Sunday, June 3, 2012

Creative Judaism

[Mi Yodeia, the Jewish Q&A website, is having a Launch Party on Sunday; mazal tov!]

Over the past week, I've been mulling three different models for creativity in Judaism:

Keep it Inside
This was the approach of the Nesiim, the heads of each tribe, in the offerings they brought for the dedication of the Mishkan (Bamidbar 7). Each brought the same material gifts, from the vessels made of precious metals to the flour to the incense to the animals – but Ramban (Bamidbar 7:2) wrote that each personalized it with his intent in bringing the various aspects of the gift.

The outward mitzvot were all the same, but each person's intent was creative and unique.

Make it Your Own
Rambam (Hilchot Avel 14:1) writes that the various ways we help each other (visiting the sick, comforting mourners, gladdening a bride and groom and so on) are all manifestations of the biblical "Love your neighbour" command, but the Torah did not include them as specific biblical instructions. The biblical mitzvah is simply to engage in actions which manifest love for each other, and then the Sages outlined various ways to do it - a list to which we still add.

It seems that chesed, the act of helping others, is a case in which the internal intent is the same, and the outward manifestations are creative and unique.

And then we have a third model: Tzitzit. The strings have a pre-determined length and [to a certain extent] colour and set of knots and wrappings, and the garment must have a certain number of corners. On the other hand, the garment may be any colour, almost any size, any pattern, and any type of woven material (although there seems to be a biblical preference for wool or linen). And the meaning is the somewhat specific awareness of Gd and the Torah, but that, too, leaves considerable room for personalization.

There is room for variety in the execution, and in the intent.

Which is it? Can we define an ideal level of creativity in Judaism? All of them, presumably, apply at different times. The trick is in figuring out which to apply, and when.



  1. (1)Some sincerely believe in the Torah and Talmud, critically evaluate its teachings, and attempt seriously to model their lives on its tenets.
    This leaves room for creativity in other realms of value.(Art, Music, Math, Science Politics economics, philosophy etc.)
    (2) Some adhere to the Torah out of sincere conviction but disagree with important tenets. They attempt to recast the Torah in more personally palatable terms, or possibly work to redirect the Torah itself into more agreeable lines. The changes may be real reforms or merely redefinition into something more palatable.
    These are both honest approaches.
    The second might be considered creative also.
    But what passes for creativity in te torah world is usually a case of people misunderstanding the Torah and stressing trivial issues, ignoring or downplaying significant ones, or garbling concepts.
    In extreme cases people attempt to redirect Torah into a form very different from the original, or take it over entirely.

    Many people will use the Torah to rationalize other motives; they will use it as a pretext for a power trip, or dominating others, or lashing out at authority.

  2. Rav Hirsch learns about the role of creativity from the halakhah that "the beauty of tzitzis is 1/3 knotted and 2/3 free". One bound and guided by halakhah, the majority should be autonomous.

    There is also a lot of leeway in how to tie tzitzs on a halachic level, and if one is wearing tekheiles, the minhagim of sets of 7-8-11-13 or 10-5-6-5 windings might not apply. (Both ignore a gemara about 7 to 13 sets of 3 windings on the grounds that the gemara is giving a law about techeiles.) Meaning that a person starting to wear tekheiles has a Reform-like moment when he has a lot of choices before him and no pesaqim telling him he must choose one over the other.


  3. Your discussion reminds me of this: There are things and events in our world that look the same, or at least equally probable. Surface uniformity and randomness do not make up the whole story! Behind such appearances lurk other layers of meaning that make the thing or event unique.

  4. Adam-
    What would you say of the Chasam Sofer on creative minhag? [You can find my quick translation here.]

    R' Micha-
    Interesting point re: Rav Hirsch. As far as the techeiles ties, I'm not sure I would use that as an example, since one who had a minhag would be bound (so to speak) thereby.

    Quite true.

    1. But in the real world, with murex maybe-tekheiles available for less than 19 years, who has a minhag? I was speaking of personal history...

      When my father and I decided to switch, I was faced with a choice of shitos. I could follow R' Herschel Schachter's decision, as his adoption of murex was my father's final motivation. But then, RHS changed opinions since then. Or, I could follow the Radziner's tying pattern, since he was the first and most accepted pesaq, even if I believe he was misled on the identity of the chilazon. Or I could look at the shitos myself, and choose which halachic argument resonated, since none are binding (yet). Or what I actually did, I looked at aggadita and saw which tying pattern gave me the most to work with on a kavanah level.

      That kind of autonomy, to do what felt most religious because there has been no history of pesaq winnowing down from a wide range of shitos, was a weird (and somewhat disorienting) experience.

      However, back in the days of chazal, when many things we take for granted were still open machloqes, it must have been common. Autonomy, ideally with the aid of a rav to help keep the decision from being overly colored by desires that aren't religious, was once far more common.

      As we lose more and more of the Sinaitic culture, though, we also had to give up more and more autonomy and rely on hard-and-fast rules. (An idea I'm taking from Dr Moshe Koppel's "Metahalakhah"; which is a slightly different angle on the textualism-mimeticism issue raised in Dr Haym Soloveitchik's "Rupture and Reconstruction".)

  5. "What would you say of the Chasam Sofer on creative minhag?"

    Creativity within the context of Torah sounds right to me..

    1. I don't know what to make of this CS. After all, many ways of following the Torah would be ones that differ from the range of socially normative ones. But this is the same CS of "chadash asur min haTorah".

  6. the cs is going with the idea that there is an area not free from the evaluation of good and evil even if it has not been defined by the torch.

  7. I like Rambam's model a lot. All the vexing problems in the world -- security, poverty, human trafficking, etc. -- require the creative application of intelligence. If religious Jews were to go out experimenting with different ways to stop corruption and paramilitary warfare in Africa, or do away with debt slavery in India, or systematically address any of the social problems within Orthodox communities, this would truly be a light to the nations. Focusing on the details of mitzvot observance has its place, but it is not the only -- and not necessarily the most important -- way to serve Hashem.