Art Matters by Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, Class of 1991

A light skinned man standing in front of a colorful wall.I’m a rabbi and a religious teacher and leader. Would it be a surprise to hear that I wouldn’t be a rabbi today, doing what I do, without art? When I entered Princeton as an undergraduate thirty-seven years ago, I had several possible career paths in mind, and one of my top options was museum curator. Rabbi was nowhere on my list. In high school I considered the Metropolitan Museum of Art a kind of second home, and I spent a summer working there as an intern in the Egyptian art department. I had a passion for ancient art and immediately began taking art history classes as a freshman at Princeton. And the Princeton University Art Museum became my new second home. As always, art museums were a refuge for me. I remember spending hours downstairs in the Art Museum communing with the stern faces of the Roman busts on display along with the other ancient pieces in the collection. There was something in these works that seemed to call to me; souls of people long gone spoke to me through the exquisite craftsmanship and often deeply moving beauty of these objects. What were they trying to say to me?

Over my years at Princeton, I continued to study art history of all kinds—East Asian art, American art, twentieth-century art. My horizons continually expanded through encountering the myriad expressions of visual art in my studies. And always, it was the same question that impelled me to go deeper into studying art: what were these pieces, these artists, trying to say to me? Slowly I began to discern a kind of language beyond words that spoke the answers to my question behind the visual experiences of art: it was the language of the soul. From the ancient masterpieces to the modern ones, the same quality of soul, the inchoate arising of something uniquely human yet mysterious and expressive of the full range of emotions and yearnings and struggles that live in all of us—this was the power and lure of art for me. It was a chance to connect on a deep and intimate level with the soul of the artist, the soul of the piece itself, and with the souls of all those who encounter the art, each in their own way. Art was a way past the superficialities and obfuscations of the soul that so often fill our normal, conventional life experiences. Art offered a window into a deeper, somehow truer reality that binds us all together as human beings through time and space.

Over time art began to inspire within me a resonance with my natural interest in spirituality and in seeking deep truths beyond the surface of life. It was art that inspired me to become a seeker not just in art but in philosophy, theology, and finally in my own religious traditions, in order to find the places where these disciplines similarly pointed me to ask not just what art but also what life is trying to say to me.

I have been a rabbi for twenty-six years now. I have used art in my sermons, in my classes, and in inspiring my students to open themselves up to what art asks them to experience or to consider about themselves and about the world. Most significantly, I have come to see how the core human expression of art (and all the arts) is ultimately the same human expression behind the best aspects of religion: art, like religion, has the power to disrupt our discursive, egoic minds—if only for a moment—and to open us up to a higher, ultimate reality. In that reality, we are not isolated creatures, cut off from the universe, but deeply interconnected in a shared being and a shared expression that moves mysteriously and miraculously through us all in our lifetimes. Art, like religion, has the potential to connect us to a transcendence that is redemptive.

For me, being a rabbi, a spiritual teacher, is seamlessly connected to being a lifelong student of art and the arts. They are different facets of the same wonderful human capacity to reach beyond our limited experiences and find what matters, what is true, and what is most pressing in our humanity. I will forever be grateful to art for inspiring me to become who I am in the world today. When the construction of the new Art Museum is completed, I look forward to once again finding a continuing source of refuge and inspiration there.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, Class of 1991
Executive Director and Jewish Chaplain, Center for Jewish Life, Princeton University