This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Artistic License*

According to a recent news report, the members of an Alberta Hutterite colony successfully protested a new regulation that cancelled their privilege to carry driver's licenses without photographs. The Hutterites justified their position on grounds of religious freedom, citing the words of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4) You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. A literal reading of that passage would effectively rule out most forms of graphic representation, including photographs of human beings.

While the public discussion of that issue has focused primarily on matters of multicultural policy and church-state relations, I think that Jews reading about this episode would be justified in feeling some uneasiness. We are, after all, speaking about a commandment from the Torah, our most sacred religious text. Why, then, has this never become a Jewish issue? You would think that meticulously observant Jewish groups would prohibit photographs or other forms of visual art. Experience, however, tells us that this is not the case.

To be sure, there were individuals like the twelfth-century Rabbi Eliakim of Mainz who ordered the removal of stained glass windows from the synagogue in Cologne because of their depictions of lions and serpents; or the illuminator of the medieval Bird's Head Haggadah who replaced all the human faces with birds or animals; or Rabbi Abraham Palagi of 19th-century Smyrna who refused to place in his synagogue a portrait that was sent by Sir Moses Montefiori. However, the overwhelming tendency has been to allow depictions of human forms. Traditional Jews, especially Hasidim and other sects who cultivate charismatic leadership, have a particular enthusiasm for displaying pictures of great rabbis and pious saints of the past and present. How can they defend this in light of the explicit prohibition uttered at Mount Sinai?

To be fair, the biblical verse in question is open to at least two different interpretations. The maximalist position would read it as an absolute and unconditional commandment. However, it is also plausible to argue that the prohibition must be modified by the passage's continuation: You shall not bow down to them or serve them, which seems to imply that images that are not intended for worship are acceptable.

The ambivalence of the biblical text finds expression in a puzzling historical fact: The extensive archaeological remains of Second-Temple Judaism testify to the uncompromising enforcement of the ban against graphic imagery, with decorations confined to geometric or floral patterns. This policy is confirmed by ancient historians, who speak of the Jews' incomprehensible antipathy towards visual art and their willingness to submit to martyrdom rather than tolerate the placing of images in Jerusalem. Talmudic tradition states that all kinds of images could be found in Jerusalem except for human faces; though the archaeological remains suggest a more restrictive policy.

This austere picture stands in glaring contrast to the evidence from the era following the destruction of the Temple. Not only did the mosaic floors and painted frescoes of ancient synagogues contain elaborate illustrations of episodes from the Bible, but they even made use of overtly pagan motifs, portraying the sun as Helios riding his chariot, or the seasons as their mythological personifications.

As the evidence began to accumulate, scholars suggested diverse explanations for these violations of the strict Jewish rejection of visual art. An influential theory inferred from this evidence that the Jews who produced and enjoyed art were not particularly religious, at least not according the stultifying and unaesthetic standards demanded by those soul-less Pharisees and their successors, the rabbis. The rabbis whose views were later collected into the Talmud did not reflect the authentic spirituality of the Jewish masses, who pursued a mystical synthesis of Judaism and universal religion that encouraged creative expression. When the legalistic rabbis imposed rules to ban representational art, they were just talking to themselves, and their outlook had little impact on the common folk.

As attractive as this thesis might sound initially (especially to persons who are negatively disposed towards the modern rabbinate), it suffers from one fundamental flaw: It is based on a stereotypical caricature of a rabbinic orthodoxy, rather than on what the literary sources actually say. Anyone who studies the relevant talmudic discussions concerning idolatrous art will recognize that the rabbis' approach to figurative art was generally quite liberal.

The intricate talmudic sources that discuss the status of graven images introduce numerous distinctions that must me taken into consideration before we may determine whether or not an image is permissible: between fashioning a new image and finding an existing one; between celestial bodies and terrestrial objects; between the faces that appeared on Ezekiel's mystical chariot--the lion, ox, eagle and human--and those of other creatures; between images that were normally worshipped by pagans and those that were not; between flat, relief, and three-dimensional figures--and many other factors.

Although the Talmud mentions some unusually pious individuals who refused to gaze at images, or even to use coins, these are more than offset by accounts of rabbis who allowed mosaics, or even statues of the king, to be placed in their synagogues.

Furthermore, the chief beneficiaries of these artistic endeavours were not isolated from the rabbinic establishment. They included sites that had strong associations to the Jewish Patriarch (Nasi), such as the synagogue at Hamat-Tiberias and the patriarchal burial caves at Beit She'arim.

In light of these factors, an alternative hypothesis was proposed to account for the permissive attitudes that prevailed after the destruction of the Temple: By the end of the first century CE, paganism was no longer considered a real threat to Jewish belief. Centuries of philosophical criticism had brought about a situation wherein belief in a universal divinity was widespread, and few Greeks or Romans maintained a literal belief in the mythological exploits of their traditional gods and goddesses.

Under these new circumstances (the thesis argues), the rabbinic leadership was prepared to exercise greater flexibility in applying the second commandment. In doing so, they were also responding to an urgent social need. As the pagan foothold in Israel became more prominent after the suppression of the rebellion against Rome, increasing numbers of Jews found themselves in communities with gentile majorities. Jews who earned their livelihoods from the manufacture or distribution of consumer products were expected to decorate those products according to the fashions of the time, which usually involved pictures with mythological themes. Recognizing that those motifs no longer reflected sincere heathenism, the rabbis were willing to relax the earlier stringencies in order to allow Jews to earn a living. Ultimately, this flexibility found expression in the incorporation of Bible illustrations and mythological ornamentation into synagogue decoration.

In later generations, Jewish attitudes towards figurative art tended to reflect those of the surrounding societies. Whereas Jews in Islamic lands often shared the Muslim avoidance of all but geometric or calligraphic decorations, the prevalent Ashkenazic approach permitted most art, short of full three-dimensional human images.

Until drivers' licenses start to include three-dimensional holograms, most of us should not have reason for panic. And then again, some would argue that the average driver's license photo bears no discernible resemblance to a human image.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, June 15, 2006, p. 12.
  • For further reading:
    • Bland, Kalman P. The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
    • Goodenough, Erwin R. Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. 13 vols. Bollingen Series ; 37. New York: Pantheon, 1953.
    • Gutmann, Joseph. The Second Commandment And the Image in Judaism. Hebrew Union College Annual 32 (1961): 161-174.
    • Roth, Cecil. Introduction. In Jewish Art: An Illustrated History, ed. Cecil Roth and Bezalel Narkiss, 18-36. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1971.
    • Urbach, Ephraim E. The Rabbinical Laws of Idolatry in the Second and Third Centuries in the Light of Archaeological and Historical Fact. In Collected Writings in Jewish Studies, ed. Robert Brody and Moshe David Herr, 151-193. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1999.