Navigating a task without directions is a challenge, an additional burden that complicates any endeavor. Art has rules that guide artists in unleashing their creativity. Judaism, too, has rules that direct its practitioners to creative lives full of religious meaning. Within those limitations, the rules of the game, we best explore our abilities and express ourselves. Robert Frost once said about free verse that it is like playing tennis without a net. Very few people can succeed in chaos.
Last week, at the Orthodox Forum on developing a Jewish attitude to culture, a healthy discussion took place on religious limitations and art. Can an artist fulfill his creative impulses while facing halakhic boundaries? While halakhic limitations on art are generally loose, people operating on the borders of lashon hara and tzenius face potentially frustrating constraints. My view, and I believe that of most participants, is that halakhic boundaries are immutable. While they may be subject to interpretation and debate on specific details, they are in general binding on all Jews regardless of the potential creative loss. However, who is to say that art will suffer because of these rules? In struggling to adapt and comply, perhaps an artist will reach even greater heights. Creativity thrives within a bounded environment.
This came to mind as I explored R. Neil Fleischmann’s recent book, In the Field: A Collection of Haiku. With the strict limitation of a seventeen-syllable poem, the Haiku form does not strangle poets. It sparks creativity, forcing writers to find new ways of expressing complex ideas briefly yet profoundly. The boundaries are part of the poet’s art. Similarly, the halakhic boundaries should be a part of the religious artist’s creations, forcing him to find original ways to express his thoughts.
I won’t pretend that R. Fleischmann is the Shakespeare of Haiku. He is an amateur poet, a thoughtful individual who uses his ample talent to express his observations. In doing so he creates some excellent poetry such that even I, normally allergic to poetry and other forms of high culture, found among R. Fleischmann’s poems some that really spoke to me.
For example (p. 18):
Where do you find the time / I get asked all the time / Seems the time finds me
I love this poem. It expresses a common theme in my life, with an original ending — and all within the form of Haiku. And here’s another one (p. 69):
Life like a postcard / we write real big at the start / then run out of space
And since I spend a lot of time on the different building blocks of a book, I appreciated this clever acknowledgments page:
Too many to name / Thanks to all who made this book / Boundless gratitude
Art is not the only area of life where the observant Jew finds limitations. Perhaps halakhah is, at least to some degree, about creating rules to life, providing a tennis net, around and within which we grow. The rules offer us an opportunity for creativity. They serve as guidelines that are not meant to suffocate but to generate a framework for a more dynamic and successful life in tune with God and ourselves.
Judaism is like Haiku. By following the rules we can create great art.