Seasons of the Moon

10 November, 1999 - 7 January 7, 2000

Art For Arts Sake

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
The True Value of Art as but the most moving reflection of the world beyond
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The Month of Kislev / Tevet 5760


Why are artists the most selfish people in the world? The petulant behavior of rock stars is legion. The solitary painter locked in his garret creating his masterpiece with uneaten meals piling up around him is a well-worn cliché. Bad temper and tantrums are not only tolerated but may be a yardstick of talent.

The maestro throwing down his baton and walking off the rehearsal stage after reducing the 15-year old Korean first violin to tears is a predictable scene in the life of many a symphony orchestra.

“Behaving like a prima donna” (literally the “first lady” of the opera) has found its way into the vernacular indicating arrogance and high-handedness.

Why are artists so unbearably selfish? And why do we let them get away with it? More. Why do we give their behavior our tacit approval?

An artist is like G-d. An artist starts off with a blank piece of paper and creates a universe. Being an artist is the closest thing there is to creatio ex nihilo — creation from nothing. The universe of the artist is entirely at the whim of its creator. He can draw and he can erase. He can form and he can fold. He can create worlds and he can destroy them. The sky can be blue — or gray. The next note could go up or down. And who says that all this has to be the way it is? Me. The artist.

Truth And Beauty

If there’s one nation in the world that symbolizes Art with a capital A, it’s Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greeks quite literally wrote the book on aesthetics, poetics, dramatics, and several other artistic disciplines. Why was it the Greeks who epitomize Art more than any other?

The wellspring of the art of Greece lies not in their geographical location nor their demographic or racial make-up; it comes from a verse in the Torah: “May G-d extend Yafet, but he will dwell in the tents of Shem.” Thus it was that Noach blessed Yafet, his eldest son. However, the blessing of beauty comes with a condition — that Yafet will “dwell in the tents of Shem.” Why did Noach stipulate that Yafet would be blessed with beauty provided “that he will dwell in the tents of Shem?”

Yafet comes from the same root in Hebrew as yaffe “beauty.” Yafet’s fourth son was Yavan. Yavan is the Hebrew name for Greece.

The Jewish People are the descendants of Shem. Shem mean “name.” In the Holy Tongue, the name of something defines its essence. In all other languages, a name is conventional. Meanings of words evolve so society can operate. If I order a steak in a restaurant and the waiter brings me a screwdriver, the restaurant is not destined for great things. In all other languages, names are conventional — but they don’t define essence. In the Holy Tongue, the name of something is essential, its connection to its spiritual root.

Yafet , Beauty, Art finds its correct place in the scheme of things when it “dwells in the tents of Shem” when it expresses essence, when it reveals the truth of existence. Truth is Beauty, but Beauty may not be true. For when Yafet leaves the tents of Torah, when he leaves the world of essence, of Shem, and focuses on himself, then art becomes narcissistic, corrupt and corrupting.

70 Sealed Rooms

Several key events that epitomize the relationship between Jerusalem and Athens, between Shem and Yafet, take place in the months of Kislev and Tevet. The festival of Chanuka which starts on the 25th of Kislev and finishes in the first days of Tevet is the most conspicuous. However, a few days later, there is a day of great sadness for the Jewish People which reveals another side to the symbiotic relationship between Shem and Yafet.

On the eighth of Tevet, three days of spiritual darkness descended on the world when King Ptolemy took 70 great Torah sages, locked them in separate cubicles and ordered them to translate the Torah into Greek. The lion that had been roaming free was locked in a cage. The Torah, the blueprint of all existence, was caged in a foreign tongue. It became just another book on a shelf. Now the nations of the world could come and say “Oh yes, we know your Torah. We have it on the shelves of our university library. It’s over there in the philosophy/religion/new age section.”

What was the symbolism of putting the Sages into separate cubicles? A cubicle is like a tent. When Ptolemy the Greek took the Sages of Israel and locked them into separate cubicles it signified Shem being made to sit in the “tent” of Yafet. When the Torah was translated into Greek it was made to sit in the halls of academia, the tent of Yafet, just like any other book. Essence was made to serve form. The internal world was made the servant of the external. The world was turned upside down.

Art For G-d’s Sake

There would be religious art from the Greeks and the descendants of Greece. There would be a Donatello, a Michaelangelo, a Bach, a Handel. But religion would only serve art — not the reverse. Religion would be the paymaster of the artist and even his raw material — but G-d would no longer be the focus of his striving. Man would not be serving G-d any more. G-d would be “made” to serve Man. That was what Ptolemy the Greek was doing when he locked the Sages of Israel into cubicles. The natural order was reversed.

In the Greek view of the world, G-d in not the center of the world. Man is the center. Man’s intellect, his ability to perceive G-d “defines” G-d’s “limits.” What I can’t think, doesn’t exist.

The Beauty Of Truth

The Jewish People, the descendants of Shem proclaim to the world that the mind of man does not contain nor restrain G-d. G-d does not sit in the tent of Man.

The Jewish definition of beauty is that which reveals essence. It is that which hints to a reality beyond the hollow circle of the mind of Man.

The word for ugly in Hebrew is achur, which has another meaning — “opaque.” Anything that obscures the inside is ugly, however “beautiful” it might be. Nothing can be truly beautiful unless it expresses essence. In Hebrew, the word for face is panim which is spelled identically to the word p’nim which means “inside.” The face is the only part of the human being where you can see the inside of a person, where you can see the intellect dominating the physical.

“Truth” with a capital “T,” is beyond the mind of man. When we look at the beauty of this world, it whispers to us that there is a transcendent existence — an ultimate Truth. The true artist takes the awe of existence and turns into notes, into paint, into words. Art is not a world where Man may rule as a tyrant. Art is but the most moving reflection of the world beyond.


Who says that
is nicer than blue.
I do.

The publication of Seasons Of The Moon was made possible by the generosity of Jill Sinclair and Trevor Horn

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