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

 

Why President Biden Needs Prime Minister Netanyahu as Much as Netanyahu Needs Biden

Sept. 28 2023

Last Wednesday, Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu met for the first time since the former’s inauguration. Since then, Haim Katz, Israel’s tourism minister, became the first Israeli cabinet member to visit Saudi Arabia publicly, and Washington announced that it will include the Jewish state in its visa-waiver program. Richard Kemp, writing shortly after last week’s meeting, comments:

Finally, a full nine months into Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest government, President Joe Biden deigned to allow him into his presence. Historically, American presidents have invited newly installed Israeli prime ministers to the White House shortly after taking office. Even this meeting on Wednesday, however, was not in Washington but in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

Such pointed lack of respect is not the way to treat one of America’s most valuable allies, and perhaps the staunchest of them all. It is all about petty political point-scoring and interfering in Israel’s internal democratic processes. But despite his short-sighted rebuke to the state of Israel and its prime minister, Biden actually needs at least as much from Netanyahu as Netanyahu needs from him. With the 2024 election looming, Biden is desperate for a foreign-policy success among a sea of abject failures.

In his meeting with Netanyahu, Biden no doubt played the Palestinian issue up as some kind of Saudi red line and the White House has probably been pushing [Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman] in that direction. But while the Saudis would no doubt want some kind of pro-forma undertaking by Israel for the sake of appearances, [a nuclear program and military support] are what they really want. The Saudis’ under-the-table backing for the original Abraham Accords in the face of stiff Palestinian rejection shows us where its priorities lie.

Israel remains alone in countering Iran’s nuclear threat, albeit with Saudi and other Arab countries cheering behind the scenes. This meeting won’t have changed that. We must hope, however, that Netanyahu has been able to persuade Biden of the electoral benefit to him of settling for a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia rather than holding out for the unobtainable jackpot of a two-state solution.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Joseph Biden, Saudi Arabia, U.S.-Israel relationship