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Shem, Ham Japheth, and Rudy
Yitzchok Alderstein

Shem, Ham, Japheth, and Rudy

Yitzchok Adlerstein

Rudy Guiliani typically elevates confrontation to an art form. The recent ‘Sensation’ exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art can best be described as confrontational art. When the two face off against each other, can Jews not get caught in the middle?

Catholics are understandably upset over the exhibit, featuring a likeness of Mary festooned with elephant dung and pornographic images. Mayor Guiliani championed their cause by cutting off funding to the Museum and even tried to revoke their lease. Cardinal John O'Connor expressed his sadness over "what appears to be an attack not only on our blessed mother ... but one must ask if it is not an attack on religion itself and in a special way on the Catholic Church." An editorial in the normally proper and dignified Forward addressed one telling question to the Museum’s management: ‘What were these knuckleheads thinking?’

Jewish groups clamored to correct the impression that the anti-Catholic dragon breathed Jewish fire. While indeed many Jews were among those who defended the Museum under cover of first-amendment protection, this was clearly not a Catholic-Jewish thing, they . explained. Messrs. Lehman and Rubin, BMA’s director and board chairman, just happened to be members of the tribe, but bear no malice to the Church.

The Orthodox community found itself, as usual, differing with much of the Jewish establishment. The Orthodox Union had the courage to rally to the Mayor’s side, arguing that public funds should not be used in a manner that is patently offensive to the deeply held convictions of any group. We would not want to be treated differently ourselves, they pointed out. Agudath Israel went even further, filing a court brief on behalf of the mayor.

While these were politically savvy (and morally correct) positions to take, they say nothing about the larger issue of the role art ought to play in society. And that is something about which traditional Judaism has a good deal to contribute.

To some worrywarts, the arts evoke visions of marauding bohemians, bent on tearing down all societal norms, and pushing the envelope of unbounded permissiveness. Current trends in marketplace law show that this concern is misplaced. America finds itself in the grip of greater, not fewer, restrictions.

Used to be, anything that fell short of the yelling-fire-in-a-crowded-theater standard was seen as constitutionally protected. Not anymore. Of late, courts have developed an inordinate interest in what people say to each other around the company water cooler. In order to insure that no one creates ‘working environments hostile’ to those of different genders, races, and sexual preferences, the long arm of the law has muzzled the little guy at the office.

Whether this is good or bad is not the point of this essay. The fact is that courts now are so protective of the sensitivities of all kinds of people, that an ever- widening ring of sexual harassment lawsuits makes it unthinkable for any employer to allow a worker to display a suggestive photograph in view of others. If women will be offended, we are led to believe, ti may be illegal and even actionable.

What happens, though, when you add a frame a similar shot, soften the lighting, and add a surrealistic backdrop? Magically, you’ve turned it into art! No longer does it degrade, but it enlightens; it does not exploit and objectify, but celebrates. Any attempt to curb it is met with a First Amendment objection. The hapless folks around the water cooler who have learned to watch their tongues, are rewarded for their circumspection with the opportunity to lavish public funding upon it, regardless of their own tastes or sensitivities!

In other words, proponents of the arts would be foolish to worry about an agenda for the rest of society. They have succeeded in establishing their own bailiwick, in which they are removed and detached from the norms that govern the rest of us! So great is their contribution to mankind, they tell us, that sui generis, they are bound by different rules, or by no rules at all.

Jews have a long track record resisting the triumphalism of art. Our Chanuka lights still burn in testimony to the triumph of reasoned morality over the meretricious beckoning of Hellenic beauty. Matthew Arnold, the 19th century literary and social critic said it best. ‘The Greeks worshipped the holiness of beauty; the Jews found beauty in holiness.’

Not that we rejected art or the esthetic either. Rather, we saw it as an important tool in getting people to a higher place, at least to a point. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch treats us to some remarkable insights into the proper role of art in his treatment of Noach’s three sons. Their names are revelatory, teaching us that they were not simply three brothers of different temperament, but

‘The representatives of the three main tendencies which characterize people and nations. Shem [Hebrew for ‘name’], having the names and conceptions of things and conditions, represents the mind, the spirit; contrasted to him Ham [‘warm’ or ‘hot’ in Hebrew], the highest power of glowing hot sensuality, Japheth represents that which lies in the middle, that center point in which mind and sensuality meet’’ (Bereshis 9:27)

Three different societies would develop from the leanings of these three men. Some nations never progress beyond the limitations of Ham, driven chiefly by animal energy, and passion for material pleasures. The children of Canaan, slaves to their own passions, become the slaves of all others.

Antipodally opposed to them are the real descendents of Shem, those who live by the light of pure Reason as revealed by G-d. Between them, though, is an expanse wide enough for the majority of peoples of the earth.

What would become of those caught betwixt, those who are not as debased as Ham, but not yet as insightful as the offspring of Shem who are ready to listen to and obey the word of G-d? They, claims Rav Hirsch, await slow, step-wise elevation. A good first step is taken by nations ‘which use their forces in the service of beauty who characterize themselves in nurturing art, esthetic beauty. They are conscious of some higher ideal up to which mankind is to worked itself out of its crudeness.’

‘The demand which the G-d of Shem makes is no small one. It demands the complete devotion and submission of the whole person to G-d. A person must first acquire the taste of something higher than he is in his raw nature, even if this something higher is at first also something that appeals to his senses. The savage who paints himself makes a change in his outward appearance, is thereby making the first beginning of improving himself.. which ends in people subordinating themselves’to the dictates of decorum, decency, good manners and beauty.’

What art ought not to do is become an end, rather than a means. The esthetic can become an object of worship itself. Alternatively, it can convince its admirers that in it is the fullest refinement and elevation of the human spirit. Those who played for the SS in the Jewish orchestra at Auschwitz need no reminder of this.

The Torah, of course, anticipated this tendency. ‘May G-d extend Japheth, but he will dwell in the tents of Shem (Bereshis 9:27). Only submitting to the supervision of the Reason of Shem prevents Japheth from becoming a problem, rather than a solution. The words that artists savor the most ‘ license, freedom ‘ are not part of the Torah’ s conception of their rightful role. They must find a home within the tents of Shem - the boundaries prescribed by masters of a calling even more noble.

Someone suggested that if Rudy did revoke the lease on the building, it would serve as a fine location for a yeshiva. Maybe he was really on to something.


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