Grand gestures in art and religion

The JC Essay


By Naftali Brawer, May 13, 2013
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Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’. A retrospective of his work is at the Tate Modern until May 27

Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’. A retrospective of his work is at the Tate Modern until May 27

The Tate Modern's current retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein's pop art includes a series of 1960s paintings called "brushstrokes". In these paintings, the Jewish artist parodies abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning who freely expressed their feelings through "action painting" by throwing, smearing or dripping paint on canvas. Lichtenstein parodies this by carefully recreating spontaneous expression in a highly disciplined, controlled and contrived way. Describing his work, the artist said: "Brushstrokes in painting convey a sense of grand gesture but, in my hands, the brushstroke becomes the depiction of a grand gesture."

This distinction between the grand gesture and the depiction of the grand gesture brought to mind the work of the 19th-century philosopher of religion and psychologist, William James.

In his 1902 book, Varieties of Religious Experience, James makes a clear distinction between the spontaneous religious experience of the founders of a religion - whom he calls religious geniuses - and that of the "ordinary religious believer" who comes later and "follow[s] the conventional observances":

"I speak not now of your ordinary religious believer, who follows the conventional observances… His religion has been made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit. It would profit us little to study this second-hand religious life. We must make search rather for the original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct. These experiences we can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever rather."

It is time to seek deeper meaning in our rituals and infuse the meticulous practice of halachah with a deep sense of God-consciousness

For James, there is little value in this "second-hand religious life". It is the grand gesture of the original experience that is of genuine value, not - using Lichtenstein's brushstrokes as a metaphor - the reproduction of it.

To better understand James, let's take an example from our own Jewish tradition: prayer. According to Maimonides, the Torah obligates a Jew to pray daily. However, the words, text, structure and time of this daily prayer were not originally defined and it was left to each individual to express whatever spontaneous feelings welled up within:

As he explains in his Laws of Prayer: "There is an affirmative command to pray each day… but the number of prayers is not from the Torah, nor is the text of this prayer from the Torah. And prayer has no fixed time from the Torah… Rather, the obligation of this command is as follows: that a person plead and pray each day, and speak praise for the Almighty and then request his needs that he requires with petition and supplication, and then give praise and thanks to God for the goodness that He has bestowed upon him - each in accordance with his ability… Some pray once a day, others pray many times."

In Mishnaic times, there were no prayer books and even if there were, they would have been of little use to the masses that were illiterate. The role of the prayer leader, the Shaliach Tzibur, was to improvise. His function was to capture and articulate in elegant language what the congregation was feeling. Eventually, a skeleton structure for daily prayer - the Amidah - emerged. Over time this was then fleshed out with specific texts that became fixed. Times for prayer were also set. The result of all this is that when we pray today we do so within a fairly rigid linguistic and temporal "second-hand" framework.

James would say that the early form of prayer is the genuine religious experience, in as much as it was a spontaneous outpouring of a deeply personal experience of God. Like an abstract expressionist it was a "grand gesture". He would deem our highly regulated, fixed and structured prayer today, "second-hand" - or, to return to the art metaphor, a "depiction of a grand gesture".

It is interesting that the great Chasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev - who died when James was a young man - raised this very point in relation to prayer, which he felt had become stale and a matter of rote rather than an exciting, spontaneous outpouring of one's soul before God.

In a rich parable, as detailed in Samuel Dresner's biography, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak illustrates what happens when the original art form of prayer is replaced by a dull habit: "There once was a king who so loved music that he directed his musicians to play before him at a certain hour each morning… for many years all went well. The musicians delighted in playing each morning before the king, and the king delighted in hearing their music.

"When at last the musicians died, their sons sought to take their places. But, alas, they had neither mastered the art of their fathers nor had they kept their instruments in proper condition. Worse still, the sons no longer loved the king as did their fathers but set their eyes only upon the reward, blindly following their fathers' custom of arriving early each morning at the palace to perform. But the harsh sounds that emerged were so offensive to the ear that after a time the king no longer listened to their music… Still there were among the sons of the old musicians some who recognised that they were not worthy to play before the king. And they were determined to correct the situation. They set about the difficult task of relearning the forgotten art… Thus was their music received by the king with favour."

The early musicians in the parable represent the early generations of spiritually sensitive worshipers, for whom prayer was a first-hand, religious experience. The ignorant musicians who play with imperfect instruments, represent the vast majority of people in subsequent generations who approach prayer in this second-hand, superficial way. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and his followers are represented by the small group of young musicians who try to re-learn the craft of their fathers amid the din and cacophony of the other tuneless musicians.

But is James justified in dismissing organised, structured religion as second-hand? Is there not something of value in the structure and formula even as its spontaneity is compromised?

The contemporary philosopher of religion, Charles Taylor, thinks James is too harsh. Taylor argues that, in order for the ideas and insights of religious geniuses to be handed down, there needs to be some conceptual and practical structure. How else can believers be organised to take action that flows from their faith?

Taylor goes further and argues that the corporate or collective religious life - a community of like-minded believers engaging in a common set of rituals and customs - is intrinsically valuable from a religious perspective. His framework is Christianity but if one applies his thinking to Judaism there is a further element that commends structure over spontaneity and that is the importance of halachah as a well-trodden path along which the observant Jew journeys.

Halachah does not involve "spontaneous" or acute religious fervour. It demands discipline and adherence to a fairly rigid structure of behaviour. In contrast to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak's parable emphasising the importance of individualistic expression in ritual there is a striking passage in Rav Soloveitchik's Halakhic Man that emphasises the importance of dry, steadfast, obedience of halachah at the expense of a God-intoxicated religious experience:

"Once my father was standing on the synagogue platform on Rosh Hashanah, ready to guide the order of the sounding of the shofar. The shofar sounder, a God-fearing Chasid who was very knowledgeable in the mystical doctrine of the 'Alter Rebbe,' Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady, began to weep. My father turned to him and said; "Do you weep when you take the lulav? Why then do you weep when you sound the shofar? Are not both commandments of God?"

For "Halakhic Man", the Chasidic or Jamesian first-hand, spontaneous religious experience is at best unhelpful and at worst spiritual self-indulgence. The important thing is clinical adherence to the law. Religious fervour expressed through weeping, or dancing for that matter, has no place in his religious outlook.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and Rav Soloveitchik represent two poles within Jewish thought; spontaneity and structure. As with all polarities the key is not to chose between them but to hold them in creative tension. Structure without spontaneity is dull, hollow and uninspiring. Spontaneity free of structure is wild and leads to antinomianism.

Having said this, at the moment - at least within Orthodox Judaism - there is an unhealthy bias towards structure; an obsession with conformity and religious box ticking and not nearly enough attention to developing a heightened sensitivity to God. To paraphrase a colleague recently; it's time we stopped worshipping the shulchan aruch (code of Jewish law) and started worshipping God through the shulchan aruch. It is time we redress the balance by seeking deeper meaning in our rituals and infuse the meticulous practice of halachah with a deep sense of God–consciousness. In doing so we will renew our faith and thereby inspire the next generation.

Rabbi Brawer is chief executive of the Spiritual Capital Foundation

    Last updated: 10:45am, May 13 2013