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Creativity and Religiosity

Creativity is a purely human endeavor. It is a quality we all possess to some degree or another and one that we use in various ways. Some of us are creative in finding solutions to interpersonal problems. Some of us use our creativity to find business opportunities where others don’t. Some people are creative thinkers and innovators and still others of us express our creativity in the realm of the performing or visual arts.
However, creativity is a just tool of man and as such has limitations. At times this human quality must even be submissive and brought under control. Such a situation is reflected in this week’s Torah reading, פרשת תרומה, Terumah. The ability to subdue this human ability runs through three other weekly Torah portions soon to be read. These readings prescribe in detail the design and construction of the Mishkan (the portable Temple used in the desert), the objects and utensils used in the Mishkan and the clothes worn by the priests serving in the Mishkan.
One question that comes to mind is why all the micromanagement by God in the building of the Mishkan and its utensils? Call in the best, brightest, most creative architects, designers, and artisans. Dial up the society’s, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eames, Chagall and Armani. Surely they could create a magnificent temple structure for God’s honor, with appropriate furnishings and decor. What could be more inspiring than to enter a majestic cathedral or more impressive than to be administered to by an array of priests decked out in smart and attractive apparel?
When it comes to religiosity, the Torah has deep concerns about the application of human creativity. The religious emotion is so powerful, human expression in this realm is most dangerous. In the zeal to serve God, people create and invent rules and restrictions. Religious sects adopt religious stringencies that are not warranted. This attitude goes all the way back to the first woman, Eve. In her response to the initial challenge by the serpent, Eve invented a restriction that God never mentioned. All God told Adam and Eve was not to eat a particular fruit. He never said they could not use it in other ways. Eve invented, she created on her own, the prohibition of touching the fruit. What she did was to make a taboo object out of the fruit, an idea never intended by God. All God did was to place on man a simple prohibition, not to eat one food. In this way man would harness a potentially unruly part of his nature, fantasy. Eve thought she was doing the right thing by extending the prohibition to include touching the fruit. In her misguided effort to protect God’s command she created her own legislation. The result proved disastrous.
The desire to serve and to glorify God not only attracts the religious nature of man but also his artistic nature. In this scenario, the quality of creativity, to be employed in the service of God, becomes an outlet for the glorification of the self. A person would naturally think, “It is my design of God’s house, its utensils, and the clothing adorning the priests;” or we would say, “Wow! Look at that building designed by Guggenheim.” The Godly quickly becomes a means for self-expression or human glorification.
How does the Torah safeguard the word and service of God? In religious performance, we are only guided by the top scholars of the generation. They are both intellectually creative and wise as well. They are not only experts in the academic analysis of a halachic issue. They are also astute in their understanding of human psychology. Their decision-making process not only takes into account arriving at clear legal decisions but their concern is also the proper outlet and direction our emotions. Only they can say what are and are not appropriate restrictions or what constitutes the proper reinforcement of our performances to fulfill God’s command. Many “chumrot,” stringencies that people embrace in their conduct of Judaism, have no rational legal basis. Yet, fulfillment of those stringencies becomes the center and essence of their religious performances. Such attitude and conduct find their source purely in the religious emotions of man.
So too are the expressive feelings of artistic creativity. They also find their source in the wellspring of human emotions. When it comes to God, it must be Him that we are serving. Hence, every expression of honor and glory must only reflect the source, God. Interestingly, God did call on Bezalel and Oholiab, the two most renowned artisans of their generation to oversee all of the construction of the building, furniture, and clothing. The Torah says they were assisted by, “wise-hearted women.” Why them? Could anyone follow the blueprints once God gave them over to Moshe?
The answer is meant to teach a fundamental lesson. The greatest craftsmen, the most creative artisans, and designers had to submit their feelings to the will of God. They were called “wise-hearted” because they recognized the wisdom in submitting to the will of the Almighty. They were recorded in the Torah precisely to model for the rest of us this high level of human perfection. If they must subordinate their creative skills and abilities in service to God, so must we. Only then would the Mishkan and all that pertains to it truly fulfill the words, “Make for Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” Every aspect of this structure and everything related to it had to reflect only one idea, God of the universe.
Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Robert Kaplan
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