Printer Friendly

Does Judaism impose limits on what art can, or should, portray?


The injunction in the Decalogue against "graven images" has often been considered a proscription against art, imagery, sculptures, et cetera, when in fact it implies no such thing. The prohibition against sculpting, or creating an image of any one of God's creations, applies solely to the context of worship, not to art for the sake of art or decoration (Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashamh 24a). After all, God subsequently instructed us to sculpt angelic figurines such as cherubim (Exodus 25:18) and to adorn the sacred shrine of the Ark of the Covenant with art (Exodus 25:31-40). Later, Moses was told to sculpt a copper snake (Numbers 21:8-9), which ended up in the Temple of Solomon.

Even in the case of the Golden Calf, dancing around the image was not the issue; worshiping and offering sacrifices to it was (Exodus 32:8). Later, when the Hebrew chieftain Ye'hu destroyed the Ba'al and other idolatrous edifices in the northern Jewish kingdoms of Dan and Beth El, he refrained from destroying the golden calves that adorned the shrines there, and yet God lauded him for following divine instruction "to the letter" (Second Kings 10:29-30). Again, it wasn't the image of the golden calf that was problematic--only the worship of it (Rambam in Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 7:4).

Rabbi Gershon Winkler

Walking Stick Foundation

Thousand Oaks, CA


Most of us have heard some version of the passage in Deuteronomy (4:16-18) that prohibits making any image of human or creature. But the prohibition applies only to creating an idol for worship purposes. Otherwise, die actual Jewish attitude toward art is permissive, if not progressive. Historically it has been expansive. Far from limiting ourselves to adorning ceremonial objects, we can point to generations of incredibly talented and productive Jewish artists who have worked in every medium imaginable.

Jewish artists have also routinely pushed the boundaries on what is acceptable. Consider the show "Too Jewish," mounted by the New York Jewish Museum in 1996, that explored this matter. However, the real question about limits on art is not uniquely a Jewish one, but rather, a thorny one for society generally. When does art cross a line from tasteful to offensive, and who gets to be the arbiter of these questions? Some would say that the aim of art is to push the boundaries, to get us to think, to stir up conversation, even to effect change. Then, as with the recent events surrounding Charlie Hebdo in Paris, the question becomes not whether to release art but how to deal with the reactions to it.

Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer

The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism

New York, NY


As an artist, I deal directly with this question. If I want to portray something sacred in my work, as I often do, how do I reconcile this impulse with the commandment, "Don't make for yourself an idol" (Exodus 20)? The answer is that this commandment points at something much deeper than the creation of a physical statue. Idols need not be art. In truth, anything can mm into an idol--a philosophy, a gmdge, even love. Judaism abhors idols. I would argue that the problem is not art itself, for when words, images or ideas are set free into the public sphere, they become accessible to a plethora of interpretations. The issue is how the art is viewed, manipulated or distorted. Judaism sets limits on our kavana, or intention, with and toward any object, person or idea.

The Torah Temimah explains that the purpose of forbidding the making of idols is to forbid false worship. So while we may be stringent in avoiding the making of idols, we must be even more careful not to put our energy toward the wrong goal.

Rabbi Elyssa Joy Auster

Rockville, MD


We are products both of our larger society and of previous Jewish culture and religion. Jews have always brought external motifs and challenging elements into "our" art, prompting inevitable backlash from without and within. Although early rabbis banned non-Jewish symbols, beautiful synagogue mosaic floors showed the Zodiac with the Greek sun god Helios. The human form was deemed too godly to be made into a graven image, yet it was repeatedly done. Some eras and locales even barred animal representations, but those rules rarely held for long. The creative impulse is strong in us.

Modern J ewish artists, freed of most limits, are still informed byjewish experiences and sensibilities. From composers Ernst Bloch and Aaron Copland to show biz geniuses Kem-Bemstein-Rodgers-Hammerstein-Sondheim, from poet Marge Piercy to dancer Liz Lerman, Jewish-inflected art pushes boundaries--often in constructive, progressive, communal directions. Though led by Jews who identify more culturally than religiously, this too is Jewish civilization at play.

Often it's public opinion rather than Jewish law that imposes limits, especially when it comes to self-critical works such as the recent controversy-laden plays by Motti Lerner, Tony Kushner and others. But art is holy. It evolves. It challenges and inspires. As Jonathan Larson (z"l) ended Act I of RENT: "The opposite of war isn't peace; it's creation: Viva La Vie Boheme!"

Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb

Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation

Bethesda, MD


Judaism's attitude toward artistic expression is inconsistent. On the one hand, the Second Commandment clearly states that we are not to make sculptured images or any likeness of God's creations (Exodus 20:3-4), restricting the artist from incorporating images of humans, animals, or anything that could be misconstrued as an idol. Yet, on the other hand, Torah acknowledges and even applauds the artistic expression of the Israelites in their worship of God. Bezalel, chief artisan in the building of the ?nishkan [tabernacle], is lauded as a hero. The mishkan's design includes cherubim on the Ark, almond blossoms and branches on the Menorah and pomegranates on the priestly garb. The notion of hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of a mitzvah, has been embraced for centuries. The Middle Ages saw the proliferation of illuminated manuscripts. Artists today create beautiful ritual items for the home and synagogue.

How should history guide our considerations about artistic creation today? Bezalel completed his mission to build the mishkan because the Israelites contributed to the effort by donating jewels, textiles and precious materials. The process brought the community together. Perhaps we too should consider art a means of bringing together and strengthening our Jewish community.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

Fresno, CA


Art has been incorporated into Judaism throughout our history. Jewish visual arts date back to the biblical Bezalel, chosen by God to create an elaborate Tabernacle in the wilderness. Subsequently, the Torah's description of Solomon's Temple attests to its extraordinary architectural and artistic beauty.

Different Jewish communities have had different standards of how to follow the commandment not to make images. Many communities agreed that works of art were permissible as long as they were not for worship. Depictions of biblical scenes for instruction and decoration go back at least 1,500 years, to synagogues in Israel and the diaspora during Roman times. The 6thcentury Beit Alpha Synagogue in the Galilee even had a mosaic of the Zodiac--not an especially Jewish symbol. In these examples and later ones, such as illuminated Haggadot from medieval Spain and Germany, artists did not hesitate to depict biblical characters. However, the Jewish community generally has embraced the prohibition on portraying God pictorially.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz

Temple Beth El

Springfield, MA


There is a general impression that Judaism restricts representational art as an extension of the biblical prohibition on representing God in any way. This conventional picture lacks nuance and ignores history.

In the biblical period, at the inner sanctum's entrance, there was a sculpture of the cherubim--apparently a young male and female, perhaps children, in a loving embrace [Exodus 25:18; Baba Batra 99a], Later, the rabbis placed more restrictions on art, probably as a reaction to Hellenistic culture, which depicted the human body in various stages of (un)dress. But there was a gap between official regulations and popular culture throughout history. The halachic modesty code prohibited nudity. Yet Italian Jewish Renaissance illustrations of some sacred texts included nudity.

The dominant rabbinic culture in Europe discouraged art. There was little significant Jewish religious art, especially by comparison with Christianity. But many Jewish artists in modernity broke away to become great painters (Amedeo Modigliani, Marc Chagall) and Jews were leaders in the development of nonrepresentational art. An American Jewish theologian, Steven S. Schwarzschild, has proposed that abstract art is the essence of Judaism's approach to illuminating life while avoiding pictures (that is, idolatry).

Despite the traditional restrictions, art has emerged as a major source of religious insight and values and a powerful force in the search for meaning. A broadened Jewish religious culture, integrated in postmodernity, will accept and nurture a wider range of artistic creations.

Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg

Riverdale, NY


Judaism is a system of law. As such, it imposes guidelines and limitations on just about every human activity--generally in a way that doesn't stifle creativity, artistic or other. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great reviver of German orthodoxy, points out that the three sons of Noah--Shem, Ham and Japheth--represent three types of civilizations. "Ham," heat, is civilization that focuses on passion and indulgence, on the feeding of hardwired human needs. Such civilizations occupy the lowest rank because they focus only on the individual's experience. At the other end, "Shem," name, represents the highest, cognitive civilizations--those built on the employment of reason. Intermediate between the two is "Japheth," or yefet, beauty--the aesthetic civilization built on the ideal of art. The birth of the artistic sense in early human experience made man aware that there was something greater than himself--an enormous step for mankind.

But everything good can be used and abused, so, as Hirsch quotes, "G-d should be expansive toward Japheth, but Japheth should dwell in the tents of Shem." The aesthetic should be given some range but be limited by G-d-based rationality. Art that is religiously themed in a competing faith is not approved. Erotically themed art is forbidden. And at times, art that would detract from the abstract concept of G-d's oneness, by pictorially representing G-d or his heavenly court, is likewise proscribed.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

Loyola Law School

Los Angeles, CA


The question is akin to, "Does Judaism impose limits on what money, speech or leadership qualities can and should be used for?" The obvious answer is yes. Money, speech, leadership qualities and our artistic abilities are all gifts from G-d. In every aspect of life, Judaism channels natural human drives to bring righteousness to our world. Human artistry is perhaps the most powerful method to express truths (no matter how controversial) or to promote falsehood. In Nazi Germany, artistic expression was used to depict Aryan superiority and was effective in marshaling support for the dream of a Thousand-Year Reich.

Our talents are not meant to be tools for self-aggrandizement; Judaism teaches that our life's mission involves harnessing our creative abilities properly. So what guidance does Judaism provide for the artist? Be self-reflective and self-aware. Artists reveal a deeper perspective about our world. Artistic endeavors that tap only into selfish and base tendencies obscure our unique human creative potential and distort the reality that the artist is depicting. Conversely, artistry that draws energy from our neshama, our divine soul, brings to light truths that our world desperately needs to hear.

Rabbi Aaron Herman

Tzohar Seminary for Chassidus and the Arts

Pittsburgh, PA
COPYRIGHT 2015 Moment Magazine
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:ASK THE RABBIS
Date:Mar 1, 2015
Previous Article:But is it good for the Judeans?
Next Article:Alan Gross: a profile in art & courage.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters