Akiva Shtisel, Betzalel, and Developing Our Creative Instincts

Thursday’s NY Times recommended an unlikely show that they deemed “bingeworthy.”  The show is Shtisel.  The protagonist of the show is Akiva, a young creative man and aspiring artist who struggles amidst the strictures of strictures of the haredi community in which he lives. But this show is not a remake of Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev. Akiva has no desire to leave his community, he has a deep sense of responsibility to it in fact as well as deep commitment to his family and his artistic passions. I won’t spoil any of the major plot points for those of you who haven’t seen it yet but in the first season he meets an acclaimed Hassidic artist, Fuchs, who finds Akiva to his studio. Akiva goes eagerly hoping to study under Fuchs’s tutelage, but when he arrives, the acclaimed artist explains that he doesn’t actually paint any pictures.  Instead, he commissions other artists to work for him.  He provides them with photographs or Jewish-themed pictures, and has them meticulously copy every element perfectly.  Once the commissioned product is finished, Fuchs signs his name to it and sells it to unsuspecting tourists searching for authentic Jewish art. Fuchs the acclaimed “artist” offers Akiva the opportunity to copy paintings for him to sign. And Akiva can’t do it.  Akiva can only paint, “from the heart.”

Our Torah reading this morning introduced us to the paradigmatic Jewish artist: Betzalel.  When the early Zionists wished to open a school of art in Israel, they called it Betzalel.  But why did God choose Betzalel?  And why has Betzalel become synonymous with Jewish art?

The gemara in Masechet Brachot offers one answer, noting the difference between the instructions for building the Mishkan found in Parashat Terumah and the ones found in next week’s parsha, Vayakhel.

אמר רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר רבי יונתן בצלאל על שם חכמתו נקרא בשעה שאמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה לך אמור לו לבצלאל עשה לי משכן ארון וכלים הלך משה והפך ואמר לו עשה ארון וכלים ומשכן אמר לו משה רבינו מנהגו של עולם אדם בונה בית ואחר כך מכניס לתוכו כלים ואתה אומר עשה לי ארון וכלים ומשכן כלים שאני עושה להיכן אכניסם שמא כך אמר לך הקדוש ברוך הוא עשה משכן ארון וכלים אמר לו שמא בצל אל היית וידע

Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Johanan: Bezalel was so called on account of his wisdom. At the time when the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses; Go and tell Bezalel to make me a tabernacle, an ark and vessels,  Moses went and reversed the order, saying, Make an ark and vessels and a tabernacle. Bezalel said to him: Moses, our Teacher, as a rule a man first builds a house and then brings vessels into it; but you say, Make me an ark and vessels and a tabernacle. Where shall I put the vessels that I am to make? Can it be that the Holy One, blessed be He, said to you, Make a tabernacle, an ark and vessels? Moses replied: Perhaps you were in the shadow of God and knew!

According to the midrash, Bezalel displays his profound wisdom not in the actual work he does, but rather in the planning and the order of the implementation. But the Midrash only gets at how Bezalel was a brilliant organizer, a skilled engineer, at most, a gifted artisan.  But not why he was a great, creative artist.

The gemara then quotes a second midrash:

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב יודע היה בצלאל לצרף אותיות שנבראו בהן שמים וארץ כתיב הכא וימלא אתו רוח אלהים בחכמה ובתבונה ובדעת וכתיב התם ה׳ בחכמה יסד ארץ כונן שמים בתבונה וכתיב בדעתו תהומות נבקעו

Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: Bezalel knew how to combine the letters by which the heavens and earth were created.  It is written here, And He hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom and in understanding, and in knowledge, and it is written elsewhere, The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens, and it is also written, By His knowledge the Only depths were broken up.

Through this second midrash, quoting verses from our Torah portion, we see Betzalel’s greatness.  He perceived the profundities of God’s creation.  His creativity imitated God’s creativity when He did the ultimate creative act in creating the world, as is noted by the parallel language used regarding Betzalel’s creativity and God’s.  Rashi, in his comments to the Torah, explains that chochmah, tevunah, and da’at refer to three different components of Betzalel’s ability:

חכמה. מַה שֶּׁאָדָם שׁוֹמֵעַ מֵאֲחֵרִים וְלָמֵד .תבונה. מֵבִין דָּבָר מִלִּבּוֹ מִתּוֹךְ דְּבָרִים שֶׁלָּמַד.  דעת. רוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ:

(1) חכמה WISDOM refers to one’s capacity for listening to and learning from others

In order to be creative in something – music, art, any area of creativity, we must first practice through mimicking those who are creative geniuses and experts.  Mozart was known as a child prodigy – he supposedly started composing at age 4!  But those early compositions- they are really just arrangements of the works of other composers.  He learned how to compose by copying others.  The famed artist Marc Chagall recounted how he discovered his passion and talent for art. In school, he noticed a fellow student drawing. Chagall wrote that there was no art of any kind in his family’s home and the concept was totally alien to him. When Chagall asked the schoolmate how he learned to draw, his friend replied, “Go and find a book in the library, choose any picture you like, and just copy it”. He soon began copying images from books and found the experience so rewarding he then decided he wanted to become an artist.  And anyone who’s attempted to learn how to play an instrument, especially improvise solos: the first step is to learn how to play the solos of others.  And hopefully that leads to the second component:

(2) תבונה UNDERSTANDING refers to using what we’ve learned and forming our own understanding, our own ideas.

Tvuna means beginning to do it on your own.  We become great through developing our own take on what we’ve learned, and then eventually creating our own creations.  That’s what Mozart and Chagall did later on and that’s when they became creative geniuses.  And finally…

(3) דעת means holy inspiration. There is still an element of raw, God-given talent needed.  Mozart and Chagall and Betzalel and Akiva Shtisel couldn’t do anything without that innate talent.  We all have talents and God-given gifts that we can tap into – be they in the creative arts, business, legal thinking, science, sports, you name it.  We have to recognize the divine gift that each of us has, and then build on it using Chochma, learning from others, and tvuna, developing it into our own.

And that is how Betzalel became a model for all Jewish artists – why his name was chosen for the Art school, and why he has become so associated with art in our minds.  And in Shtisel, Fuchs’s method stopped short.  He knew someone with talent could copy perfectly, but he never pushed his artists to use Tvuna, to develop their own creativity.  And maybe Akiva Shtisel was jumping too quickly into Tvuna before Chochma – before learning a craft with precision.  Incorporating these three components, as Betzalel did, is what allows us to properly, successfully, and effectively develop our talents and bring out our creativity.  Just as God is the Creator, we too create, and by doing it in this way – with Chochma, Tvuna, and Da’at, we thus fulfill the mitzvah of והלכת בדרכיו, imitating God, and we become active participants and partners with Him in creation.

About the Author
Roy Feldman is Rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob in Albany, New York. Prior to that, he was Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City and taught Judaic studies at the Ramaz Upper School. He has studied at and holds degrees from Yeshivat Petach Tikva, Columbia University, and Yeshiva University. Rabbi Feldman believes that a rabbi’s primary role in the twenty-first century is to articulate, embody, and exemplify the reasons why traditional Judaism remains relevant today.