“You Shall not make A Graven Image” – or how hard it is to be a Jewish Artist

The Bible says “you shall not make a graven image”

While there are many Jewish writers and scientists, Jewish artists are thin on the ground as it is generally understood that Judaism has a taboo against creating images from the natural world.  This taboo stems from biblical texts – most notably the second of the Ten Commandments – which reads “Do not have any other gods before my presence. Do not make yourself a carved-image (pesel) or any figure that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the Earth;  Don’t bow down to them or serve them…” similar rulings are  found in later books.

The context is always that such images are connected to worship, and that making or having them will lead away from the invisible and incorporeal God of Israel. Unlike the pagan traditions surrounding them, the Israelite God was never seen, at most God was shrouded in cloud or fire, and could be anywhere at any time, unlimited and unconstrained.

It is likely that the original law forbidding images was to prevent the Israelites from assimilating with the different peoples they met in the wilderness.  Certainly the prophets saw them as a path to assimilation into the surrounding cultures.

One of my favourite psalms (115) describes these idols as having mouths that cannot speak, eyes that cannot see etc, and that everyone who makes them or trusts them will become like them, worthless and impotent, unlike Israel whose trust in God will support them.

But the prohibition against such images for worship is honoured rather less than one might think. There were cherubim in the desert tent and in Solomon’s Temple as well as early synagogues, and we routinely have lions or flowers decorating Sifrei Torah. Was the ban to prevent syncretism polluting the Israelite God or was it to prevent assimilation? Was it to demonstrate the beauty of holiness rather than the Hellenic holiness of beauty? or was it to prevent people gaining power over God by knowing God’s image or name?

Torah permits representations of humans as long as they are not used for idolatry and we no longer fear alternate ‘gods’. Possibly the most powerful challenge is that we are made b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God. So maybe it is time for more Jewish artists to emerge and follow the tradition of Betzalel, the artistic director of the desert tabernacle, and decorate our world fearlessly

written for and published in Progressive Judaism Page of  London Jewish News

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