Genesis, Sampling and What Creativity Really Is

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, October 16, 2020 / 28 Tishrei 5781

The first half of today’s column talks about two upcoming programs. If you would like to skip to the Torah reflections, please scroll down.

Israel360: The Slow Path to Acceptance: The Mizrahi Experience in Israel

Henriette Dahan

There are a couple of upcoming events I would like to mention here. The first occurs this coming Tuesday, October 20th at 7:30 PM. It is an Israel360 program, and our guest lecturer is Henriette Dahan, who lives in Be’er Sheva where she was a professor at Ben Gurion University. Be’er Sheva is the capital city of the Negev, and as such fulfill’s David Ben Gurion’s desire that Israel develop the desert.

Like all ethnically diverse countries, Israel has struggled with integration of its various groups. Israel is one of the world’s most diverse countries. 35 languages are spoken regularly there. Given its small population, that is both remarkable and challenging (though they speak over 800 languages in Papua New Guinea!).

Ms. Dahan is a Moroccan Jew, whose research centers in political science. She is one of the founders of the Mizrachi Feminist movement. As a Moroccan Jew, her interests in the place of Jews of color is both academic and personal.

Given America’s continuing discussions about race, integration and what the nature of America is or should be, this discussion with Henriette Dahan promises to offer interesting parallels to our own challenges.

A special thanks to our partners, The Harold Schnitzer Family Program in Judaic Studies, and PDXHillel.

Facing the Election: Before and After
Sundays, November 1 & 8, 12:00-1:30pm
with Dr. Daniel Gordis and Amir Tibon

Safe to say, this will be one of the most contentious elections in American history. People of all stripes are feeling incredibly anxious and on edge. Suspicious. This is a charged time. I worry that conditions are such that regardless who wins, those on the losing side will not trust the outcome of the election. This should concern all of us, as trust is the fundamental unit of exchange upon which society depends.

What do you do with such a moment? How do you navigate it? How does one manage and go about one’s day, even find joy and contentment, in a country that seems to be coming apart at the seams? Additionally, we are an international people, with two main population centers, here in the US and in Israel. This election will touch upon that relationship, which also is currently stressed. As a nation, we have moved from an age of cynicism to suspicion to outright distrust. We need to move past that. I have faith that we can do so. It won’t be easy, and we will need to become acquainted with neglected and forgotten tools.

As Jews, we are fortunate to have a rich history that can offer us guidance in navigating turbulent times. This year’s Scholar in Residence program takes a different format. On two consecutive weekends, we will glean lessons from our history that offer us an example of resilience, as well as use the eyes of journalism to provide some current perspective. I really hope you will attend both sessions, as the topic could not be more timely or more relevant.

You can learn more about this important program and register by pressing HERE. Please make sure to register for both events (you will find two tabs, one for each day).

We all owe a debt to the Suher family, to the Stan and Ethel Katz Briller Jewish Education Fund of the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation and the Yoni Suher Fund of Congregation Neveh Shalom.

Begin Again: Genesis, Sampling and What Creativity Really Is

Summary: In this week’s Oasis, I explore what human creativity is, and why knowing that can teach us humility and gratitude and help us to live together.

Some words of Torah. We live in a country that has copyright law and protections for intellectual property. Ultimately, those laws are on the books primarily for commercial reasons. While these rules have their inspiration, therefore, in economic concerns, they also assume that there is something such as creativity. Specificially, they assume that inventors, businesses and artists can bring into the world something novel, something that didn’t exist before. The impulse behind this belief is probably grounded in human evolution. Most of us can remember getting upset at a younger sibling who mimicked us, or being upbraided by an older sibling when we followed their example. We seem to have a need to imagine that our actions are somehow special, that our thoughts are our own. But is that really so?

The book of Genesis would argue differently. The very first line of the Torah begins with the phrase, “bereshit bara elokim…” In the beginning God created. What is important to recognize is that the word for creation and it’s root ברא only is applied to God. Only God can create ex nihilo, out of nothing. From the Torah’s viewpoint, true novelty is reserved for God alone. When humans create, a different word is used, yotzer. This is the verb for shaping and giving form to something. Implicit is the understanding that all human activity depends on what is already here—ideas, molecules, the stuff of the world.

Human creativity is most honestly described by a musical technique that developed in the 1970’s and came to recognition when it was employed by rap artists in the 1990’s, called sampling. The birth of digital recording, and the conversion of older recordings into digital formats suddenly made it easy for artists to “sample” any song and to include phrases from it into their own work.

At the time, this generated much controversy, as this new creative act ran afoul of copyright laws. In the legal and commercial spheres, this was ultimately resolved, but the impulse behind the music was extremely authentic. There is no real creativity. To be human is to borrow. We learn from our primary caregivers by copying what they do. Language is borrowed. As a chef, a poet and a rabbi, this is patently clear. It is not just that we stand upon the shoulders of those who came before us. It is that there is nowhere else to stand. We all sample.

In the ecology of human culture, everything is recycled. Really, apart from the fresh inputs of energy from the sun, everything on the planet is recycled, recombined, repurposed and reused. Heck, even the letters we think of that make up the Hebrew alphabet are borrowed. Ancient Hebrew letters looked completely different, and for the last couple of millenia we have been using an alphabet sourced from the Assyrians (alphabet borrowing was very common).

The great literary critic, Harold Bloom, who died last year, spoke about the creative anxiety of writers who at best could only hope that their work wasn’t “overdetermined” by previous authors, wasn’t completely derivative. Creativity occurs in the margins. It occurs by how we combine the things we found. That’s where human novelty happens.

Why should we care about this? Two reasons.

The first is a political and sociological reason. Our very notions of creativity over privilege an individual person or even a culture. While individual rights are extremely important, the pendulum has swung to the far edge. Our culture is in jeopardy because we have elevated the myth of the individual to such a high pillar, that it is in danger of toppling everything over. We are going to need to find a new balance where communal and civic needs are as important as the individual, or there won’t be any of the civil institutions that sustain us.

The second reason applies that sociological insight into the realm of the spirit. When we stop clutching so tightly to our own imagined creativity, and when we understand that we are all samplers, this can lead us to a deep gratitude for all that has come before us, and an appreciation for the tremendous debt we owe to creation itself. We are all borrowers. We are all interconnected. The one great song of creativity is that which is sung by all humanity across the ages. It is a song that only God can hear, but occasionally, if we listen carefully, we can catch a few bars, a few phrases.

Judaism has always stood in the fulcrum between the rights of the individual and the rights of the community. In fact, it phrases those rights as byproducts of our obligations to one another. When it came to “sampling,” our tradition not only understood it was unavoidable, it also declared it admirable. The one caveat it stated was that when we use someone else’s insight, we should do so “b’shem omro.” We should give credit to the source we learned it from. That’s a different sort of intellectual property right. It’s the one that honors our teachers and honors past generations as well.

Given that, let me note that some of these thoughts were inspired by a Ted Radio hour hosted by Guy Raz. Not sure when it came out.

As we begin the Torah anew, may we learn from others new insights—old wine in new skins, and new wine in old skins. And may we stand in awe and appreciation at this incredible world we live in, the one that is loaned to us.

Returning again,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Can you recall when you had a brilliant idea, only to later discover that someone else thought of it first? How did that make you feel?
  2. I’ve argued here that according to Judaism, true creativity is reserved for God. What is your definition of creativity?

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