Beginning, at the beginning of Creation
Jewish art begins at the very beginning of the Torah, with the concepts of “creation,” “beginning,” “developmental stages,” and with an act of “work” that is characterized by an outcome called “tov” (good) and is especially characterized by a holistic combination of material, spiritual and divine levels which are united in a relationship of happiness (the Garden of Eden), that also entails the risk of rupture. Without this “connection at these levels and between these levels,” the creation of art results in dead, fragmentary aesthetics such as the Tower of Babel.
Without a relationship of love at the heart of a shared artistic act, every work of art self-destructs ipso facto, just as the Temple was destroyed because of fraternal hatreds, and rites imprinted in the greatest beauty become empty and devoid of reality.
Jewish art places the “development of man parallel with, and even before, the development of the object,” at the center of art. A work of art, par excellence, is Abraham, the letters of whose name are those of creation (Abraham – behibaram). In consequence, the first and foremost goal of the artist (all human beings possess in them the model of Abraham and of initial Creation and need to return to the holy text to develop it) is “lekh lekha, go toward thyself,” not “study” or “make.” Definitely not “do like others” which is what we find in all ideologies and “Schools of Art” – these ideologies and Schools create a new model, enshrine it, follow it as a herd, and then go off in a another direction, to begin the same process all over again. They aspire to art but, instead, they fall each time into imitation, into what is “like” something else, which is the most anti-creative process possible and therefore the most anti-artistic.
It is for this reason that the Jewish people (called “Hebrews” initially, thus indicating the continual need for “transition”) had to return to Egypt, which represented, at the time, the summit of artistic art in the world. We have the treasures of Tutankhamen to prove it. But this super refined world of art lacked the essential element which constitutes and sustains the world – continued “Creation.” The Egyptian world of beauty was sealed by injunctions to repeat, by the domination of a few, and by the prohibition to “create.” The process of creation had to be renewed through the passage across the Desert and the discovery of life’s essential connections. As the Bible tells us: “the entire people saw the voices.” This was not a new form of political organization, embellished with a handsome name and ideology: it was the collective experience of fundamental life where saying, doing and seeing are one and the same thing.
Sadly, this experience was not enough and the people-herd asked to be sent back to slavery, from which they still have not emerged. The role of the prophets was to constantly remind the people of the principles that underlie the good order of the world and enable continued creation. This model is not taught in any School: it is taught through the vision of the ultimate work of art, through the inner and external beauty represented by the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest.
After Adam, after Abraham, and after Sinai came Bezalel. There was a need to represent the above principles in a concrete manner, not at the level of a mere object, while preserving the process of life and the beauty of creation. So Moshe turned to an artist, the supreme artist, Bezalel, in the same way as one turns to a Council of Sages to indicate to us the true values of life.
Who was Bezalel? His very name means: “within the divine shadow.” No person is without art, “interiority,” or connection to Creation and to the process of creation. And Bezalel was within this process. The same notion is found in the name Esther (she is “in the secret”). Esther can enter whenever she wants before the Creator and he says to her: “Queen Esther, what is your request, even if its half of the kingdom, it shall be yours.” The artist has access, as we are told in the first verse of Psalm 91.
Bezalel and his aide Oholiab were given the task of clothing the High Priest, the Cohen Gadol, and they made him garments that were pure and connected to life, not like the betrayal of life personified by the robotic, lifeless models one see on the catwalk today. The word for garment in Hebrew is beged which is similar to begida, meaning betrayal. A work of art must not be a betrayal; it must represent life and creation, as we are told in Chapter 31 of Exodus and Chapter 40 of the Book of Ezekiel.
The teachers who select candidates in Schools of Art can learn a lot from Exodus 31, 6: the ideal candidates must not only possess knowledge, wisdom and artistic expertise, they must also be “ham lev,” “sages of the heart,” for the heart is the holistic center, not of ideas, but of life that is vital and fluid.
It comes, therefore, as no surprise that Israel’s National School of Art, founded in 1906 by Boris Schatz, chose the name of Bezalel. Roi Suffrin underwent his “passage” and training at Bezalel.
Halakha (Jewish religious law) concerning art
Religious law is called “halakha.” The fact that the word derives from the root halakh (to go) indicates that religious laws do not aim to enclose or dominate people, like government laws, but represent, instead, a process, a going towards. It is in this perspective that we should understand what Jewish law says about art, rather than focusing right away on the prohibition against representation, for this prohibition is simply a consequence of the desire to safeguard the process of life. If a painting takes the place of reality and of life, then it is prohibited. But if the artist Bezalel is capable of creating a representation which is the vehicle of life, renders this process visible and creates a relationship with the essence of life, then we need the artist and his role is essential. Furthermore, it is he who will give us a constantly visible reflection of a world that is beautiful and creative: he does this through his interiority and exteriority, and through his relations with the world, for he circulates his art and sells it.
In Hebrew, the word for face is in the plural, “ panim,” meaning faces, because we have both an inner and an outer face and they must both be present in us and in the person who “faces” us. The face represents the part of our bodies that most reflects failure or success. It is for this reason that the representation of the human person was specifically forbidden. But today, all the Great Rabbis allow themselves to be photographed. This is permitted on condition their representations are not viewed as idols, as objects substituting for life. The Psalms and the Prophets ridicule idols who do not talk, and do not feel. In contrast, when everything is in order, then art is present and necessary. What demonstrates this best are the two cherubs (kerumvim) first described in Genesis 3, 24, then in Exodus 25, 18-20 and 37, 7-9. It is said that the place from which God speaks is “between the two cherubs” made by the artist. Refer also to the following passages: I Samuel 4, 4. II Samuel 6, 2. II Kings 19, 15. Isaiah 37, 16 and Psalms 80, 2 and 99, 1.
The Sages, or possekei din, who define the rules that govern representation in a particular period or for a particular community, refer first and foremost to these basic principles. The way they are applied is secondary. The same principles pertain to the representation of faces and bodies, as well as to people’s names, for it is expressly forbidden to use a person’s name with disrespect or scorn.
Those who are very strict and doubt whether the representation of beauty is permissible, should refer to Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud, page 133b, which states: “Baraitha: Exodus 15, 2 says in the Song of Moshe and of the people: ze Eli ne anvehu – Here is my God and I shall embellish him. So, adorn yourself before him with good deeds, make in His honor a beautiful hut for the festival of Succot, choose a beautiful palm, a beautiful shofar, beautiful fringes for the tsisiot at the corners of your garments, a beautiful book and write the Torah in His name with beautiful ink, a handsome pen, a talented scribe, and wrap it in precious silk. Abba Shaul tells us that this also signifies that we must strive to resemble Him: particularly, by being compassionate and full of mercy, as He is Himself.” Judaism, thus, accords a place of eminence to works of art, to human beings as works of art, to interiority and exteriority as works of art. Such works of art have nothing to with objects that are “fashionable” or accorded great value on the art market. When art adheres to the principles of Judaism, there is no prohibition: on the contrary, there is even an obligation to create it. The image of the dirty, ugly religious Jew is not a Jewish image.
In order to avoid the negative slide that leads to idol worship, the Torah tells us in Exodus 20, 4: “Thou shalt not make thee any craven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth.” This is a prohibition against the representation of God, or the making of an object that claims to represent God. This prohibition is specifically set out in the summary of the Torah, in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 5, 8-9. Chapter 4, 16-18 of the same book prohibits the representation of human beings, male and female, for use as idols.
On this basis, and because of the different needs of Jewish communities throughout history, the ordinances issued by the Sages against representation varied (as in Islam). In modern times, as idol worship became less prevalent, the rabbis permitted the representation of a person’s face, even their own, for this did not represent idolatry. The specific authorization was given by Rav Solomon Hirsch (1762-1842) who was painted, engraved on medals, and even sculpted for his community by Drummond. We are now at a point where even the strictest streams of Judaism produce photographs and films about their rabbis and other figures (caution against idolatry remains necessary, for there is always a risk that the writings or image of an rabbi can unconsciously be confused with the Creator, but the problem, then, is not limited to the image but to the whole relationship.) Conversely, there remains the prohibition against transforming the image of a person into an object of scorn and, therefore, no longer in the image of God: this includes the widespread, immodest exploitation of the female body and its use as a cheap source of excitement and profit for the consumer industry.
Jewish art or art created by Jews preserves the age-old values of Jewish tradition which represents life, creation, interiority, true relationships and respect for human beings. Whether the subject of the art is religious or profane is irrelevant; what is important is the adherence to these principles.
Biblical figures and themes in works of art
Numerous works of art have been based on Biblical themes and figures, or bear Biblical titles; Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, the sacrifice of Isaac, Joseph and his brothers, all the episodes relating to the life of the Children of Israel in Egypt, in the desert, in Sinai, David and Goliath, Solomon, the rites of the Temple, and the destruction of the Temple.
Then there are the many images of Jewish community life (the synagogue, places of study); the major events in Jewish life from birth, bar mitzvah, marriage, the Shabbat table, and death; the rabbis and important public figures; the artistic characteristics of each community; and the milestones in Jewish history – exiles, pogroms, the Holocaust, the return to Israel and the discovery by artists of the landscapes of the land of Israel.
There are major Jewish such as Picart, Gottlieb, Chagall and Modigliani. And great non-Jewish painters such as Rembrandt, Delacroix, who left us incomparable works. Also imprinted in our minds are the images of the hundreds of synagogues which rose following the destruction of the Temple and which survive to this day, contradicting the lie perpetrated by Christians that everything Jewish was destroyed in the year 70, to give way to Christianity; the images of the stones of Ashkelon, the mosaics of Bet Alfa and Hamam Lif, the lintel of the house of study at Dabbura, Capernaum, the menorah of Caesarea, of Hammath and Ein Gedi, the frescoes of Pekiin, the mosaics of Maon, Jericho, Naarah, Gaza, Beth Shean and Gerasa, and the synagogues of Gush Halav.
And in dispersion and exile, the wonderful, renowned synagogues of Toledo, Cordoba, Prague, Amsterdam, Venice, Florence, Ostia, and the tombs of Esther, Mordechai and the prophet Daniel in Iran.