A Yeshiva University Comedy During the Omer? The Value of the Arts in Orthodoxy!

Photo credit: Eli Azizollahoff

While the Orthodox community places a heavy emphasis on Talmud study and on training for lucrative careers (business, law, medicine), too often the value of the arts and humanities are downplayed. David Cutler, student president of Yeshiva College Dramatics Society (YCDS) shared with me recently that it is “Very unfortunate that interest in the humanities and arts is continuing to drop” at the University. For context, Cutler plays the lead role in the upcoming show Harvey (April 21st — 26th on YU’s main stage at the Schottenstein Theatre) which Cutler expects to bring out 400–500 people this spring. (For those that might not know, Harvey is a play that “is intertwined with profound subject matter, touching on the issues of conformity, mental illness, and the preciousness of family.”) Now, although we are in the Omer period of mourning where entertainment is normally forbidden, Rabbi Yosef Blau, a Rosh Yeshiva at YU has given a halakhic ruling that the show must go on!

While Harvey is a comedy, and includes some house and a capella music, Rabbi Blau writes nonetheless:

The Yeshiva College Dramatics Society is normally careful not to put on a production during Sefira. This year the academic and Jewish calendars eliminate that option. The play selected is not a musical, with all background music a capella. Putting on a show is an integral part of the students’ academic requirement. In light of these considerations, it is permissible to both perform and to attend a performance of the show.

In this brief statement, Rabbi Blau not only teaches the importance of the Omer but also the value of the arts (and secular education generally). Yaakov Bressler, who is supporting the production, also noted that last fall, students from Stern College (YU’s female constituent college) were invited to perform the drama Our Town for the first time at the young men’s Washington Heights campus. This was an important, if previously underreported, moment of progress since it shows that modesty is not being used to silence young women or downplay the value of the arts. It is important that young Modern Orthodox women and men are taught not only the value of the arts but also that it indeed can be feasible for them to enter a career in the arts while being Orthodox Jews. Bressler noted to me that he is fully invested in a career in the arts while also fully committed to his Orthodoxy. Support from mentors and scholars like Rabbi Blau are crucial to the sustained interest of living a creative and fulfilling Orthodox life.

I was also pleased to read Rabbi Blau’s ruling because, as a YU graduate student living in Washington Heights, I heard a different message from Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Hershel Schachter. I recall, during my time at YU, attending a Shabbos tisch where a timid student asked Rabbi Schacter if it was halakhically permissible to choose English as a major. The Rosh Yeshiva said that if it was for the sake of parnassah (one’s livelihood) then it was permitted, but if it was for the sake of the value of the English study itself, then it was bitul zeman (a waste of time distracting one from full-time Torah learning). I was stunned. I had heard that Jewish observant life is expensive and so students are discouraged from professions that aren’t lucrative. I had heard that women were discouraged from certain forms public artistic expression due to concerns of modesty. I had heard that in some fields it is more difficult to be Shabbat observant. But I had not heard that an education in the arts and humanities simply does not have Jewish value in itself. This seemed to me to be a far cry from emphasizing the fullest appreciation of Torah U’Maddah (religious study combined with secular study). Hopefully in the coming years, the Yeshiva highlights other University voices who have a more profound appreciation for the humanities and arts.

Remember when many Orthodox Jews around America were instructed not to attend the Washington Jewish marches to free Soviet Jewry because a woman was expected to sing at the march? We must not allow our piety to get in the way of fulfilling our deeper religious mandates.

Judaism and art are two parts of a whole. Consider one of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s many teachings about the intrinsic spiritual value of artistic expression:

The true talent of a visual artist, when he is at the peak of his abilities–and especially one whose talent has been sanctified by the Spirit of G-d–is to be able to see the depths of existence, both in their physical and spiritual dimensions….
All these things which are said generally of the Creator — as we value the wonders of the creative wisdom altogether, we must find a model in a wise and whole man devoted to purposeful creation (Ein Ayah, Berachot, volume 2, p. 263, article 30).
Rav Kook. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, the late Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in a letter sent in 1951, wrote movingly about the lasting spiritual value of art:

… [T]he primary talent of an artist is his ability to step away from the externalities of the thing and, disregarding its outer form, gaze into its innerness and perceive its essence, and to be able to convey this in his painting. Thus the object is revealed as it has never before been seen, since its inner content was obscured by secondary things. The artist exposes the essence of the thing he portrays, causing the one who looks at the painting to perceive it in another, truer light, and to realize that his prior perception was deficient.

I’ll never forget a critical moment in my studies when these ideals were made all the more apparent for me. It was during my time at Harvard, and I was planning to pick up my previous Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Brovender, who was visiting to teach to Jewish students at the university. Before he was to teach, however, he requested that we first stop at an art museum. He wished to tour the galleries to enjoy the aesthetic nuances of hundreds of pieces of art created by brilliant minds throughout the centuries. As someone who deeply values the spiritual value of art, Rabbi Brovender has written:

If we learn to look at the work of art in the proper manner we should be able to connect to this human vision of beauty, which originates in God’s created world but insists that beauty must ultimately be seen, reflected, or interpreted by the human view.

Today, as arts programming and instruction are stymied for more emphasis on studies that are deemed to have a more overt benefit to income potential, we lose an essential segment of a rounded education. Without art, we don’t exercise all the folds in our minds, nor do we stimulate the deep recesses of our soul that yearn to be put back into the world through sculpture, theater, music, or on the canvas, among infinite avenues of artistic communication. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote: “Art… represents the Truth that Man has still higher requirements than material possessions” (The Pentateuch, vol. 1, pg. 112). In an era where Modern Orthodox Jews are, more and more, only entering into lucrative fields at the expense of appreciating the fullness of art and culture, there should be a doubling down on the importance of these complementary intellectual and spiritual pursuits. Whether at the university level or during the course of our careers, we should always continue to embrace and emulate the full value of God’s creative nature so that humanity’s potential for holy and moral expression is made manifest and tangible.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rav Soloveitchik wrote that “Prayer is an art. We have totally forgotten this art.” To reach God, we must cultivate this spiritual art with all of our creative energies. Rebbe Nachman taught: “Stop living in poverty! Use your treasures!” Indeed, our greatest gifts can be found within us. Each of us should seek to actualize those gifts and encourage our children and students to do the same.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Founder and President of YATOM, and the author of thirteen books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.