And Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has singled out by name, Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and had inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood – to work in every kind of designer’s craft – and to give directions. (Exodus 35:30-33)
My grandfather built houses in Poland and Milwaukee. My father had a degree in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin and built bridges, houses, and office buildings. I loved the mathematics and science involved. In fact, I took courses in both of those subjects through college. I also loved the pride that my father had in what he built. I even liked the smell of the wood. Then, in seventh grade, I got a D in woodshop because I was “eleven thumbs.”
I have immense respect for people like Bezalel who know how “to work in every kind of designer’s craft” and to make the objects that we need to live life with ease – to make them beautiful, besides.
The first thing I derive from today’s Torah reading is the importance of recognizing and appreciating the skills that other people have. In his 1983 book, Frames of the Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner, a professor of Education at Harvard, identified seven forms of intelligence: (1) musical, (2) visual, (3) verbal, (4) logical, (5) bodily, (6) interpersonal, and (7) intrapersonal. Later he was convinced to add two more: (8) naturalistic and (9) existential (or religious).
He was not only listing various skills that people have but also claiming that these skills are “intelligences,” thereby denying that there is only one kind of intelligence (usually identified with knowledge of facts and reason). To demonstrate that he was not just involved in an act of political correctness in recognizing these attributes, he articulated seven criteria for a behavior to be considered an intelligence: potential for brain isolation by brain damage, place in evolutionary history, presence of core operations, susceptibility to encoding (symbolic expression), a distinct developmental progression, the existence of savants, prodigies and other exceptional people, and support from experimental psychology and psychometric findings.
Gardner’s theory, its basis in brain science, and its implications for education have been thoroughly debated ever since he proposed it. What he minimally demonstrated is what I sensed back in seventh grade and what the Torah is announcing in the passage cited above – that arts and crafts skills are indeed forms of being “endowed with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge.” They are not just for those who cannot remember or reason well; they are rather distinct skills that many of us who can remember and reason well cannot do well. I am a graphic example of that. Just ask my woodshop teacher! We should acknowledge and appreciate those who can excel in areas that we cannot, and we should thank God that some of us are good at some occupations and some at others, otherwise broken things in my house would never get fixed, and none of the beautiful paintings on our walls would be there.
The other lesson that I learn from our Torah reading is the importance of beauty to our tradition. hiddur mitzvah. This includes, but is not limited to, making the objects of our lives beautiful. It also betokens for me the emotional, conative, and intellectual aspects of fulfilling a mitzvah. A truly beautiful fulfillment of a mitzvah is one that fully involves one’s heart, will, and mind. It was when Rabbi David Mogilner, z”l, taught me at age 15 through a series of discussions at Camp Ramah that Jews need not turn off their minds to be seriously Jewish that on the contrary, the Jewish tradition asks us to question everything so that our faith can truly be “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might”.
As a philosopher and rabbi, I much appreciate the life of the mind, but life is clearly not restricted to that. Judaism is very wise in engaging not only our mind, but also our body, will, and emotions. Singing the liturgy and other Jewish songs with gusto, dancing Jewish dances with joy and energy, and creating Jewish art with attention to expression and detail, are all part of what it means to be Jewish. Moreover, the Jewish tradition emphasizes, much more than Western liberalism does, that we thrive best in a community. A beautiful mitzvah is, for me, one done with a conviction born of the active use of our body, mind, emotions, and will, and one done with one’s family and community.
May we all appreciate those within our midst who have artistic and other skills that we ourselves do not have, and may we live our lives with a desire to make them beautiful; as beautiful as the Tabernacle of old depicted in today’s Torah reading.
Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, Ph.D. is a Professor of Philosophy, American Jewish University