Why Jewish Artists Need To Rebel Against “Holiness”

It’s called the holy yetzer hara. The holy “evil voice”.

Ever heard of it?

It’s like a rabbi who convinces you not to eat kosher. A rebbe who convinces you that you’re being holy if you attack and degrade another person.

It’s lies wrapped in a voice of velvet beauty.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where the holy yetzer hara has gotten stronger than ever.

The best example of this is the voice inside of most Jewish artists.

“I can’t share this with the world! It might hurt me. It might hurt my family. I can’t do that!”

“Being too personal isn’t tznius! Being open is dangerous!”

“Better to focus on praying. On Torah study. Yes, yes, then I’ll be holy.”

“My kids need me. I can’t take any time out of my day to do a lick of art. No no, maybe in a few years.”

The voice infects us.

For whatever reason, people have decided that, even if they feel a connection to art, they shouldn’t pursue it because, well, it’s just not a holy thing for them to do.

It’s always sad to me when I hear this holy yetzer hara, especially when people believe in it so much that they articulate it, defend it, argue it.

Even worse, their rabbis, mentors, teachers, parents, encourage it. People that would rather play it safe than let their charges take a risk.

But here’s the thing. G-d gave you an ability. A desire. A feeling that this is something you want to do.

Higher than logic. Higher than being (culturally) frum. Higher than physical reality.

The desire, that drive, in you is real. And when you ignore it, you are ignoring a feeling G-d gave you. A feeling G-d demands that you grab, hold, and strangle.

All those thoughts that your time would be better spent doing this holy thing or that holy thing: that’s like the people that think they don’t need to work, but instead should be studying Torah all day.

Sure, there are some folks that need to study Torah all day. But most don’t. Most are charged by G-d to go out into the world.

It’s a lie that sounds holy. And so you listen to it, because it’s safe to listen to it, and because maybe your mentor or rabbi is telling you the same thing. Maybe your husband doesn’t get it. Or your parents discourage it. Either way, they’re all reenforcing that voice.

Ignore them. They have their own yetzer haras too, ya know. And I’m sure they want the best for you.

But only you know you. Only you understand what drives you, what moves you.

And if you want to make art, that’s a holy thing.

As holy as a person that goes out and works for a living to feed his family. Is that person off the derech because he isn’t studying 8 hours a day? G-d forbid. He’s leading the life G-d wants him to live.

So, if you are listening to that yetzer hara, and you think it’s holy… it’s time to rebel. It’s time to fight.

Not because there is something wrong with you. Not because you are disconnecting from G-d. Not because you aren’t connected to truth.

But because of the opposite. Because you know that it would be a sin not to use the strengths G-d gave you. Because you realize that just because something sounds holy doesn’t mean it is. And just because other people think something isn’t holy doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.

  • BTW, this post wasn’t supposed to go up today, but there’s been a fascinating convo happening on my personal Facebook profile, and I felt like it deserved to be put up.

    Feel free to look here: https://www.facebook.com/nehorai

  • AsherO

    It isn’t black and white, but rebellion against “Holiness” often turns into a rebellion against holiness. This might be caused by parents and educators who misrepresent holiness as “Holiness”.

    Creativity and holiness aren’t mutually exclusive, we just have to find the right balance.

    • Totally agreed. I think, though, that the more people that realize they’re BEING holy by rebelling, the less that will go the other way. I think the problem is that many feel trapped because they think to rebel in this way means to rebel against all Judaism, G-d forbid.

  • I mostly agree with this (well, having just finished writing a poem, I would!). But I don’t fully agree with this bit: ““I can’t share this with the world! It might hurt me. It might hurt my family. I can’t do that!” Just because a person is called on to produce art, that doesn’t mean they have a right to hurt other people. If this is just a way of putting things off, like the other excuses you mention, that’s one thing. But if they think there is a real danger of hurting someone (e.g. they’re writing a roman a clef and think the real identity of the characters might be detected) than that’s a more complex question.

    (It’s debatable whether they have a right to hurt themselves, but that’s another question.)

    • For sure! G-d forbid they should go around hurting people for the sake of art. That’s actually something that really bugs me about the way the secular world looks at art. I’m writing a memoir right now and one of the biggest recommendations people get is to make sure not to filter anything, even if it “bothers” (hurts) their parents. I really disagree with this approach.

      What I’m talking about here is a voice that lies to us, convincing us that whatever we create will inevitably hurt someone else. Maybe because something we wrote hurt someone in the past inadvertently. Or because someone warned us it will.

      I think the difference is when someone looks at in a way that stops them from creating ANYTHING, or creating what they really want to create. Because once it’s created you could always edit it to take out the stuff that would hurt people. You could even choose not to share it. But if you choose not to make anything, there is something else going on.

  • Art is not holy–it is mundane at best. Moreover, plenty of extremely talented artists are unbelievers. You use the analogy of working. Working is not holy; it is something that should be done for the sake of serving Hashem. Even then it is not holy, just the mundane serving the holy. The Torah teaches that nothing in the world has inherent value. “Kol ma’asecha yihyu leshem Shomayim” (see here)–the purpose of everything in the world is to be used as a tool to serve Hashem.

    Likewise, for a frum Yid, art should not be viewed as having inherent value. “Creative expression” is not an end in itself. If it can be used in a kosher way for a kosher purpose, then do so, by all means–the Rebbe firmly supported frum artists, as far as I know. But the two goals can conceivably conflict; or, put better, art can fail to serve the purpose of kedusha and instead detract from it. If so, then art is just another enticement of the evil inclination–only a more sophisticated one, and therefore a more insidious one.

    Moreover, it should be made clear that not every boich sevara–every idea that comes up in one’s heart and mind is correct and true. The chances are, in fact, that it’s not true, for, as explained in Tanya ch. 29, one’s natural thoughts and feelings and self-identity come from the Nefesh Habehamis, which may well judge in a biased, subjective, and false manner (see here). Only after much care and research in Torah sources, and effort in prayer, can one transcend self-interest and reach true objectivity (see here).

    On the importance of shame according to Torah, and the lack of it that often goes along with art and fiction, see the excellent posts here, here, and here.

    • I agree 100% that art should be used for holy purposes. That’s exactly the point here. A person who has the drive to create art has that drive because G-d wants him to do something holy with it. I agree that art without holiness is mundane at best.

      But that doesn’t change the fact that we were put here to do it, if so driven. The question of HOW we do it is just the next step.

      • Shneur Tarlow

        Elad, I think that Yehoshophot’s point may have been along these lines: There is a ma’amor where the Rebbe explains at great length that the mistake of Korach was that he took the idea of Dirah B’tachtonim and understood it to mean that the Tachtoin/mundane has inherent value and holiness….

        • Perhaps he was not mistaken. Perhaps he understood the Law of One; Adonai Echad…ain ode!

    • Chava Erica Shapiro

      I don’t understand how you can say that art is not holy, that working is not holy. Chassidus teaches that Hashem wants a dirah in a tachton. Art, work, etc – that is a tachton, and by engaging it in a holy way we are fulfilling G-d’s purpose for creation. When we do that, it becomes holy. How could it not? It’s the actualization of G-d’s will, of our entire purpose in this world – to take the mundane and make it holy. (see Tanya ch 37)

      • BAM.

      • Yehoishophot Oliver

        There is a fundamental difference between kedusha and chol, holiness and mundane. The concept of havdalah, which is what we recite at the end of Shabbos, is in order to separate between the two. A blurring of the lines leads to a blurring of values, and is antithetical to Torah. If the chol is viewed as inherently valuable, then the kodesh will be demoted. See my post along these lines here:

        In contrast, secular wisdom should be viewed as merely a tool. It has no inherent value; rather, its purpose is only fulfilled when it is used in a way that serves a holy purpose, such as for the sake of earning a living, to facilitate better understanding of certain Torah topics, and the like.[9] This knowledge should inform the attitude and feeling that one has while studying this wisdom, if and when it may be appropriate. One should always be conscious that this study is purely a means to an end, a handmaiden to the mistress of Torah and divine service.

        • Chava Erica Shapiro

          When one uses parchment to make a mezuzah scroll, the parchment is no longer a “tool”; it is holy. When one gives money to tzedaka, that money is no longer a “tool”; it is holy. When a person uses art to increase awareness of G-d, it is no longer merely a “tool”; it is holy.

          From Tanya Ch 37: “By virtue of performing [a mitzvah] a person suffuses a flood of light of the blessed En Sof from above downwards, to be clothed in the corporeality of the world, in something that was previously under the dominion of kelipat nogah, from which it had received its vitality… When a person performs the Divine commandment and will by means of these things… the vitality that is in them ascends and is dissolved and absorbed into the blessed En Sof, which is His blessed will that is clothed in them, since therein there is no concealment of Countenance whatever, to obscure His blessed light.”

          • This has got to be one of my favorite discussions on this site.

          • Yehoishophot Oliver

            Thanks, I am very familiar with that chapter.

            I agree that when art is indeed used to increase awareness of Hashem, it becomes elevated to holiness to a certain significant degree. My point is that the medium of art in and of itself (before one uses it successfully for the sake of holiness) should not be viewed as inherently valuable, but simply as another tool among many that exists for the purpose of benefiting holiness.

            Put differently, the true Torah artist feels that the Torah is the ikar and he is simply using his artistic talents for Torah’s benefit. One who is lacking in faith and avodah, however, may feel on some level that his artistic skill and aspirations have inherent value, and define his core self, but since he’s a frum Jew/self-professed chossid after all, he’ll express these aspirations through depicting Torah themes and not secular ones. This point may seem inconsequential to some, but I think it is very significant in this whole discussion. The nafka mina will be that the former type will always be careful that his work conforms to standards of tznius and refinement, even if he needs to sacrifice some of the openness that is part and parcel of artistic expression. In contrast, the latter type will produce supposedly Jewish works that are “off” and somehow lacking in refinement, which the G-d-fearing observer will be able to readily discern.

            Also, it should be noted that there is a difference between the elevation that takes place through different Mitzvos. Right now, for example, I am sitting on my laptop and using it to write Torah, but that does make the computer an inherently holy object. Nor has the internet become holy, or the electric wires through which this electronic message is traveling vast distances, or the chair upon which I am sitting. Rather, all these things remain mundane; they become refined and elevated to a certain degree without becoming inherently holy.

            In contrast, leather used for parchment for Mezuzos, a Sefer Torah, etc. becomes inherently holy, and there are specific halachos for how we are to treat holy objects (e.g., they must be buried and cannot be destroyed), and different levels of such objects. Sometimes this holiness, even when associated with a Mitzvah min haTorah, is temporary; for example, after Sukkos, the Sukkah and the Four Species no longer have the holiness that they did during the Festival. Etc.

          • Many will be very surpprised when they leave this realm and upon entering the next, there is no care or questioning whatsoever about what religion one was and what they believed. If anything, from experience of multitudes who have glimpsed the other side through near death experiences, the more rigid one’s belief system is here, the more difficult it is to ascend to higher dimensions hereafter. God does not care if you’re Jewish. God is not Jewish. God has no preferences. We place all of these limitations on the transcendent. All the self-righteous babble is to no avail ultimately. If one’s identity is fixed to body, work, group, religion; they’ll be recycled back to here.

      • Nate

        DOUBLE BAM

    • Shame is a tactic to keep others in submission. It does not expand consciousness, but creates contraction and further distortion of self. God does not shame anything in creation, which is all God itself manifesting and experiencing Itself. Adonai echad- AIN ODE!

  • disqus_xURDJ6tKHc

    wow a lot of people are ragging on this article. Im an artist and I resonated with this article. This article is a niche piece and is meant for certain people in this world. Although I think the author is generalizing here, I do feel that this is a passion piece and is something very personal to the author as words ‘that are from the heart enter the heart’, and I felt it. Everyone is right here, there is a balance. Now I am not directing this to any specific passions because I feel that everyone has a certain derech that they are meant to take, but I feel that its human nature for people to put off certain things because they are scared. But its fright not piety. And do you wanna know what! the yetzer hara loves it, it eats it up. Because who is going to tell someone not to be so religious! Although we can never decipher what people’s true intentions are, we shouldnt judge, but if someone is struggling with this fright, then I think this article is needed. A person needs to find what makes that person unique in this world. And this is the most holy thing, because Hashem only made one of you. To deny that because of fright is like when Moshe Rabeinu was scared to lead the Jewish people. And look how that turned out. Thats the thrust here; Light is much superior when it comes from darkness. So really this article is meant for all. All need to find what makes them, well ‘them.’ A person should reflect and see if it is this fear that consumes them. If it is then they should know that they arent being pious, they are petrified, there’s a difference there. Now I dont agree with this article totally, because well no truth is without its lies (as some previous commenters should realize), but it resonated nonetheless. Thanks

  • Moully

    I could not agree more

    • Best endorsement I could’ve asked for.

      • Moully

        I have a talk i give when i show my work, and this concept is an integral part of it.

  • ravshmuel

    “v’hasair satan milfaneinu umai’achareinu” – mai’achareinu is the yetzer hara’s push from behind to be more “Frum” in a way that actually leads us further from a true relationship with haKadosh Baruch hu. As an artist who has struggled with these pious voices both internally and externally my whole life – I think you’ve hit the bullseye with this post. I daven for the day when our communities will learn to treasure the incredibly holy gift of creativity in art the same way we treasure chesed for example. No one would say that chesed is not holy yet if you consider for a moment you’ll realize that chesed can be done in extremely unholy ways. But no one ever says don’t do chesed – it’s dangerous and you might end up only serving yourself… Until we recognize the true value in individuality and self-expression in service of seeking a relationship with the divine we will be stuck with rabbonim and advisors who devalue one of the most important and transcendant gifts that haShem has granted his most sublime creation – human beings.

    Rav Shmuel

    • Beautiful beautiful beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  • Nate

    A MUST READ

    This article sums up you’re point beautifully, especially because the Lubavitcher Rebbe endorsed this artist..

    I was pretty pissed off, to say the least after reading some of the ridiculous comments on your post. They definitely dont represent the true Chabad approach.

    http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/395099/jewish/The-Chassidic-Artists-Tale.htm

  • Nate
  • Nate

    A MUST READ

    This article sums up you’re point beautifully, especially because the Lubavitcher Rebbe endorsed this artist..

    http://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/395099/jewish/The-Chassidic-Artists-Tale.htm

    I was pretty upset, to say the least ,after reading some (or one?) of the comments on your post. They definitely dont represent the true Chabad approach. Don’t give me a megillah please.

  • Shneur Tarlow

    Great post! Definitely a lot of truth in there…

  • “Ayeh makom kivodoh?
    Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh….maleh col ha-aretz kivodoh, & kivodoh maleh ha-olam”
    Ha-aretz refers to God’s glory filling the entire physical world that we see. Ha-olam refers to God’s glory filling all the hidden worlds, what we do not see with our physical eyes.
    We cover our eyes when saying Shema, declaring, remembering, that All is from and is Source. Hashem is not only in the field, Hashem IS the field. Our creations are God expressing through us. God is not an art critic.