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.