I recently posted about “Science and Prophecy:”


I later thought I could also have titled the piece, “Scientist and Prophet.” I likewise could have titled this post “Artist and Prophet,” but decided to maintain the style of the first title for comparison.

“Prophecy” is commonly understood as “foretelling the future.” In fact, “prophecy” means a message from God. Sometimes it can be “foretelling,” but it can also be any direction or message given to an individual, whether meant to be shared or for the individual alone.

The rabbis said: “A dream is 1/60th prophecy.” [1]

The previous piece on scientific inspiration gave examples in which questions that grew out of research were answered in dreams. The research was always a “conscious mind” activity. The dreams were something else.

It’s the conscious mind that predominates for the scientist.

This is less true of the artist.  

Like the scientist, the artist must often begin by mastering certain styles, techniques, etc. The piano student, for example, begins largely by doing exercises accompanied by simple pieces. Jazz musicians, like Western or Indian classical musicians, must develop extensive skills before their art is mastered. For visual artists, much time in their early years is spent emulating “masters” — by sketching or some other form of re-creation. This is a “conscious mind” activity (not always an interesting one, from what I remember of practicing the piano exercises).

But the mastery of skills is only the start — the stepping stone — to the artist’s actual work. The skills are meant to be used in an inspired way. Torah itself explicitly records one such instance, having to do with the building of the Mishkan/Tabernacle: 

“See, I [God] have called by name Bezalel…I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.” [2

David, too, becomes an inspired musician and poet — the writer/composer of Tehillim/psalms, only after being anointed as king by the prophet Sh’muel/Samuel:

“So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David…” [3]

Shortly later, he is praised to Sha’ul/Saul, as someone whose music might ease Saul’s migraines:

“I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well…And the Lord is with him.” [4]

David had received “ruach ha-kodesh” — Divine inspiration:

“King David, who composed the Book of Psalms, said, ‘The spirit of God spoke in me; His Word is on my tongue’ (II Samuel 23:2), meaning that the [Divine] spirit that rested upon him motivated him to compose those words.” [5]

The work of an artist can often involve doing variations on a basic pattern. For example, there’s an actual form in “classical” music called “Theme and Variations,” although much warholcomposition is really a variation on a specific form (a sonata, for example); in Indian classical music, a “raga” is essentially a theme and endless variations; likewise jazz (although the parameters of what constitutes a “variation” in jazz are quite broad). “Theme and variations” can be found in visual art, too, although it’s often in the preparatory process, as an artist tries out different possibilities before deciding on one for the final presentation. [6]

The source of these variations, even in “secular” art, is the same one that inspired scientists in their dreams. It is a Divine level of the mind; the “Divine Mind” in us.

A personal experience comes to mind.

Many years ago, I did some work for a friend who was trying to develop a business selling leather “chokers” (a women’s accessory worn around the neck). My friend showed me the basic pattern: leather strands were pushed through a bead that had a hole, then through other beads to finish the pattern. My friend asked that the pattern not be altered. I had never done this before; it wasn’t difficult. But as soon as I started, I began to get ideas on how to vary the pattern, using the same basic technique and materials. Every time I started another choker with a new pattern, I got yet another idea in mind of a pattern and how to do it. I could hardly wait to try it out. It went on all day. My fingers hurt but I didn’t want to stop. My friend saw what I was doing and accepted the pieces. Even though I had varied the pattern, they were still “sellable” for her needs.

You might think that it was just a “rational” process of seeing alternatives.

But — the next day, when I started to do the work, expecting ideas to pour into my mind as they had on the first day, I experienced nothing of the sort. I was able to do the basic pattern I had been shown — but no variations came to mind at all. [7]

I wouldn’t have thought of it as a “form of meditation.” I didn’t ask for the ideas or wait for them. They just came. But that is much like what artists — even of advanced skills — experience: They begin a project and other possibilities occur spontaneously:

“Shane Townley has learned to trust his instincts. As an artist, he sees painting as a form The Path by Shane Townleyof meditation. ‘I usually start with a landscape in mind,’ says Townley, ‘but the canvas completely trans-forms as I paint’.” [8]

The canvas doesn’t change, of course.  Thoughts and images of variations are rushing into his mind. His language also hints that he’s making no distinction between what’s happening “in his mind” and what’s happening on the canvas itself. It’s almost a dream-like state.

That Shane Townley describes painting (his art) as a “form of meditation” also suggests something about his state of mind while doing it. His “conscious mind” is relaxed — like a meditator; like the “conscious mind” of the scientist while dreaming. He is aware — at least in retrospect — that the variations are occuring to him from some other level of the mind, or some other source, than do ordinary rational, conscious thoughts. [9]

An artist who is not inspired in this way might be a good technician — and there is always a need for them. The skill they display might itself warrant aesthetic appreciation. But there will always be a difference. The impact of listening to a trumpeter who plays every note flawlessly will always differ from the impact of listening to one through whom inspiration is flowing. Even if it’s the same person. I once heard early recordings of Al Jolson, followed by later recordings by him of many of the same songs. He sang well in the later recordings, and the technology was certainly better. But there was a definite difference in the “excitement level” he produced in the early recordings. It was much higher.

In Shane Townley’s painting above, the basic theme is a view of a road. But rather than simply representing literally what his eyes saw, he recreated his impression of it, using materials and a style that were appropriate. Did he start out with that in mind? His own statement seems to suggest, “No.” The physical, visual view was simply the starting point. Other possibilities came to him as he worked.

Inspired creative activity is characteristic even of God:

“There is no artist like our God.” [10]

It’s well-known that no two snowflakes are ever alike — yet think of how many snowflakes there are in any snowfall! How many have there been since the very first snowfall?! Every human being is even more unique. Even “evolution” might be understood in religious terms as a display of Divine Creativity in infinite variety (a theory called “Orthogenesis;” championed by writers/thinkers such as Henri Bergson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and others). The rabbis might have thought so. Such creativity is a part of God’s own nature, which is shared with us. 

It’s interesting in this regard that the word “inspiration” itself means both “the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially something creative” and “the drawing in of breath; inhalation.” The same meanings are found in Hebrew, where “ruach” can mean breath/wind/spirit” but is also associated with Divine inspiration (“Ruach Ha-Kodesh”). In fact, “ruach” can mean any overwhelming impulse, as in “ruach sh’tut” — the “spirit of folly” that causes one’s rational controls to fail, resulting in sin. 

That “impulse” or inspiration can be hard to ignore, too. Once gripped with it, we can find it hard to remain focused on anything else.

Years ago, when I was far more involved in playing the guitar than I am now, I would often get ideas while I was playing for how to play a familiar song in a different way. One day, though, when I was at my full-time job, an idea came to me to play The Beatle’s “You Won’t See Me” slowly, rather than up-tempo, the way they did. I also imagined a way to re-tune the guitar to create a drone-like effect. I could barely wait to get home and try it.

So, if dreams are “1/60th prophecy,” could we then argue that any inspiration has an element of “prophecy” because its source, like a dream’s, is higher or deeper than the purely “conscious” or “human” mind?


[1] Talmud; Berachot 57b
[2] Shemot/Ex. 31:2-5
[3] I Samuel 16:13
[4] I Samuel 16:18
[5] https://www.ou.org/torah/machshava/the-god-papers/26-degrees-of-prophecy/
[6] illustration is based on Andy Warhol’s panel varying an image of Marilyn Monroe 
[7] Where was the “relaxation of the conscious mind?” At that time, I was out of work; very depressed and anxious. I had no money in the bank. I had agreed to work for my friend just to make a little money for food. Looking back, my visual attention was focussed on what I was doing; my “kinesthetic” attention was involved by the movements of my fingers and by the sense of touch. The flow of ideas was also very enjoyable. It all took my mind off my problems, thereby reducing my anxiety and depression at least temporarily. 
[9] illustration from “The Path” by Shane Townley (see link above to article)
[10] Berachot 10a (Talmud) and elsewhere