Judaism and Human Creativity

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October 6, 2022

4 min read

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The creation narrative in Genesis offers insights on how and why humans create.

As we begin the Torah reading cycle anew, we return to the first Torah portion, Bereshit, Genesis, that opens with the well-known story of the creation of the world. When it comes to the creation of humanity, the text states: “God created man in His image, in the image of God He Created him.”

According to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a 20th century rabbinic authority and philosopher, the term “image of God” in this narrative embodies the idea that like God, man strives to create. In fact, Jewish tradition teaches that humans were designed to be creators and to partner with God in improving the world. Although the Hebrew word used in the text for Divine creativity, bara, literally means “cut out” and is reserved only for God, rabbinic scholars regard this language as challenging and encouraging man to mirror God by creating.

Jewish tradition teaches that humans were designed to be creators and to partner with God in improving the world.

This perspective sees human creativity as rooted in mirroring God’s creative capacity. It also supports the well-known parental metaphor of authorship, which posits that humans feel an attachment to their works of creativity that parallels God’s attachment to humanity. Artistic works are seen as the children of their human creators in the same way as the text of Genesis understands humans as God’s children.

The word create derives from the Latin verb creo, which means “to give birth to.” The idea that all types of authors essentially “give birth” to their artistic creations is also well recognized outside of the Jewish tradition. In her book Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle affirmed this idea from a Christian perspective when she described works of authorship coming to the author and saying “Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.”

Secular creators have expressed similar sentiments. When Elliot Silverstein, representing the Directors Guild of America, testified before Congress regarding colorizing films, he analogized these films to “our children” being “publicly tortured and butchered…by the various instruments of the new technologists.”

The creation text in Genesis also illuminates that human ability to engage in expression, including through artistic skill, is endowed by an external source. The verse states, “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being” (Genesis, 2:7). According to the Rabbinic tradition, the phrase “the breath of life” is understood to mean that God blew his own breath in Adam’s nostrils, thus infusing humans with a special type of soul enabling humans to speak.

Rashi, the celebrated eleventh-century French Biblical commentator, explains that the soul of man is more alive than the soul of animals because man’s soul contains the powers of speech and reasoning. Speech is another way in which man mirrors God. God “spoke” the world into existence by preceding every creative act with a declaration. Human creativity is an act of speech.

Although the classical Jewish tradition views God as the external source of creativity, the more generalized idea is that creative expression is gifted in that it comes from a source beyond the author’s control. Current psychological theories about human creativity endorse a multifaceted explanation that links this idea of giftedness with faith (in God, the work, the process) and self-transcendence.

This perspective has also been articulated by a broad range of artists. Lewis Hyde, for instance, has observed that whereas the narcissist believes that her creative spirit comes from herself, the true creative spirit is grateful for the gift and labors to serve her genius. Similarly, L’Engle wrote that when the artistic work “takes over, the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere.”

Another significant parallel between Divine and human creativity appears in Genesis 3:19, stating that God created humans from dust, and they return to dust. This notion of cyclicality is also common in discussions of human creativity. Lewis Hyde noted that the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was so pleased with when he learned that an unknown worker had heard his poems because that was a sign that his artistic gift was being directed back to the very audience that served as his inspiration. Hyde’s own observation that an artist’s gift “must always move” embraces this concept of cyclicality of creation deriving from the text of Divine creation.

Human creativity results in works that offer important sources of hope and renewal. The urge to create is a prized gift that must be nourished and cherished. The initial passages of Genesis offer important lessons about human creativity for everyone.

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