Project Genesis




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Mitzvos (Commandments)

Artistic Expression in Judaism

Question: I am an art student and I will be traveling to Greece to assist my sculpture professor with a monument. I would like to research/interview/learn about the Jewish community in Greece. I have 2 specific interests: How Jewish Law views art- in history and now, and I deeply want to understand my own connection as a Jew. Because I am not familiar with the Talmud, or other texts etc., I do not know what questions to ask or even how to begin my research. I would greatly appreciate a push in an appropriate direction. Thank you for your time

Answer: One could, in general terms, say that Jewish law permits (and sometimes even encourages) artistic expression, but with certain significant exceptions. Based on the passage found in Exodus 20: 20, the Oral Torah (whose foundations are found primarily in the Talmud) prohibits the depiction of

  • The moon, sun, stars or any visualization of angels, even as -dimensional representations

  • Human forms in relief or full 3D

  • Any image that is being created for the purpose of an idolatrous practice.

The 19th Century scholar known in academic circles as Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes documented repeated rabbinic attempts to prohibit artistic depictions in synagogues – which were, interestingly enough, repeatedly ignored by the Jews who designed their synagogues. The root of this rabbinic disapproval is the legal restriction on praying in the immediate proximity of any image out of fear that onlookers might assume you are praying to the image.

Historically there is plenty of evidence of tiled or embroidered mosaics on Biblical themes – at least some of which would likely have been done under rabbinic approval. But still, my feeling is that the Jewish emphasis was on artisanship rather than fine art. See Exodus 25 and I Kings 6.

Regarding your general knowledge of Judaism there is virtually no end of information available on the Internet. But, since you’ve got to start somewhere, let me point you at some of my own material. www.torah.org/learning/basics/primer is a site that tries to cover some of the more general ideas and history. www.marbitz.com/essays.html is a collection of some of my essays on topics that seem to come up in a lot of correspondence.

But to give you a very profound first taste of what Judaism should mean to the Jewish soul, here’s an English translation of Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Straight) by the 18th Century Italian rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato: http://www.shechem.org/torah/mesyesh/ – try a slow, thoughtful read of the first few chapters.

If you have any questions, please let me know. I wish you the very best in your search!

Good luck!

Rabbi Boruch Clinton
Ottawa, Canada

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