“Variations On The Theme”
By Rabbi Batshir Torchio, ’13
In 1976 a court decided that legendary Beatle, George Harrison had copied the Chiffons song, “He’s So Fine” and transposed it into what became the hit “My Sweet Lord.” The case was settled out of court with Harrison claiming he was left traumatized and too paranoid to return to song writing. The artist’s soul was, for some time confused, bruised and breathless.
Several years ago as a student in a Philosophy of Aesthetics class at Columbia, our teacher, an expert on 18th century ideas of Beauty and Virtue, shared theories on this topic, including those of the philosopher Anthony Ashley Cooper (the third Earl of Shaftesbury, 1671-1713). Shaftesbury believed that art and beauty are a kind of harmony and order, and that it is, what he called, mind-dependent; the beauty and artistic potential of the universe is dependent on the mind of God. For Shaftesbury, God alone is the universe’s artist-creator.
So what does it mean to be a stamp of the divine, and for us to be original creators of art and beauty? What is the relationship between original and copy, invention and plagiarism? Who is the author of creation?
Before Shaftesbury artists rarely signed their names to creative pieces because they chummed together in guilds, valuing their work as craftsmen. The 16th century conception of artistic originality marked a shift from earlier periods of art history a Roman copy of a Greek statue was just as ‘original’ as its source. Now, to copy was to simulate something more than just form. It was to simulate an artist’s ideas too, in most cases fraudulently. And this is true even when the original is not unique — in a series of prints, for instance. Numerous philosophers and theorists in the last few decades proposed that modern media killed the possibility of originality. The border between original and copy, invention and plagiarism, is constantly up for negotiation and court battle. Some would say that no work of art arrives from nothing. Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, one of the most copies works of western art history, is based on an Italian Renaissance print.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel we re-meet the artisan, Bezalel, the divinely designated craftsman and transmitter of beauty who along with Oholiab, will create every feature of the Tabernacle, its dimensions and its furnishings. At their introduction, Moses informs the Israelites that Bezalel has been endowed with a divine spirit of numerous skills — from carving to embroidery, stone setting, and basin making, to cherubim sculpting. (35:30-31) Through God’s benefaction, Bezalel, Oholiab, and “every skilled person whom the Lord endowed with the skill” (36:2) will create beauty that is to become a home on earth for God. We might understand this verse to mean that it is as a result of divine direction that these individuals are assigned such an awesome task, but more, that they are able to create at all.
The Hebrew in verse 31 suggests that a more intimate relationship between God and us, and us and each other, is at the foundation of all human creation. The English translation of verse 31 reads: He (Bezalel) is endowed with a divine spirit of skill (hokhmah), ability (t’vunah), and knowledge (da’at). Rashi defines “skill” as what a person learns from others; “ability” as the result of one’s own experience, and “knowledge” as divine inspiration. These are the materials necessary for creating: being in relationship, practicing, and listening for God.
It’s my sense that every act of creation is a kind of plagiarism, an echo of Genesis, a copycat of divine orchestration. What if we imagine purest connectivity to divine spirit in the act of our own creations? The source and sudden impulse of creativity, in tandem with me and You — God the Source? The Creator inspiring us to dip into vats of exquisite color and dimension? Vayakhel is a reminder that we are all artists in residence on this brief trek on earth with God as our source and each other as co-creators.