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Judaism, the Visual Arts, and the Religious Aesthetics of Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Sept. 13 2017

The ill-founded claim that Judaism forbids or shuns artistic depictions of reality due to the Second Commandment has a long tradition that goes back at least to the 18th century. In fact, writes Ranana Dine, archaeological finds suggest that ancient Jews worshipped in richly decorated synagogues, while major halakhic works limit any prohibition on images to statues in the likeness of humans. In fact, Jews have a robust artistic tradition:

One [late-medieval] rabbi, Profiat Duran of Spain, potently combined his love of Torah study with appreciation of the visual. He believed that scholars should study from illuminated manuscripts and in beautiful study halls, because “people’s love and desire for the study will increase. Memory will also improve . . . with the result that the soul will expand and be encouraged and strengthen its powers.” Along with the marginalia and ownership notes that adorned medieval parchments, illustrations could contribute to a reader’s interaction with holy books. Duran’s advocacy for beautifully illustrated texts and architecturally pleasing centers of learning undercuts the cliché that Judaism is a religion solely of the book—for Duran, the learning of “the book” was strengthened through aesthetic appreciation. Visual beauty contributes to Torah study rather than competing with it.

The tradition of rabbinic portraiture similarly calls into question the assumption that Jewish law forbids the making of images, particularly figurative images. Emerging in the 16th and 17th centuries in Italy and Amsterdam, rabbinic portraits became common in books and even in Jewish homes in the [early] modern era. Although there were originally some halakhic reservations regarding the creation of rabbinic portraits, especially among Ḥasidim, pictures of rabbis “became a standard commodity” within traditional Jewish households by the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly with the advent of photography and other technologies that allowed for the easy creation and spread of these images. The popularity of rabbinic portraits shows that Jews sought to create religious homes and lives that were aesthetically beautiful, finding art in their religion and their religious leaders, rather than in spite of them.

By contrast, Dine continues, the 20th-century American sage Joseph B. Soloveitchik reflected a tradition that, while by no means hostile to the visual arts, was skeptical of their worth. Yet he saw Judaism, and specifically halakhah, as the highest aesthetic pursuit:

[Soloveitchik did] not have much patience for “aesthetic man” but he does express a [belief in a] “halakhic aesthetic” that surpasses Western art in its depth and transcendence. A world colored by halakhah is more beautiful than the painted figures soaring through the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile. For [him], the commandments, not Monet’s water lilies, are the sublime, and like the best aesthetic experiences, they are meant to be performed “first and foremost for their own sake alone.” . . .

If halakhah is the greatest work of art, then the halakhic man is the greatest artist. . . . [Soloveitchik] writes that halakhah makes man a “creator of worlds.” The halakhic Jew is a partner with God in the creation of beauty, a legal artist carving into reality a better and more magnificent world.

Read more at Lehrhaus

More about: Jewish art, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Judaism, Profiat Duran, Religion & Holidays

 

The EU Violates International Law, Steals Palestinian Land, and Then Demands Compensation from Israel

Nov. 17 2017

Last month, the eight European countries that make up the West Bank Protection Consortium sent a formal letter demanding €30,000 in compensation for two classrooms with solar panels that Israel dismantled in August. The letter, as Ruthie Blum explains, ignores the fact that the structures, located in part of the West Bank called Area C, were built in violation of international law:

[The 1995 agreement known as] Oslo II, which created the Palestinian Authority (PA), divides the West Bank into three geographical sections—Areas A, B, and C—and specifies which government controls each. Area C is under the military and civil jurisdiction of Israel alone. . . . Yet, for years, there has been non-stop building in Area C, . . . in a transparent effort to populate Area C with Palestinians. . . .

[The] Middle East analyst Bassam Tawil [has] noted massive “behind-the-scenes” Palestinian construction, the goal of which is “to create irreversible facts on the ground” and completely encircle Jerusalem. He points out that while Israel is condemned for any and every attempt to build housing in the West Bank and Jerusalem [which it never does in Area A, assigned by Oslo to the sole jurisdiction of the Ramallah], the Palestinian Authority has been undertaking, with impunity, a “colossal” construction project that is “illegal in every respect.” . . .

On a recent tour of the area, [another] Arab affairs expert, Khaled Abu Toameh, explained that this ongoing construction, funded mainly by the EU and Qatar, is made possible through the “confiscation” of privately owned tracts of Palestinian land by unlicensed contractors whose interest is solely financial. . . All they want, he said, is to line their pockets at the expense of helpless landowners, who are told that they must sacrifice their property to help the Palestinian Authority populate the area for political gain against Israel. . . .

It takes particular gall for European Union representatives to express “humanitarian” outrage at Israel for razing illegal structures in the West Bank—while the EU is in league with Palestinian criminals who have been brazenly stealing Arab-owned land.

Read more at Gatestone

More about: Europe and Israel, European Union, Israel & Zionism, Palestinian Authority, West Bank