European society underwent rapid changes in the 18th century. It was the Age of Enlightenment, and new ideologies came into vogue, ideologies that often seemed at odds with Jewish values. In the new way of thinking, human reason was considered the ultimate negotiator of truth. Religion was sidestepped by the power of science.
The Enlightenment ignited an age of cultural expression in Europe, and a surge of talents emerged. Visual arts, architecture and sculpture flourished; musical expression was brought new life by the genius of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven and other great musicians. Literature, drama and poetry were vital parts of European culture, and educational trends shifted to include a greater emphasis on cultural experience and the development of self-expression.
Accompanying the cultural shift was the misconception that faith and reason were mutually exclusive, and that obedience and self-expression couldn’t work in unison.
In the Age of Enlightenment, religious commitment was believed to cripple creative expressionIn truth, in Jewish tradition, faith and reason are highly compatible. Open up any page of the Talmud and you’ll see the sharp reasoning skills of the Talmudic scholars. Critical thinking and education are part of the Jewish tradition. It’s not for naught that we’ve been called the People of the Book.
Obedience and self-expression are also not mutually exclusive. In the Age of Enlightenment, religious commitment was believed to cripple creative expression; but actually, in Jewish tradition, creative expression is encouraged. In fact, it is seen as one of the most potent tools in our service of G‑d.
Creative self-expression is euphoric. Seeing the success of one’s talents is a sweet massage to the psyche, as it experiences the natural pleasure of accomplishment. But in Jewish thought, the expression of one’s talents is seen as something more. Each soul has a unique mission as an agent of G‑d. As an agent, the soul is endowed with the tools that she needs; these tools are custom-designed for her task. If one has an awareness of one’s soul and its mission as an agent of G‑d, the experience of creative self-expression takes on a different dimension.
The women who traveled with Moses in the desert had keen soul-awareness. When Moses lists the contributions that the Jews made to the Tabernacle, he mentions amongst them the contributions of the women, who wove exquisite fabrics for the Tabernacle’s curtains. As will be seen, these women viewed their creative expression as part of their service to G‑d, and G‑d so valued their gifts that special mention of them is made in the Torah.
“All the women whose hearts inspired them with wisdom spun the goats” (Exodus 35:26).
Why does the Torah say that they “spun the goats”? Why not say that they spun the goats’ hair, the fleece? Based on this unusual expression, the Talmud explains that they used a unique technique to spin the goats’ hair.
“This was an extraordinary craftsmanship, for they would spin them from the fleece on the back of the goat [before it was shorn]” (Shabbat 74b).
Why did they go out of their way to spin the fleece while it was still growing on the goat’s back? Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, a 16th-century Italian rabbi and philosopher, explains that goats’ hair loses much of its luster once it’s sheared; by combing and spinning the hair while it was still growing, the women made it retain its luster. G‑d hadn’t told them to spin the fleece for the curtains this way. Out of their own sense of beauty, they designed the curtains in the most creative way, in order to beautify the Sanctuary.
Out of their own sense of beauty, they designed the curtains in the most creative wayThe Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, adds another dimension to this idea. These women, he explains, didn’t look at their contribution as merely a gift; they viewed it as a sacrifice to G‑d. If they had an eye for design and a hand for sewing, they wanted to give G‑d a sacrifice using their eye and hand, the tools that were given to them.
Among the sacrifices that were brought in the Temple, there were two categories: animal sacrifices and meal sacrifices. The animal sacrifice was the more generous sacrifice, superior to the meal-offering. The women, who viewed their contribution as a sacrifice, wanted their sacrifice to be of the very best kind, the animal sacrifice. But they were bringing curtains, not animals. How could they make living curtains? But they could do so by “spinning the goats”—spinning the fleece while it was still being nourished by the body of the goat. In this way, the curtains were designed as a live sacrifice, their thread spun from live hair.
When we view our talents as G‑d’s endowment to our soul, then cultivating that talent becomes an imperative. There is humility in this knowledge, that creative expression is a means for the soul to fulfill its unique mission. When viewed this way, there are no limitations on how far creative expression can be advanced.