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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

Israel’s Economy Thrives While the Middle East Disintegrates

Jan. 19 2018

Now that the data have come in from 2017, it is clear that the Israeli economy had another successful year, expanding at a rate higher than that of any other advanced country. Israel’s per-capita GDP also grew, placing it above those of France and Japan. Daniel Kryger notes some of the implications regarding the Jewish state’s place in the Middle East:

The contrast between first-world Israel and the surrounding third-world Arab states is larger today than ever before. Israel’s GDP per capita is almost twenty times the GDP per capita of impoverished Egypt and five times larger than semi-developed Lebanon.

Like any human project, Israel is a never-ending work in progress and much work remains to integrate ḥaredi Jews and Israeli Arabs into Israel’s knowledge economy. Properly addressing Israel’s high costs of living requires more economic and legislative reforms and breaking up inefficient oligopolies that keep the prices artificially high. However, by any standard, the reborn Jewish state is a remarkable success story. . . .

Much has changed since OPEC launched its oil embargo against the West after the failed Arab aggression against Israel in October 1973. Before the collapse of the pro-Arab Soviet empire, China and India had no official ties with Israel and many Western and Japanese companies avoided doing business with Israel. Collapsing oil prices have dramatically eroded the power of oil-producing countries. It has become obvious that the future belongs to those who innovate, not those who happen to sit on oil. Israel has today strong commercial ties with China and a thriving partnership with India. Business delegations from Jamaica to Japan are eager to do business with Israel and benefit from Israel’s expertise. . . .

[For its part], the boycott, divest, and sanction (BDS) movement may bully Jewish and pro-Israel students on Western campuses. However, in real life, BDS stands no chance of succeeding against Israel. The reason is simple: reborn Israel has . . . become too valuable a player in the global economy.

Read more at Mida

More about: BDS, Israel & Zionism, Israeli economy, Middle East, OPEC