Sunday, February 24, 2008

Judaism and Imagination

If my experience is any indication, Jewish education does not place a very positive emphasis on developing an imagination. Rebbeim generally associate imagination with sexuality and inappropriate sexual thoughts - which is not all that surprising given the fact that they're usually speaking to teenage males. Thus, they encouraged us to stifle our imaginations in the hopes of avoiding violation of obvious issurim.
Moreover, most Jewish education involves the assimilation and spit back of skills and information. We teach our young children simple skills, and have them repeat them back to us. Then as they grow older we teach them more advanced skills which they must apply to more difficult texts and applications. Finally, if they reach a very advanced stage, they study extremely difficult and advanced materials which they then repeat and share with others to demonstrate their advanced knowledge. Halachah and gemara - the staples of yeshiva learning - have reached such a level of intellectual maturity that to all but the most advanced, there's nothing really to add. How many students feel that they have substantial chiddushim to contribute to the world of Jewish study? In truth, in the academically oriented atmosphere of the Beis Medrash, creativity and imagination have been, quite literally, ushered from the room.
And yet, imagination and creativity seem to be not only critical to a healthy psychological and emotional makeup, but to a positive Jewish intellectual life as well.
Parshat Ki Tisa relates the qualities that Bezalel ben Uri ben Chur possessed that made him uniquely qualified to head the mishkan construction project.
ואמלא אותו רוח אלקים בחכמה ובדעת ובכל מלאכה. לחשב מחשבות לעשות בזהב ובכסף ובנחשת
And I filled him with a spirit of God, with wisdom and knowledge of every craft. And to think thoughts - to make with gold, silver and copper. (Shemot 31:3-4)
What does the Torah mean when it tells us that God bestows upon Bezalel the spirit of God לחשב מחשבות -- "to think thoughts"? Rashi explains that this refers to מעשה חשב - work of embroidery, and is simply another skill set Bezalel possessed. Yet, Targum Yonatan ben Uziel translates the verse this way:
למיחשב ברעיוניהון היך למעבד בדהבא ובכספא ובנחשא
To think with their ideas how to create with gold, silver and copper
In essence, a craftsman's greatness lies not in his or her technical ability, but in the ability to translate a picture of the mind into reality. Sure, this requires great tactical skill, but it demands even greater mental ability to imagine in one's mind how that creation will appear when complete.
We think that we know what the mishkan actually looked like. Each year when we study these parshiot that deal with the mishkan's construction, we pull out the pictorial Tabernacle book, and study the pictures to better understand the descriptions in the text. During summer camp we build scale models of the different vessels to learn their various dimensions and attributes. So we know exactly how the mishkan looked. Only we don't.
No book or model can approximate the fantastic craftsmanship, creativity and imagination that the builders of these vessels utilized to create them. Who can picture the true beauty of the hand-woven tapestries that adorned the walls and curtains of the mishkan? What about the engravings, etchings and carvings in the gold throughout the structure. Indeed, while we can approximate the size and shape of the different vessels, we cannot estimate their inherent beauty in a picture of a model. Nor should we try. We should leave that to our imaginations.

And we need our imagination for more than just arts and crafts. We need it for life.
In order to grow beyond ourselves, we need the ability to envision a different kind of life; an experience beyond our familiarity. To create life beyond what we know we must first be able to imagine what's possible. Only when it's real in our minds can we translate that vision into reality. This truism applies not only to life experiences, but to communities, institutions, programs -- basically any human endeavor. Great businessmen are not the people who simply fulfill the needs of others. Rather, they are the people who see a need unfulfilled, and can envision their ability to fill that need. In essence, they see in their minds what others cannot or do not. Similarly, great communal builders see not just the challenges in building their ideas and institutions, but also their finished product in their minds. Only then can they set about bringing their visions to fruition. Without creativity we become stale, stagnant and unable to adapt and grow, limited to the finite borders of our past experiences. With imagination and creativity, we open ourselves to the unlimited expanses of the possible, as long as we can dream it.

In cannot be coincidental that Jewish tradition considers great Jewish leaders and builders dreamers. Yosef's brothers describe him as an איש החלומות -- "a man of dreams". While his inability to conceal those dreams land him in trouble during his youth, that very same imagination and creativity literally save him and the world. Only Yosef can not only properly interpret the dream of Par'oh, but perhaps even more importantly, devise a solution to resolve the problem. His solution brings him to prominence and provides sustenance for the region during the difficult years of famine.

The Midrash Tanchuma writes,
ילמדנו עוד רבינו מה בין חלומות הצדיקים לחלומות הרשעים? חלומות הרשעים לא בשמים ולא בארץ, שנאמר ופרעה חולם והנה עומד על היאור (בראשית מא א). וכך נבוכדנצר כתיב חלם (הוא) [חזית] ודחלנני (דניאל ד ב), שלא היה לא בארץ ולא בשמים, אבל חלומות של צדיקים בשמים ובארץ, שכן אתה מוצא שאמר יוסף לאחיו הנה אנחנו מאלמים אלומים (בראשית לז ז), הרי בארץ, ובשמים מנין, שנאמר הנה השמש והירח ואחד עשר כוכבים משתחוים לי (שם שם /בראשית ל"ז/ ט), וכן באבינו יעקב ויחלום והנה סולם [מוצב ארצה וראשו מגיע השמימה, הרי בשמים ובארץ].
Let our rabbi also teach us, what is the difference between the dreams of the righteous and the dreams of the wicked? The dreams of the wicked are neither in the heavens nor the earth, as it is written, "and Par'oh dreamt and behold he was standing over the Nile," and it is written similarly about Nevuchadnezzar "I saw a dream which made me afraid," for he was neither on the earth or in the heavens. But the dreams of the righteous are both in the heavens and the earth, for we find that Yosef said to his brothers, "behold we were binding sheaves," - so we see the earth. Where do we see the heavens? As it is written, "behold the sun, moon and eleven stars were bowing to me." And furthermore, [regarding] our forefather Ya'akov it is written, "and behold a ladder was standing on the ground and its head reached the heavens" - so we see his dream related to both the heavens and the earth.
A truly righteous dreamer - and his dreams - are rooted not in the heavens or the earth, but in the connection between the two; in binding one's yearnings for the heavens with worldly pursuits. Ya'akov dreamed of bridging the gap between the lofty spirituality of the heavens and the stark reality of the world. And because he dreamed it, he brought it to fruition.

Rav Kook in the fifth chapter of Orot discusses the difference between Jewish imagination in the Land of Israel and Jewish imagination in the Diaspora. He writes,
הדמיון של ארץ ישראל הוא צלול וברור, נקי וטהור ומסגל להופעת האמת האלקית, להלבשת החפץ המרומם ונשגב של המגמה האידיאלית אשר בעליונות הקדש
Imagination in the Land of Israel is clear and transparent, clean and pure and prepared for the true divine appearance, for the clothing of the exalted and lofty desires of the ideal orientation in the uppermost levels of holiness...
To me, even more important than the distinction that Rav Kook draws between imagination inside or outside of Israel, is his emphasis on the significance of imagination in the Jewish religious and spiritual experience. After years - centuries perhaps - of educating our children to suppress their imaginations, perhaps the time has come to reexamine that value and begin to emphasize the positive growth that can come from properly directed creativity, either through study of artistic ability (something now confined to young children and girls), creative writing and poetry or other similar disciplines.
Only when we learn to harness - and stop fearing -- the constructive power of creativity and imagination will we begin to imagine what the Jewish people can truly become.

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