Naftali D. Goldberg
Knowledge, from a Jewish theological point of view, may be deemed a neutral
entity, inasmuch as it may be used for positive or negative ends. Consequently,
it may remain ‘irrelevant’ to the weltanschauung of the religious Jew.
The study of a spectacular trompe l’oeil effect of a detail in a Vermeer
painting, or the minutely rendered individual hairs of a dog in the corner of a
Van Eyck portrait, may impress the viewer as he strolls lazily down the hall of
an art gallery; but is such study of any significance to our lives as religious
Jews? This project seeks to explore whether or not the study of art and its
cultural contexts, is meaningful, irrelevant, or harmful, within the framework
of the Jewish educational enterprise. It has been argued that art, drama, and
literature, are fundamentally ‘foreign’ to the outlook of the religious Jew,
particularly in post-Temple times. Art presents a danger to the orthodox Jew,
by freeing his creative impulse to venture unleashed, in all directions.
Renaissance art, is the ‘offspring of paganism’; idolatrous and erotic imagery
from the primary corpus of Western European art, from the medieval period to the
modern era. This pessimistic approach is in stark contrast to that of R. Kook’s
words relating to Shir HaShirim, who while he may have agreed with
aspects of this argument, was nonetheless in favour of encouraging artistic
production. Whereas he concurs that certain aspects of the human psyche should
be repressed and covered up, and certainly not celebrated through art, he
nonetheless indicates that every ‘positive’ human impulse is enriched by
artistic expression. Society benefits by being able to share the artistic
creations of painters, writers, and poets, who contribute to the elevation of
the human spirit.
In English Renaissance thought, it was argued that appreciation of human artistic
creation enriches appreciation of the Ultimate Maker of man. In a seminal essay
on Torah and General culture, Rav Aharon Lichtenstien, building on Sir Phillip
Sydney’s Apology for Poesie, writes:
Man is a ruach memalelah, a “speaking spirit”; i.e. more generally […]
the creator of symbols – verbal, cognitive, imaginative.
Hence, far from directing attention from the contemplation of God’s
majestic cosmos, the study of great literature focuses upon a manifestation,
albeit indirect, of his wondrous creation at its apex. In one sense, to
be sure, human artefacts may be regarded as competing with divine handiwork.
Yet in another they reveal the spiritual potential which God’s creative will
had implanted in man. If the heavens bespeak the glory of their Maker, the
imaginative powers of man all the more so. (1997, 245)
Elsewhere in the same essay the author asks: ‘Can anyone doubt that appreciation
of God’s flora is enhanced by Wordsworth’s description of “a crowd/ a host of
golden daffodils;/ Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/ Fluttering and dancing in
the breeze”? (244). If so for works of literature, why not too for works of art?
Man is after all a creator of visual as well as verbal symbols; and insofar as
they suggest a ‘language’ of underlying meaning, could they not also be a
fulfilment of man’s identity as ruach memelelah.
From the works of both Maimonides, writing in the c12, and R. Profiat Duran, in
the late c14-c15, it is evident that aesthetics may have a relevant role to play
in the life of the Orthodox Jew. According to these sources, the mere delight of
the eye’s untutored gaze upon things of beauty, the sensual enjoyment of the
object d’art, is both a legitimate and invigorating experience.
However, the production of ‘things of beauty’, has for a long time ceased to be
the predominant concern of artists, if, indeed it ever was. Much art now, and
even in the past, seeks to disturb, to unsettle our stagnant modes of viewing our
world; to defamiliarize, to subvert, to transgress cultural ‘norms’
and cherished notions. This is both a cause of grave concern, and at the same
time, a matter of profound relevance, for Jewish education. We may decide that
the dangers of art outweigh its benefits, and that it is best shunned and
designated as ‘taboo’; or we may decide that such a way of looking at the world
may actually enrich the outlook of the Orthodox Jew. In any event, it seems folly
simply to ignore the issue. We live in societies which devote large sums of money
to the financing of artistic projects; to building ‘temples’ of culture,
fashioned architecturally in the style of Greek and Roman temples, to house the
production of artists, the icons of modern culture. These objects are protected,
celebrated, venerated, discussed, exchange hands for huge sums of money, are
reproduced countless times, and function in many different ways within our
culture. To ignore these facts, is to build a cage around our intellects. This
may, ultimately be a legitimate reaction, but only if it is a considered one.
The primary interest of this essay however, is, in a sense, the opposite of the
positive attitudes expressed in the traditional sources outlined above. Can
humanity not be enriched by a different sort of art; art that seeks to
deconstruct society, and expose the flimsy underpinnings of its systems and
values. Art as a visual form of social criticism, a study of human degeneracy.
Does this not have profound relevance to our lives as analytical beings? Art
always has been a mirror for our cultural values, sometimes despite itself, as
Gender and Cultural studies, Marxist and Feminist Criticism, and Post-Colonial
theory have attempted to demonstrate. Certain tendencies in modern art, seem to
be doing the same thing, only using the art itself as the medium to convey the
message, to hold up a looking glass to the viewer, and ask them what they see.
To see the figures for this document visit the figures page online.