Towards a Jewish Theology of Art

By Moldovan, Raluca | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Towards a Jewish Theology of Art


Moldovan, Raluca, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


TOWARDS A JEWISH THEOLOGY OF ART Review of Melissa Raphael, Judaism and the Visual Image. A Jewish Theology of Art, London and New York: Continuum, 2009, 229 pp

Key Words: Judaism, theology, Second Commandment, representation, Holocaust, art

The issue of the representation of the Holocaust in art has become lately one of the most disputed and most researched topics in the field of Jewish and Holocaust studies. Melissa Raphael, a well-known professor of Jewish theology at the University of Goucestershire and author of several influential volumes (The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust, New York: Routledge, 2003; Rudolf Otto and the Concept of Holiness, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997; Theology and Embodiment: The Post-Patriarchal Reconstruction of Female Sacrality, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), employs this issue as the cornerstone of the Jewish theology of art she attempts to formulate in her latest volume, Judaism and the Visual Image.

Starting from the premise that Jewish art "is an expression of the very soul and spirit of Judaism" (p. 2), the author argues that its theological dimension is therefore inherent, despite the fact that the Hebrew revelation, unlike the Greek one, is a verbal, not a visual one: Judaism is a culture of the ear, not the eye. A further argument is favour of this point is the biblical prohibition against making graven images expressed in the Second Commandment, which, historically speaking, would determine the Jewish aniconism. Taking these points into consideration, one might rightfully wonder what Jewish art is; Raphael provides an answer by arguing that, although one cannot speak of a "defining cultural and historical style owned by Jewish art alone" (p. 9), it is the subject matter, limited to Jewish themes and experiences, that is the true Jewish dimension of Jewish art; in other words, Jewish art can be defined as "the art of being a Jew in a historical and eschatological relationship with God". (p. 17) However, if this should be the case, what happens to those Jewish artists like Chagall, Modigliani or Pissaro whose works include very few (if at all) Jewish themes and experiences? Are they not part of the canon of Jewish art?

The central premise of the present volume, namely that Jewish art is, in equal measure, both an "expression of Jewish meaning, memory and possibility" and a "more explicitly and intentionally confessional theology" (p. 16) is explored in the six chapters of the book, which contribute in unequal proportion to its demonstration. The first chapter provides a valuable review of the Second Commandment in Jewish art and thought, discussing both biblical and rabbinic texts, as well as Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides, Hermann Cohen, Rosenzweig, Heschel and Levinas. The author is right in observing that the Second Commandment does not forbid the making of images, but rather their worship (p. 23) - which explains, in effect, the existence of a Jewish art within the confines of the Second Commandment, not outside it.

The pillar of a Jewish theology of art is to be found in Genesis I, the story of Creation, as the author shows in the second chapter; here, she makes a very valuable point when she discusses the fact that God's first judgement of His Creation was an aesthetic, not a moral one: He sees it as "good" primarily in an aesthetically pleasing way. This being the case, it follows naturally that a Jewish aesthetic is necessarily determined by theological ethics (p. 54). Raphael uses the last part of the second chapter to make an informed criticism of idolatry in contemporary society from the point of view of the Second Commandment

Before discussing the central example of her Jewish theology of art, the representation of the Holocaust in visual arts, Melissa Raphael chooses to discuss, in the third chapter of her work, gendered representations in Jewish art. The connection of this chapter to the core idea of the book may be the fact that the image of the Jewish woman is conspicuously absent from the visual representations, on the grounds that it can easily become idolatrous, whereas the Jewish male figure is overwhelmingly present in Jewish visual art, because, as the authors argues, "an image of a male Jew is therefore, in fact, not properly an image. …

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