In 1913 Marcel Duchamp attached a bicycle wheel to a stool. He was not making a new kind of unicycle, but a piece of art, one the first classics of Modern art. He saw something interesting in everyday items and put them together as they were and created something new. What he did is still kind of controversial idea. Is it real art?
The history of art until that point was to take materials and completely transform them into the artist’s vision. A sculpture was judged on how much it looked like a person, not a piece of marble. Duchamp and others, like Picasso, said that a thing in and of itself can be beautiful, especially when combined with other things that are also just themselves.
God in the Torah starts as a traditional artist, and creates human beings out the earth and molds them into a specific vision.
If you have read the rest of the book, God’s attempt at molding does not go well. God cannot even get people to eat from the right tree, or to not throw each other in pits when they get jealous and angry. Things are going to be what they are, no matter how hard you try to change them.
Toward the end of the Torah, God becomes a modern artist.
The people are told that when they cross the river into the Promised land they are to build an altar of thanksgiving out of the stones they find. They are not allowed to carve or transform the stones, but put them together in a way that all the different shapes will fit together and create something even greater than they were by themselves.
I think this means that God wants us to appreciate each other for who we are, and to help each other find our place in the world that makes sense for ourselves as individuals but also allows each person to be a part of the community and support all the other individuals.
So much stress in the world comes from people molding and bending each other in ways that are wrong or painful for them. The model of so many approaches to religion has been to force conformity through threats of violence, or expulsion from the community.
Bad for the person. Worse for religion. Destroys creativity and critical thinking. Crushes healthy diversity of thought. Leads to tremendous hatred.
We do not have to look any further than 9/11 for an example of people trying to mold the world into their own exclusive image.
One of the underlying tensions and challenges is creating a community that is not based on coercion, but one that is not jut based on whatever an individual wants to do. Essentially, how do we create a genuine community of individuals. When people feel rejected for who they are in their essence they feel hated, regardless of intention. They are then in danger of causing great harm, mostly to themselves, but sometimes to others.
I think this is the challenge for all religions and philosophies, meaning it is a challenge for us. For most of our history, every day Jews did not have a say in their religious lives. If they did not conform to the communal standards they could be literally forced out, but if they molded their behavior to fit someone else, they would become exiles from their own souls.
I have faith in the beauty and power of our traditions and I have faith in the goodwill of our people, including those who come to radically different ideas about Judaism that I might have, in either direction, more liberal or more conservative. Some ideas will be great. Some will be terrible.
If we are open minded, new ideas will emerge that will become the traditions of tomorrow. That is how tradition starts, and it is the only way to remain eternally relevant. It is the only path to a peaceful world.
This is an important idea in how we look to each other. We want so badly for our loved ones to succeed that we push them in certain directions, or pull them away from others. We think we are sculpting something beautiful, but we might just be chipping away their identity and sense of security and worth.
The Torah is telling us that each person is perfect the way they are, they just need to be in a situation where they are appreciated, and what they have to offer can be used for the good of the whole community.
My goal is to help you find your place in the Jewish world, in a way that makes sense for who you are right now. I won’t try to mold you into something that you are not, but I can help you figure out where you fit. I would love to talk to you about it.
If we can all help each other, then we create the work of art that God wants for us.