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The Ins and Outs of Creativity

by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

Does creativity come from the inside or does it come from the outside?

In Greek mythology, the muses were goddesses of the inspiration of literature, science and the arts.*

From the time of Homer, poets have called upon the Muses for inspiration.

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.”—The Odyssey, Book I

But it’s always dangerous to treat Greek thought, which spanned hundreds of years and embraced many different schools of philosophy, as a monolith. The ancients were not as one on the subject of creativity’s source. Heraclitus, for example, said that “character is for man his daimon,” meaning that he, not some external spirit, is responsible for his own destiny, and his own creative work.

What is the Jewish perspective?

One of the modern masters of Jewish ethical tradition has written the following: “When a person prays and suddenly feels a joy of love of God in his heart, know that God desires to fulfill his will. And if sometime during the day or night, outside of prayer, he has such a feeling, he should not speak with anyone until the feeling passes. Furthermore, any good idea that enters one’s heart is a manifestation of the Divine Presence…like a minor form of prophecy…”**

But Jewish tradition is not monolithic on this issue, either.

The eighteenth century Torah genius, the Vilna Gaon, made it his policy to refrain from using any ideas that came to mind during prayer. And when once an angel appeared to him and offered to assist him in solving the some of the more difficult problems encountered in his Torah studies, he declined the offer.

Why would anyone turn down a Divine emissary? Aren’t the prep courses for the SAT’s heaven sent? The reason was that the achievement would be greater if he could attain enlightenment by dint of his own efforts, and the reward for it would also be greater than anything received as a gift from heaven.

The Vilna Gaon’s reasoning has deep roots in Jewish thought. The whole purpose of life in this world is to provide a means of earning eternal reward in the next world. If that reward—closeness to God—would be given to us, it would be what is called in Tradition nehama d’kesufa, the bread of shame, a handout; and it would be a handout that would be an embarrassment forever, a crimp in your eternity. But by earning the reward through the fulfillment of the commandments in the Torah we make ourselves capable of receiving the greatest possible reward, untainted by nehama d’kesufa.

Most of us would be grateful for a little help from Above now and then, and accept it without qualms. Indeed, the inspiration that comes to artists and writers—usually not during prayer—remains a matter of considerable mystery. Even if it emanates from within, it is not something predictable or controllable. The greatest creative individuals suffer from lapses of inspiration, unproductive, “dry” periods, and unaccountable slumps and writer’s block. But the great ones work on in spite of obstacles.

The classic advice for aspiring writers is discipline. Regular work hours in a place set aside for just that, a studio or study. And to keep at it even when nothing of value is produced and all the work is consigned to the trash. Sooner or later, the hard work will be rewarded with inspiration. As the inventor Thomas Alva Edison said, “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” ***

As mentioned above, creativity is compared to prophecy. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides explained that prophecy is not a gift that anyone might receive; it’s not like winning the lottery. Only those exceptionally righteous individuals who reached the highest levels of spirituality through selfless devotion to God and Man were vouchsafed communication with the Master of the Universe.

To attain God’s perspective, that truth of prophecy, one must prepare oneself through a lifetime of spiritual striving. Similarly, creativity is not something that can be expected to come to a person just like that. The preparation comes from within, from the person himself or herself, and it’s an arduous labor. But in the end, the great flash of insight, of inspiration, like the word of God itself, comes from outside.

Sources: *The Nine Muses as described by Hesiod: Calliope, the chief, was goddess of epic poetry, Clio was the goddess of history, Euterpe presided over tragedy, Terpsichore ran the lyric poetry and dancing school, Thalia was patroness of comedy, Melpomene was associated with tragedy and the lyre, Erato was special to certain poetic genres, Polymnia was master of geometry, and Urania was the divinity over astronomy. From Encyclopedia Brittanica.

The philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead is credited with coining the term “creativity” in the 1927 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, later published as Process and Reality.

**Rabbi Haim Zaitchik, Introduction to the Haggadah Gedolei Tnuas HaMussar; Rabbi Chaim Luzzato, Derech Hashem, Chapter 1; ***Edison quote was sometime around 1902, found in the September 1932 edition of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, and see John Ruskin, Notes by Mr Ruskin on His Collection of Drawings by the late J. M. W. Turner, 1878: “I know of no genius but the genius of hard work.”

Note: This essay should not be construed as an endorsement of Greek mythology. Judaism recognizes one God, who alone created and rules the heavens and the earth.

Reprinted with permission from

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