On Art, Technique and Critique:

This week’s perasha recounts the repeated (or continued) call to erect the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary built to house the ark and the sacred utensils, after the debacle of the golden calf episode. In previous weeks I have attempted to demonstrate that despite the grandeur and holiness of the endeavor, there within the edifice itself one can read a monument to the failure “built in” to the walls, so to speak. Holiness meant to be readily available and unmediated is now hidden behind walls, behind text, in every way distanced from totalizing accessability. This week, I would like to continue this approach by recognizing the same implicit distancing within the process itself of any artistic enterprise, the same dialectic of presencing and lack which typifies the aspect of technique in art.

This week, we are once again introduced to Betzalel son of Uri son of Hur, the master craftsman who is to design the actual construction of the Mishkan. The Talmud in Berachot 55: tells us that he had such great insight into construction that he understood the way the universe was created from its raw materials, the supernal letters (the logoi, if you wish). Many of the Hasidic commentators, for example, the Bet Yaakov, develop this idea into a sort of spiritual triumph, whereby this kind of knowledge, the knowledge of how to draw Gd’s light into human activity, is attainable, and even the “vessels”, which are a lower, more material type of product, can be imbued with theurgic presence. The Ben Ish Hai in his Aderet Eliyahu presents this Gemara in this manner as well. However, as we will see, sheer technical ability, dazzling as it may appear, is not in itself always adequate to create meaning or “art”.

Initially, however, when the command to build the Mishkan is given, all through persahiyot Terumah and Tetzaveh, the command is given through Moshe alone. Only in Ki Tisa are we introduced to Betzalel. The midrash on several occasions points out how the initial command was to Moshe, and that Betzalel is a later addition to the team. The meaning behind this later addition ranges from a simple distribution of tasks, as in Midrash Shemot 35:3, where they state that Moshe is responsible for the underlying conception (Talmud), whereas to Betzalel is given the duty of implementation (Ma’aseh). A more dramatic reading is seen in Midrash Bamidbar 15:10, which narrates how Moshe is unable to grasp the technical details involved in making the Menorah, even after Gd summons one up for him made out of fire, until Gd tells him to go to Betzalel who will know how to do it. In the Midrash Shemot on our perasha, 48:5, the inclusion of Betzalel is explicitly linked to the sin of the golden calf: The Israelites sinned with fire (Shemot 32:24), so comes Betzalel to heal the wound (Yeshayahu 54:16). The Ramhal (R. Moshe Haim Luzzatto) reads Betzalel’s inclusion in the building of the Mishkan in this light as well, and adds that as a member of the most prestigious tribe, Yehudah, he would be a representative of all of Israel (who had sinned) in the design of the edifice that was necessitated as a result.

In other words, the addition of Betzalel, the designer and craftsman, can also be seen as a result of and a remedy for, the sin of the golden calf. Yet on the other hand, the Mishkan is still referred to as being that constructed by Moshe, that it was erected by Moshe. The Kedushat Levi has an interesting reading which seems to be in line with contemporary theory in terms of the relationship between “art” and “technique”. The Kedushat Levi states that Betzalel was, in fact, as the Talmud tells us, able to create utensils that were akin to the creation of the universe out of supernal letters- but that he was not entirely aware of this ability. He could make them alright, but they required Moshe to realize the connections. Betzalel’s utensils had in them the ability, as a group, to manifest Gd’s love, and justice, and grandeur, but it was Moshe who recognized in which utensil what idea was present! Thus, although Betzalel is given the credit for the “technique”, it is Moshe who is given credit for the “art”.

A recent work by Jean Luc Nancy, entitled “The Muses”, contains an extended work on the problem of why there are several arts instead of one art. Part of his answer revolves around the issue mentioned above, the split between “art” and “technique”:

…the arts are first of all technical. They are not technical “first of all” in the sense that they comprise an initial part, procedure, which is capped by a final part, “artistic” accomplishment…Technique means knowing how to go about producing what does not produce itself by itself. Technique is a perhaps infinite- space and delay between the producer and the produced, and thus between the producer and him- or herself. It is production in an exteriority to self and in the discreteness of its operations and its objects. In this regard, the singular plural of art (“art” as encompassing “the arts”-mk) extends to the endless multiplying of the artist’s technical decisions: To make art is to judge art, to decide, to choose…Yet art-technique exposes an exteriority of the work to its production or to its subject,…for its completed work is always in the incompletion of that which postpones the presentation of its end, its essence, or its subject- the technical work linking endlessly to other techniques and asking again endlessly for… yet another technique…in the node of a perpetual “means” for an endless end.

At the end of his essay, Nancy states about art in general, in the light of the above paragraph, that which we have been saying about the command to create an edifice in response to the sin of the golden calf. Any attempt at construction is at the same time a presence and a failure, that due to the endless nature of technical progress and interrelationship, any work can “subsequently” be appropriated, improved upon, critiqued, etc:

As soon as it takes place, “art” vanishes; it is an art, the latter is a work, which is a style, a manner…in a certain very precise sense, art itself is in essence nonapparent and/or disappearing…

The lack of immediacy brought about by the sin of the golden calf is reflected right from the outset in a setting up of the Betzalel/Moshe:artist/critic duality. Even before the work takes place, the work in its technical production commemorates distance and boundaries.

Pekudei- No One Is Above The Law

In this, the last perasha in Sefer Shemot, we are going to deal with one of the more ostensibly uninteresting passages in the Torah, and some quite interesting possible readings of it. This week, as the multiply repeated narratives of the Mishkan come to a close, an inventory list is given, an accounting of just how much precious metal was used overall, and then the breakdown of gold, silver and bronze used per Mishkan related item. What is all this actuarial information supposed to relay to us?

The Midrashic reading is no less curious. The Midrash in Shemot Raba 51:6 tells us that at the conclusion of building the Mishkan Moshe decided to give an accounting of all the material used, but couldn’t figure out where 1757 shekel went. He began to worry, that now the people will say that Moshe skimmed a little off the Mishkan funds for his own pocket, until Gd caused him to look upward, and he remembered that the money was used to make the vavim, the hooks for the columns. The Midrash changes person, saying that at that moment ‘all of Israel’, not just Moshe, was relieved. If the imputation of suspicion onto Moshe by the people was not explicit enough in that section of the Midrash, it is added later, that all of Israel suspected Moshe of getting rich off of the Mishkan. This theme appears in several places, for example in the Jerusalem Talmud, at the end of Sanhedrin, where the people make a similar accusation based on an erroneous calculation of the monetary standard.

It does seem a little odd that the people still don’t trust Moshe, and that he must submit to this kind of audit to ‘clear’ himself. I would like to present three accounts of this accounting, each of which leads to a very different set of lessons. The most apologetic reading for the people is that of the Tiferet Shelomo (Radomsk). He furthers the question by pointing out how absurd this accusation would be against Moshe, after all, after the victory of the Yam Suf, it was Moshe who took nothing from the spoils and had to urge the people to move on. Thus, he rereads this account entirely. He explains that the whole point of the Mishkan was to create a sacred space out of the good intentions of the people; prior to giving money the people had to transform themselves, make their own hearts equivalent to the Ark, etc, as stated in the Zohar. But, the people were concerned that perhaps they were inadequate to the task, had ulterior motives such as pride, and therefore their gifts would be unworthy and not used in the construction of the Mishkan. Thus, in his reading, what the people wanted to see was how much of the money was used and what was rejected, sort of a way of seeing who passed and who failed. Thus, when they saw that all the donations were used, they felt relieved and validated. What was at question was not Moshe’s propriety, but the peoples’. When Moshe showed them by this accounting was that they were indeed all included in the making of the Mishkan.

The Sefat Emet, (in the likkutim), takes the inverse approach. Whereas the Tiferet Shelomo transferred the ‘suspicion’ back onto the people as a moment of their own perceived spiritual inadequacy, the Sefat Emet, more in line with the literal reading of the Midrash, returns the suspicion back from the people towards Moshe. The people started to think that perhaps, they were giving the money, but the credit would all go to Moshe after it was completed. Somehow the people started to suspect, perhaps it is characteristic of mob psychology to be paranoid in this manner, that the building of the Mishkan would turn into a personal spiritual elevation for Moshe, that he would get all the ‘karmic credit’ for the construction, thus exploiting their donation. What Moshe taught them by the reckoning was that in fact every iota of spiritual quanta dedicated to the Mishkan properly represented the person that gave it, every soul would have its ‘place’ in the Mishkan, so to speak.

The grittier alternative is to read these Midrashim just as they are, that the people actually suspected Moshe of all sorts of things, independent of anything that might actually have provoked suspicion, much like in contemporary American politics. The Degel Mahane Efraim in Ki Tisa discusses how the people suspected Moshe of sexual crimes as well! I would argue that this manifestation of need of the people to bring a great leader down is the inevitable phenomenon whenever anyone stands above the crowd and attempts to create something new and meaningful. This was experienced by the Amoraim in Talmudic times (Ketubbot 105: ), and many of you reading this have probably experienced yourselves.

I submit that there is a deeper response present which requires a small prologue, which will take us through to Luhmann, Habermas, and the Yismach Moshe.

Perhaps one of the perennial discussions in philosophy most relevant to religious thinkers revolves around the place of the individual versus the greater needs of ‘society’, however that is defined. One could go back to Descartes and Kant as opposed to Pascal, for example, or more close to our time, Hegel and Kierkegaard. If Hegel saw all of human history as a player in the cosmic process of a universe coming to know itself, Kierkegaard rose to the defense of the individual’s dilemma and angst as the central drama. In 1971, this age old question was reiterated in contemporary terminology as a debate between Nikolas Luhmann, a major proponent of system theory, and Jurgen Habermas, standing up for the centrality of the individual’s lifeworld. Without getting too bogged down in philosophical language, there is one term from the technical jargon in this debate that I believe is meaningful for this Torah commentary.

Here goes: Systems theory looks at society as a set of organized behavioral patterns that a social system learns to select from the complex choices presented to it without full information as to the outcome. This is a way in which society comes to make sense out of its options, as it proceeds to learn from the outcomes based on it choices from the competing physical, biological, scientific and social data presented to it. The system develops means of self analysis to develop subsystems to interact with all this complexity, and means to interact with these interactions. Laws, norms, demands on the citizenry, political orders- all these evolve to provide the most simple and expedient way for society to function.

Habermas attacks this technocratic approach with the cry for ethics, ideals, and the role of the individual, and argues for the ideal society based on ‘communicative action’, a sociology based on demands primarily based on the needs of the individual (needless to say, this is a frightening oversimplification, but there are space and time constraints. I do recommend getting hold of his texts, such as Legitimation Crisis and The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity). Naturally, I think as spiritual thinkers, our gut impulse is to side with the existentialists/critical theory-praxis oriented thinkers.

Here, however, the Torah might be teaching us the value of what Luhmann calls ‘positive law’ and the ‘positively closed system’. Positive law is defined by Luhmann as law which is derived from a legal systems self derived principles, in which legal thinking and precedent is what determines decisions, rather than ideological arguments such as is found in religion, etc. This leads the a normatively closed system, where ‘neither natural nor religious nor moral conditions have ‘lawmaking potential, but only legal norms’ (Luhmann, Essays on Self-reference, as quoted in Bausch, Systems Research and the Behavioural Sciences, 14:1997)

Let us now turn to a teaching of the Hassidic Master, the Yismach Moshe. One classical reading of Perashat Pekudai revolves around the concept of ‘being ‘clean’ in the eyes of Gd and the people’, as is mentioned in the Mishna Shekalim, chapter 3:2. In other words, an open accounting of the use of public funds is mandated to keep the administrators above suspicion in the eyes of the people, even if this administrator known by the whole world to be a totally righteous individual. The Yismach Moshe notes that there is a kind of catch 22 involved here for the administrators- since this kind of public accounting might also be misconstrued by the people as a form of righteous exhibitionism, openly exhibiting one’s righteousness my appear to be an act of ‘immodesty’. Nevertheless, this apparent immodesty is secondary to public accountability, and cannot be invoked as an excuse for the mandated proper civil behaviour, in the Yismach Moshe’s words:

‘true uprightness, hayosher ha’amiti demands inattention to the public’s abuse or praise’.

In other words, justice and public service is best served by a “closed system”, a value-neutral upholding of social justice, whether or not it is popular or fashionable.

I would add that a corollary of this teaching is relevant for our times. True social justice is frequently best served by a ‘positively closed system’ because of our tendency to let people ‘we like’ get away with things that would not be tolerated in an impersonal system. How many abuses have been perpetrated by political or religious leaders, that are otherwise so admired, that should not be tolerated, or winked at because “in general” they are OK, or “speak for the right cause” or “they’re on our side”? We have seen it in every level of world society recently, from CEOs and religious leaders and (mostly) all sorts of politicians.

The lesson the Hassidic masters read into Moshe’s action of complete transparency is that there is no individual in the public service who is not held accountable to the people, no matter how wonderful, visionary, or prophetic he or she may appear to be from their position of power.


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