and art infuses marvel. 

 DOES GOD exist, and if so,  how does He interface with the universe?  (credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash) DOES GOD exist, and if so, how does He interface with the universe? (credit: (Davide Cantelli/Unsplash)

Beauty also inspires powerful religious emotions which are sometimes difficult to express. Often, religious emotions run too deep to be accurately verbalized. Viscerally, we sense a stream of emotions, but they remain inchoate and unspoken. Art and beauty can help elicit these deeper sentiments and infuse religion with strength and spirit. 

In addition to evoking “silent” emotions, art also captures the multilayered emotions of religious experience.

Words are often one-dimensional and express specific emotions. By capturing a specific emotion, words may exclude contrary emotions. For example, the word “happy” describes the emotion of joy but excludes the opposing emotion of sadness. 

However, religious emotions are rarely one-dimensional. For example, we often feel both confident and insecure about our faith. We feel elated by religious success but also guilty at our failures. We crave a relationship with God, but we also fear Him. We embrace a life of commandments, just as we yearn to be free. On the High Holy Days we feel at once triumphant and frightened. Authentic religious experience is often characterized by paradox. Our relationship with God is so different, and we are so dissimilar from Him that it is only natural that we “sense” paradoxical emotions. Words do not do justice to these “dualisms.” 

Art is a different story. Art can provide a “voice” or an expression for many different and even conflicting emotions. Art doesn’t limit us to a particular emotion but expresses a kaleidoscope of different colors and of different feelings. Sometimes it is art that best expresses the rich and manifold layers of religion. 

Finally, art enables a more collective religious experience. Art is beheld by groups of people – even as each individual interprets that art differently. Standing together in a beautiful synagogue, we bond around the ambience of prayer. Lighting an exquisite menorah, we jointly appreciate its beauty, threading our common joy. Art bonds our collective religious experience. 

ALONGSIDE THESE enrichments of religion, art also poses several hazards to religion. The religious desire to discover God can, unintentionally, lead to a humanization of God. Making God more humanlike makes him more familiar and identifiable. Yet, any attempt to even slightly humanize God is blasphemous and a corruption of the pure monotheism we have proclaimed for centuries. Employing art for religion runs the risk of associating visual images with a nonphysical and unfathomable God. This concern is precisely why Jewish law strictly regulates artistic representations of any item that can be “mis-associated” with God – such as planets and humans. 

Interestingly, though Jewish law is predisposed against visual arts, it is more embracing of music. Choral music accompanied by human song was an essential element of the Temple ceremonies. Visual arts are more “coarse” forms of expression; they are more direct and leave less room for personal interpretation. By contrast, music is far more abstract, inviting the listener to provide interpretation and personalization. Art in religion is less sanctioned because it is less elegant, compared to the refined fluidity of music. 

Music possesses an additional advantage over visual art: music enters our ears and literally penetrates into our souls, while visual art may not infiltrate as deeply into our identities. For these reasons, consistently, Jewish law carefully restricts visual arts while it strongly embraces music.

Can art become too intoxicating? Too much emphasis upon art can fixate our imaginations on beauty and aesthetics. Aren’t we meant to look beyond beauty toward moral and spiritual energy? Should we be more excited when viewing a beautiful painting or when viewing a mother caring for a child or a younger person assisting an elderly person? Judaism is primarily a religion of ideas, not of optics. Art may shift our attention away from the world of ideas while it locks our imagination onto physical appearances. 

Beauty is fleeting. It catches our eyes, lifts our emotions and stirs our imagination. But it passes. Too much immersion in art may imprison us in the world of transience at the cost of eternity. All physical forms of this world – as pleasant as they appear and as much as they enchant us – are transitory and fleeting. The beauty of this world wilts with every passing moment. Beauty leaps into our imagination and arouses our delight, but ultimately it passes into extinction. 

Humans are meant to occupy a world of eternity – the ideas we represent and the endless mission we advance. Art may incarcerate us in a world that is ephemeral, rather than thrusting us into a world that is eternal.

Art and beauty rouse our imaginations, lift our spirits and evoke deep and unspoken emotions. They are vital components of a vibrant and lush religious experience. However, too much emphasis upon religious art risks the humanization of God and fastens us to a fading world of appearances. 

As opposed to images, ideas liberate our imaginations and help us soar above the very limited world that our retina perceives. 

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.