Religious Faith and Art

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

At first glance, the question of the Torah's attitude toward art seems to have no basis: religious faith is a set of contents, views and imperatives, associated with one’s subjective intention, whereas art is the work of the artist, driven by his ability and talent. From this perspective, the two realms appear to be completely separate. Art is a tool that allows the artist to express his inner world. If the artist is religious, then the art he creates will largely reflect religious values, and it is of course likely to enrich and deepen the inner world of the artist and those who appreciate his work. If, on the other hand, the artist is not religious, then his art is likely to reflect the world of secular values. Either way, there is no room to talk about the relationship of religious faith to art, when the two are not found on the same plane at all.


Art for its Own Sake


It is clear, however, that this does not put the question to rest. How should we relate, from a Torah outlook, to "neutral" art that is not connected or intertwined with the world of faith, but rather assumes a place alongside it, with no relationship to it?


The attitude toward "neutral" art, as we have called it, i.e., art that does not aspire to instill values or teach morals, is not uniform even within the art community itself. Some advocate "art for its own sake"; they favor, with not inconsiderable satisfaction and pride, free art that is not obligated to any values or norms whatsoever, and that certainly does not purport to impart content derived from the world of religion. In contrast, there are artists who do not belong to this school, but rather wish to see art as a major force that should leave a deep impression on the moral fiber of those captivated by it. For them, art's ascendancy over children's games is that art is not only a source of pleasure, recreation or amusement, but also a tool that teaches values and gives plastic expression to the artist's inner world.


In any case, from a Torah perspective, it seems that there is no reason to recoil from an understanding that sees art as a source of aesthetic pleasure and nothing else. The Gemara (Ta'anit 22a) relates that the prophet Elijah testified that there are only two people in the market who will have a share in the World-to-Come – two jesters whose job it is to bring cheer to people who are sad. Even in the world of Torah values, we can make space for that has no serious purpose, and is intended exclusively for pleasure. A Jew is commanded that all his actions should "be for the sake of Heaven" (Avot 2:12); but within this broad framework, a little room may be left for business, sports and other pastimes that allow the continued existence of man as a servant of God.


Art as a Substitute for Faith


Beyond "art for its own sake," there is another kind of art that must be addressed separately. What is the Jewish attitude toward art that stands in conflict with it, and relates to it in a spirit of tension, alienation and hostility?


Such an attitude is common in social frameworks that aim to replace faith with art. In late 19th century France and England there developed an extreme form of the ideology of "art for art's sake," whose proponents sought to assign art the kind of spiritual status ordinarily reserved for religion. This understanding is clearly contrary to our religious outlook, and we vehemently reject it. It is possible to assign a place, albeit limited, to art the goals of which are purely aesthetic. We cannot, however, accept the pretension of art – to the extent that it exists – to replace religious values.


Goals of Art


In classical thought, the purpose of art is to describe reality: in nature, in society and in the person. This description can be visual depiction in the plastic arts, verbal description in the literary realm, or even melodious description in the world of music. The primary purpose of art, then, is to serve as a reflection of the true central core of reality.


Alongside this idea, already in the Middle Ages, there was an alternative approach that saw art not as an imitation of reality, but as a phenomenon that competes with it and tries to rise above it. This attitude is reflected in a 16th century essay by Sir Philip Sidney that argues that the world of nature is brass, whereas the world of art is gold. Here, too, the artist attempts to reflect reality, but in its ideal state.


Beginning in the middle of the 18th century, the emphasis shifted from the objective realm to the subjective realm. Art no longer purported to describe, but to express. The focus was no longer found in the external world, but rather in the inner world of the artist.


From a religious perspective, we find that both of these goals are fraught with danger. When art is focused on the outside world, there is the danger that a person will connect himself not to God but to the created world. Glorification of the material world carries with it the risk of shifting one's focus from eternal life to the moment. It seems that this concern is greater in the areas of visual art, such as sculpture and painting, as opposed to poetry, literature and music.


Along this, there is the opposite danger: after struggling to describe his own world, a person may attempt to describe his Creator as well. This danger of humanizing God has a clear halakhic expression in the form of the prohibition to fashion statues and images. Historically speaking, there has been a constant struggle regarding this issue between Judaism and Christianity, the content and religious tenets of which provide ample room for relating to God through artistic tools.


Alongside the perils noted above, there are also dangers in modern art that is focused on the subjective world of the artist. The combination of creativity, on the one hand, and focus on the artist, on the other, may bring the artist to be recognized as a creator who competes with God. This danger exists, and not by chance: it is immanent to the field of artistic creation.


Truth be told, the risks mentioned above are not exclusive to the realm of art. The problem of living for the moment exists irrespective of artistic creativity; and similarly the problem of glorification of the creator is not unique to the world of art. Even in the area of Torah study, we encounter the problem of self-glorification that stems from innovation and creation of novel Torah insights, as opposed to the submission and servility that constitute the heart of accepting the kingdom of Heaven.


Certainly, then, there are problems not only in the relationship between religious faith and art, but also in the believer’s attitudes regarding other areas. Nevertheless, it seems that these tensions become critically sharpened in the realm of the arts, due to the depth and intensity of the experience, and especially since in the final analysis we are dealing with a creative act. A deepened sense of partnership in the act of creation may lead one to forget the other partner - the Almighty – and thus to blur the absolute distinction between the Creator and his creatures.


Aesthetic Experience


What conclusion follows from the concerns pointed out above? Should these considerations lead to an absolute negation of art?


One common solution, which comes close to negating art but is more moderate than that, supports the limitation of art to content that is connected to the service of God in the most fundamental sense: design of religious articles, composition of liturgical music, and the like. In this way, one can fully harness the aesthetic power of art to the service of God and use it to further a religious end.


But alongside the obvious allure of this approach, one must also consider its price. Absolute rejection of all artistic expression that is not "for the sake of Heaven" means drying up a considerable and significant part of the inner world of man, as he was fashioned by God. If "anyone who observes a fast is called a sinner" (Nedarim 10a) and "a person will have to give a reckoning for what his eyes saw and he did not eat" (Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:2), certainly, then, no one has the right to give up with such ease his artistic inclination that constitutes such a significant aspect of his inner world. Limiting oneself to clearly "religious" art exacts a high price from anyone who has ever experienced a different kind of art. Should we so easily give up on Shakespeare or Beethoven?


A third option advocates struggle: acknowledging the value of aesthetics and giving beauty and splendor a place alongside the desire for knowledge and justice. Together with viewing art as a means to create beauty, we must learn to see art also as a tool for understanding the world and man. We have the ability to purify the aesthetic experience, and raise it to a true spiritual level, integrated into the intensive service of God.


If we are forced to choose between the moral and the aesthetic, and all the more so between the religious and the aesthetic, then our answer is clear and unequivocal. But we hope that this is not the situation. We must follow the path that recognizes the value of art, while maintaining our awareness of its dangers. Just as we aspire to combine Torah with science, tradition with secular wisdom, and Judaism with democracy, so too we seek to combine religious faith with art. This is not an easy path to follow. Integrating art into our world, not artificially, but in a true and sincere manner, requires that Torah content be deeply enough grounded within us to allow us to live our lives rooted in Torah but open to other values as well. In comparison with the other options, there is no doubt that this path is the most difficult one; but this is our goal and purpose: to follow the path of struggle, in pursuit of the truth, and aspiring to fear God in full and perfect manner.



(This sicha was delivered in Cheshvan 5755 [1994].)