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Shabbat Parashat Matot Masei 5783

Igrot Hareaya Letters of Rav Kook: Jewish Art The Positive and Halachic Care #158 part IV

Recipient: The heads of the Betzalel organization for Jewish art. The head of Betzalel, Boris Shatz, had been a yeshiva student before studying sculpture, which puts the style of the letter in perspective.


Body: This piece gets more specific about Rav Kook’s requests of Betzalel to adopt.

The broad realm of pleasantness, grandeur, beauty, and art is permissible for Jews. There is just one line (area of restriction), one etching, although it seems major, but it is actually only large qualitatively but not quantitatively. Spiritually, it is major, but it silences art only slightly, considering how broad that is: “All faces are permitted except for the face of a person” (Rosh Hashana 24b). In fact, it is only forbidden when the face protrudes and is complete. Even in those cases, there are ideas to employ – it is possible to use a non-Jewish assistant when one is up to the end of such a special piece of art, as this is when the prohibition comes into play. Only a simple “point” will remain forbidden along the “line” of matters in which one should be careful. In any case, there is a lot of philosophy behind this – it is only regarding the type of artwork that is connected to idolatry, whether in the pagan world of the past and present or whether in the Christian world. These are things that the Jewish People cannot tolerate.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us, with a sacred obligation, that in our special national treasure, our holy city, there will not be any statues of this type. We would greatly appreciate if your respected organization will inform the whole world, Jewish and general, that all of its projects should be done based on the rulings of the Torah scholars, the spiritual giants of Eretz Yisrael, who are well-known within the nation. This is especially true regarding the narrow path where the feelings of the nation, its religion, and matters of art coincide and especially when the competing desires occur in the city that is the height of the nation’s hopes and glory and its strength and source of sanctity.

My brothers, you can be sure that a small measure of care will pave the way to your goals, which we, those who love our nation and our Land and desire their honor and success, all hope for, with paths paved to the hearts of the people. The practical benefit and blessing that we will have from your distinguished institution should not find any stumbling block in its path. You should go hand-in-hand with all factions in our nation, both those spread around the world and those who are in the Desired Land. They should all support the spreading of the light of practical life with all of your fine aspirations.

When we come to the border of practical benefit, which you want to achieve for our brothers who live in the Holy Land, with your serious activity, it will be easy to understand that only [with your cooperation with Halacha] will you be able to establish this house so that it can bring the desired results. This is to bring a large number of our brethren who are involved in art or who have talent in it, to complete their talents and improve their work. It also will help draw many pupils from the “sons of Zion” from all facets of our nation who inhabit the Holy Land to these honorable crafts from among the many “branches” that spread out from the “tree of life” of the various forms of art. This can only be done if your institution does not get the reputation of one that contains things that our holy religion looks at with an eye of internal spiritual contempt. You honorable people, whose goal is a holy one, to fix and not to ruin, to build and not destroy, I have relied on the honor of your elevated spirits, that you will take notice of my words, which come from a heart full with love and respect for the foundations of your respectable desires.

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