Interesting series of mini-interviews at Moment. Here are four of my favorites.
THE ORIGINS OF JEWISH CREATIVITY
Moment Talks With Artists, Scientists and Scholars to Illuminate the Source of Human Creativity
The dominant theory about creativity is that it is the result of the blending of two different idea networks. The classic example is Picasso, who took the idea network of the Western artistic tradition and the idea network of African masks—not just their physical look but the spirituality implied by them—and jammed them together like two galaxies crashing. That’s how it works: Two networks crash, and out of the ensuing clashes, conflicts, congruences, you spin off new things. So creativity is very rarely inventing something new out of whole cloth; it’s using two or more old things to create new combinations. The theory of why Jews are so accomplished has to do with them living in what one historian calls “verges”—spots where different cultures come together, whether it’s Jerusalem, Istanbul, Baghdad or New York, places with a lot of traders, a lot of coming and going, where ideas are clashing. And then as Jews we’ve got our own experience of our minority culture clashing with whatever majority culture we’re living in—whether Christian or something else. That gives us the ideal space for new things to come in. It gives you a Saul Bellow, for instance, mixing his Jewish heritage with the tough guy culture of Chicago, so he ends up with a sensibility that’s part Chicago tough guy and part Talmudic intellectual. That’s my theory.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times and the author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.
Einstein said it perfectly: Religion without science is blind. A Jewish mystic said that when the Torah came into the world, it was split in two parts—one part was given on Sinai and the other part is nature. Creativity arises from wonder, from being amazed at the magnificence of the world—wondering what’s underlying all the amazing complexity we see all around us. Judaism favors asking questions, whereas some religions expect you to take everything on faith. The very fact that Jews ask questions means they’re being creative because they’re wondering how things work. Doubting isn’t against our faith; for me, doubting is part of it. Doubting is trying to understand how the world works. The subtlety of biblical text itself encourages trying to understand its deeper meaning, looking below the surface to understand what’s really there. Creativity is digging below the surface and finding what’s under the superficial world we see. And in this sense, I think Moses was creative because he realized that God wants arguments.
Gerald Schroeder is a physicist and also teaches at Aish HaTorah College of Jewish Studies. He is author of four books, including The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom.
The Zohar, the foundational text of kabbalah, is a celebration of creativity—it shows how the Torah endlessly unfolds in meaning. Jacob ben-Sheshet Gerondi, a 13th century kabbalist, said it’s a mitzvah for every wise person to innovate in Torah according to his capacity. That’s refreshing because you often hear the traditional notion, to accept what’s been handed down or to learn from the master because you’re not able to create on your own. But ben-Sheshet says (after conveying one of his innovations), “If I hadn’t invented it in my mind I would say that this was transmitted to Moses at Mt. Sinai.” He’s aware that his interpretation is new, but he thinks it harmonizes with the ultimate source of tradition—the creative work itself is somehow deeply connected to an ancient mainstream. An essential component of all creativity is tapping into something deeper than your normal state of mind.
The basic approach of the rabbis is to apply midrash to reading the Torah—the rabbis are willing to be very bold in their interpretation. It’s natural for a Jew to be bold and innovative—that’s the secret to keeping the tradition alive. The Zohar reads the very opening words of the Torah radically. Instead of “In the beginning God created,” it’s “In the beginning the Infinite created God.” It sounds bizarre to say that God is the object of creation, but I think the meaning is that what we think of as God doesn’t do justice to the true nature of God, which they call ein sof, “without end.” Going beyond traditional midrash, the Zohar employs radical creativity to make us question our current assumptions about life, about the nature of the human being, about God and spirituality. It moves through the Torah verse by verse asking probing, challenging questions. As the Zohar says, “God is known and grasped to the degree that one opens the gates of imagination,” so it’s up to our imaginative faculty to understand reality, or the reality of God.
Daniel Matt served for 20 years as a professor of Jewish spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He is currently composing a multi-volume annotated translation of the Zohar, entitled The Zohar: Pritzker Edition.
The Babylonian Talmud is the most extraordinary creation of the Jewish people—it speaks a kind of manic energy and records that extraordinary energy and vitality from the areas where it was produced in the Babylonian Diaspora. Jews were imbued with creative energy through the intense study of this one peculiar vibrant work through the centuries. Sholom Aleichem, for example, records how the world of talmudic learning was diffused from the yeshiva throughout Jewish communities across class and gender. While the making of the Talmud was a creative act, so was the Jewish openness to many cultures: The cross-fertilization between ancient Jewish tradition and the outside world led to the taking in of new ideas and energy. Since the 19th century, much of Jewish creativity has stemmed from being in two cultures at the same time. Being in a position to observe a culture that you are also a part of is very conducive to creativity.
Daniel Boyarin, Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture at the University of California Berkeley, has written extensively on the Talmud and gender studies.
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