Wednesday, 08 Feb 2012

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer

“Jews don’t do art,” was the quick-as-a-flash reply to my question in an adult Jewish learning group about “what is Jewish Art?’” It was very emphatic, as if it’s a well-known fact scarcely needing discussion. “And they don’t because…..?” I asked. “Because,” said somebody, “it’s prohibited in the Ten Commandments, the one about not making graven images.” We got into discussion on whether ‘Jewish Art’ was ‘art done by a Jew’ or did it also have to depict something Jewish? Would a painting of, say, a rabbi by a non-Jew be ‘Jewish art’?

The idea that Jews do not do art has a long pedigree though by no means as long as many imagine and definitely not one that goes back to that second commandment we read in this Shabbat’s sidra.

110 years ago, Kaufmann Kohler was a leading Jewish scholar and one of the editors of the Jewish Encyclopaedia published in 1902. Kohler contributed to the article on Jewish art and expressed the ‘received wisdom’ about it: “it is somewhat incorrect to speak of Jewish art. Whether in biblical or post-Biblical times, Jewish workmanship was influenced, if not altogether guided by non-Jewish art.”

In other words, there is little or nothing that could genuinely be called ‘Jewish art.’ There was simply art done by Jews which might, or might not, depict subjects of Jewish interest. So Shabbat candlesticks fashioned by a Jewish silversmith are Jewish artefacts. In the Middle Ages, however, Jews were often excluded from the guilds. So if you wanted Shabbat candlesticks, you had to go to a Christian silversmith to make them. Would those candlesticks still be Jewish artefacts? This is part of the dilemma when speaking about ‘Jewish art.’

The idea that Jews didn’t ‘do’ art is little more than 200 years old. Kalman Bland argues persuasively that “19th and early 20th century Germanophone intellectuals articulated the doctrine of Jewish aniconism” (‘Jews don’t do art’)[1] Immanuel Kant, writing in 1790, found this prohibition against making images “perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law.”[2] He praised Jews, therefore, for their imageless God. For Hegel, however, the fact that Jews couldn’t, as Christians could, represent God in a visual form was a failing. 100 years later, the philosopher Hermann Cohen added weight to the argument: ‘Monotheism makes no concessions to the visual arts, for thereby the unique God would come to danger.”[3] For Cohen, what the visual arts were for non-Jews, poetry was for Jews. Leo Baeck contrasts the Greek and the Jewish world views. For the Greeks, and therefore through them the Christian world, the ideal was something which captured the essence of an idea: a statue of youth, beauty, wisdom, one of the gods. For Baeck, Judaism is too dynamic for that. How can you capture the essence of something of which you can only see the back as it moves on? In Judaism “energy replaces art,” he writes, “it is no accident that the Bible condemns the image; it is a thing too fixed and final. God is the living God, the Creator, who for that reason must not be confined in any temple and of whom it is not permitted to make an image or a work of art, or even to have an idea, of whom it is not permitted to make anything resembling the Greek idol.”[4]

This view continues to be seriously challenged; most recently, in fact, by a graduate of the Leo Baeck College: Rabbi Dr Edward van Voolen [5]

So the tradition that Jews don’t do art therefore has a strong, albeit not very long, yichus and continues to hold sway in Jewish minds.

But the visual record, what we can actually see with our own eyes, belies the talk of ‘Jews not doing art.’ Only in its most literal interpretation could the Second commandment be understood to be a blanket prohibition on any Jewish involvement in art whatsoever.

From the earliest days we have records of Jewish engaging in artistic work and of decorating their synagogues with art. Even more startling is what some of those images represent. The 4thC synagogue at Beit Alfa in Israel has a mosaic floor with three sections. One depicts Jewish symbols; another depicts the Akedah and clearly shows Abraham, Isaac and the servants. And a finger coming out of a cloud marked ‘elohim,’ ‘God.’ And in the central panel is a chariot of fire with the sun god Helos surrounded by the signs of the zodiac. There is no doubt that it was a synagogue which means the Second commandment was understood very differently 1700 years ago. The walls of a 3rd century synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria were covered with murals depicting biblical scenes, many reflecting midrashic interpretations of the Biblical account. Because so many of the murals depict human beings, some argue that this ‘proves’ that it can’t have been a synagogue, because of the prohibition of the second commandment. The prohibition against depicting human form, they say, is what lies behind the so-called Bird’s Head Haggadah, from 13th century Germany – it depicts human bodies but all have bird’s heads not human ones. There has recently been much debate about whether that lies behind this curious Haggadah.[6]

Ketubot with naked female figures; Chanukiyyot with busts of Emperor Franz Josef; Haggadot illustrated with human forms: there is barely an area of Jewish life which hasn’t been illustrated with human forms.

Midrash is enlightening on this subject, using a play on words to make its point. While Moses is on Mount Sinai, God shows him a pure menorah and tells him to make one like that. Not sure how to do it, God tells him it should be of hammered work (mikshah); but Moses finds it difficult (hitkashah) and forgets to do it. He went up the mountain again, received the same instruction about hammered gold (mikshah) and again found it too hard (hitkashah) [7] God, somewhat frustrated by Moses’ botching’ the divine commandment, tells Moses to bring Bezalel who has been endowed with wisdom, a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafting. Bezalel will be the craftsman.

Moses might be the man of vision, the one to whom God delivers the revelation, the text, a text which includes the Second commandment. But Moses is unable to translate the revelation into concrete form. That needs a Bezalel. So Moses brings left brain thinking, Bezalel right brain artistry and together they fashion something remarkable. Not just a menorah but the tabernacle in the desert which becomes the model for the Temple in Jerusalem.

It is often said, contrasting the Greeks and the Jews, that the former worshipped the holiness of beauty and the latter the beauty of holiness. There might be some truth in that but that still didn’t prevent Jews from engaging in hiddur mitzvah, beautification of the mitzvah – the idea that if you are fulfilling a mitzvah you don’t do it in its most-meagre form but with as much kavvanah, engaged attention and inner concentration, as possible. While Jews never made statues for their synagogues, we always wanted beautiful synagogues where possible, with beautifully designed and executed ritualia. And that has never disappeared from Jewish life. If rabbis at some periods were concerned about the second commandment it was because they were worried that the beautiful art might distract the worshippers’ attention. There was little concern that people might start worshipping these objects.

For it is intention which is so crucial here. And that goes all the way back to the time of the Mishnah, where we read: They do not say “let us make a bathhouse in honour of Aphrodite” but “Let us make an Aphrodite as an adornment for the bathhouse.” [8] In other words, to build a bathhouse in honour of Aphrodite would be idolatry, creating an image of the goddess as a form of worship. And it is that which the second commandment seeks to prohibit.

Rabbi Colin Eimer
Sha’arei Tsedek North London Reform Synagogue

[1] Kalman Bland, The Artless Jew, (Princeton 2000) p14.
[2] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement
[3] Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason out of the sources of Judaism pp417-419
[4] Leo Baeck, Two World Views Compared in ‘The Pharisees and other essays’ (Shocken Books New York 1966) page 138
[5] Joseph Guttmann, The Second Commandment and the image in Judaism, HUCA Vol 32 (1961) pp161-174; Kalman Bland (op cit); Richard Cohen Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe (University of California 1998); Vivian Mann Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts; Edward van Voolen 50 Jewish artists you should know (Prestel London 2011) Edward is now Curator of the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam.
[6] Marc Michael Epstein, The Medieval Haggadah (Yale 2011) pp 19-129
[7] Numbers Rabbah 15:10
[8] Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 3.4

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.