Parshat Ki Tisa
Moshe conducts a census by counting each silver half-shekel donated by all men age twenty and over. Moshe is commanded to make a copper laver for the Mishkan. The women donate the necessary metal. The formula of the anointing oil is specified, and G-d instructs Moshe to use this oil only for dedicating the Mishkan, its vessels, Aharon and his sons. G-d selects Bezalel and Oholiav as master craftsmen for the Mishkan and its vessels. The Jewish People are commanded to keep the Sabbath as an eternal sign that G-d made the world. Moshe receives the two Tablets of Testimony on which are written the Ten Commandments. The mixed multitude who left Egypt with the Jewish People panic when Moshe's descent seems delayed, and force Aharon to make a golden calf for them to worship. Aharon stalls, trying to delay them. G-d tells Moshe to return to the people immediately, threatening to destroy everyone and build a new nation from Moshe. When Moshe sees the camp of idol-worship he smashes the tablets and he destroys the golden calf. The sons of Levi volunteer to punish the transgressors, executing 3,000 men. Moshe ascends the mountain to pray for forgiveness for the people, and G-d accepts his prayer. Moshe sets up the Mishkan and G-d's cloud of glory returns. Moshe asks G-d to show him the rules by which he conducts the world, but is granted only a small portion of this request. G-d tells Moshe to hew new tablets and reveals to him the text of the prayer that will invoke Divine mercy. Idol worship, intermarriage and the combination of milk and meat are prohibited. The laws of Pesach, the first-born, the first-fruits, Shabbat, Shavuot and Succot are taught. When Moshe descends with the second set of tablets, his face is luminous as a result of contact with the Divine.
A Work of Craft
"See, I have proclaimed by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehuda. I have filled him with a G-dly spirit, with wisdom, insight, and knowledge, and with every craft ... to perform every craft of design." (31:2-3)
In Hebrew, there is no word for Art.
There is a Hebrew word, "melacha," that means "craft," but no word meaning Art.
Whats the difference between Art and craft?
An artist can think he is G-d.
He starts off with a blank piece of paper and creates a universe. Being an artist is the closest a person can get to creation ex nihilo -- creation from nothing. The universe of the artist is entirely at the whim of its creator. He can draw and he can erase. He can form and he can fold. He can "create worlds" and he can "destroy them." The sky can be blue or gray. The next note could go up or down. And who says that all this has to be the way it is?
Me. The artist.
For the past two and half thousand years there has raged a global-historical conflict over the place of art in the world.
The ancient Greeks, who invented Art with a capital "A", claimed that Art is a doorway to ultimate truth. "Beauty in Truth, Truth, Beauty" This Weltanschauung says that through art and artifice, you can reach the elemental truths of existence. Celebrating the surface, the way things look, said the ancient Greek, leads to the essence of things themselves.
The Jew says that the artifice and illusion leads only to greater illusion, unless that skill subordinates itself to the service of truth.
Art that is not for Arts sake is called craft. Craft knows it is the servant of another master.
The Talmud teaches that if you never saw the Second Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), which Herod built, you never saw a beautiful building in your life. Its walls were constructed from blue/green marble and white Marmara marble. One layer was indented and the next protruded so that the plaster would adhere. Herod thoughtof covering the whole edifice with gold plate. The Rabbis told him to leave it as it was: unplastered and ungilded, since it looked better in its natural state with the different levels of green/blue and white resembling the waves of the sea.
"See, I have proclaimed by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehuda. I have filled him with a G-dly spirit, with wisdom, insight, and knowledge, and with every craft ... to perform every craft of design."
Every talent has a place in Judaism. Every talent is a gift of G-dly spirit: A beautiful voice, a brilliant mind, the skill of an artist. Every talent is a gift and a responsibility.
"By His breath the Heavens are spread (shifra)" (Iyov 26:13).
G-d spreads aside the curtain of cloud to reveal that which is beyond. He disperses the clouds that conceal so we can see past the obstruction, past the surface. The word "spread," "shifra," has the same root as "shapir" which means "to beautify."
In Jewish thought, beauty means seeing past the surface to the essence. That which is beautiful is that which takes us beneath the surface, beyond the clouds, to reveal the endless blue heavens to reveal the truth.
Similarly, the word for "ugly" and "opaque" in Hebrew are the same "achur." Something that conceals essence is ugly, however "beautiful" it might seem.
"Art for Art's sake" can never be a Jewish concept. For, if the definition of beauty is that which reveals, something that reveals nothing but itself can never be beautiful.
The true beauty of the Tabernacle and the Temples was that it was the place of the greatest revelation in this world. It revealed that existence is not bounded by the physical constraints of space and time. It demonstrated that this world is connected to that which is beyond this world.
It was a Work of Craft.