The Tzohar Paradox
By Chana Corna
If you were to open up the folder containing my seminary notes, the first line you would probably read is this one, in bold and underlined: Does the world exist? It’s a pretty good question. Also, a complicated one.
My year at Tzohar was defined by a constant barrage of questions much like that one. I was lucky enough to attend Tzohar with a group of girls who were both impossibly talented and inquisitive. This proved to be a highly potent combination which led to some fascinating discussions. Classes would overrun, and evening would turn to night until it was the teachers who respectfully asked if they could please leave. We’d let them go, but only if we could continue the discussion next lesson.
That was pretty much our unofficial Tzohar schedule: question followed by question followed by question. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever learned so much before, nor since. It was in one of these endless question-answer classes, when we finally boiled it all back down to the most basic truth: we exist so that an infinite G-d can have a relationship with a finite world. “But it’s a paradox!” One of the girls said, frustrated.
“It’s a paradox!” Rabbi Herman agreed, “but that’s the point!”
We were so moved by the sentiment that, at the end of the year, this was the quote we put on the back of our group sweaters, lest we forget.
We are taught that this world was created to be a dwelling place for G-d, and that by performing Mitzvos we bring Hashem’s presence down into this physical world. But how could this be possible, and what are the implications? How does an infinite G-d create a finite world? If Hashem is our source, how can we see ourselves as having a separate existence? How does this affect our free choice?
The truth is, Judaism is filled with paradoxes of this nature. The first one, of course, is the paradox of whether or not we actually exist (we encounter this one every time we recite the Shema). And in this way, Tzohar is one of those few institutions which embrace this paradox as a basis for Jewish life.
And yet, for many in the Jewish community, finding this balance between the physical and spiritual can be tricky (especially for the more creatively inclined). While we may ideologically be open to creative thinking and innovation, more often than not, our education systems tend to either overtly or covertly disapprove of these very things. If we want to paint or write or film things we can do it in our own time, but we must never confuse these things as being essential. The subtext of this attitude is the belief that the arts are not of any real value in the Torah world. It is a subtext that tends to alienate young people and cast unnecessary guilt on them for wanting to express themselves beyond the norm.
In high school, I had spent most of my time writing skits, doodling oddball characters and penning novels. And while I had enjoyed these things more than anything, I was very much aware as I filled out seminary applications that they were not things that would endear me much to any program director or principal. They certainly wouldn’t help me later in life either.
At Tzohar, however, the attitude was completely different. From the get-go, I could tell that this was the place for me. Where other application forms had asked about my fluency in Yiddish, Tzohar asked me what my artistic talents were. Whereas other seminary interviews required me to translate the day’s Chitas, Rabbi Herman and Amy Guterson asked me about my favourite books (yes, non-Jewish as well). For me, Tzohar was a last-ditch attempt to prove that I could live a frum life without having to sacrifice these huge parts of myself in the process. At Tzohar, they became assets.
Aside from the unofficial schedule of questions, one constant was the weekly farbrenghen. Every Thursday we would sit down with a guest speaker and talk about the flavour of the week. Topics included (but were not limited to): the value of time, the pursuit of happiness, and creativity vs. consistency. During one such farbrenghen, we got to talking about the dichotomy between Torah values and the art world: how could we create art that was more than just beautiful? What about the art that is ugly, raw and honest? The art that suffers? How could we make such art holy? These were questions from girls who had a lot of things to say, but very few ways to say them. Or so it seemed.
We talked about it for a long time, and we came to many solutions along the way. We talked about the kind of art that could validate suffering, but inspire people beyond it, too. We talked about the kind of art that could uplift the world, not degrade it. The kind of art that is not beautiful, but truthful. And in the end, Rabbi Herman concluded with this: “We can create the things that others think to be impossible. That’s why we’re here.” We, the people in that room. We were the ones with the power to do that impossible thing: become Jewish artists.
For the first time in the Jewish world, I felt that those parts of me which were strange and unexpected were no longer flaws.
The great thing too, was that Tzohar practiced what it preached. They not only allowed us, but encouraged us to use those parts of ourselves which were different. They placed equal importance on our talents as they did on our Jewish understanding. For every weight of Torah knowledge, you had a counterweight made from dance. Or film. Or photography. How else would you digest what you’d learned? And more than that, how else would you share it with the world? Tzohar had just the remedy for that last one, in the form of the student showcase. Twice a year (once during the middle and once at the end) Tzohar students would open its doors and share its art with the world. From plays to paintings to videos, the room was filled with living proof of the things we’d learned and the ways we’d grown (if you ever happen to be in Pittsburgh for a showcase, I highly recommend you attend).
It was in these ways though that Tzohar has given myself and countless others the tools needed to live within the paradox of the world. To me, Tzohar is a way to connect young Jewish women with Hashem not only traditionally, but personally. Itgives women access to a way of life that is not only valuable, but fundamental to the fabric of Jewish life.
After my year at Tzohar, I returned home to Australia and began a degree in animation and visual effects. And while as a teenager applying to film school seemed like a betrayal of values, now it only seems honest. To me, film and animation are incredible mediums for expressing not just the bones of an idea, but its heart as well. It is also my way of connecting all of those things I loved so much in high school and raising them to a higher purpose. Building a bridge between two opposing sides, perhaps.
When it comes to Jewish education, there must be trust at some point or another that students will be able to take what they’ve learned and make the right choices. And while it may seem like a risky move to encourage the unknown in people, I think Tzohar has proven how beautiful it can be on a communal level. The initiatives I have seen come from Tzohar graduates have served only to make the Jewish community a more open and vibrant place. They are thinking critically and creatively about Jewish life. They are engaging others in modern ways, through art and technology. They are walking paradoxes. They are partners in creation.
And honestly, who could ask more from a seminary than that?