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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved. 


February 26, 2016  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

In praise of art

By RABBI GARSON HERZFELD Temple Beth Shalom, Winter Haven

Anyone who knows me well is aware that aside from “things Jewish,” one of my passions is art.

Several years ago, I became the only male docent at the Tampa Museum of Art. My mother was an artist and an art historian. So having various forms of art around me and spending time in art museums was as natural as celebrating Shabbat. Years ago, I even chose the theme, “What Is Jewish Art” for a paper submitted as a graduation requirement for the High School Department of our synagogue.

The two current exhibitions (as well as sculpture in the permanent antiquities collection) at the TMA depict the human form. Recently, as I was viewing a sculpture of “Adam” by Auguste Rodin (one of my favorite artists) and then “Eve” by Aristide Maillol, I began thinking about the Jewish attitude regarding the human figure in art.

There is an aniconic view in Judaism, which prevails in a number of areas and has been subject to interpretation over the years. Aniconism is the absence of depiction of the natural and supernatural world. Portrayal of G-d, especially in human form, is forbidden in Judaism and among more traditional Jews there is avoidance of freestanding religious sculpture, and by extension, the human form. One rarely sees human forms depicted in more traditional synagogues, though the prohibition actually is aimed against idol worship more than the figure itself. Generally, two-dimensional figures of religious subjects and human beings are regarded as acceptable, especially on a small scale.

Perhaps this Jewish attitude towards art occurred to me just now because we are reading about the “Golden Calf” in our Torah sedrah. Moreover, Tanach explicitly prohibits idolatry in the second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not carve for yourself an image, the likeness of anything in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth…” Tanach subsequently repeats this prohibition numerous times.

The “Shulchan Aruch” also emphasizes the prohibition of creating certain types of graven images of humans, angels and astrological bodies that might be used as idols. There are even authorities that prohibit two-dimensional full face depictions.

However, in practice, Jews over the centuries have either accepted more liberal interpretations of this prohibition or ignored it altogether. The Dura Europos synagogue from the third century CE in Syria is a good example. It contains wall paintings with figures of the prophets and others. The depiction of the “Crossing of the Red Sea” even includes two hands of G-D. Several ancient synagogues in Israel that have been excavated contain mosaic floors, which include figurative elements, especially animals that are part of the Zodiac. There are many illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages that include human figures. One example, the “Birds Head Haggadah” in Jerusalem (originally German) has human figures, but with bird heads to comply with the prohibition.

While Jews in Biblical times often physically destroyed idols of foreign religions located within their jurisdiction, today there is much more tolerance of other cultures. History shows that from the post-Biblical period onward, Jews often incorporated the customs and attitudes of those around them into daily life, especially in the diaspora, and they influenced Jewish thinking as well. Moreover, many well-known artists of the 19th and 20th centuries were Jewish (though often not religious).

While up to the 20th century Judaism was thought to be aniconic, this view has changed. Today Jews often are patrons of the fine arts. The prevailing view is that all forms of art are acceptable as long as they are not meant for Jewish worship.

So as a Jew and a Rabbi, when I view objects of art – even religious icons – I am not tempted to pray to them. Instead, I am moved emotionally and respond to the aesthetics of what is depicted. I am challenged to find meaning and messages in these works and often feel enriched from engaging with the artist’s creation.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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