This article first appeared in the June/July 2021 print edition of First Things.
When it comes to creativity, some of us are of two minds. Important Jewish thinkers, including my mentor Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, suggest a positive view. They hold that when Genesis 1 describes the human being as the image of God, it means that God endows us with creative ability. When we create, in our limited way we are imitating him. Yet creating and creativity are not the same thing. Most useful work is not creative, in our common sense of the word. It is routine. For the most part, we do not contribute to human welfare by creating something new but rather by doing more of what has already been done, and at times refining and improving things in the process.
Creativity is therefore often treated with suspicion. Being creative entails going where nobody has gone before, which means one runs the risk of failing or being rejected. Being creative often involves a solitary activity, or one appreciated by a small in-group. The creative person is regularly judged as deviating from the common path. And even (especially) the most idealistic of us are anxious about devoting our lives to activities that may not yield benefit to others when there is so much constructive work that surely needs to be done: healing the sick, helping the destitute, teaching the ignorant, or just showing up for an “uncreative” everyday job.
If you ever aspired to follow the muse of creativity, these reasons have probably been used to deter you. My purpose now is not to justify or refute these objections, dear as they are to parents wishing to sway a child who plans to go off the beaten path. Rather, I want to suggest that several of the assumptions commonly made about the nature of creativity are dubious. If we clear them away, creativity becomes more difficult but also more necessary and more universal than is often thought.
One error is to identify creativity with originality. If I think through a problem strenuously and thoroughly, perhaps I will arrive at original insights or solutions; it is not inevitable. Quite possibly someone else has beaten me to it, especially when we are both on the right track. Originality is merely a question of who gets there first. Whoever finishes second cannot take out a patent for his invention or parlay his work into professional prestige. In terms of creativity, he is equal to the one who was first. And in some circumstances, the desire to be original at all costs leads not to creativity, nor even to authentic individuality, but to an eccentricity that overstresses idiosyncrasy and dismisses the value of working within a tradition. One may call it the romantic fallacy.
Another error is to equate creativity with scholarly productivity. The greatest scholarship, the kind that continues to find scholarly and intellectual readers a generation later, is creative: The landscape of a discipline is transformed by new discoveries, and oftentimes the vivid and precise writing of a scholar alters our entire way of thinking about a subject (for better or for worse). Most competent scholarship, however, is neither revolutionary nor transformative. It is the application of methods established by one’s predecessors and follows paradigms that owe their authority to the creativity of others.
Let us not minimize our debt to those who toil in the vineyard of knowledge, the “organization men and women” of the academy. And let us not forget that the most creative of us spend most of our time solidifying (or discarding) whatever lightning bolts of insight are given to us through the painstaking slog of our scholarship. All the same, the daily labor of science or humanistic study is not what we mean by creative work, however much it may serve as preparation for and verification of our creative moments. I suspect that not a few of us choose university life in the belief that we are choosing a creative vocation, only to find ourselves preoccupied with the exigencies of a workaday job. If we harbor this illusion, then we have succumbed to the academic fallacy.
It seems natural to think of the creative life in the context of certain intellectual and artistic pursuits. You write a book or a poem or a novel; you compose a piece of music or produce a work of visual art. Although the romantic fallacy may lead us to think that genius is self-authenticating, writing, composing, and painting well invariably require professional training and dedication, combined with natural gifts and the circumstances that showcase one’s capacity to create. Creativity, on such a view, would then be an elite activity, and that is how it is ordinarily regarded. But this is overly restricted. Human creativity is often needed and exhibited in a variety of areas not usually identified with cultural sophistication and excellence.
In some situations, lending support to others or apologizing for words or actions we regret requires creativity. These acts can often be well done through routine, even unthinking performance. Most of the time, providing a friend with support does not require careful premeditation and refinement. But not always. We frequently offer help without adequately thinking through what help is needed, if any. And not infrequently, there is the danger that we offer help in a way that belittles the recipient and causes a loss of self-respect.
The same holds true for a mechanical apology. If ill-timed and poorly expressed, it can inflame instead of assuage the offense. Or it may be countered with an equally mechanical response, an outward show of forgiveness that does little or nothing to restore a frayed relationship. Every rabbi knows many examples of astonishingly insensitive advice given to stricken individuals and disastrously ill-considered remarks of consolation directed to mourners.
If we want to avoid these pitfalls, we must adapt our actions to specific situations, paying attention to the subtle variations of human individuality. Doing so requires creative wisdom of a sort not inherently inferior to the skill and imagination that go into the production of literature and art. Indeed, one of the strongest justifications for humanistic education is that it encourages us to enter into complex human relationships, giving us opportunities to develop creative wisdom.
Creating a scholarly treatise or a work of art leaves an external object that endures in time and space. It can be inspected, analyzed, admired, and criticized by others. Unless one has a Boswell, as Dr. Johnson did, creative wisdom exercised in our relations to others goes unrecorded. Like labor, and like love, a certain virtuosity in navigating sometimes difficult moments in life is necessary but transient. It endures only insofar as it is constantly exercised. In a certain sense, a life well-lived is a work of art, which we cherish in others, as is evident in the fact that we often ask those who are wise to mediate conflicts or call upon them for personal counsel when we’ve made a mess of our relationships.
The ordinariness of creative wisdom does not make it less essential to human flourishing but more so. The upbuilding of the human self is the most universal act of creativity, and its most individual expression. To fashion a life of virtue is, perhaps, the creative act in which the image of God is most magnificently realized.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.
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