Why Baal Teshuvas Need To Make Art

Baal teshuvas think that because they’re new to the world of yiddishkeit that their words dont’ matter. Or they’re afraid that they’ll say something wrong, something that will turn people away from Judaism or condemn their family so their kids will get a horrible education.

Baal teshuvas are so afraid, so afraid to mess up because they are aware of how fallible they are. They’re aware of how imperfect they are.

And so all those worries, any worries they have about failing, are magnified a hundred times because to fail just on your own is bad enough, but when you fail G-d, fail Judaism, fail your fellow Jew, well, that’s just too much.

And so you, you baal teshuvas who have so much passion, are quiet. You work on your stuff, thinking it needs to be perfected over and over and over until there’s no hint of anything ungodly or controversial or inappropriate. You polish it down until it’s sparkling.

But here’s the thing. When something is polished too much, it loses the rawness that made it beautiful in the first place. The shine replaces the content. The perfection hides the truth.

And, in the end, you either recognize that, and hide the work away, hidden, never to see the light of day, or you put it out there, and you wonder why no one likes it.

Listen to me: it’s time to accept what it means to create something special. To create something real.

Creating truth means accepting that you will fail. Creating something beautiful means accepting that it won’t be perfect.

I remember my wife and I went to speak to this incredible artist she had met in Israel. She wanted advice on how to become a “real” artist.

This artist, Dan Groover, has sold his work all over the world, and is know for the incredible graffiti art he did in Paris. His art is gorgeous and people pay him for it.  But it wasn’t always like that.

Dan Groover

He said to her, “The best advice I can give to you is to just make stuff and sell it as quickly and cheaply as possible. Just get rid of it so that you’ll be forced to continue creating.”

When this artist started off, he graffitied his way through Paris for no money, just because he wanted to. He was in touch with an essential truth: that you can only succeed if you do. If you keep going.  Whether you’re failing or succeeding.

And baal teshuvas need to accept that their work will probably never be completely G-dly, never 100% perfect.

But the only way they’ll get closer to that ideal is if they do. If they create, over and over and over, and get rid of it as soon as possible. Before it’s polished. Before it’s perfect.

My G-d, we have so much beautiful potential, us baal teshuvas. We have the benefits of wordly skills combined with insights into the world few have without experience. And we know Judaism is true.

All we need to do is tap into that potential. And then fail at it. Never reach it.  But always rising, always growing, always learning and improving.

Sure, some people will criticize us when we fail at being perfectly G-dly. Or when our creations aren’t that good.  And sure, lots of people won’t get it at first. And sure, the stuff we put out there might even hurt people.

But damnit, that’s the way the world works. It’s the only way anything was ever made. By taking risks.

I’m ready to make an idiot of myself. I’m ready to fail miserably. Who wants to join me?

Other posts about art on Pop Chassid:

What Is A Jewish Artist?

Calling All Creators

Free The Jewish Artist!

  • Rebecca K.

    Today’s post hits me at a very appropriate time in my creative life. Tomorrow, my first piece of writing to appear in a non-frum setting will be published since I began my professional life. It’s very scary and very exciting at the same time.

    Just as you describe–I spend a lot of time worrying about what are the potential effects of what I write. Will my words help people tap into holiness or chas v’shalom, be a chillul HaShem?

    You’ve got me thinking. I’m not going to produce large quantities of material and send it out into the world regardless of consequences. I simply can’t agree with that mentality. Personally, I do think it’s important not to hurt people. I feel particularly responsible, because I usually write for kids and teens, and I want to build them up, stuff them full of all the goodness and G-dliness possible before they are sent out into the big scary world.

    But at the same time, it’s important to take risks in your writing, risks that promote shalom, illuminate truth, and they may not always conform to the blueprint of the FFB world.

    • @disqus_KkJlZMOwW1:disqus I always love and appreciate your thoughts. And I’m so glad you’re finding success with your work.

      Just to be clear, I don’t think people should be sending out their work willy-nilly without thinking about the consequences. I just think that we need to send out our work despite being aware that we will often fail at getting it right, and, even more to the point, the only way to really learn how to do these things correctly is to actually create, fail, learn, and improve. Over and over.

      I agree we have a responsibility, but part of that responsibility is being aware that Hashem has given us gifts for a reason, gifts that need to be utilized.

      • Rebecca K.

        Thanks for the clarification.

        I think that I’ve been sometimes too cautious about expressing my thoughts, which can be stifling. And so a lot of the post resonated with me. Finding words that help people and don’t hurt them is something I daven for regularly. It’s often challenging. I think maybe it’s getting easier with time precisely as you say, I just kept writing and writing and writing.

        Thanks for the kind words about my comments. I think your posts are very insightful and look forward to reading them.

  • In general, the main focus of a beginner should be learning and receiving and growing within, and once they have achieved stability and become more integrated, to be involved with teaching others as well. This does not preclude some mentoring to others, but that should not be the main focus at that stage. One cannot give without having first received.

    It is very proper for anyone to have the concern that his work may be incorrect, and this would be true even if he were a great talmid chochom who was lucky enough to live a life protected from all the secular junk. But all the more so if he is a beginner who has been tainted (albeit through no fault of his own) by the depraved secular world and its twisted values.

    A good way of overcoming this problem is simply showing your work to a knowledgeable, wise, G-d-fearing asei lecha Rav (mentor) before publishing it, in order to make sure it contains no material that is questionable, inappropriate, or in any way contrary to Torah, chas vesholom.

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  • What an interesting blog post. I think that one of the biggest impediments for BTs is the idea that everything in the “previous life” was treif. Many times it includes their creative pursuits and sometimes I have seen very talented people kill their Art, because they think that it makes them less religious.

    i think it is a horrible mistake. I can not speak for men, but women are faced with a lot of stress simply because they are women. Having kids, hopefully lots of kids is wonderful, but I can not see how I could survive the constant giving without setting my creativity free. Designing knit and crochet patterns lets me recharge my soul’s batteries. While the food evaporates, the house refuses to stay cleaned and no one has invented self-cleaning laundry and self-changing diapers, but I do not despair. Making things, jewelry, knits or accessories gives me a chance to create something permanent. And when I hunger for the community of like minded individuals, when the baby has been teething all day, the teenager has another bout of angst and I have to admit to a seven year old that Mommy can not read his homework I turn to writing. Some things are published on my blog – Chicken Stitches, some things are put away for later and some never get actually written down, but all of them are necessary for me to go on and face another day, and thank G-d for the blessings he sends me.

    • Wow, I agree with this so much. Have you ever read Brenda Ueland’s book, “If You Want To Write”? It’s not a book just about writing, and most of it is just about how to tap into our creative side. Anyway, she has a chapter that she devotes to how important it is for housewives to embrace art. It was written in the 30’s, which makes it interestingly applicable to religious Jews. I really highly recommend that you read it.

      • Thank you. I will check it out.

    • Yes, many forms of art are completely pareve and should therefore not be discarded, but infused with faith and Torah meaning. However, some forms of artistic pursuit may detract from one’s service of Hashem or be outright forbidden. If so, the one who fears Hashem will humbly make that sacrifice in order not to rebel against Hashem; as well, the one who loves Hashem will gladly make that sacrifice in order to be close to Hashem.

      • An example of the “forbidden art” please.

        And I do not agree with “pareve”. It seems a bit patronizing to me. If my Art or (art) helps me to be a more fulfilled and creative person the result will surely “leak out” into my G-dly service. Weather this service is praying or sweeping the floor or changing diapers.

        • 1. Women shouldn’t perform in front of mixed audiences. One can’t look at models to learn how to draw the human figure. Listening to music or reading books that elicit sinful thoughts in order to develop one’s technical skills at writing or composing music is forbidden. And so on.

          2. Perhaps explain to me further why you think that there will necessarily be a connection between one’s art and one’s service of Hashem. If you are a poet, you can use that skill to write in a way that develops your relationship with Hashem, or you could choose not to. A person has a choice about how to use his talents, and living a generally frum lifestyle is no guarantee that all one’s talents are being used appropriately leshem Shomayim.

          • The talent and the art form is singing. Performing is the way one chooses to use it. While listening to music is nice it is not a talent or a creative ability. Again drawing in itself is not forbidden, it is a certain way that it should not be used. So once more the talent to draw is absolutely kosher, the only question is the use. It seems to me that you are so concerned with sin, that you rather do nothing, than do something wrong. And that is a way of life. But you will not create much by looking over your shoulder all the time, checking if you are toeing the “Party Line”. Sorry, for me life is much simpler, when in doubt – ask a Rav, so far my very strict Ultra Orthodox Hasidic Rav has been much more lenient than I am.

            As to the connection – well, I do not see how the real creativity, the real soul art can be disconnected from the service to Hashem. As we are supposed to serve Hashem with all our being.

            Who has a right to put a hecsher on a talent? No one but Hashem himself.

          • 1. I wrote: “Some forms of artistic pursuit may detract from one’s service of Hashem or be outright forbidden.” Figure drawing is a “form of artistic pursuit.” Never learning how to draw figures does severely detract from an artist’s skill. Talent is all very well, but talent must be developed through study and practice in order for the person to have true skill.

            Likewise, performing in front of mixed audiences is a part of being a musician, although it might be better described as a “form of artistic expression.” From a worldly perspective, not being able to do it very much “limits” the person’s sphere of influence when compared with that of their secular counterparts.

            In any case, the general concept is the same. It is technically very difficult to develop and/or express certain artistic skills and talents without violating halacha, certainly if one goes the normal route and attends university.

            I never said to do nothing. All I said is that there are limits. And we don’t need to create or use our talents at all. We need to do what Hashem, the One Who endowed us with those talents, wants. If He wants us to use our talents, then we should davka use them. But if he wants us to make a sacrifice, then we should do it with love. On the contrary, everything precious requires sacrifice, so a relationship with Hashem that didn’t require a difficult sacrifice would be kinda lame.

            2. I disagree. Creativity is a function of the Intellectual Soul or the Animal Soul, not (necessarily) of the Neshamah (on the topic of these souls, see 1,
            2, and 3). The proof is that plenty of non-frum Jews and even non-Jews are very creative. One can choose to submit the Intellectual Soul and the Animal Soul to the Neshamah, or one can choose not to. This is about intense effort at self-refinement. Being basically frum is no automatic guarantee that the person will also choose to invest this effort. There is a general problem that people don’t learn enough Musar of Chassidus to inspire them to middos tovos, although they keep basic halacha. Similarly, a person could be creative in a G-dless kind of way, while still being technically frum.

  • Shmiel B

    wondering what is the reccomendation of the ben hoffman show? please explain

  • A good line I once heard in the name of Rabbi Zalman Gopin: רק טיפש לא אומר שטויות. (Loosely translated: Only a fool never says something stupid).

    • Wow, that is seriously one of the best lines I ever heard. So true. Gonna have to share that one on Facebook sometime.

      • 🙂 Great! I actually think that I didn’t translate it right… Somehow in Hebrew it sounds better.

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  • Tuvia

    I like this column. But I think the real Jew? Knows that he doesn’t know Judaism is true. But he does it anyway (because it is his path.)

    The real Jew doesn’t know if G-d chose the Jews, but he knows that the Jews chose G-d. He doesn’t know where the Torah came from, but he hopes it has a divine source – and he knows that the existence of the Talmud is a hint that it never has really mattered. A real Jew knows it’s not up to G-d, but in Judaism, it is up to us (which is tikkun olam in all its aspects.)

    Something got perverted. The Jew has become like a goy: the Bible now is literal, G-d HAD to have discovered us (not the other way around), and it is all up to G-d (not us.)
    We got afraid (I think intermarriage primarily caused the Jew to become very afraid) and we turned the Christian into the prototypical real religious man. We sold out, got dumb, got scared, got a dependent sort of faith – and wonder why Judaism is less attractive, not more, to many (even frum people.)

    Now orthodox kids can’t learn the scientific view of a worldwide flood, evolution (scientifically impossible, the new Jew says), or an old universe. The new orthodox can only indoctrinate, and never permit education, or real open inquiry. The walls are higher, tznius is an obsession, we are scared, terrified, freaked out, and more goyishe than ever.

    But a good column, with helpful advice.

    Tuvia

    • Got it. So a person who essentially rejects Torah is coming and telling us who is the real Jew–when the whole concept of Jewishness is derived from Torah.

      • Tuvia

        I know! It’ ironic.

        Jews have a superiority complex. It was deserved – we were the religion that never fell for all that religious claptrap.

        That’s all changed. Now everyone talks about hashgacha pratis. Except for generations, hashgacha pratis was NOT considered a relevant thing for a regular Jew!

        In the Garden of Eden we got everything from Hashem. Then, he took that away – and we would “live by the sweat of [our] brow.”

        Someone, somewhere, elevated the Jewish mind with that idea: it is not up to G-d: it is up to US! We will live – by the sweat of OUR brow. No work – NO surivival.

        Kiruv felt to bring Jews back required them to revive goyishe concepts for the Jew – because Jews who left Judaism had become too modern – so modern, they were dropping all formal concepts of the religion from their lives!

        So they goyed out. Everything is G-d’s will now. The Torah is LITERALLY true. The Bible is the inerrant word of G-d.

        But the Talmud’s existence TELLS us it is NOT inerrant. The Torah is NOT literal. We just forgot.

        We became like the goyim, in an effort to save the religion from the Jews – the first modern people.

        Now we have rabbis who say “you cannot fake national revelation! Therefore we know our story is literally true!”

        But for generations (including our generation) Jews have been told “all your souls were at Mt. Sinai, that is why you have no family memory of that event! You were not there, but your souls were.”

        This is an age old Jewish saying. And it has ALWAYS been an effective remedy to the fact that no Jews had a family history of remembering Sinai – and we all understood this.

        But kiruv did NOT like this idea. It did not lend itself to a proof. So they changed Judaism, and hoped you didn’t notice. They now talk about the fact that you cannot fake it – even as they tell us (and every generation before us) our SOULS were there (and just hope we don’t stop and realize that this phrase obviates the need for our BODIES (and our memories) to be from there!)

        Lying is NOT a Jewish value (and kiruv is really full of empty, lying tactics these days.)

        It’s a MESS! And all because we followed the goyim, because they have a religion that, in its silly infant mentality, was more attractive and held people better!

        Tuvia

        • I find it interesting that you keep using the word “kiruv”. I hate the word kiruv, and probably for the same reason you do: it implies selling something to someone, manipulating your own doctrine to convince others to join your tribe.

          The story you describe, in this history of Jews that you have written, does not accurately depict anything. You provide few sources and very little backup to your views.

          Part of the reason I have chosen to be religious is because I saw early on that the path of Judaism I was following WASN’T just manipulated to convince me of something. In fact, there are volumes upon volumes written in Chassidus, for example, about Hasgacha Pratis. It isn’t just a fancy notion created to brainwash people. It is a whole philosophy based on sources and a connection to the Talmud you yourself are using to attempt to prove Judaism false. I simply don’t buy that these things were brought up just to psyche Jews into being afraid to leave Judaism. It’s too in depth for that.

          It’s a fact of Judaism that deeper and deeper truths are revealed over time. Just because things weren’t phrased exactly the way you see them phrased now doesn’t mean that it’s a big conspiracy. It’s simply the way Judaism works. Your arguments against that way of thinking don’t seem to be based on fact so much as your own theories of what has happened through the history of the Jews.

  • s.a. holcman

    As a former BT I offer no apologies for my Pre BT Days and Post BT days. I do not like labels and I remain the same as always was,will be as I am a perfectly-imperfect positively Jewish mortal.

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