Monday, December 11th, 2017

Parashat VaYakhel: A “Renaissance Man” for the Mishkan by Yaakov Bieler

February 23, 2011 by  
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The qualities of a “Renaissance Man”

Over the years, individuals who have been called “Renaissance Men” have served as personal cultural heroes for me. I have been fascinated by their creativity, their excellence in so many disciplines, and as a direct result of their multiple interests and skills, their ability to “break out of the box” and make connections between things that others deem pristinely separate. Aviva Zornberg[1]   cites Arthur Koestler’s delineating the creative process by his creatively coining a word to describe it:

…the ability to make combinations, to move beyond habitual frames of thought, and to integrate alien materials. He (Koestler) names it “bisociation”: it “means combining two hitherto unrelated cognitive matrices in such a way that a new level is added to the hierarchy, which contains the previously separate structures as its members.” The bisociative act “means combining two different sets of rules, to live on several planes at once.”

An extraordinary novel that portrays the attempts on the part of an entire community to engage in this sort of creative thinking is the Nobel Prize winner Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi, or Master of the Bead Game.[2]  The work, first published in 1945, describes an aggregate of people who attempt to delineate the essential principles of various fields of thought and research, and then intertwine these principles from different disciplines into coherent formulations that reflect the commonalities and complementarities that they have with one another.

The origin of the term “Renaissance Man”

The term “Renaissance Man” is based upon a concept that was first expressed by an individual who lived during that exciting period of the history of Western Civilization, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), when he often claimed “a man can do all things if he will.”[3]  The idea that man should try to embrace all knowledge and develop his/her own capacities as fully as possible, was manifested by Alberti himself,  an accomplished architect, painter, classicist, poet, scientist and mathematician, and even a  horseman and athlete. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is another example of an individual from this epoch that was remarkably multi-faceted, with respect to art, science, music, invention, and writing.

“Renaissance Men” in Jewish tradition

                Jewish biblical tradition features two “Renaissance Men”[4] of its own. Shlomo HaMelech is described as having composed parables and poems,[5]   possessed exceptional acumen when it came to flora and fauna,[6] was a great orator and populist,[7] understood economic theory,[8]  and exercised outstanding diplomatic skills.[9]   

Someone who lived during an even earlier period of biblical history and who could likewise be categorized as a type of “Renaissance Man” is Betzalel ben Uri, the chief architect and artisan of the Tabernacle (first mentioned in Shemot 31:2, but repeated in 35:30, and again in 38:22).  The Tora describes him as being able to call upon a wide range of astounding skills in terms of plastic arts. He was an expert in making beautiful things out of wood,[10] a variety of metals,[11] precious and semi-precious stones,[12] cloths,[13]  leathers and furs, [14] oils and perfumes.[15]  An additional skill, with which both he and his assistant Ohaliav were blessed, was the ability to teach others[16] how to carry out the artistic endeavors associated with the Mishkan that had been commanded by God. It must be acknowledged that when an artist can work expertly in so many diverse media, s/he will need to understand in great depth the properties of each individual substance and material in order to maximize the effects and properties that can contribute to the artistic endeavor; consequently, in addition to highly developed aesthetic sensibilities and extraordinary physiological abilities associated with sight, manual dexterity, and artistic technique, practical, in-depth scientific knowledge will also be an indispensable prerequisite for the master artist’s knowledge base. Ibn Ezra on Shemot 31:3 adds that the type of architectural knowledge that constructing the Mishkan entailed, necessitated Betzalel to also be highly knowledgeable in terms of mathematics as well as both taking and executing precise measurements. Furthermore, since the Tabernacle’s purpose was spiritual, in terms of constituting a structure designed to be occupied by the Divine Presence, the designer would per force have to be acquainted with significant mystical knowledge of God Himself, as well as the process of Creation—not only what would be required to bring about the Tabernacle itself, but even the Creation of the universe.[17]

The specifically spiritual dimension of an artistic creation.

The assumption that Betzalel not only possessed superior abilities of sight, but also those of insight, resonates with the following anecdote:[18]  

While Rav Kook was spending some of the years of the First World War in London, he visited the National Gallery. Upon the conclusion of his visit, he said, “The paintings that I love the most were those of Rembrandt. In my opinion, Rembrandt was a saint. When I first saw Rembrandt’s paintings, they reminded me of the Rabbinic statement about the creation of Light. When God Created the Light, it was so strong and luminous, that it was possible to see from one end of the world to the other. And God Feared that the wicked would use it. What Did He Do? He secreted the Light for the righteous in the World to Come. But from time to time, there are great men whom God Blesses with a vision of that hidden light. I believe that Rembrandt was one of them. And the light in the paintings is that Light which God Created on Genesis’ first day.

While a case could be made that not all art should and can be viewed as ethereal and spiritual as the work of this great Dutch master, nevertheless R. Kook validates a trip to a museum as not only a recreational activity of merit, but even a spiritual one.[19]   Furthermore, not only Rembrandt, but also artists in general, clearly look at and see the world differently than those who are not artists. I sometimes wish that I could see what someone so sensitive to color and form sees, when we are both looking at the same thing at the same time. We non-artists can at best only interpolate what our artistic friends and relatives see via contemplating the various products of their artistic talents.

Was Betzalel a Renaissance “boy”?

The amazing number of skills and the profundity of knowledge that constructing the Mishkan would have required, causes Ibn Ezra on 31:3 to pointedly disagree with the Talmud’s contention in Sanhedrin 69b that Betzalel was a mere thirteen year-old when he built the Tabernacle,[20]  making him a prodigy in addition to being a master craftsmen and artist. The commentator is simply unable to understand how someone so young would be able to have so much ability and apparent deep understanding. Reish Lakish’s contention in Beraishit Rabba 95:3, that Avraham was only three years old when he reached the conclusion that there was a single God in the world, would most probably similarly evoke Ibn Ezra’s ire. In his discussion of Pablo Picasso, who along with Mozart, displayed remarkable artistic abilities already in his very early years, Howard Gardner[21] makes a comment that might lead us to conclude that most of a young Betzalel’s formidable skills and achievements may be more easily accounted for than those of a toddler named Avraham.

The term prodigiousness connotes a gift that borders on the miraculous. Even is one refuses to believe in miracles, and looks only to probabilities, the kinds of performances exhibited by the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Felix Mendelssohn, by the youthful Picasso or the English painter John Everett Millais, are astounding. The customary assertion is that prodigiousness occurs only in certain domains, and prodigious performance—defined roughly as adult-level performance displayed by a child—is in fact far more likely to occur in music, mathematics, and chess than it is in the literary or scientific studies.

The noted educational researcher goes on to speculate that disciplines that rely on the individual to recognize, modify, and interrelate various types of abstract patterns, are far more susceptible to having extremely young practitioners come to the fore, than areas of learning that are functions of higher abstract reasoning capabilities, philosophy, or nuanced use of language.

Was Betzalel’s extraordinary artistic abilities spurred on by a personal tragedy that he suffered?

Betzalel may have also shared a second characteristic with the prodigies studied by Gardner. The author notes that Picasso’s young life was marked by a series of traumatic events—disruptive earthquakes, the death of a sibling, etc. –which may have in some way contributed further to his determination and striving for excellence with regard to expressing himself artistically. Art can serve as an outlet, perhaps even an escape, from the difficult haunting dimensions and disappointments of real life. What therefore may have been the personally painful catalyst for artistic endeavors during Bezalel’s formative years? The Tora goes out of its way to note not only the name of Betzalel’s father, as is usually the case in biblical names, but also his grandfather, Chur.[22]   The ultimate fate of Chur constitutes one of the significant mysteries of the bible, in the sense that he obviously was a man of high standing in light of his being chosen, along with Aharon, to hold up Moshe’s tiring hands during the battle with Amalek,[23]  as well as his appointment, again together with Aharon, to administer the Jewish encampment while Moshe ascended Sinai for the first of three forty day periods.[24] Yet instead of Chur continuing to enjoy a “brilliant career”, this is the last we ever hear of him, leading the Rabbis in Sanhedrin 7a, based upon Shemot 32:5, to assume that he had been killed when he refused to accede to the people’s demand to build the Golden Calf.[25]   Ironically, it is Chur’s grandson who is chosen to construct a Tabernacle, including golden cherubs standing facing one another on the Holy Ark,[26]  even as his grandfather died refusing to engage in a different sort of construction project. Chur’s death could not have been lost on Betzalel, and it is interesting to speculate the degree to which and manner in which this experience impacted upon Betzalel’s subsequent artistic expression.

The role of the arts in more contemporary forms of Judaism.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, Chancellor of Yeshiva University, has posited that the Chassidic tradition is far more supportive of artistic spiritual expression than the Mitnagdic Jewish perspective.[27]   He recalled that as he was growing up, his family attended a synagogue whose Rabbi was a Chasid. One year, when he was sent by his mother to deliver Mishloach Manot to the Rabbi and his family, upon entering the house, he heard someone playing the violin. Upon asking the Rabbi’s wife who was playing, he was told that it was the Rebbe himself. R. Lamm reflected that he had never heard of any members of the Soloveitchik family taking up a musical instrument. Their sense of Avodat HaShem (Divine Service) has traditionally emphasized cognitive, intellectual experiences, rather than those generated by artistic endeavors.

In his description of a Chassidic version of Tora U’Madda,[28] Rabbi Lamm cites the concept originated by the Ba’al Shem Tov and expanded upon by the Maggid of Mezeritch, R. Yaakov Yosef of Polonnoye, R. Elimelech of Lizensk and R. Nachum of Chernobyl, i.e., Avoda B’Gashmiyut—“serving God with and through our corporeality, worshipping Him in our material, physical situations.” Rather than insisting that in order to serve God properly, one has to divest him/herself from all endeavors other than those that are purely and exclusively functions of Tora and Mitzvot, i.e., focus upon Avoda B’Ruchniyut (service that is inherently spiritual in nature) this approach considers the possibility of worshipping God in any and all forms of human activity, as long as one’s intentions are “LeShem Shamayim”, for the sake of Heaven. Among the possibilities and contexts that then present themselves as religious, spiritual opportunities, are not only those that are necessitated by having to earn a living, but even cultural and artistic self-expression and contemplation.

Certainly we who wish to live integrated rather than compartmentalized lives of Tora U’Madda, are called upon, each in our own way and context, to try to be excellent in both religious and secular terms, as well as find the common ground where these two worlds can complement each other for the benefit of each. From this perspective, we are all called upon to be “Renaissance Men” in one manner or another, and therefore can draw inspiration from both those who have successfully done this before, like Betzalel, as well as our contemporaries who manage to impressively model this type of existence.  


[1]The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, Doubleday, New York, 2001, p. 473.

[2]Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York, 1949.

[3]Encyclopedia Britannica, CD 97, 1997, “Renaissance Man”.

[4]To refer to a biblical personality as a literal “Renaissance Man” is obviously an anachronism. The Renaissance period in European history postdates the bible by thousands of years. Therefore the term is being utilized in this context in its figurative rather than historical sense.

[5]I Melachim 5:12.

[6] Ibid. 5:13.

[7]Ibid. 5:14.

[8]Ibid. 4:7 ff.  

[9]Ibid., 5:26 ff.

[10]Shemot 31:5

[11]Ibid. 31:4.

[12]Ibid. 31:5.

[13]Ibid. 31:10.

[14]Ibid. 36:14 ff.

[15] Ibid. 31:11.

[16]Ibid. 35:34. It is easy to think of examples of great artisans, athletes and other skillful individuals who proved incapable of conveying to others how to approach similar achievements. The converse also seems to often be the case, i.e.,  that the greatest of coaches and teachers did not have personal careers of extraordinary achievement. Consequently, Betzalel’s accomplishment in this area is all the more remarkable.

[17]Attributing to Betzalel intimate knowledge of the nature of God and the manner in which God created the universe reflects the two chief foci of the Zohar, which deals with these two topics. Consequently, Betzalel must have been a mystic in addition to all of his other skills, talents, and knowledge.

[18]Mrs. Sylvia Hershkowitz, Director of the Yeshiva University Museum, at a conference entitled, “Creative Spirituality: Jewish Education and the Arts”, Nov. 9, 2003, The Jewish History Center, New York. The conference can be accessed on the Atid website at http://atid.org.art.htm

[19]The image of R. Kook in full regalia walking through the corridors of the National Gallery contemplating the works of art on display, is a most intriguing one.

[20]The calculation that Betzalel was 13 at the time that he constructed the Mishkan is based upon a number of homiletical assumptions and inferences from several biblical verses. Just as commentators who try to take the literal meaning of the verses of the Tora at face value, like RaShBaM and Ibn Ezra, take issue with the contention that Rivka was only 3 when she married Yitzchak—see RaShI Beraishit 25:20—so too they do not accept the assumption based upon relatively tenuous sources that Betzalel was 13.

[21]Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity as Seen through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham and Gandhi, Basic Books, 1993, p. 138. Gardner has been studying the relationship between artistic knowledge and education for 25 years as part of Harvard’s Project Zero.

[22]31:2; 35:30. The fact that the Tora does not only list Chur the first time that Betzalel is introduced, but reiterates it a second time when the artisan is mentioned again, draws additional attention to Chur.

[23]Ibid. 17:10.

[24]Ibid. 24:14.

[25]R. Elazar attributes to Aharon the rationalization that since the mob was ready to kill Chur, and therefore would do the same to him were he to oppose their plans to make the Golden Calf, in order to protect the Jews from receiving a terrible punishment that would result from his murder, he was going to assist them. Aharon figured that the murder of a Kohen and a Navi could never properly be atoned for, as opposed to the worshipping of an idol, and therefore to avoid the former takes precedence over stopping the latter. The Talmud presents this as an example of where compromise is inappropriate and Aharon calculated in error.

[26]Ibid. 25:18 ff.  

[27]See fn. 18 above for the website of the conference at which this comment was made.

[28]Torah Umadda: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition, Jason Aronson, Northvale, NJ, 1990. p. 171.

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