My article for Shma Kolaynu, a publication of the Young Israel of West Hempstead Sisterhood.
Halachot & Creativity
By Ann D. Koffsky
Succot is coming, and like everything Jewish, there are lots of rules-we call them halachot. This many walls. This many tefachim. This type of roof.
Then we pile on top of those even more regulations: Exactly what is a wall? Do all the walls need to be complete? What must the roof be made of? So many halachot. So many pages of Talmudic dialogues about them.
Why all these dictates? Is the halachic system doing everything in its power to make sure that we each build the exact same sukkah, like a giant, halachic robot army?
Well, we all know that’s not going to happen. In fact, every sukkah built in West Hempstead this year will be both halachic and unique. Even those made using a pre-fab modular design, will, by the time the decorations are hung and the candles lit be as distinct and special as the family that builds it.
Indeed when Sukkah City, an architectural design competition that was hosted in Union Square Park in 2010, challenged artists to design sukkot, while keeping to halachic parameters, the resulting works produced were wonderfully, incredibly creative and fantastically unique. There were sukkot of cardboard, sukkot of spikes and bamboo. One had a log as its roof. Another was crafted with tangled wire and transparent walls. Each artist followed the same rules and halachot that we follow when we build our own sukkot each year, and yet each of the over 600 designs submitted to the completion managed to somehow be different from all the others! (After Yom tov, go to www.sukkahcity.com if you would like to see pictures. There is even a documentary about the exhibit. It’s directed by…wait for it…Jason Hutt. Get it? Hut. Ha.)
So, conformity cannot be the goal of these rules, because if that is their goal, then they have failed spectacularly each and every Sukkot.
In fact Rabbi Beryl Wein, in a discussion about the twelve tribes, points out that not only is conformity not a Torah goal, it is actually the antithesis of human nature and therefore the antithesis of Torah! Twelve tribes exist, he suggests, because it is important for Am Yisroel to include varied personalities and talents. He writes:
“It seems to me that the Torah here is emphasizing the important, but often overlooked, difference between unity and conformity. Each of the tribes, and certainly each of the leaders of those tribes, bring something different to the table of society…”
“… The task of ancient and modern Israel – and of the Jewish people as a whole- is to create the unity of spirit and commitment that the Torah represents, without falling into the trap of tyrannical conformity.”
By this thinking, conformity cannot be the goal, because conformity is a trap to avoid! So then the question still stands: what is the point of having so many boundaries and rules?
Now you wouldn’t think so, but as an artist, I find rules and boundaries very necessary. I say you wouldn’t think so because many have this romantic idea that artists like to be free and unfettered, and able to express themselves without limits or care. But in fact, one of the most difficult things that someone can ask me to do as an artist is to please “make a pretty picture of anything.”
Anything? An open-ended art direction like that is the very best way to ensure that no art will actually be made. How can I possibly pick from the infinite choice of ANYTHING and figure out what to create? A directive like that freezes my creativity faster than a cold night in a sukkah with no chicken soup!
But if you ask me to:
Make a piece of art that celebrates Rosh Hashonah for a 5×7 greeting card
Write and illustrate a 32-page picture book about tzedakah
Paint something on a specific wall in the HANC lobby that will reflect Jewish ideals
Then I can come up something! Those parameters, those limits, give me a frame to work within, and a goal to work towards.
Albert Einstein and his friends felt similarly. Well, the fictional Albert Einstein, as portrayed in Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, did. Martin wrote the following scene:
Einstein (indicates a painting by Matisse): What makes it so great?
Sagot: I‘ll show you what makes it great. (He goes to the bar and picks up the Matisse. He takes it out of its frame. He holds up the frame.) This is what makes it great.
Gaston: The frame?
Sagot: The boundaries. The edge. Otherwise, anything goes. You want to see a soccer game where the players can run up into the stands with the ball and order a beer? No. They‘ve got to stay within the boundaries to make it interesting. In the right hands, this little space is as fertile as Eden.
So perhaps the goal of all these halachot is actually the opposite of conformity; that, in fact, they are there to help our own uniqueness and creativity shine and allow us to each serve Hashem in our own unique fashion. Unified of spirit, as Rabbi Wein states, but unique in our path and approach. As Martin wrote, the frame, the boundaries make it interesting; they allow us to be interesting as well.
My Sukkah this year will be of the pre-fab variety, and decorated with strings of colored lights, projects my kids have made over the years, and maybe some plastic fruit from Michael’s. What will yours be? How will your Sukkah be yours this year?
How will your year be uniquely yours this year?
… Ul’ner tamid ekach li ess aish ha’akeidah, Ul’korban akriv lo ess nafshi,Ess nafshi hayechidah – [In the Tabernacle that I will build in my heart] I will take as the ner tamid/the perpetual flame the fire of the flame on Yitzchak’s altar, and upon it I will offer [to God] my soul, my own unique soul.
May we all be inscribed in the book of life, and good health, and able to use our own unique character and soul in the service of Hashem.
To The Daughter of the King,
In your last letter, you asked me a very important question: “Why does it bother you so much that women’s pictures do not appear in the FJJ? Why do you care?”
I can ask you the same question: Why do you care enough to write back to me?
And we can ask the same question of the many, many other letter writers who have been dialoging on this issue as well. Why do we all care? If it’s just a simple photo choice—isn’t that trivial? Why should we all be spending any time at all on this nahrishkeit?
I think we ALL care: me, the daughter of the king, and others, because we know that in fact it is NOT just a simple photo choice. It matters. What we choose to show or not show, include or not include, says something about our values and the culture of our community. It send messages to our children about those values, too.
Creating a new policy that women are not to be included visually in printed materials, no matter if they are dressed in a tznius fashion, is a critical and new decision that has long reaching ramifications. I have the impression that all the pros and cons of that decision have not been explored or thought about deeply enough in our community. And since it has so many far reaching consequences, many of which I have outlined in my previous letters…YES, I most certainly care.
But, I also think that I’ve fully expressed my thinking on the matter, and it’s time for me to sign off. I don’t want to overstay my welcome on these pages! Many thanks to the editorial board of the FJJ for allowing others to read my words. I hope this dialogue has raised awareness, prompted discussion, and has made us all “care” a little more about our culture and the choices we are all making for it.
Wishing all the readers of the FJJ a meaningful three weeks,
Ann D. Koffsky
PS The Daughter of the King mentioned that she found it compelling that the Jewish Observer had included photos of women. If anyone is interested in seeing this, I have begun A Photo Essay of Jewish Women. Simply search for my boards on Pinterest, and you can see it, and many other compelling images, there.
My intended response:
To the Daughter of the King,
Thank you for dialoging with me on this issue!
If you will indulge me, I’d like to respond your arguments from both your letters:
You suggest that by pointing to old Jewish artwork I am being disingenuous, since that was artwork, and we are discussing photos. You are correct; the Sarajevo artists who illuminated the famous 12th century Haggadah, for example, did not have photographs, so they used artwork. However, I have also mentioned that frum Jewish media has also always included photographs of women, including the Jewish Observer, the publication of the Agudah. Not showing images of women is a new idea, that began in the 1990s. (I believe that the first publication to do so in the US was the Yated.)
You quote Ruth Lichtenstein, saying there is a 1000s of year old tradition for this.
Yes, there is 1000s year old tradition for us to be modest. However, not including women is NOT part of our tradition; it is a brand -spanking new policy.
You point out that men have the obligation of shmiras anayim.
Yep.The Gemara even says that men may not gaze upon even a small finger of a woman. Yet, there is no halacha that women wear gloves; we show our provocative fingers out in public all the time! Perhaps that is because men have a responsibility; Women do NOT have to wear gloves, but men still have to not gaze at their fingers.
Honestly? I really think that most of our men are strong enough to handle the challenge of seeing a modestly dressed woman at the grocery store, and a modestly dressed woman in the newspaper. Don’t you? (If not, we gotta all get us some burqas…)
You suggested that showing our outstanding women like Sara Shenirer would be OK as inspiration, but does not apply to women today, since no one today is as impressive.
Here I must disagree with you most strenuously! Do you really think there are no amazing women out there today? Really? You must meet some more Jewish women; we have a wealth of riches! Are any of them as amazing as Sara Shenirer? Probably not, that’s a high bar. But why should we deny our kids today’s great role models?
You quoted the classic saying, that “The dignity of the daughter is to remain concealed in her palace”, not ogled by all and sundry. You also cited Sara as a role model, for choosing to be in the tent.
I simply do not think that in our society, a woman must stay home all the time. It is tznius, and entirely OK for women to enter the public sphere if their dress is appropriate. They can be tznius, AND walk outside, enter the workforce, drive carpool, go to school, deliver food to the hungry, teach in our schools, run a gemach…and appear on the pages of the FJJ.
Yes, Sara was in the tent, and she is an amazing example. But, Devorah was under the palm tree, serving as judge. She is an exceptional example, too. Our Torah has given us an amazingly diverse group of women in roles, both public and private, as models. How wonderful that we have so many choices of how to serve Hashem!
Thank you again for taking the time to dialogue with me,
Daughter of a Rabbi and Rebbetzin