What Is A Jewish Artist?

What is a Jewish artist? Is he just an artist who happens to be Jewish? Or does he have some sort of responsibility to the Jewish world? Is he a messenger? Does he have to always sing, paint, write, and create in a Jewish way? What is a Jewish way anyway?

The (orthodox) Jewish art world is transforming, trying to discover the answers to these very questions. Due to the recent influx of baal teshuvas with skills in the arts never before seen in the religious (and especially Hareidi) world, and the increase in young people who have gone off the derech and come back to the fold with a worldview uniquely shaped by their experiences, the Jewish art world is exploding.

But we’re still figuring out who we are.

When I suggest to some Jewish artists who I know that we have a responsibility to be shluchim, messengers, of our point of view, I am often met with skeptical glances. Sometimes people straight out disagree. Others agree in theory but find it hard to understand what shape that uniquely Jewish artist would take.

And then there are other Jewish artists who specifically use their art only to touch on Jewish themes, to send a message to the world about who we are. But, as we’ve seen with artists like Matisyahu and Jewda Maccabbe this is often a plan that backfires and ends up hurting many people in the process of helping.

So what’s the solution? Should we throw up our hands and just accept that we’re just Jews who happen to like expressing ourselves? Leave the spirituality to the rabbis?

To be honest, I wasn’t completely sure of the answer myself.

Until I saw perhaps the greatest living Hassidic Jewish musician, Yosef Karduner (a baal teshuva), live for the first time last week.

What I found amazing about Karduner was that almost all of his best songs are based off and/or directly quote specific lines and sections of Jewish seforim. Shir L’Malot, for example, is one of his most famous songs. Mikimi, which inspired the name of an organization I recently helped launch, is perhaps one of the most moving pieces of music I have ever heard.

This struck me as puzzling. How could something so seemingly formulaic succeed and strike a chord in so many people, even secular Jews? Could it just be that his music is catchy? I found that hard to believe.

In fact, it was only when Karduner spoke that I finally understood. Whenever he would describe how he came up with a song, there always seemed to be a pattern. He described some difficulty he was going through and how he was beating his head to figure it out. And then he would describe how he read something in Likutei Moharan or Tehillim or somewhere else that helped him figure out his problem.

That’s when it clicked in my head. Karduner’s music is so beautiful to him because Judaism is so real to him. Because whatever amount he learned, whatever he studied or internalized, hit him so deeply that he had to share it with the world, to put what was in his heart into ours.

In the secular world, artists are generally known for breaking the mold. For breaking tabboos. For challenging the status quo and sometimes even actively trying to change the society they inhabit.

A Jewish artist is meant to be the opposite. Like Yosef Karduner, most artists are incredibly internally sensitive, able to delve deeply into themselves. To break internal boundaries. That’s our job. No matter how much or how little learn, we are meant to make that part alive in our hearts because our hearts are alive more than the general world. And then the world needs to hear what’s singing, alive, and breathing within us.

We don’t aim to change society. We aim to change ourselves. We don’t try to break the mold. We try to break our facade, our ego, and get to what is real inside of us.

That’s what Yosef Karduner does so successfully. That’s why, unlike even most religious Jewish musicians and artists, he is very “frum”. He doesn’t dress any differently than the rest of his Chassidic group. He’s not out there aiming to break down and rebuild his society.

Instead, he’s reaching into each one of our souls and changing us from the inside.

Recently, I’ve gotten into a few debates with people that believe a Jewish artist is not a spiritual leader. That he can’t be depended upon to replace the position of a rabbi. That he can’t be a shliach, to use the parlance of Chabad. They point to Matisyahu and say, “See what happens!”

In a sense, these people are right. No one can replace a rabbi.

But on the other hand, if they don’t accept the unique leadership role that an artist has in the Jewish world, they are missing out on the revolution that is slowly happening with each step we get closer to Moshiach’s arrival.

Because a Jewish artist is a leader. He’s a leader of the heart. A shliach who, despite how little he may know relative to a rabbi, feels whatever he does learn more than anyone in the world. He’s the only one who can implant feeling into a person besides the person themself. And that is an incredible power.

We’re getting to the point as a Jewish society where we’re finally understanding that power. And the beauty of it is that we don’t have to do anything dramatic to take it to its completion. All we have to do is make sure we are breaking our internal mold. Transforming our hearts and then letting it out through our hands, mouth, or instrument. And then we just have to watch the world change in front of our eyes.





10 responses to “What Is A Jewish Artist?”

  1. MochinRechavim Avatar

    As an artist I connect deeply to what you write. Still, talent does not equal leader. A leader in the Torah world is someone who is able to internalize the depth of Torah and make it real not just for themselves but for everyone around them. This is exactly what an artist tries to do which is why being an artist is such a huge asset to the Torah world to the point that the Lubavitcher Rebbe paid for Nachshon’s art schooling. Still being famous and talented does not mean you are a leader. The Rebbe said any Chassid can BE a shliach, he did not say IS a shliach. Representing the Rebbe and spreading Chassidus is a huge mission and it cheapens it to say that a talented person who makes people feel inspired is a leader. A leader makes the inspiration last. A leader in Chabad is a lamplighter. We give the match that lights the neshamah. An artist can do this, but so can a businessman. Still, artists see the world in a way no one else does.

    1. Pop Chassid Avatar

      Everyone is a leader/shliach if they want to be, of course, as you said. But you’re right, it has to be done in the correct way. We’re not leaders by default. We’re leaders when we follow the directives given to us.

  2. Dvid Silva Avatar
    Dvid Silva

    I love yosef karduner too, but I don’t see the need to demerit the work of artists like Matisyahu, he is truly a Jewish artist, a truly sincere jewish artist, you might be well versed in Breslov and you know life is made of aliot and yeridot, and Matisyahu has found in both inspiration to create great songs all full of meaning.

    1. Pop Chassid Avatar

      I’m not trying to take down his work… but I think that there were issues he didn’t address in his rise to prominence as a Jewish artist, and it’s something we can and should all learn from.

  3. An ortho artist Avatar
    An ortho artist

    As a frum Jew everything you do is within the realm of the Torah. Being frum is a lifestyle choice, its not about potato kugel and chulent, but rather how you prepare your food. I.E you can still be a good Jew if you only eat Chinese food, so long as the food is kosher. As an artist one presents his view to the world, whether it is through music or printmaking. A Jewish artist does not necessarily need to present overtly Jewish themes in their work, but there are certain boundaries that one needs to be aware of such as tznius or things that go against the ideologies of the Torah. For example pulling an Asher Lev is really not a great idea. As an aside everything that we do as ( Orthodox) Jews is representative of us as a nation, whether or not we are Rabbi’s or Rebitzens, we still have the opportunity to be positively impact the world.

    1. Pop Chassid Avatar

      Agreed! Perfectly said. I love the kashrut analogy.

  4. Yehoishophot Oliver Avatar

    I don’t see the logic in arguing that because Matisyahu “lost his crown” R”l, therefore his original intention (to spread a message of Torah values to the general public) was misguided. Anyone who chooses to be in a high-profile, leadership position takes a similar risk. Many leaders have fallen, and many haven’t. I don’t see how it has anything to do with art per se. The greater risk of doing damage just comes with the territory of being in such a position to do good. I am reminded of this Hayom Yom:

    My father once said to a Rav, who labored in avoda and was an especially diligent scholar: A Rav must remember at all times and at every moment that he always stands on the threshold between being one of those who bring merit to the public and, G-d forbid, one of those who cause the public to sin – the threshold between the loftiest of heights and the most abysmal depth. All issues must touch him at the innermost core of his soul, literally, because his very soul is at stake.

    1. Pop Chassid Avatar

      I don’t see how you can’t separate the two. You can’t just say he did this and it was good and his “fall” was something completely distinct. I just don’t see how anyone can say that.

      1. Yehoishophot Oliver Avatar

        Of course it was related. But you appear to be claiming that a. led directly, inexorably to b., and I dispute that. He had (and still has; iy”H he will reclaim it) a calling to be a leader for Judaism through his role as a musician. This calling involved certain risks. Other people have other kinds of public callings for Judaism that involve other risks.

        The sad lesson, it appears to me, should be “how do I protect myself, with Hashem’s help, from the risks involved in my calling” not “if my calling involves risks, forget it.”

  5. The Other Mike Avatar
    The Other Mike

    It is wonderful that Jewish artists are making music that can bring light into the world and to increase people’s involvement with Judaism. Rather than getting twisted up over a pop star like Matisyahu, we should be giving our attention to these spiritual musicians.

    I really appreciate you introducing us to Yosef Karduner and would like to reciprocate by introducing you to Nava Tehila. I have fallen in love with their Kabbalat Shabbat service over the last few months, their setting the psalms and zemirot to modern music without ever betraying the integrity of the prayer service. It can be found on Spotify and can be listened to an hour before sundown on Erev Shabbat. I do not keep the restrictions of kol isha so I have no problem listening to such music, but you or some of your readers might.

    Spiritual musicians can do wonders in helping baal teshuvahs, gerim, and children of secularized Jews reconnect with the traditional services. I can say that they have helped me and have caused Kabbalat Shabbat to become my favorite service of the week, whether the musicians or the hazzan leads it.

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