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Rabbi Boris, January/February 2013

Over the past few months, our humble synagogue has been blessed to be filled with artistic images of life and culture, from the hills of Jerusalem to the flowing curves of hand painted wedding ketubot, to the moving photographs of heroic women from around the world in Mobility International’s “Brilliant and Resilient” exhibition. I was especially moved and surprised by the incredible talent of so many of the artists in our community whose art was displayed during our recent Chanukah exhibit. What a joy to walk down the hall and be surrounded by such color and creativity!

I believe that art is as necessary to our experience as a spiritual community as the sounds of prayer and music that fill the sanctuary on Friday nights. The entire experience of prayer and spiritual connection is often as much influenced by what we see around us as the words we say. There is a very good reason why the mystics of Tsfat who created the ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat to welcome in the day of rest were said to stand on the hills of their village as they sang Lecha Dodi and prayed and danced with joy. For them the power of the sights and experience of being outdoors was a necessary inspiration for them to connect to God and to each other.

The architect Frank Lloyd designed one of his most well-known places of worship, Beth Shalom Congregation in Philadelphia, to remind worshipers of a “luminous Mt. Sinai” as they sat amidst the towering multicolored glass walls. Our own sanctuary is bordered by the full wall of windows looking out into the courtyard garden, bringing the ever-changing images of the outdoors (and often the sounds of rain) into our prayer space. And the most recent addition, the beautiful and flowing words of “Ufros Aleinu” now grace the front of the sanctuary inspiring all those who gaze up at the ark to reflect on the “tent of peace” which we create when we gather together as a community. While there is still room on our sanctuary walls for more art and color, I know that as our community grows, our building will be filled with even more of these inspirational pathways into experiencing the world.

Judaism sees our lives as art, and the work we do in the world as the most deep and authentic artistic expressions. There are many artists who see their art as the most honest expressions of their spirituality and faith. Archie Rand, a well-known painter who is known for his paintings on Jewish themes including a series on the weekly Torah portion, sees art and religion as almost inseparable modes of expression. He once wrote in Hadassah magazine: “Belief is an essential component of artistic creation. Sometimes people think that passion, emotion, enthusiasm, subconscious psychological activity can exist totally removed from spirituality. You can’t function as an artist and not have faith.”

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of art to our experience as a spiritual community and we need to remind ourselves that even if we have never picked up a paintbrush, we are all artists. The works that we create–the relationships and the experiences of our lives that we paint on a daily basis are the ways that we make sense of what we see, hear and know in the world. As Jews, we are asked to be artists of interpretation, given the opportunity to take each moment to ask questions, challenge each other and create life anew. This is what the rabbis did when they wrote commentaries on the Torah, and this is what we do when we take on the challenge and joy of making meaning from our traditions and heritage.

Ultimately, Judaism asks us not just to sit back and watch other create, but to be artists ourselves, part of the act of creation, of interpretation and of the search for meaning in our lives. We have to make Judaism our own, and can only do this when we understand the need to use the “palate” of our individual lives, experiences and values to add color and layers to the traditions that are handed down to us. We are continuing the work of creation through all the work we do in the world, but we first have to be present enough to see where the world needs our help. As the poet Marge Piercy writes: “Bless whatever you can, with eyes and hands and tongue. If you can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.” There is a time to be observers, and there is a time to take out our paint brushes and create. May our works of art bring more peace, joy and compassion into the world.

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