So many people fail to appreciate the profound and positive impact that nature’s beauty can have on the lives of those who take the time to marvel at it. Even many devout individuals, while impressive in their commitment to Torah and mitzvot, do not instill in their children a sense of wonderment at the elegance and grace found in God’s world: majestic mountains, lakes, forests, flowers, colorful birds, and so much more. Parallel to this phenomenon, we also witness a widespread lack of appreciation for art and music. Religious school systems give little if any consideration to these matters, and they are not emphasized in most observant homes. This is a worrisome development, as this apathy toward aesthetics contradicts, in many ways, the very spirit of authentic Judaism.
Natural beauty, art, and music exist to disturb our complacency. Their purpose is to awaken in us a sense of wonder. And while beauty, art, and music facilitate that wonder, the role of religion is to provide us with the means to respond to it.
Artistic expression and religious observance are both forms of protest against taking the world for granted. The perception of objects as beautiful is an inexplicable phenomenon, and any attempts to rationalize the concept of beauty will be doomed to fail. The same is true for musings on the definition of art, which belongs to a world beyond words. Real art does not reproduce the visible but rather reveals the invisible. Consequently, not even artists are able to explain the beauty that resides within their creations. In fact, good artists are usually shocked by the work they produce. In general, they cannot explain their art any more than a plant can explain horticulture. This failure of the rational mind to categorize and define puts man in direct confrontation with the ineffable, and warns him not to fall victim to the simplistic belief that science can give him any insight into the mystery of our existence. Thus, natural beauty and art can be conducive to religious awakening.
Music, too, in its most exalted forms, is a means of giving structure to our inner feelings, and can therefore help us get in touch with the mysteries of our internal worlds. Man is charged with the duty to stand in awe of God’s creation. Beauty, then, is one of God’s incredible kindnesses to us, as it renders our task both easy and immensely pleasurable.
A student once asked the great Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch why in his old age he suddenly decided to spend some time in Switzerland. In his humble way, Rabbi Hirsch 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”. (1)
The Talmud adds another dimension to our understanding of the role and importance of aesthetics: “Three things grant a man serenity of mind: a beautiful dwelling, a beautiful wife, and beautiful furnishings”. (2) Probably this statement relates to another remark by the sages: “The world cannot exist without perfumers and tanners; happy is he who deals in perfumes, and woe to him whose trade is tanning [because of the unpleasant odors produced in the tanning process]”. (3)
Concerning music, we are told that “David would take the harp and play it with his hand, and Shaul [the first King of Israel] would be relieved and feel well, and the bad spirit would depart from him”.(4) Furthermore, the Sages must have had good reason to inform us that the Temple service involved a choir of Levites who filled God’s House with otherworldly music and song. Many chapters of tehillim (psalms) begin with the phrase lamnatze’ach binginot, which Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch translates as, “To Him who grants spiritual victory through the art of music”. (5)
The Sages made a number of remarkable observations concerning beauty. The Torah commands the urban planners in Israel to leave 1000 amot (cubits) of untilled land around each of the cities to be given to the Levites (6), allowing nature to manifest its beauty. The Sages further mandate that one must remove all unseemly objects, and even not plant trees in the immediate vicinity of a city, to ensure that the landscape will always be pleasing. (7)
Beauty – whether in nature, art, or music – can calm us when we are stressed, or inspire our creativity and spur us on to great accomplishments. (8) Jewish educators should encourage our children to study and appreciate natural beauty, art, and music. This should be done within the framework of the school and home, with emphasis on the religious significance of the aesthetic experience. With the proper perspective, visiting an art museum, or taking a walk in the woods, can effect real spiritual growth.
It is revealing that the Talmud calls on us to have beautiful furnishings in our homes. While many people do not have the financial means to spend on interior design, many are able, with less money, to make their homes warm and inviting. Few can afford to adorn their walls with original oil paintings, or to walk on expensive Persian rugs. Still, technology enables us to enjoy quality reproductions of even the greatest masterpieces. With an inexpensive frame and some light, we can create a heavenly “museum experience” in our own living rooms. Using simple flower decorations, one can revitalize an otherwise drab and dreary room. There are infinite possibilities available to people, according to their individual tastes and emotional needs. All that is required is a bit of thought and creativity.
To look at a Rembrandt and allow its beauty to wash over one’s mind is not just a sensory delight, but a religious experience that God, in His kindness and wisdom, has granted His creatures. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the famous mystic and philosopher who became the first Ashekanic chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, was stranded in London during the First World War. As often as he could, he would visit the National Gallery and look at its Rembrandts. On one such occasion, Rav Kook made a striking observation. The Torah states that God created light on the first day, while He created the sun and the moon only on the fourth day! What, then, was the source of light on day one? To this, the Sages reply that the first light was a special Divine radiance that God set aside as a gift for the righteous in the world to come. (9) Rabbi Kook commented that he was certain God granted some of that light to Rembrandt. (10)
Of course, we know that some music, paintings, and photographs implicitly conflict with our sense of decency and good taste, and convey messages that directly oppose the Jewish conception of holiness. But at their apex, classical art and music have the capacity to make us look beyond the mundane world and perceive the miracle of all existence frozen in an eternal moment, or in a heavenly combination of musical notes. Today we are confronted with many artists and musicians whose only goal – motivated largely by a lack of real talent – is to shock. Consequently, their popularity will fade away, since each of their pieces can only shock us once. This does not excuse us, however, from completely ignoring the beauty that does exist within the world of art and music. To refuse to listen to a refined piece of music is to close oneself off from one of the most sublime experiences our world has to offer.
The following suggestion is attributed to American author and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons, and you will find that it is to the soul what the water bath is to the body.”
It is time for the religious community to put this matter back on its agenda. (11)
Every week I receive hundreds of emails, as well as a host of important observations on my essays, via our website, Facebook, newspaper blogs, and other media outlets. It is therefore completely impossible for me to respond—for which I apologize—but please be assured that I read every comment, which I deeply appreciate and from which I learn so much. Only in exceptional cases will I respond in a subsequent essay. My office staff will try to be more prompt in posting these remarks on our website.
Thank you very much for taking the time to share your comments with me, as well as with your fellow readers. I hope you will continue to do so.
Nathan Lopes Cardozo