We Must Stop Expecting Jewish Artists To Be Tzadikim

We keep waiting.  Hoping.  Crying for it.

Where is the artist who will finally be the chosen one?  The one to fully, beautifully, harmoniously combine art with religiosity?  A channel of Godliness who expresses him or herself in such a perfect way that the whole world turns and takes notice?

We don’t realize it, but we are waiting for the Art Tzadik.  A man or woman who can finally synthesize creativity and religion in a way that allows people to truly feel and know God when they experience the Tzadik’s creation.

We thought it was Matisyahu.  Which is why we put so much weight, so much hope in him.  For years, we expected him to stay as pious, as straightforwardly Hasidic as he had been when he came on the scene.  The larger his audience became, the more mainstream he became, the more we expected of him. And then he failed, and we gave up on him.

Now we hope it for others.  We see all the beautiful art coming from the Hasidic and other parts of the Jewish world, and we’re waiting with bated breath for it to go mainstream.  We want people to see what holy people we have, and what truth we have to share with the world.  In a way, the expectations we placed on Matisyahu, and the vision we saw of him when he we thought he was the Tzadik, made us even more in need of the true Tzadik.  The one who’d realize the dreams we had when Matisyahu was kicking it with us.

But no one has quite hit that point yet.  And it’s been a decade.  And despite all the artists claiming that Matisyahu busted doors open for them, helped the world imagine an orthodox Jew spreading the Jewish gospel in the mainstream, it may be worth examining why.

 

As one of the people who tore down Matisyahu during his struggles, I feel a particular need to examine this history, and our present.  And as someone who has had my own struggles over the course of my time in Crown Heights, I feel like I’m finally getting some insight into what’s holding us up.

In most of our minds, it was Matisyahu that failed.  He couldn’t keep it up.  Couldn’t stay the course.  He just had to explore other avenues and eventually give up on orthodox Judaism all together.

As audience members, we took no responsibility for our roles.  At least the ones who expected him to be the Art Tzadik.

Yet it was we who placed the expectations on him.  And when he stumbled, it was we who ripped him to shreds.  It was we who demanded he continue his pious routine, continue being the Tzadik.  And when he wasn’t perfect anymore, we felt betrayed.

In other words, maybe he didn’t fail.  Maybe we failed.

We expected someone who wasn’t a tzadik to be the Tzadik.  We expected perfection from an imperfect vessel.  And in so doing, we pushed him further and further away the less he lived up to our expectations, essentially being partners in his stepping away from the community, as so often happens in orthodox, and especially in Hasidic, communities.

Some of this might not sound new.  It may sound like a rehashed discussion years old, in fact.  But I’d argue that we are in a constant state of reliving that moment when we discuss creativity in the Jewish world today.

Today, when other Hasidic musicians perform, no matter how creative with the form of creativity they get, we expect the same level of piousness.  We expect some level of consistency from them, an observance and a point of view that will be like a beacon of light in the darkness.  And the moment one of our heroes deviates from the norm, or starts to rebel, or changes their message, or dares to criticize their own, they are ripped apart.  They are, in a way, encouraged to leave orthodox Judaism: if they can’t be the Tzadik then they are no longer useful.

I know this because I’ve lived it.

 

It was, in a way, my writing about Matisyahu that launched my writing in the orthodox Jewish world.  That, and a piece where I defended my Hasidic friend, Chaya Kurtz (who now writes for this site), for a piece she wrote celebrating her Hasidic womanhood in xoJane, were what introduced me to the orthodox Jewish community as a writer.

In a way, no matter how much I set myself up as a flawed messenger in my writing, there was still the expectation, the demand, that I stay in the lines.  Follow certain unwritten rules: make sure I present my world in a positive world.  Make sure that if I do have something negative to say, to make sure it is presented in a palatable way.  Never, ever criticize prominent rabbis.  Don’t take the side of those who left the community.  Be as much of a model Hasid in my writing.  All difficulties I had had to be presented in the past tense form, from before I was religious, or had to be part of something that only God could control, like mental illness.  Fight for Israel.  Defend the orthodox world when it’s criticized.

And most of all, the top rule above all, the first commandment of the Art Tzaddik: don’t change.

The more I flouted these rules, the more I was seen as a broken vessel.  One unworthy of being the art shliach to the world.  And, in a way, when this happened, it became a freeing moment: the more I realized I was on the outs, the less I felt the pressure of the rules, and the more I could embrace my creativity in ways that I never expected to.

And in so doing, I discovered some realities about being an artist that I believe address the problems with the Art Tzadik myth.

 

Because that’s what the need for an Art Tzadik is.  A myth.  A hope.  An implanted, unspoken belief that at some point, an artist will finally come and be the savior of all the art before.

But it’s also a myth in the sense that it’s false.  It’s a lie, and it’s one that needs to be smashed Avraham-style.  Because it’s destroying Jewish art, it’s scaring off potential Jewish artists with so much to offer, and it’s actively causing damage to the Jewish artists who, aware of it or not, are trying to live the myth.

To understand why this is, we need to understand what it means to be an artist.  And, more specifically, what allows a creative to out a life in which they most flourish, both as an artist and as a person (not to mention as a Jew)?  And what is it about these qualities that directly conflicts with the Art Tzadik myth?

An artist is lonely

“Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone.” – James Baldwin, The Creative Process

This is, perhaps, the most essential truth we must understand about creativity and the artistic personality.  To be an artist is to be lonely.  Not in the sense of a depressive loneliness (although without support and a community, that is quite likely to happen), but an essential loneliness.  One that goes deeper than it does for others.

To be clear: this doesn’t mean the artist has to be introverted or that the artist is afraid of human contact.  One can be an extrovert and also be lonely.

Rather, as the quote from Baldwin above suggests, the part of the artist that allows his or her creativity to flourish is that of a sense of separation from society.  One that by definition requires space from the loudness and others’ opinions and voices and demands.  Because our creativity is most lived when it goes deep down, deep into our essence, and is extracted from a part of us that is as uncontrolled by those outside forces as possible.

And, to be clear, this does not mean the artist literally shuts out the outside world.  Just the opposite, in fact: the artist is in many ways constantly processing the outside input they receive.  The act of creativity is the end result of a process in which an artist interacts with the world, absorbs those interactions, processes them on a subconscious level, begins bubbling with ideas based on that processing, and then, finally, creates based on all that processing.

Only one step of the creative experience, then, is interacting with the world.  All the rest is an internal experience, one that requires a removal from society, both internally and externally.  It has been shown, in fact, that “boredom” is one of the most powerful tools of an artist because it is the time in which they can allow this processing to take place.

“The imagination needs moodling,–long, inefficient happy idling, dawdling and puttering.” – Brenda Ueland

Loneliness, then, is not just an act for an artist: it is built into them, an inescapable truth that is ignored at their own peril.  The more they look to the outside world to tell them how to create, the less fulfilled and actualized they will be.  Because they won’t have this time and space to process life and put it into their own words/voice/painting/music. 

The implications of this are almost immediately obvious: an artist cannot be beholden to their society.  Rather, the artist, in order to flourish, must be able to enter a space in which the society’s demands are not placed on them in a way that causes them to suffer, or simply become blocked.

The Artist Tzadik myth completely disrupts this process: the only way it could work is if someone was truly a tzadik, able to constantly live on another spiritual plane, in which the expectations of society are processed in concert with a constant connection to a level of truth that is beyond that society.  For all the rest of us, breaking free of our society is an essential aspect of our work.

But the implications go much further.

An artist is a rebel

“Art cannot be a monologue.” – Albert Camus, Create Dangerously

Now, it is almost impossible to make this statement without upsetting a lot of people.  Why, they argue, must an artist be a rebel?  Who says?  And why create a construct by which an artist is always causing trouble in his world?

The above understanding of loneliness can help us get to these answers.

When one separates from a society, and enters their subconscious, and hopefully their neshama, there will inevitably be truths discovered there that will be impossible for the artist to contain without a forceful demand on their hearts and minds.  By definition, to separate from our society and from those we love and care for means that we will see ways in which they are not living up to the values that matter to both them and us.  An artist, no matter how much light he carries discovers inside of him, will find it impossible to not also see the darkness that of the world they’ve processed.

And since the natural state of a creative is to create, the only way to address this awareness is to create art that is a reflection of these realities.  This does not mean the artist is right or that the artist has some special knowledge others do not.  Rather, it simply means that this is part of the artist’s personality: they see both beauty and ugliness and are duty bound by the way God created them to express something in response.

Now, this can take many different forms, some more acceptable to a society than others.  But make no mistake, an artist who is doing their best to tap into their lonely side will find ways to rebel: it is part of who they are.  They are by definition both separated from and deeply engaged in their world, and thus are constantly responding to it.

And since the artist is not a Tzadik, she will by her nature rebel in ways that do not simply elevate the world around them, but force it to face its ugliness.  In fact, this is what separates a tzadik from a baal teshuva, and why the baal teshuva artist can stand in places that the tzadik can’t: the tzadik can’t see the muck we live in.  Not in the way we do.  Because we are part of the muck.  We are the muck.

After all, the first thing an artist must rebel against is herself.

An artist changes

“Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” – John Keats, in a letter to his brothers

This rebellion is not localized to society.  It is the constant state of the artist, one that has just as much, if not much more, to do with the way he treats himself.

To be lonely, and to be constantly processing outside information and then turning it into something unique, means that an artist must also constantly evaluate himself.  Who is he?  Why is he?  What is he?

We saw this in Matisyahu, and we will see this in every single Jewish artist who moves us to our core: the more in touch they are with themselves, the more successful they are at moving us.  Because it is that lonely exploration of the self that allows an artist to uncover the essence of us all that can then be used to move us.

We punished Matisyahu, in other words, not for not being the Jew we wanted him to be, but because of the very reason we loved him: he is an artist, one who is so tapped into himself that he moved us all deeply.  But it was that very skill that caused him to then evolve, change, grow.

A similar dynamic happened with Bob Dylan.  He began to change the way he did music, and when he first started playing electrical guitar he practically had a rebellion on his hands.

Of course, what his fans at the time didn’t realize was that the same thing that caused them to be so moved by his acoustic performances was what pushed him to change his music as he grew.  It is no coincidence that one of the great musicians in American history has been a shapeshifter for most of his life: it is what has allowed him to stay as creative as possible throughout his long life.

The thing about a Tzadik is that their changes are in degree of holiness: they are always holy, they just happen to be rising in that level.  For the broken people like us, the dynamics are different: we don’t just grow linearly.  We grow sideways.  We grow in circles.  We dip, we rise, we turn inside out.  We twirl.  We dance.

Because we are in the dark, and we often hardly no which way is up.  Just as we are constantly struggling with society’s darkness, by definition we must face our own.  To grow as a baal teshuva means to dig into our own darkness so far and deep that we take the risk of never coming out.  Because it is who we are.

To be an artist is to change.  And to change is to risk delving into the darkness.

An artist makes mistakes

You gotta be willing to fail… if you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far.” Steve Jobs, interview

“There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefore destructive of the creative process.” – Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art Of Writing

This is why an artist can’t help but make mistakes when they create.  If she didn’t let herself explore her darkness, perhaps she’d be better at adjusting to society and never changing, but these are not the priorities of an artist.  Since the priorities are, in fact, just the opposite, the artist needs space to be imperfect.

After all, through all these explorations of darkness and imperfection and growth, the artist is also creating.  They can’t take breaks until they’ve finally gotten it all figured out.  And more importantly, there isn’t any point of having it all figured out for an artist.  He is in a constant state of expressed imperfection.

Artists who are aware of this reality and embrace it are the ones who are most likely to flourish, both personally and as creatives.  It is what gives them the freedom to try new things, to take risks, and to focus on the process of creativity as opposed to obsessing over the product (and the response from others).

Allowing mistakes to be part of the creative experience (and a part of life) is what gives the artist freedom to rebel, to change, and to embrace their loneliness.  By embracing openly screwing up, they become less and less attached society’s and their own expectations, which brings them to a point where they can start listening to their subconscious and expressing its hidden secrets rather than worrying about what they might find in there.

And, of course, this is perhaps what most conflicts with the Artist Tzadik myth.

Imagine being a Jewish artist and expecting yourself to never say or do something unholy.  Imagine thinking that even if you are imperfect, you must bury that imperfection deeply so as not to hurt or bring down others.

And imagine if you think all of that, and then inevitably do something imperfect that angers your society.  Imagine the level of pain that would cause you.

This is the reality of many religious artists, and it is why they choose so often to make sure they take a a color-by-numbers approach to their art: better to create what is accepted and easy than to push both ourselves and others.  Better to create a sort of stale neutral art that hides its imperfections than to strive for perfection by opening yourself to be more and more imperfect.

The artist of the world is the opposite of the Art Tzadik precisely for this reason: the Art Tzadik is in a constant state of perfection.  The artist is in a constant state of imperfect flux.  The Art Tzadik is unencumbered by societal expectations because those expectations are somehow magically met while still expressing beautiful, undeniable truths.  The artist can only be unencumbered by societal expectations when they realize that they will never live up to those expectations.

The advantage of imperfect artists

“In the place where a Baal Teshuvah stands, a perfect Tzaddik cannot stand.” – Rambam, Mishneh Torah

Now, this all may sound like some sort of admission of failure, as if having imperfect artists in the world is not ideal.

I’d argue the exact opposite.

Look at what happens when tzadikim have created art: from the niggunim of the great Hasidic rabbis to the poetry of Rav Kook.

Their art is utterly gorgeous, deeply meaningful, and essential to a fulfilling Jewish life.

But none of it is the kind of art that speaks to people on the level of their utter imperfection.  None of it really goes far beyond the boundaries of the Jewish world.  None of it will ever express the pains of the common human, or even the common Jew.

Not that it isn’t essential to our lives.  It simply has a different purpose. It allows us to rise to a level that we could not otherwise.  It gives us a taste of the perfect part of us, the Tzadik element in all of us.

But that’s the thing: it comes from above and stays above.  It does not live in our world, it takes us to a higher level.

So, the problem with the Artist Tzadik myth is that we are expecting something impossible: Tzadik-style art in a form that meets our needs as imperfect humans.

Matisyahu was able to debut his single on MTV because he is an imperfect, constantly changing, rebellious, lonely soul.

And this, by the way, is also why so many secular Jews succeed in the arts and show business: they are unencumbered by the weight of a false artistic myth and have been able to express the holiness that’s been passed down to them in ways almost unimaginable.

Which reveals something important: the best art from religious Jews will have to take a form that does not conform to our expectations.  That is, in fact, the entire point of art.  If it was what we expected, it would not be the art we need, but the art we want.  And it would never challenge us to grow, or encourage us to look inward, or force a society to face its demons.

All of that is why the art of imperfect artists must begin to be embraced, both by Jewish artists themselves and by religious Jewish societies, for it to flourish.  It is the art that challenges and upsets us that matters.  It is the art that we don’t expect that will change our world and make it into something more beautiful than ever.  It is the art that breaks boundaries that will allow us to imagine and create a world in which the boundaries of galus are finally broken.

We know this because we can see how art has empowered and changed the secular world.  Whether you agree with the art or not is immaterial. 

There is no doubt that Tolstoy, a single man, had a profound impact on the world he lived in.  His biography actually claims he was considered more powerful than the Tsar, which is why he was able to say things that would otherwise land other artists in jail.  It should also be noted that Tolstoy was extremely religious, but in a way that also happened to be deeply critical of the church and government of the time.

Shakespeare so moved the world that even today, movies like the Lion King and West Side Story, which themselves had a profound impact on our societies, how we understand what love is, and how we make sense of the world.  And it is interesting to note that in his time, his plays were performed for commoners, not for religious leaders or the highest of society.

When Jon Stewart left the Daily Show, 12% of Americans were getting their news from him, on par with USA Today and The Huffington Post.

And Matisyahu was the only Hasidic musician to ever have his music played at the Olympics.

It is these gloriously imperfect artists who changed people and changed the world.  It is they who were able to speak to the pains of the common person while also elevating the very society in which they lived.

But they were all also controversial, made mistakes in their lives and their art, and broke societal norms.

The important thing to understand, then, is that if we truly want the art of the engaged Jewish world to flourish, we need to not just change our expectations of what the artists will be like, we need to dissolve our expectations of what their art will look like.

Ironically, it is only once that happens that our true hopes we place in the Art Tzadik will be fulfilled: God’s light in this world transmitted in a way that only art can.

But the light won’t come out in shining, beautiful perfection.  The art may be gorgeous, but the holiness will be flawed.  It will come in through the cracks rather than directly from above to below.  In the same way that we must struggle over Gemora to see its light, we will have to struggle with the art of religious Jews.  It will require as much work from the audience and society as the artist for the light to come into the world.  We will have to learn the same skills: being able to hold paradoxical truths at once (that an artist can be flawed and still be a vessel for perfection, that rebellion can often mean the highest commitment to a society, that the flaws we’re seeing may be in us), being comfortable with not knowing, and accepting that the transmitters don’t have all the answers.

In Hasidus, it is taught that this is the power of Gemora.  That it lives in the dark.  While Hasidus is transmitted from Tzadikim to be gobbled up as pure light, the Gemora forces us to face the darkness of our own unknowing.

So too with art.  Art is not Hasidus, even if the artist is Hasidic.  It is Talmudicly complex and confusing and confounding.  Because that is what a people need: we need the pure light, but we also need those who delve into the darkness.  Because it is they who transform our darkness, and don’t just show us what heaven will be like.

And in so doing, they elevate heaven itself.