Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Marc Chagall and Hendel Lieberman: A Comparison and a Lesson For Our Times

During my few attempts at home repair, I learned a golden rule . When you are reassembling an appliance after having replaced or fixed a component, there should be no pieces left over. If you have a plastic cup with screws and springs, you have undoubtedly made a mistake that will result in the appliance not working or having a lower range of function. A home repairman or even a licensed technician almost never improves on the wisdom of the original designer.
A human being , or indeed any living creature is a masterpiece of intelligent design. It has now been discovered that even the appendix, long regarded as a useless design flaw in the human body has its purpose.
Human beings are created with a range of talents that make specialisation a viable economic proposition. Those who have carpentry skills perform a function of which a lawyer or a medical doctor might be incapable. A person who studies and perfects his skills benefits himself and society at large.
The Torah has a prohibition against worshipping graven images. In some Jewish communities, this was given an extremely stringent interpretation. A rabbi I know in Crown Heights told me a story from his days as a boy in Meah Shearim in Jerusalem. He was sitting in class drawing as the rabbi spoke. His neighbour on the bench at which they sat looked over at my rabbi as he drew a picture of a bearded man in a black hat. The classmate snatched the drawing away from my rabbi and in a contrived tone of righteous indignation cried out, "Rebbe !! Leibel is making a "getshke"! (idol) The rebbe's face turned ashen and then crimson as he took the drawing from the hand of the young zealot. Wordlessly, he brought my rabbi to the menahel (principal). Despite the anguished pleas of my rabbi's parents, he was expelled from that yeshiva, much to the shame and consternation of his father, who had attended the same school as a boy. Subsequent events vindicated the piety of my rabbi. His accuser's attire in later years would mark him as a visiting stranger in the streets of Meah Shearim. It seemed that the pleasure of a disciplinary spectacle had been his real motive in turning in his classmate.
I mention this story to provide a social context in which Marc Chagall, a world famous Jewish artist can be properly appreciated. Although Chagall has brought Jewish themes to countless millions, the idea of making a living as an artist and loyalty to the Jewish faith were considered mutually exclusive. Many of his most famous works were centred on biblical themes. It is clear that his exclusion from religious life did not extinguish his Jewish feelings and loyalty. The orthodox Jewish community lost an incalculable treasure when Marc Chagall of Vitebsk left its ranks. Who knows what the impact would have been had he raised a school of Jewish artists?
Hendel Lieberman was an artist whose life took a different turn from that of Chagall. His long artistic career stretched from the early years of the Russian Revolution to the mid seventies, when he passed away. His life was marred by the murder of his wife and children by the Nazis and the imprisonment of his younger brother for fifteen years in Stalin's prison camps for the "crime" of helping Hendel and other family members to escape from the Soviet Union.
Lieberman maintained contact with the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Josef Yitzkhak and his successor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel. In addition to his considerable personal trials, Lieberman sought to reconcile his artistic pursuits with the practice of Judaism.
Soon after becoming Rebbe in the early fifties, the Rebbe began a correspondence and series of meetings with Lieberman in which he encouraged him in his work. Far from being a pariah for making his living in a questionable profession, the Rebbe, starting with a letter famous in Lubavitch encouraged Lieberman to use his abilities to the benefit of Judaism. In future years, Hendel Lieberman was to occupy an honoured place at chassidic farbrengens , seated near the Rebbe. The Rebbe was not making an exception for Lieberman, but making a statement to others with talent that could be used for a good purpose. Peter Himmelmann, The Piamenta Brothers and Michoel Muchnick are all individuals who enriched Judaism with art and enriched their art with Judaism.
The following excerpt from the Rebbe's letter to Lieberman guides many who strive to put their artistic talents in the service of their faith.

"I must therefore confine myself to a general comment with which I hope to illuminate your particular situation. My comment is based on the saying by the Baal Shem Tov--which my father-in-law, the Rebbe, would often repeat--that a person can derive a lesson in the service of G-d from everything he sees or hears about.

As you are surely aware, the primary talent of an artist is his ability to step away from the externalities of the thing and, disregarding its outer form, gaze into its innerness and perceive its essence, and to be able to convey this in his painting. Thus the object is revealed as it has never before been seen, since its inner content was obscured by secondary things. The artist exposes the essence of the thing he portrays, causing the one who looks at the painting to perceive it in another, truer light, and to realize that his prior perception was deficient."

The Rebbe himself lost immediate and close family members to the Nazis. One who has lost a part of a treasure bemoans its loss and treasures what remains. He also guards his remaining treasure with a zeal that stems in part from his knowledge of loss. The Rebbe referred to his Chassidim as diamonds. When asked how he had the energy to pass out dollars for hours on end he answered, "One does not tire when counting diamonds".

It is easy to see that the Rebbe did not want to lose those whose special talents would have been unappreciated in earlier generations. This is an attitude we should have as well. A nation that lost a third of its people in six years must be loathe to estrange even a single soul. Every person has a talent that can strengthen their people and bring honour to their faith.

Business as well as art is a chance to build a Dirah B' Tachtonim , a dwelling place in the physical world. , A businessman in Malden Massachusetts, Aaron Feuermann received attention around the world when a devastating fire destroyed his textile mill . It was commonly assumed that he would take the money from the insurance settlement and walk off into the sunset. Not only did he keep his promise to start over, he also kept a pledge to pay his workers full salary during the time that the factory was being rebuilt. His stellar standards of corporate decency are a case study in the potential for using business not only as a cash cow for one's personal pursuits but also as a domain in which one's personal principles can operate.

Whether it is business, science,politics or art, our personal abilities offer us our unique opportunity to perfect the world according to Torah principles. Marc Chagall deserved an honoured place in the world of Orthodox Judaism. The idea of Tikun Olam , of perfecting the world should not be left to those who would denigrate Torah observance. Business and politics are not just dog eat dog domains. They have a potential for being an area in which an ideal society can be created

There is a question that is often discussed whether ideology should conform to existing reality or whether existing reality should conform to principle. The Rebbe and people like Aaron Feuermann in Malden Massachusetts have provided interesting answers to this recurring question.

People from different stations in life often view each other with distrust or misunderstanding. The worker does not always enjoy the empathy of his employer. The politician is reflexively denigrated by those he represents. Society can be compared to a machine which is often repaired and reassembled with parts left out and put to the side. For the good of the machine in our metaphor, a place for every piece must be found. And in our society, a place must be found for every individual.

1 comment:

Aupusher said...

I enjoy how Marc Chagall uses a Jewish theme in many of his works, and a Christian theme in others. I wonder if the Christian themed pieces were created due to the persecution of the Jews at that time.

This piece, Grey Crucifixion, is obviously Christian:

while this piece, Moses from the Bible, is more Old Testament/ Jewish:

Thanks for the wonderful posts!