THE ORIGINS OF JEWISH CREATIVITY
Moment Talks With Artists, Scientists and Scholars to Illuminate the Source of Human Creativity
The dominant theory about creativity is that it is the result of the blending of two different idea networks. The classic example is Picasso, who took the idea network of the Western artistic tradition and the idea network of African masks—not just their physical look but the spirituality implied by them—and jammed them together like two galaxies crashing. That’s how it works: Two networks crash, and out of the ensuing clashes, conflicts, congruences, you spin off new things. So creativity is very rarely inventing something new out of whole cloth; it’s using two or more old things to create new combinations. The theory of why Jews are so accomplished has to do with them living in what one historian calls “verges”—spots where different cultures come together, whether it’s Jerusalem, Istanbul, Baghdad or New York, places with a lot of traders, a lot of coming and going, where ideas are clashing. And then as Jews we’ve got our own experience of our minority culture clashing with whatever majority culture we’re living in—whether Christian or something else. That gives us the ideal space for new things to come in. It gives you a Saul Bellow, for instance, mixing his Jewish heritage with the tough guy culture of Chicago, so he ends up with a sensibility that’s part Chicago tough guy and part Talmudic intellectual. That’s my theory.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times and the author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.
Einstein said it perfectly: Religion without science is blind. A Jewish mystic said that when the Torah came into the world, it was split in two parts—one part was given on Sinai and the other part is nature. Creativity arises from wonder, from being amazed at the magnificence of the world—wondering what’s underlying all the amazing complexity we see all around us. Judaism favors asking questions, whereas some religions expect you to take everything on faith. The very fact that Jews ask questions means they’re being creative because they’re wondering how things work. Doubting isn’t against our faith; for me, doubting is part of it. Doubting is trying to understand how the world works. The subtlety of biblical text itself encourages trying to understand its deeper meaning, looking below the surface to understand what’s really there. Creativity is digging below the surface and finding what’s under the superficial world we see. And in this sense, I think Moses was creative because he realized that God wants arguments.
Gerald Schroeder is a physicist and also teaches at Aish HaTorah College of Jewish Studies. He is author of four books, including The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom.