Rules in the Torah and Art

by David Ebenbach

To its critics (from without and within), Judaism is sometimes characterized as a religion of rules and regulations—to the exclusion, we are asked to believe, of real spirituality. It’s certainly easy to get that feeling as you read Parashat Mishpatim; the Hebrew word mishpatim means rules, and this Torah portion (Exodus 21:1—24:18)catalogues commandment after commandment about matters as diverse as how to deal with a habitually violent ox to how to treat a sorceress and what happens to a person who insults his or her parents, along with more basic things like murder, theft, and sexual behavior. If the scholar Maimonides was right that the Torah contains 613 commandments, this one parasha can feel like it contains half of them all by itself.
People struggle with a parasha like this for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it doesn’t tell any stories, and so it’s a different kind of read than something like the sections we see in Genesis—the flood, say, or the binding of Isaac. But there’s a deeper discomfort around even the idea of rules; a lot of us—especially, perhaps, artists—like to believe that there are no such thing as rules, or that they only exist in order to be broken.
Think of choreographer Anna Sokolow, who said, “I don’t like imposing rules, because the person, the artist, must do what he feels is right, what he—as an individual—feels he must do.” In this, she certainly sounds like some of the students I’ve taught, people who resist any notion that there are certain things that they need to do. Stories don’t need plot, they tell me; poetry doesn’t need imagery—the writer can do whatever s/he wants.
It’s hard to argue with that; after all, a poet could write a poem consisting only of the letter Y repeated over and over again. (Probably someone has already done exactly that.) It would be ridiculous for me to tell them that they’re just not allowed to do certain things, because I said so, whether they like it or not. That would be tyranny, and tyranny doesn’t lead to art. (Note Sokolow’s word choice—she was concerned about “imposing” rules.) But of course that’s not what many rules are actually about. In many cases, it’s not that you’re not allowed to do something—it’s that you can only achieve the result you want, and avoid the results you don’t want, by doing things in a certain way.
Take the example of a mishpat offered in Exodus 22:30: You shall be holy people to Me; you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field. The idea is not Don’t eat torn flesh because I said so—the idea is that eating carrion—Biblical roadkill, really—in some way automatically and naturally turns us from the holiness of our nature. And doesn’t that make sense? Unless we find ourselves in a desperate situation, isn’t there something less than sacred about chowing on a half-eaten and decaying animal left in pieces out in a field? Disobeying this particular rule is risky not because it’ll lead to some arbitrary punishment from God but because it’ll quite naturally lead to an outcome that the rule-breaker doesn’t actually want. Complaining about it might be like stepping out of an open window and then griping that the law of gravity isn’t fair.
Rules in art often address things nearly as basic and primal as gravity. I remember being in an art class as a schoolkid and being told not to use black to make shadows on a person’s face, that brown made the shadows look more natural, more real. Now, if I had been trying to create an ashen pallor, or to disrupt our normal expectations of realistic color, the rule might not have applied to me—but I was trying to paint a believable portrait, and the role of the rule was just to tell me that I had to do things a certain way in order to achieve the particular effect I was after—not because the teacher said so, but because of the impact of color choices on the typical person viewing a painting. My desire to do things my own way wouldn’t have made black a more effective choice, just as it wouldn’t make the paint dry any faster or change the flexibility of my brush bristles.
The same goes for all the arts. Tonal music affects a listener differently from atonal music. Marble reacts in a certain way to the chisel. The dancer is always in relationship to the limitations of the body, the audience’s associations with particular postures, and—yes—gravity. The desire to be rebellious doesn’t change any of these basic facts. Even writers, who are working with something as socially constructed as language, are faced with thousands of years of history that have shaped the human relationship to their material. A writer can write a story without plot, a poem without imagery, but a writer can’t force a reader to react the same way to these pieces as to a story with plot or a poem with imagery. We can control what we do, in other words, but we can’t change the established relationship between the choices we make and the impact they have on an audience.
Knowing this, many artists base their art on responding to and working with the laws they encounter—and even some that they create. According to Glenn Gould, “the sources of [composer Arnold Schoenberg’s] inspiration flowed most freely when stemmed and checked by legislation of the most stifling kind." My students often discover that it’s easier to write when the writing prompt I gave them is full of restrictions (e.g., a poem with ten lines, using six specified words, in dactylic hexameter) than if I just throw the assignment wide open and tell them, say, to write a poem on whatever they want.
Doing good work on a particular piece is sometimes inseparable from engaging with the rules at hand. Composer and choreographer Meredith Monk says: “Each of my pieces creates a kind of world and part of my job is to let that world come into being without my getting in the way. Another part of my job is to ask what the laws of this particular world are. And the piece answers it.” Part of creation is an openness to the fact that you don’t know everything. Part of creation is an understanding that you will not necessarily be able to make all the rules yourself but that you will more likely have to deal with the pre-existing natural laws of the particular material and art at hand.
But what about all those artists who seem to break the rules? What about Sokolow, for example, and her resistance to being told what to do? Well, it’s worth reading the rest of her quote, which ends with, “An art should be constantly changing; it cannot have fixed rules.” Fixed rules. An art should not have fixed rules. This makes perfect sense. If art is, among other things, the continuous effort to discover the natural principles of the world, then artists will continue to discover new truths about the laws that underlie art. Cubists discovered something new about how we see the world; modernist writers discovered something new about how we understand narrative—and then post-modernists took things further. I think of their efforts less as attempts to change the rules than to develop a broader, deeper, more complex and accurate sense of how the world might work. Composer Arnold Schoenberg, who wrote a great deal of atonal music in an effort to find other ways to hold music together, was on a “quest for a new musical law”—not no law, but a new one.
Judaism’s interest in rules is primarily about connecting to God and one another in the most ethical, the most appropriate, the most effective ways possible. When we follow the mitzvot, the commandments, and the mishpatim, the rules, we liberate the holy sparks in all the humble reality around us—not because God said so but because living in this way naturally makes the world holier and more meaningful. Even when we evolve as a religion, leave behind old ways for new ones, it’s because we have uncovered still better ways to interact with the divine.
In our creative lives, we develop not by avoiding the natural laws of our work, but by wrestling with them, and, along the way, discovering new ones—which is just what we’re supposed to do.

This article is excerpted from the book The Artist's Torah.