What is the proper relationship between creativity and morality?

Placing the words creativity and morality side by side at all might seem unusual or confusing, if not counterintuitive or downright rebellious. And yet it is actually a juxtaposition so well known that we might take it for granted; the relationship between creativity and morality frames the beginning of the Hebrew Bible.

As a story of creation, the opening chapter of the Torah offers an account of how the world began. But normatively—and perhaps more fundamentally—the text emphasizes a link between the act of creation and a distinctly moral sensibility. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that “The question Genesis seeks to answer is not ‘How did the universe come into being?’ but ‘How then shall we live?’”[i] Perhaps, as we shall see, the answer to his first question, about creativity, can reveal answers to the second, about morality. The very first verb—the most primary Divine act—in the whole Torah is “create,” while the creative process that follows is punctuated with God’s assessment that the outcomes are “good.” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz ties creativity to morality through the story of Genesis by citing Halakhta B’drachav, the Rabbinic charge for human beings to walk in God’s ways: “If we are to emulate the ways of G-d then we are asked to create—to become agents of creativity—as an ethical and spiritual necessity.”[ii]

Of course it bears acknowledging at the most general level that we are talking about the creation story of the sacred tradition at the root of the Western moral imagination, after all, so perhaps seeing creativity and morality together should not necessarily be all that surprising. Still, it is important to explicitly recognize that the use of moral language to describe the act of creation, even in the most popular book in world history, is nothing short of revolutionary. Indeed, those thinkers who most famously (or infamously) ran with the idea—from Niccolo Machiavelli, who cited history’s great innovators as his moral exemplars, to Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw all morality in terms of the creation of values—are still considered as perplexing as they are persistently compelling. In any case, the fact that the Western moral canon begins with a creative process establishes a necessary and logical relationship between morality and creativity that carries implications and lessons that ripple throughout the Torah, the Jewish and Western philosophical traditions, and our lives.

There are myriad examples even within the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis that paint a rich picture of a sophisticated and intimate relationship between creative and moral sensibilities. In the creative undertaking itself we see God imposing disciplined separations and ordered diversity on primordial chaos. Certain threads of Jewish mysticism and philosophy imagine God, the Author, contracting to make room for Creation. We see how this contraction, known as tzimtzum, allows for humanity to exercise its mysterious power of free will, having been created in God’s image to partner with the Divine in continuing and completing the creative process. The divine imperative for humanity to create and procreate begins to betray its complexity when Adam and Eve lose access to the Tree of Life after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and thus cognizance of morality leads to the decisive advent of mortality and the consequent necessity for sexual procreation and generational change. Perhaps most poignantly, Cain’s bewildering murder of his younger brother Abel demonstrates the destructive shadow side of the creative potential inherent in our freedom to act, and the difficulty of isolating the choices for which we must be held accountable from the nature and nurture that in a very real sense create us, influencing our development and behavior seemingly independent of our own autonomous decision-making.

All of these examples add their own dimensions to the relationship between creativity and morality, introducing commentary on the skills necessary to innovate with integrity, and the creative seriousness involved in every right action. Subsequent chapters of the Torah will provide opportunities to more fully expound on the seeds of understanding that we find in Parshat Bereishit, and this is only the first of many installments of discussion on our topic. So for now I would like to add a few final points here to more precisely explain my goals for this series of divrei Torah, and what exactly I mean by creativity, morality and the relationship between them.

I use the term creativity here to refer to the skills and sensibilities associated with innovative action, thought and expression in all areas of life. Creativity in this sense is often built upon some sort of generative practice or continually meaningful and inspirational tradition, from musicianship and painting to historiography and hermeneutics. But it is also about the creativity involved in building a relationship, a home, a family, or a career, and generally living our lives with integrity. And as much as this creativity applies to personal life, it also speaks directly to perennial questions of political, organizational, social, and religious life that we will explore as well.

While the Torah certainly honors and addresses spontaneous “eureka” moments of creative intuition and inspiration, it also tends to assume that our ability to cultivate, recognize and fully take advantage of such moments is most often based on rigorous and sustained practice and discipline. In this sense the Torah is concerned less with whimsical ventures to “think outside the box” than with creativity that is more often actually unlocked by commitments and constraints. Just as the Creator is the Master of the universe in the Hebrew Bible, the tradition tends to conceive of genuinely successful creativity as being based most often on mastery. And as a fundamentally normative document, the Torah certainly does not take the relativist stance that all creative output is good and beautiful, even if its teachings represent a uniquely broad understanding of how to define creativity.

Considering creativity in this sense, one may begin to see how it fuses with morality—that is, the skills and sensibilities associated with doing what is right. As I have suggested, on its face our question about the proper relationship between creativity and morality evokes in many of us a sense of precarious if intriguing tension at best, and of jarring incongruence at worst. It is simple enough to say that a creative person should be moral. The notion that a moral person should be creative is a little more complicated. While it might feel obvious to some that creativity writ large is something good, others would argue that it is not necessarily good, and probably just as—if not more—likely to be bad. Some would insist that morality requires a strong imagination, and still others might find it a dubious or even threatening gamble to imagine that morality should be opened up to the creative impulse at all. Without going any further we can safely establish that the relationship is complex. These writings aim to suggest that the healthiest and most proper relationship between creativity and morality is actually a quite intimate one.

Understanding the creative process as it appears throughout the Jewish tradition can help us to be better people, and teach us that deep moral development can make our lives works of art. The Torah goes beyond the sort of middle-ground compromise between creativity and morality that ultimately sees the two as fundamentally opposing concepts (i.e. holding a belief in the importance of innovation in tension with reverence for a strict normative tradition). From the patriarchs and matriarchs, to the kings, priests and prophets—from creation and revelation to sovereignty and exile—the Torah is unique in the inextricable bonds that it establishes between what it means to be creative and what it means to be moral.

I hope these essays serve as an in-depth exploration of the Torah’s unique perspective that the difficulties of creating well align uncannily with the challenges of doing what is right. In the words of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “The peak of religious ethical perfection to which Judaism aspires is man as creator.”[iii] Because all actions carry moral weight and take place in a given moment on the cutting edge of life and time, doing what is right must be understood as a creative accomplishment. And at the point where our approaches to creativity and morality fully integrate, we face the most important questions about how to live—and then we live out answers to them, whether we are ready or not.

In a broader sense, over the course of the next year or so of these installments, my goal is to demonstrate that creativity and morality ultimately come together in Jewish consciousness through a pursuit of integrity that is at the root of both. Without going too deep into that spoiler now, I want to admit that this endeavor is a personal test of translating theory into practice; writing these essays challenges my own sense of integrity on many levels. I am not a rabbi, an artist, a philosopher, or a psychologist. I am not a spouse, a parent or even a sibling. I realize that the very premise of this project calls into question my credibility, and with my limited background in Jewish education, political theory and consulting, I will be citing people, experiences and examples about which I do not claim any level of particularly expert knowledge.

But I believe that this investigation is important. The state of the world and the role of religion in the news today call for an earnest look into what the Jewish tradition has to say about living well—freely and responsibly, with creative and moral integrity. So I am asking everyone who reads these pieces to join with me in taking the kind of leap of faith that is at the core of any creative or moral act. In return I offer the solemn promise to do my best to recognize before whom I stand, and write for the sake of Torah alone.

Shabbat Shalom.


[i] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Genesis of Justice,” Covenant & Conversation 5775 on Ethics (Oct. 18, 2014)

[ii] Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, “Embracing the Lost Art of Creativity,” The Jewish Week, (Nov. 11, 2011) <http://www.thejewishweek.com/features/street_torah/embracing_lost_art_creativity>

[iii] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Jerusalem: Sefer Ve Sefel, 2005), p. 101.