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.