Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 22 February 2016
We are surrounded here by the stained glass work of the Halter family: Roman’s work on your left and right; his son, Ardyn’s, behind you. There are also tapestries, made by members of this community, based on designs by the Israeli artist, Shraga Weil; while the Torah covers were designed by Kathryn Salomon and others.
Are Ardyn Halter’s windows Jewish art? If they didn’t have the names of the Hebrew months surely the only reason we would be asking if they are Jewish art is because they are in a synagogue? Or what about these Ark doors? The designer isn’t Jewish. What makes them Jewish? Remove the Hebrew letters for the Ten Commandments – would there be anything intrinsically Jewish about the design?
So what defines ‘Jewish art’? Is it that the artist has to be Jewish? But go to the Hermitage in St Petersburg and see what I think is one of the most remarkable depictions ever done of the Akeda. It’s by Rembrandt. But he wasn’t Jewish. Does that mean it’s not Jewish art?
Or is it the subject matter which defines Jewish art?: in which case it’s irrelevant whether the artist is Jewish or not.
Or is it the artist?: in which case, Marc Chagall’s various crucifixion paintings must, surely, be Jewish art…..
Everybody knows, of course, that Jews don’t do human representation in synagogues because the Second Commandment prohibits making images of God. We’re created in God’s image, therefore a human representation in the synagogue constitutes making an image of God – and that’s strictly verboten. Though you don’t need to look too closely at some of Roman Halter’s panels to see human faces in them.
Yet already 2000 years ago, the rabbis distinguished between images made for worship and those made for other reasons. So, for example, a synagogue in the important 3rd century Babylonian Jewish community of Nehardea had a statue of the king and many famous Talmudic scholars worshipped there, apparently without problems [Rosh Hashanah 24b] The Talmud records that Proklos, a Greek philosopher asked Rabban Gamliel, a first century rabbi, why he bathes in a bathhouse where there is a statue of Aphrodite? You can build an Aphrodite for the bathhouse, says Gamliel, but not a bathhouse for Aphrodite [Moishnah, Avodah Zarah 3:4] In other words, no reason why you shouldn’t have a statue for decoration but you don’t build a bathhouse dedicated to Aphrodite, a pagan goddess.
We could go to the 4th century synagogue at Beit Alpha in Israel and see a marvellous mosaic floor, with the Binding of Isaac in one panel, with human representation, even with a finger labelled ‘yad elohim,’ the finger of God; while in the middle panel are the signs of the Zodiac in a circle with Helos, the Greek sun god on his chariot. I could show you an 18thC Torah curtain or an 18C Torah breastplate, both, coincidentally, from Alsace, both showing the Binding of Isaac, with human figures on it. Imagine! Every time you looked at the Ark or opened it you would see human representation in the synagogue. All of this does give us a more nuanced view of how that 2nd commandment was understood.
Codes of Jewish Law state that it is permissible to paint, draw or weave into a tapestry the complete human form. Sculpting a human head alone, or a torso alone, is permitted, but shaping an entire body is not. From those sources it’s clear that it’s not because it violates the 2nd commandment, but because it gets close to imitating non-Jewish practice [Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 141:4-7]
Last week we started reading about the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary where the Ten Commandments are kept during the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land. The Torah is normally very concise. A major episode, like the Akeda occupies a mere 19 verses. Even the creation account takes just one chapter. Here we are looking at 15 chapters.
With one exception. In the middle of all this DIY stuff, we read the episode of the Golden Calf. This could just be bad editing or something very clever. For having it where it is makes us aware of the contrast with what comes before and after it. Artistic work to build a sanctuary to glorify God is appropriate; artistic work to build an idol, a representation of God, is not.
Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur, endowed by God with a spirit of wisdom, was appointed to oversee the construction work. Hardly surprisingly, the name chosen in 1906 by early settlers in Palestine for the school of art and design in Jerusalem was ‘Bezalel’; while in this country, when a group of East End artists set up a Jewish art gallery in 1915 in the East End, they called it the ‘Ben Uri.’ Last year it celebrated its centenary.
Unusually, we’re given Bezalel’s full genealogy: he was the son of Uri, the grandson of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. Normally the Torah simply says “so-and-so, son of so-and-so.” But with Bezalel his father, grandfather and tribe are named, “Why,” asks the midrash, “such excessive genealogical detail?” [Tanchuma Vayakhel 4] And answers its question by explaining that, when the Israelites wanted to make the Golden Calf, it was Hur who tried to dissuade them, but they killed him. As compensation, his grandson is to be the artist-artisan who will construct the approved art-form – the sanctuary.
Bezalel could remind the people that objects only had a place in the sanctuary insofar as they brought greater glory to God. Because of his lineage and the qualities with which he was endowed, Bezalel could distinguish between art and idolatry. The artwork, even in the sanctuary, could only be a means to an end – never the end in itself, a rung on a ladder which takes us beyond the ladder.
Idolatry is what happens when the material presence is taken to be the intangible reality it is trying to represent. It is when a value of relative importance – in this case, beauty – is elevated into one of absolute importance, and made into the highest ideal imaginable.
For God was never to be contained in the sanctuary. God’s instruction last week was to build a sanctuary, not so that I might dwell in it, but dwell among the people. However beautiful a building and its accoutrements might be, without the presence of God, it will be nothing but soulless and empty. Outer forms do not carry ultimate meaning, but the inner spirit.
Perhaps our ‘difficulty’ is that we come to this text with eyes conditioned by Western art, which, by contrast, does put greater emphasis on outer, fixed forms. It’s an idea that has come to us from Greek art.
In an essay called Two World Views Compared Leo Baeck compares Jewish and Greek ideas about art [in The Pharisees and other Essays, Shocken, New York, 1960, pp125-145]
Human beings, he argues, are afraid of change and want to take refuge in the idea of something that is fixed and unchanging. “The eye that beholds the world can only possess the instant and therefore really possesses nothing ….. Only in the work of art, it was felt, can we discover the blissful land of the always-the-same” [ibid, p125] Here you could find meaning and duration. The artist tries to express that which is permanent, the essence of that thing. “Only the work of art is; only the work of art is true”[ibid, p126]
The ultimate Greek artistic medium was sculpture for it sought to capture, to encapsulate the unchangeable, to be the ultimate expression of an idea and an ideal: beauty, love, strength, victory and so on.
The aim was perfection. It’s interesting but not coincidental that in the grammar of many European languages, the past tense is called the ‘perfect.’ It’s like that old adage: “the past is perfect; the present tense and the future imperfect.” That which is ‘perfect’ is in the past and has somehow been fixed – in the sense of a photo being fixed in the developing process, the image being permanent. And so, says Baeck, “finality, pastness, becomes the ideal. The ideal is future-less” [ibid, p130] And because of that it is also unethical because we understand ethics as a striving towards the future, towards a not-yet-realised better form of behaviour and ways of relating to each other.
Yet we have a profound need for the aesthetic in our lives. Visual art is powerful because it touches our imagination. And that gives it a potential for great creativity, or great destructiveness – art for the sanctuary or for the Golden Calf. Aesthetics without ethics slides inexorably into idolatry.
If the Greeks struggled to express the holiness of beauty, Judaism took the other path, striving to express the beauty of holiness; well, not so much to express it as to experience it. In Jewish thinking, we’re always on the way to becoming something. We are ever the clay out of which something is yet to be fashioned. “Becoming and struggling,” says Baeck, “the constant preoccupation with the path and the future …. this constant tension is what is understood as the meaning of life, the life of the world and the life of human beings” [ibid, p137]
God cannot be trapped in wood or stone … or a statue of a Calf … or a sanctuary in the desert. Maybe that’s why the episode of the Golden Calf is in exactly the right place. 5 chapters into the intricate details of constructing the sanctuary, when you’re immersed in all the construction details, don’t even begin to think that you will have ‘housed’ God in that place. Only human beings have ‘places.’ Unless that’s understood, it’s saying, your best creative and artistic work will be no more than a Golden Calf – an empty idol.
For God cannot be captured, cannot even be seen – “no person shall see My face and live” [Exodus 33:19] Moses has to shelter in a cleft in the rock as God passes by – and can only see the back of God, moving away, ever-moving. And that means we have to follow God, that’s the halacha, the path we should be following.
Baeck is right to talk of two world views. The consummated Greek world in which we experience completion, being, existence as a perfect work of art; or the Jewish world of tension in which we experience the urge to the infinite, the struggle and the path, experience the world as an ongoing process of creation, a path on the way to becoming – but not yet there, not yet perfect, not yet perfected, always waiting for us to move along the path.
The objection to idolatry is not the materials themselves – gold and silver were raw materials for both Calf and sanctuary. Nor is it idolatrous that they should be worked into tangible images. Idolatry is when the material or the image is taken to have some intrinsic value. It’s easy to slide into that – to forget that the material presence is just a shadow, an inadequate expression of a reality that we try to reach – but which we know is ultimately beyond our reach and our grasp.