Thoughts to Ponder Number 58

13 Elul, 5760; September 13, 2000

Surround Yourself with Art and Beauty

A problem in some religious circles is the neglect of recognizing the importance of natural beauty and the need to appreciate its profound impact on life. There is increasing evidence that many devoted religious communities with their impressive commitment to Torah and Mitzvoth no longer stress the need to educate their children about the elegance and grace of beautiful surroundings such as impressive mountains, lakes and forests, flowers, beautiful birds or other creatures. We also witness a decrease in the appreciation of art and music. Little if any time is given to these matters in the religious school systems or in the home. This is a worrisome and unhealthy development. Not only does this contradict the spirit of Judaism but, in fact, it undermines the purpose and meaning of authentic religiosity.

There are several reasons for this. Natural beauty, art and music are there to disturb as is religion. Their purpose is to awaken in people the sense of wonder. While beauty, art and music are there to facilitate that wonder, it is religion that also teaches us how to respond to that wonder. As such religion is a protest against taking the world for granted.

Beauty is unexplainable, and any rationalization of beauty is doomed to fail. This is also true about art. It belongs to a world beyond words. Real art does not reproduce the visible but rather it reveals the invisible. Consequently not even artists are able to explain the inner beauty of the very art they create. Most of the time they are pleasantly shocked by their own creations. They are not able to explain this any better than a plant could explain horticulture. At the same time beauty makes man aware that this confrontation with the ineffable warns him not to fall victim to the simplistic belief that science will give him any insight into our existential existence. As such, natural beauty and art are conducive to religious awakening. And so is music. It is a means of giving form to our inner feelings and consequently to be in touch with the mystery of our inner lives. It is our duty to stand in awe, and this is provided for by all that is beautiful. It was the great sage Samson Raphael Hirsch who was once asked why in his old age he suddenly decided to spend some time in Switzerland. In his humble way he responded, "As an old man, I am afraid that when I will have to appear in front of the Lord of the Universe in the world to come, He will ask me, 'Samson Raphael! Did you see My mountains in Switzerland?' And I will not know what to answer."

The Talmud (Berachoth 57b) adds a second reason: "A beautiful wife, a beautiful dwelling place and beautiful furnishings broaden the mind of man." Probably this statement relates to another remark by the sages, "The world needs both spice dealers and tanners - but blessed is he who is a dealer in spices, and woe unto him whose trade is tanning (with its unpleasant odors) (Pesachim 65a).

Concerning music we are told that "David took the harp and played with his hand and Shaul (first King of Israel) was relieved and well and the bad spirit left him" (Shmuel II, 16:25). Not for nothing are we told that the Temple service was full of music and song. The famous introduction of some of the Tehilim (Psalms) starts with "Lamnatzeach Bin'ginoth" which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch translates as "To Him who grants spiritual victory through the art of music" (Tehilim 4:1).

The sages made most remarkable observations concerning civic beauty. The Torah (Bamidbar 35:5) commands that one should have 1000 ell of untilled land around each city so as to allow for nature to show its beauty, and the Mishna adds that one is allowed to remove all unseemly objects from the vicinity of the city, so as to ensure the pleasing appearance of the landscape (Baba Batra, 2:9).

The calming effect and the expansion of one's own mind and creativity when observing beauty or hearing uplifting music are well known to any sensitive mind and heart. History is full of examples where the creativity of some of the most prolific minds was stifled because their environments were not able to offer them the esthetics required.

It is for this reason that Jewish education should encourage people to study and appreciate natural beauty, art and music. This should be done within the framework of the school and home and emphasis should be given to the religious meaning and not just to the artistic side of these things. Visiting an art museum is therefore of crucial importance.

It is most revealing that the Talmud calls on us to have beautiful furnishings in our homes. While many do not have the financial opportunity to do so, many are able, with a little money, to turn their homes into warm environments. Few are able to have original paintings hanging on their walls or enjoy expensive curtains or carpets. Still technology has provided us with quality reproductions of the greatest masterpieces of world renowned artists. One could frame them and with the focusing of some electric light on them get a most fascinating result. Through some simple flower decorations one can create a pleasant mood in a room. Dressing the table with a clean and colorful table cloth and decorating it with a small but tasteful item will transform the entire room. There are infinite possibilities which each one, according to his or her taste and emotional needs, is able to secure. All that is required is the proper attention and a little creativity. To look at a "Rembrandt" and to have its beauty flowing through one's veins is not only a delight, but, above all, a religious experience that God in His kindness granted His creatures. To deny oneself this opportunity is turning one's back on the Creator. To refuse to listen to a refined piece of music is to close oneself off from life itself. To take a "music-bath" several times a week may be of greater benefit to the soul than a water bath to the body (Oliver Wendell Holmes).

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

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Reproduction of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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