An Artist Suggests ‘New Meaning’

Art and culture should be a more important priority in the Jewish community agenda, internationally acclaimed painter and printmaker Ruth Weisberg told graduates of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in her May 14 commencement address at the Los Angeles campus.

“Artists are the ones called upon to make meaning, to create [Jewish] culture,” and like Jewish study, she said, “the most profound experience of art can combine and integrate the ethical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual aspects of ourselves.” Weisberg, the dean of the School of Fine Arts at USC, delivered a keynote address titled “Jewish Experience: the Spiritual and the Aesthetic.”

“The art of the Jewish people has been overwhelmingly devoted to hidur mitzvah [beautifying a mitzvah] — celebrating and adorning a gift to God,” Weisberg said, putting forth a new definition for the role of art within Judaism: that of art itself as “even another avenue for commentary and interpretation.”

Art, she said, can shade, extend and renew the old stories, the timeless insights. “We [Jews] may understand the power of the word, but art, including paintings and drawings, can create midrash.”

She advised graduates to look at art and spirituality in new ways, by offering a new perspective on the contributions and importance of art within Judaism, presenting a stronger interconnection between art and the study of Torah and joining art and spirituality closer together. Through this, the future Jewish leaders may reach people who “may be resistant to other forms of the Jewish experience,” she said.

Widely known in art circles for her work in painting, printmaking and large-scale installations, Weisberg was commissioned by the Reform movement to create a new haggadah, replacing an older version last designed by the artist Leonard Baskin 30 years ago. The new haggadah will be published in November 2001, with the drawings touring New York, Cincinnati and Los Angeles. Recognized for her pioneering work in a form of printmaking called monotypes, a retrospective of her work is currently on view at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle.

HUC-JIR chose Weisberg to give the keynote address because “she is an extraordinarily gifted artist and an academic administrator at our neighboring institution, USC,” said the dean, Dr. Lewis M. Barth, noting that Weisberg has been involved with HUC-JIR for many years. “Ruth Weisberg is an active member of the Jewish community and is a devoted member of her own congregation. She brings all of her talents together with a Jewish interest in her own search for meaning in life and creativity.”

On her commencement address he added: “Ruth Weisberg has combined the issue of Jewish spirituality and art. Her presence symbolizes the desire of the College-Institute to bring the worlds of Judaism and creative art expression together for the benefit of Jewish religious and community life.”

Exhilarated and honored by her role as a participant and honoree, Weisberg said she found the event particularly meaningful. “I wanted to say something that was really of value to the graduates and the audience,” she said. “Art is a way of knowing, a different kind of intelligence.”