The Los Angeles Commencement Speech

Tuesday, May 1, 2001

HUC-JIR Los Angeles Commencement Speech
May 14, 2001

Ruth Weisberg
M.A., Laurea di Belle Arti,
Dean, School of Fine Arts,
University of Southern California

First of all, Mazel Tov to the graduates and their families. I am thrilled to be part of your celebration.

I am also very pleased that so many dear friends have joined us here today.

I've come to many previous Hebrew Union College Commencements. In fact, the respect and obvious affection between Faculty and students at the HUC commencements inspired me to change what we do at the graduation ceremony for the USC School of Fine Arts. Among other things we hug a lot more under my Deanship.

What special perspective can I offer you as an artist at this moment of very real accomplishment and promise in your lives? Your realm is Judaism, its study, celebration and renewal, as well as the creation and nourishment of Jewish community. My focus is Art, its study, celebration and renewal, as well as the creation of art and the nourishment of artists. These are apparently different worlds, but there are many points of overlap and, I hope, revealing analogies between the aesthetic and the spiritual.

Any discussion of comparisons gets into issues of similarities and differences. Thinking about similarities feels very positive. We can appreciate the complementarity of the two arenas. We can borrow lessons from Judaism in the realm of art or visa-versa.

Looking at differences, on the other hand, can feel negative. But, in an era of globalization, there is a tendency toward sweeping homogeneity and a certain leveling of experience and identity. I feel strongly that Jews should prize their uniqueness, their difference, and especially their ability to be both insiders and outsiders. This is an instance where the experience of artists has something to offer. At our best, we have had the courage of the outsider, reflecting back to the world warnings, cautionary tales or utopian visions.

The category I want most to explore with you today is actually the combination of Art and Judaism, that is Jewish Art and the role of the Jewish Artist. To my way of thinking, there are two almost opposite ways of looking at this, one from the inside and the other from a more multi-faceted viewpoint.

The insider origins of Jewish Art are quite clearly delineated in the Torah. In Exodus 1:25, The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts, you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. There follows an elaborate description of how to build and decorate the Ark of the Covenant, the cover of gold, the two cherubim in hammered work, and much, much more. It is amazing that these detailed instructions have survived. Our embroidered torah mantles, golden crowns, and silver breast plates are direct descendants of this impulse. So one of the primary and most enduring principles to affect Jewish art is Hiddur Mitzvah, a mitzvah should be performed in the most aesthetic way possible. Over the millennia, the Art of the Jewish people has been overwhelmingly devoted to Hiddur Mitzvah, celebrating and adorning, as a gift for God, and always with the sense of being within the community, an insider's art.

But there is another possibility that I think will be less familiar, but just as generative for those of us whose task it is to produce and activate culture. We are the ones who are called upon to make meaning, to create Jewish culture, be it liturgical, visual, musical, textual, dialogic, institutional, literary, that is what so many of us here today have in common.

I propose that art is also a way of knowing a different kind of intelligence, an organizing principle. This paradigm of Jewish art as knowing involves a more critical dialogue, more of the outsider's perspective, as well as the insider's sense of identification. Like Jewish study, the most profound experience of art can combine and integrate the ethical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual aspects of ourselves. It can even provide another avenue for commentary and interpretation. We are the people of the book, we understand the power of the word, but art, including paintings and drawings, can also create midrash. It too can shade, extend, question and renew the old stories, the timeless insights.

Some examples from my own life: In my work on the new Open Door Haggada for the Central Conference of American Rabbis -- the Reform Movement, every choice I make in the 27 individual drawings has a theological dimension as well as an aesthetic one. In looking at hundreds of Haggadot in the HUC library, I found, for example, no images for the moment when we cried out to the Lord. In studying with Rabbi Laura Geller, she had suggested that this is the turning point in the narrative. Before that line, the emphasis is on slavery, afterwards it is on liberation. It is the fulcrum of the story. So the new Reform Haggada will be the first, to my knowledge, to have an image for that pivotal moment when we cried out to the Lord. There will be an image for the first time of a group of people with their arms raised, their hands tense, and imploring, crying out to the Lord. This is art as midrash.

Another example. Rabbi Sue Elwell, the editor of the Open Door Haggada and I both felt that the Hebrew midwives (or the midwives to the Hebrews), Shifra and Puaa, were crucial to the story, but neglected by previous generations. (Really a lot of us had noticed this.) So I have added an image of hands receiving open hands that could be rescuing new lives. (I wish you could see the actual drawing but that will happen soon enough.)

In another innovation, using the familiar story, but reinforcing and extending its meaning, I make special use of the book format which, after all, is a temporal format. It takes time to move through the pages of a book. So I begin with pages depicting Egypt under a full moon. The Seder participants gradually move through the Text. At the very end, one arrives at a drawing depicting Jerusalem at a distance. In reading the text, in retelling the story, we too have made the journey from Egypt to Jerusalem. This new image, rather than adorning or decorating, is my gift.

So here are six ways that art and artists contribute to and reinforce what you are trying to do as Jewish communal leaders, educators and rabbis:

  • First, we know that Art is a gift, whether to God, the community, or posterity. Commerce muddies this transaction but it is true nevertheless.

     

  • Second, we have found that Art makes meaning. It is the proof and continuation of a living culture.

     

  • In addition, Art heightens our awareness of being alive. It brings pleasure, it delights the eye or ear, and certainly the mind.

     

  • Fourth, it also seems quintessentially Jewish that Art bears witness, surviving in the most dire situations. Think of the music, poetry, and art produced at Theriesenstadt, the so called model concentration camp. There was, for example, a children's opera called Brundibar. People gave up their food rations to see it and it kept the children alive for awhile.

     

  • And fifth, we are all working to create community, and Art creates community. Contrary to the myth of the isolated artist, Art is only complete when it has been received by an audience. It is often collaborative and now frequently interdisciplinary.

     

  • Last, but not least, is the aesthetic sense that art awakens. Akin to spirituality, it is mysterious and unique to each person. Still it's like falling in love, you know when it's happening to you. Is it an idea with a physiological echo, the proverbial chill down the spine? Or is it a profound apprehension of order in the universe, in which case the parallel to spirituality is very close indeed? Jewish spirituality has been described as the heightening of our awareness, through blessings, and mitzvah, through God and Torah. Kedosh, holiness, wholeness, oneness, it sometimes comes as a stunning insight into the nature of the universe. A way of knowing that transcends our usual, more everyday understanding. It can arrive unexpectedly through a prayer, a poem, a painting, a sunset or a moonrise, the strains of Kol Nidre or even a Yiddish lullaby.

When Art and Judaism are joined in common purpose it is an immensely powerful thing, which is why I'd like to end with a call to you, the graduates, and the other wonderful friends in this audience.

Richard Siegel, of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, has written about the need for a bridge between the creative community and the Jewish community. Bridges are built because of an awareness of separation. Let's make Art and Culture a more important priority in the Jewish communal agenda. It can reach people who may be resistant to other forms of Jewish experience. A living, vibrant Jewish culture is a gift to both ourselves and our childrens' children,  l'ador vedor, from generation to generation. It both adorns God's tabernacle, Hiddur Mitzvah, and it creates meaning and identity in our 21st century lives. Most of all, I wish for you, the graduates, lives of fulfillment that will continue the renewal and creative growth of Judaism.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu