Wednesday, June 15, 2011

God is Beautiful?

Two days before the annual meeting of the Jewish Center and Federation on June 14, I attended the annual meeting of the Southern Tier Interfaith Coalition (STIC).

The STIC annual meeting included a presentation by George Dardess and Peggy Rosenthal that was based on their book Reclaiming Beauty for the Good of the World: Muslim & Christian Creativity as Moral Power


In a nutshell, their book explores Christian and Muslim beliefs (George is an ordained Roman Catholic deacon and a scholar of Islam) through the art inspired by them, and argues that religious art is not merely decorative, but a means of motivating adherents to live beautiful lives—lives devoted to the service of God and humanity.

I was surprised that they found many similarities between Christian and Muslim religious art, because much of Christian religious art is representational, even allowing representation of Divine beings, and Muslim religious art never is. Jewish religious art falls in the middle: we have no pictorial representations of God—“graven images” are forbidden, and it’s a fundamental Jewish belief that God has no physical form—but we permit representations of historical persons such as Moses or Miriam as long as they do not become objects of worship.

Rosenthal and Dardess don’t discuss Judaism in their book, and I think that it might be difficult to make the same argument. Although the latter part of Exodus directed the Israelites to have the ritual objects for the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness, made by the best artisans and of the finest materials, neither visual arts nor music had a prominent role in Jewish religious life from the destruction of the Second Temple until modern times.

On the other hand, we have a tradition called
hiddur mitzvah, the enhancement (or beautification) of mitzvah. This refers to our preference for using beautiful ritual objects instead of utilitarian ones. For example, it is completely permissible to light Shabbat candles in glass candleholders from the dollar store, and doing so fulfills the mitzvah, but many families choose to use silver or brass candlesticks, or one-of-a-kind candleholders made by an artist. Tradition warns us, however, about going too far with hiddur mitzvah; it would be wrong to be more concerned about the quality of the object than about the meaning of the mitzvah, and once we have nice Shabbat candlesticks, we usually don’t search for better ones.

Part of Dardess and Rosenthal’s thesis is that the beauty of religious art represents the beauty of God. Jewish liturgy uses many adjectives to describe God, but beautiful is not typical; God is more often described as awe-inspiring—not the colloquial sense of “awesome,” but something closer to fearsome.

The most characteristic adjective describing God in Jewish though, however, is
holy, and the Torah tells us that because God is holy, we should be holy. We achieve holiness by—guess what—devoting our lives to the service of God and humanity. So the goal seems to be the same even though the means may be different.