Torah and Veda are two ancient sources of spirituality still vibrant today. Torah is conveyed through the sacred language of Hebrew and Veda is conveyed through the sacred language of Sanskrit. The focus here is on meditation, mysticism, philosophy, psychology and the underlying spirituality that has been incorporated into religions, and not as much on the religions themselves. Your comments and posts are welcome.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Beauty of Holiness v The Holiness of Beauty

At the suggestion of a friend, I have been studying the weekly D’var Torah (commentaries on Torah portions) published by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. You can access these at www.chiefrabbi.org. A recent entry on the portion Vayakhel stirred the following response from me.

In the context of Bezalel’s work on the Ark and Mishkan, the Rabbi speaks of the tradition of art within Judaism and makes a distinction as follows: “Religious art is never ‘art for art’s sake’. Unlike secular art, it points to something beyond itself.” Shortly thereafter, he concludes as follows: “The Greeks believed in the holiness of beauty …Jews believed in the opposite: hadrat kodesh (Ps29:2), the beauty of holiness. Art in Judaism always has a spiritual purpose: to make us aware of the universe as a work of art, testifying to the supreme Artist, G-d himself.”

I have always had difficulty in drawing these lines between the sacred and mundane/secular, the sacred and profane. I have also had difficulty with the tendency of religious Jewish thinkers, both contemporary and historical, to portray Judaism as superior in contrast to another culture, people, ethnic group, whatever. It seems to me the distinction the Rabbi is rather emphatically making is much more subtle to the point of almost being a distinction without a difference. Isn’t it part of a spiritual life to cultivate the perspective to regard everything as sacred, as everything emanates from the Divine? This is not to say there is no difference between special spiritually charged rituals or sites. A hard-boiled egg sitting on a Seder plate may rightfully be regarded differently than a hard-boiled egg sitting on your morning breakfast plate. Going to the bathroom involves a different quality of activity than approaching the bimah. But to me, these are just varying degrees of sacredness, and I wouldn’t make such a bright-line distinction between what is sacred and religious, and what is not.

I am a great believer in art for art’s sake, because I believe that any truly inspiring art, even what the Rabbi would probably consider “secular”, originates from Divine inspiration and points to it. I cannot think of any art that does not point to something beyond itself; I think that is inherent in its definition. If a “secular” artist paints a still life of a bowl of fruit and titles it simply “Bowl of Fruit”, is that any less inspiring than a comparable still life drawn by a Torah scholar that is entitled “Bowl of Fruit as a Depiction of Some of G-d’s Many Wondrous Creations for the Benefit of His Children”? I think they both contain the same message. Any still life worth looking at carries this message inherently. To me, any kind of art exists for the very purpose of drawing attention to the unique and wondrous qualities of what is being portrayed, to make us pay proper attention and homage especially to what we may usually regard as merely a mundane subject or object, to call our attention to the awesomeness of creation, and thus it is inherently sacred, whether it be deemed the holiness of beauty or the beauty of holiness.

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