Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten introduced the word aesthetics into philosophical terminology in 1735 but in a way different from what is currently understood. Originally conceived, aesthetics was to fill in what Baumgarten believed were missing pieces in philosophy, those that dealt with “inferior cognition.” Over the next fifteen years Baumgarten labored over his system which eventually included his take on poetry (a genre of literature he loved) and art, which he thought would generate awareness of perfection in the perception of beauty.
Without diminishing Baumgarten’s achievement, some of his insights already appeared in Plato. This is surely not surprising. It was Alfred North Whitehead who once commented that all of Western philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes on Plato.” For Plato, behind all temporal things there is an absolute form of beauty. And any person who is alert to the beauty in things will ultimately be led to appreciate the beauty of institutions and laws. Close to Plato’s conception of beauty was that of Rav Kook.
While most commentators read the detailed description of the Tabernacle and its contents and were struck by the details, Rav Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook (d. 1935) read the description of the Tabernacle and its contents and imagined its beauty. Just as the psalmist proclaimed how God is “attired in majesty and beauty” (Ps.104:1), Rav Kook was struck by the artistic beauty of all the elements of the Mishkan. (Modern attempts to build scale models of the Tabernacle or to sketch it fail to fully do it justice.)
Rav Kook writes that beauty is meant to draw man “toward the splendor of wisdom and ethical conduct.” The Mishkan was intended to be functional but it was also beautiful. The inevitable consequence of beholding the beauty of the Tabernacle was to feel attracted to the beauty of the Torah and the ethical system that inhered in it.