A Religion Without Visual Art? The Rav and the Myth of Jewish Art
The Art History 101 class at the small college I attended was a must-take course, a bucket list item. And so, like many freshmen, I found myself in a darkened auditorium—usually reserved for concerts and major performances—on the first day of the spring semester.
It was the largest classroom of my entire undergraduate career. The professor started the first class with an apology: a lecture on why we would spend most of the semester studying art made by white, Christian, men. As a “throwaway” sentence in the lecture, the instructor, a Jewish woman, stated that Jews, historically, had not made art since they followed a literal interpretation of the Second Commandment: the prohibition on idol worship and making images of God. The comment was tangential, it was not meant to evoke passionate feelings or argument. But I, one of the very few observant Jews on campus, was quite surprised by it.
Growing up in a Modern Orthodox community, I had loved frequenting art museums, doodling all over my papers and painting anything in sight. My schools, parents, and community had all encouraged my art making. No one had ever mentioned the Second Commandment to me in relation to my passion for the visual arts. So, when the lecture concluded, like every impertinent freshman, I walked up to the front of the auditorium and told the professor I thought she was simply wrong. Her years of art historical expertise, however, were not going to be upset in one moment by my life experience, although she would later enjoy telling me about newfound illuminated Jewish manuscripts. As I sat through the many subsequent lectures, learning about Dürer’s prints and Manet’s paintings, my professor’s comment about the lack of Jewish art would continue to intrigue me. And unsurprisingly, it turns out that things are a bit more complicated than either of us initially thought.
During the twentieth century Jewish artists—and distinctively Jewish art—became part of the canon of Western Art history. After centuries of oppression and isolation, Jewish artists emerged from the ghetto and the shtetl and became major forces in the world of Western fine art. Marc Chagall, Max Weber, and R. B. Kitaj dealt explicitly in Jewish themes, showing that Jewishness was an acceptable subject for fine art. Artists like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko were major players in the mid-century avant-garde and were important developers of Abstract Expressionism and other artistic movements. Although these artists were known to be Jewish, their Jewishness was often seen as being in tension with the art world or as leading them to eschew figurative depiction. “Religious Judaism” and the fine arts did not mix.
For example, in the preeminent art history textbook Jansen’s History of Art, the author assumed that the famous third century synagogue frescoes at Dura-Europos broke the Jewish “age-old injunction” against visual images, rather than considering the possibility that Judaism condoned image making. Theorists and critics considered abstraction, in many ways the defining concept of twentieth century visual art and a style in which Jewish artists excelled, as an expression of Jewish aesthetic ideals. Leo Steinberg, the renowned art historian, wrote in his introduction to a catalogue for the Jewish Museum in New York: “Both Jewry and modern art are masters of renunciation [sic] having at one time renounced all props on which existence as a nation or art, once seem to depend. Jewry survived as an abstract nation, proving, as did modern art, how much was dispensable ... like modern painting, Jewish religious practices are remarkably free of representational content, the ritual being largely self-fulfilling, rather than the bearer of a detached meaning.”
Yet, Jews have always valued the visual arts, both representational and abstract. Judaism may never have developed an impressive artistic tradition akin to that of Catholicism, but Jews have been creating pieces of both decorative and ceremonial art for centuries. Although Jewish artists were often barred from entering the world of fine art, Jews created exquisite illuminated manuscripts, built mural-filled synagogues, and painted portraits of their leaders. A deeper look at rabbinic texts reveal as well that no blanket prohibition on images ever existed and that the relationship between Jewish law and the visual is much more complex than just the Second Commandment. Despite the visual and literary evidence to the contrary, however, the myth of Jewish “artlessness” persisted, assuming “canonical status.”
So why do people think that Jews did not make visual art, or if they did, it was necessarily abstract? Sure, biblical sources like the Second Commandment appear to condemn the making of images. But other biblical and rabbinic texts embrace the plastic arts, suggesting that observant Jews are not meant to abjure all images. The narrative, or myth, of Judaism as “artless” is actually in large part a development of nineteenth-century philosophical and academic debates. This myth, developed in the “secular” world of German philosophy and art history, would go on to have a significant impact on modern religious Jewish thought, particularly the philosophy of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, which will be explored below.
The Traditional Sources of Jewish Iconoclasm—Or not?
Although the idea that Jews did not create or appreciate visual images crystallized into a truism only in the nineteenth century, it does stem from sources in the Tanakh. The Second Commandment in Exodus 20 (repeated in a slightly different formulation in Deuteronomy 5), “You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculpted image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20: 4-5), would play an outsized role in conversations about Judaism and visual arts, but similar injunctions against the creation of images appear six other times in the Humash, all in the context of idol worship. The most elaborate of them is Deuteronomy 4:15-18:
For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when the Lord your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire—not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman, the form of any beast on earth, the form of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the form of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the waters below the earth.
In contrast, other verses call for the construction of various beautiful objects and spaces, particularly in reference to the Mishkan, and later on, the Beit ha-Mikdash in Jerusalem. The iconoclasm of the Second Commandment stands in stark contrast with the praise of Betzalel and the other craftsmen drafted to build the Mishkan who are described as being filled with “divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge” (Exodus 31:3). The Tanakh therefore presents us with a profound tension: visual art can both glorify God and lead to the terrible sin of idolatry.
Already in the Mishnah, however, one sees a softening of the condemnatory language used for image making in the Tanakh. The third chapter of Avodah Zarah reports an argument regarding the permissibility of images: “All images are forbidden because they are worshipped once a year. So [said] Rabbi Meir. But the Sages say, only that which bears in its hand a staff or a bird or a sphere is forbidden. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: That which bears anything in its hand [is forbidden]” (Avodah Zarah 3:1). Although Rabbi Meir would ban all images because of their use in idol worship, the majority opinion bans only a selected group of objects. The argument in this Mishnah demonstrates that there was no unified opinion among the Tannaim regarding the place of images, and that the majority believed that most images were fairly harmless.
Later on in the same chapter, a story is adduced regarding Rabban Gamliel, who would bathe in the Bath of Aphrodite despite the presence of a statue of the goddess. When challenged by “Proklos, the philosopher” about this practice, Rabban Gamliel responded first that the statue of Aphrodite was not the purpose of the bathhouse, and had rather come into his “territory.” Rabban Gamliel goes on, explaining that also only those sculptures that are treated as gods are problematic, thus allowing him to bathe before the merely decorative statue of Aphrodite (Avodah Zarah 3:4).
Following from these Mishnaic sources, the halakhic codifiers chose not to condemn all art forms but rather specified which particular images were problematic. Rambam wrote in his Mishneh Torah that the “prohibition against fashioning images for beauty applies only to the human form and, therefore, we do not fashion a human form in wood or plaster or in stone … However, if the form is sunken, or of a medium like that of images on panels or tablets or those woven in fabrics, it is permitted” (Avodat Kokhavim 3:10). Rambam also allowed for the creation of images of non-human beings, viewing only figural art as potentially problematic. Rav Yosef Caro also allowed for the creation of images of non-human forms, while offering the opinion that figural art is limited only to “an image of the head or of the body without the head” (Yoreh De’ah 141:7).
These halakhic sources show that the Second Commandment was not considered by the rabbis to be a blanket ban on all visual art—indeed these sources show that there was some variation in interpretation when it came to the permissibility of images. Although the biblical text did, according to some authorities, limit the type of images allowed, rabbinic interpretation of the Second Commandment attempted to balance the fear of idol worship with appreciation for visual art.
In reality, the lives of most Jews throughout history have been full of visual art. Although Jews did not embrace the “high art” tradition of Western Europe until the modern period, Jewish communities created visual cultures that suited their needs. Jews were often barred from the Medieval craftsmen guilds, and they lacked the cathedrals and courts that stimulated the creation of so many of the greatest masterpieces in Western art history. Instead, Jewish life was surrounded by a different, yet still rich, visual culture: from painted synagogues in Eastern Europe to illuminated medieval manuscripts, from elaborate silver work for Torah scrolls to nineteenth century Jewish genre paintings.
One medieval rabbi, Profiat Duran of Spain, potently combined love of Torah study with appreciation of the visual. He believed that scholars should study from illuminated manuscripts and in beautiful study halls, because “people’s love and desire for the study will increase. Memory will also improve … with the result that the soul will expand and be encouraged and strengthen its powers.” Along with the marginalia and ownership notes that adorned medieval parchments, illustrations could contribute to a reader’s interaction with holy books. Duran’s advocacy for beautifully illustrated texts and architecturally pleasing centers of learning undercuts the cliché that Judaism is a religion solely of the book—for Duran, the learning of “the book” was strengthened through aesthetic appreciation. Visual beauty contributes to Torah study rather than competing with it.
The tradition of rabbinic portraiture similarly calls into question the assumption that Jewish law forbids the making of images, particularly figurative images. Emerging in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Italy and Amsterdam, rabbinic portraits became common in books and even in Jewish homes in the modern era. Although there were originally some halakhic reservations regarding the creation of rabbinic portraits, especially among Hasidim, pictures of rabbis “became a standard commodity” within traditional Jewish households by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly with the advent of photography and other technologies that allowed for the easy creation and spread of these images. The popularity of rabbinic portraits shows that Jews sought to create religious homes and lives that were aesthetically beautiful, finding art in their religion and their religious leaders, rather than in spite of them.
Philosophical and Art Historical Sources of Jewish “Artlessness”
Christian thinkers and theologians had long discussed the issues of image-making, idolatry, and the Second Commandment—these issues were central, for example, to many disputes during the Protestant Reformation. The place of “Judaism” within these discussions was complex. While many thought that contemporary Judaism lacked the visual splendor of Catholicism, they also associated particularly biblical Judaism with materialism and visual opulence. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, however, Christian scholars chose to emphasize image-hating biblical sources when discussing the relationship between Judaism and art, ignoring or unaware of the Jewish sources that tempered the Tanakh’s iconoclastic language.
Immanuel Kant, for example, declared that “perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish law is the commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven or on earth, or under the earth, etc. This commandment alone can explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people in its civilized era felt for its religion when it compared itself with other peoples.” German Jews, seeking acceptance within larger German society, stressed Kant’s approval of Judaism’s supposed suppression of the visual, while at the same time disputing his points regarding Judaism’s lack of ethical concerns and universal claims. The neo-Kantian Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen maintained this balancing act, arguing that the Second Commandment is an example of essential Jewish law, leading the religion to true monotheism as opposed to “visual” polytheism.
Hegel, like Kant, emphasized the Second Commandment in his discussions of Judaism, but he turned the biblical statement against the Jews, arguing that the Commandment’s iconoclasm required a far too abstracted God. Hegel claimed that in order for an object to exist in reality, including more abstract objects like “spirit and nature,” it must have the ability to be made concrete. Jews, with their supposed reticence towards visuality, have “not been able by art to represent their God, who does not even amount to such an abstraction of the Understanding, in the positive way that the Christians have.” German Jewish intellectuals, unable or unwilling to disprove Hegel by calling on a Jewish art tradition, instead reinforced Kant’s praise for Jewish iconoclasm by raising up poetry as the true Jewish art form, helping to strengthen the idea that Judaism was a religion of the book and the word, rather than the visual. The Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, the 19th-century German movement for the academic study of Judaism, also emphasized the Second Commandment in order to underscore the similarity between Judaism and Protestantism’s own depreciation of images.
Hegel’s and Kant’s belief in Jewish “artlessness” was further enforced by nationalist and anti-Semitic discourses then taking place in Western Europe. German art dealers used the myth of Jewish iconoclasm to keep Jews out of the lucrative art business and asserted that Jews lacked creativity and originality. Christian theology helped reinforce these anti-Semitic tropes: Thinkers connected the Jews’ inability to appreciate or create fine art to the tradition of Jewish theological “blindness” to the coming of Jesus. The founders of the modern discipline of art history, a movement also largely based in nineteenth century Germany, corroborated these ideas. Art history first developed along nationalist lines, with art historians emphasizing the uniqueness of “German art” or “Greek art.”
Due to the lack of a Jewish state, Judaism “grew into a threatening anti-nationality and could reenter art history as the villain,” since it lacked a clear-cut identity that critics could easily understand and work into their academic systems. The rhetoric of Kant, Hegel and the early art historians, reinforced by German Jewish intellectuals, would go a long way, eventually transforming the idea that Judaism lacked a visual art tradition into authoritative doctrine. It was through these philosophic and art historical discourses that the myth of Jewish “artlessness” became canonical in art history and Western philosophy, eventually finding its way into Jewish theology and Modern Orthodoxy.
Art and the Visual in the Writing of Rabbi Soloveitchik
Wariness towards the visual seeped into twentieth century Jewish thought: three of the period’s most influential Jewish philosophers, Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas, all proclaimed that Judaism is traditionally non-visual. Levinas, for example, like Kant, considered the Second Commandment the ultimate ethical command of Judaism. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, unsurprisingly, was not immune to this way of thinking. He wrote his doctorate on Hermann Cohen, an opponent of religious images.
The Rav’s disdain for religious art is made clear in his 1964 article “Confrontation.” In typical fashion, he established a binary between two different types of persons in the article: confronted man versus non-confronted man. For him “confronted man” is someone who has discovered the transcendence of God and the limited nature of man—at the moment of confrontation “man becomes aware of his singularly human existence which expresses itself in the dichotomous experience of being unfree, restricted, imperfect and unredeemed, and, at the same time, being potentially powerful, great, and exalted, uniquely endowed, capable of rising far above his environment in response to the divine moral challenge.”
For the Rav, Jews are doubly confronted, meeting God while living as a minority within a larger, different faith community (this is the essay where he outlines his opinions on interfaith dialogue). “Confronted man” is contrasted with the “non-confronted man” who does not realize “his assignment vis-à-vis something which is outside of himself” and also lacks awareness “of his existential otherness as a being summoned by his Maker to rise to tragic greatness.” The non-confronted man is an aesthete who indulges in the visual and the sensual, stopping him from discovering the moral call of God:
The hêdoné-oriented, egocentric person, the beauty-worshipper, committed to the goods of sense and craving exclusively for boundless aesthetic experience, the voluptuary, inventing needs in order to give himself the opportunity of continual gratification, the sybarite, constantly discovering new areas where pleasure is pursued and happiness found and lost, leads a non-confronted existence. At this stage, the intellectual gesture is not the ultimate goal but a means to another end - the attainment of unlimited aesthetic experience. Hence, nonconfronted man is prevented from finding himself and bounding his existence as distinct and singular. He fails to realize his great capacity for winning freedom from an unalterable natural order and offering this very freedom as the great sacrifice to God, who wills man to be free in order that he may commit himself unreservedly and forfeit his freedom.
Art and images, beauty and aesthetic experiences, are not part of religious faith or Jewish worship. Instead, they stand in opposition to godliness and transcendence, enslaving the non-confronted man to pleasure and cheap gratification.
In his great existentialist work, Lonely Man of Faith, the Rav, while not denouncing the visual or aesthetic in quite as harsh terms, does place them in the earthly, secular, realm. Adam I is the majestic man of Genesis I who rules over the Earth, while Adam II of Genesis II is the man of faith. The world needs both types of men, or categories, to thrive. It is Adam I who appreciates the visual: “He is a social being, gregarious, communicative, emphasizing the artistic aspect in life and giving priority to form over content, to literary expression over the eidos, to practical accomplishments over inner motivation.” It is therefore the work of the more earth-bound Adam I to create beauty; it is not part of the religious experience or work of Adam II.
The Rav’s tune does change a bit when he discusses the importance of beauty and aesthetics in prayer. The book Worship of the Heart, a collection of the Rav’s teachings on prayer, includes a chapter discussing religious aesthetics. It begins with familiar language downplaying the spiritual significance of aesthetic experiences: “The aesthetic performance is not anchored in any transcendental eternal sphere. It is a thoroughly this-worldly phenomenon, which lays no claims to the beyond.” But the Rav goes on to discuss a point where the religious and the aesthetic meet, allowing the aesthetic to be raised “to the plane of transcendental.”
The Rav uses the term “exalted” to describe the religious search to see and experience God’s perfect beauty; it is the unique and spiritual experience of the beautiful in regards to the Divine: “Exalted is only the unattainable and inapproachable, and it can only be experienced if man is driven toward infinity itself. Truly, only God is exalted since only He is outside finite existence.” Only the aesthetic experience, often an experience of prayer and worship, can “taste and see” God: the religious-aesthetic man can perhaps find the exalted God, the rationalist and the ethicist will always remain at a distance. The Rav focuses particularly on the richly evocative language of Psalms, how it describes a glorious God and a beautiful world of divine creations. His sense of the aesthetic is highly literary, there is no discussion of visuality or sight particularly. Although prayer may be a spiritually rich aesthetic experience, it is one created by language, not by sight. And in practice, the Rav was uncomfortable with human images adorning prayer spaces, as can be seen in his responsum against the inclusion of biblical figures in the stained-glass windows in Cornell University’s interfaith chapel.
In the seminal work Halakhic Man, however, the Rav did not explore any unique world of Jewish visuality that is artistic in its own right. In this text, the Rav defines the halakhic man by his way of visualizing the world around him. “Halakhic man,” writes Rabbi Soloveitchik, “orients himself to reality through a priori images of the world which he bears in the deep recesses of his personality.” It is the way that halakhic man sees the world—through the tapestry of Torah law, through the commandments that create an idealized world—that separates himself out from the typical religious or cognitive mindset. Throughout Halakhic Man the Rav uses the visual image of a sunset to explore the observant Jew’s unique way of seeing: “When halakhic man looks to the western horizon and sees the fading rays of the setting sun … he knows that this sunset or sunrise imposes upon him anew obligations and commandments.”
Not only, however, does the halakhic man see the world through the prism of the law, but the law also colors his vision, adding beauty to what is already the extraordinary in nature. Using the example of a sunset again, the Rav explains that the halakhic man “will perceive the sunset of a Sabbath eve not only as a natural cosmic phenomenon but as an unsurpassably awe-inspiring, sacred and exalted vision—an eternal sanctity that is reflected in the setting sun.” This halakhic visuality allows the observant Jew to see more than natural beauty; halakhic man sees the world as more magnificent than even the greatest works of art:
From the very midst of the law there arises a cosmos more splendid and beautiful than all the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Perhaps these experiences … are lacking in the emotional dynamic and turbulent passion of aesthetic man … However, they are possessed of a profound depth and a clear penetrating vision.
The Rav, even in this quotation, continues not to have much patience for “aesthetic man” but he does express a “halakhic aesthetic” that surpasses Western art in its depth and transcendence. A world colored by halakhah is more beautiful than the painted figures soaring through the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. For the Rav, mitzvot, not Monet’s water lilies, are the sublime, and like the best aesthetic experiences, mitzvot are meant to be performed “first and foremost for their own sake alone.” In the Rav’s halakhic philosophy, mitzvot replace paintings, commandments substitute for sculpture, halakhah supersedes photography—Jewish law is what does the work of creating a visually more beautiful world.
If halakhah is the greatest work of art, then the halakhic man is the greatest artist, the frum yid rivals and surpasses Rembrandt, at least metaphysically. The Rav writes that halakhah makes man a “creator of worlds.” The halakhic Jew is a partner with God in the creation of beauty, a legalistic artist carving into reality a better and more magnificent world: “Just as the Almighty constantly refined and improved the realm of existence during the six days of creation, so must man complete that creation and transform the domain of chaos and void into a perfect and beautiful reality.” The ultimate goal of halakhah can be read as an attempt to transform man into a divinely inspired artist, one who uses God’s law to create an idealized world. Torah law ought to change a person’s vision, shaping a unique halakhic aesthetic with which the halakhic man designs a more perfect world.
By the mid-twentieth century, the idea that Jews do not have an authentic tradition of visual art, that paintings, photographs, and sculptures are not part of religious experience or halakhic life, was ingrained enough that Rabbi Soloveitchik could define the man of faith, the confronted man, at least partly by his lack of interest in the aesthetic and the visually beautiful. It did not necessarily have to be this way—a world that appreciated illuminated manuscripts, silverwork, or micrography as the finest and highest of art forms would not have believed that Judaism was “artless.”
If Kant or Hegel had read Rambam or the Shulhan Arukh, they might have known that Jewish law does not actually proscribe the creation of images. But that was not the way of history. It is important to reclaim visual culture and aesthetics for religious Judaism so that beauty can be allowed to inspire halakhically bound actions, to color worship, and give meaning to our rituals.
We can bring beauty into our religious lives partly by reading texts that are seemingly anti-visual for the artistic metaphors that hide within them. Although the Rav did not, on a surface level, have much appreciation for the aesthetic, he has left us the chance to see beauty of an artistic nature in our halakhic lives. For the Rav, halakhah is the perfect artist’s studio, where the Jew can be taught to see the world in a unique way and create godly masterpieces. Just like someone who is being trained in drawing is taught to truly see the shadows and the highlights that make up the world, observant Jews learn to see the beauty of new blossoms or setting suns through a distinctive, and legally bound, lens. This visuality is the frum Jew’s paintbrush or chisel, it is the tool that the halakhic person can use to design a more perfect and godly world. The halakhic artist may not paint a sunset like Turner’s or Van Gogh’s, but hers will be a unique one, with a composition perhaps balanced by the inclusion of a lone figure davening minhah.
 Jansen’s History of Art, quoted in Kalman P. Bland, The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual (Princeton, N.J.; Chichester: Princeton University Press, 2001), 42.
 Leo Steinberg quoted in Aaron Rosen, Imagining Jewish Art (London: Legenda, 2009), 10.
 Asher Biemann, “Art and Aesthetics,” in The Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy: The Modern Era, ed. Martin Kavka, Zachary Braiterman, and David Novak (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 761.
 Profiat Duran of Spain quoted Vivian B. Mann, ed. Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 14.
 Richard I. Cohen, Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 152.
 Bland, The Artless Jew, 15.
 Ibid., 15-16.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 15.
 Melissa Raphael,. Judaism and the Visual Image: A Jewish Theology of Art (London: Continuum, 2009), 12.
 Ibid., 12.
 Olin, Margaret, The Nation Without Art: Examining Modern Discourses on Jewish Art (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), 18.
 Raphael, Judaism and the Visual Image, 34.
 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Confrontation,” Tradition 6 (Spring-Summer 1964): 5–29.
 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Lonely Man of Faith,” Tradition 7 (Summer 1965): 20.
 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer, ed. Shalom Carmy (Hoboken: Ktav, 2003), 51.
 Ibid., 55.
 Ibid., 58.
 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Community, Covenant, and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. Nathaniel Helfgot (Jersey City: Ktav, 2005), 3-10.
 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, trans. Lawrence J. Kaplan (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983), 17.
 Ibid., 20.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 84.
 Zachary Braiterman, “Joseph Soloveitchik and Immanuel Kant’s Mitzvah-Aesthetic,” AJS Review 25 (April 2001): 3.
 Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, 99.
 Ibid., 106,