Many of our synagogues are adorned with decorations that are designed to enhance the experience of worship. The quality and scope of decorations will vary according to aesthetic taste or economic circumstances. Rarely do we hear of cases where the decision to commission a mural, stained glass window or ornamental embroidery is viewed as problematic for reasons of theology or religious law.
This situation was not invariably true in earlier times. Second-Temple Jerusalem appears to have been rigorously image-free, as were communities in Islamic lands. On the other hand, the archaeological remains from talmudic and Byzantine times include explicit graphic portrayals of biblical themes, and the artists were not above incorporating motifs from Greek mythology into the mosaics that adorned their synagogues. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud relates (in a passage that is missing from the standard printings but survives in a manuscript) that “in the days of Rabbi Yoḥanan they began to make images on the walls and he did not object. In the days of Rabbi Abun they began to make mosaic images and he did not object.”
The treatment of the topic in the authoritative Babylonian Talmud is not at all straightforward. The opinions recorded there represent a wide spectrum of opinions, and the relevant passages are constructed with a degree of complexity that allowed for vastly differing interpretations of what the editors intended as their definitive rulings. On the whole, the Talmud did not seem troubled by graphic images as such, but only by one very specific category: the four creatures whose faces were described in Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of the celestial “chariot.” These consisted of a lion, an ox, an eagle and a human. Even with respect to these four, later scholars advocated divergent positions about the extent of the prohibition: did it apply to two-dimensional pictures or only to carvings and statues? Did all four creatures have to appear together to be subject to the ban, or were they forbidden even individually?
As it happens, one of the most prominent items in classic synagogue iconography is the lion—usually a pair of them. As far as I know, they were seldom associated with their function in Ezekiel’s chariot. They were more likely to symbolize the royal tribe of Judah (reminiscent of the lions positioned on Solomon’s magnificent throne), or to illustrate Judah ben Tema’s exhortation to be “strong as a lion to do the will of your father in heaven.” I suspect that many artisans simply leaped at the challenge of portraying the fierce beasts with their dramatically flowing manes.
In the sixteenth century, Rabbi David Ibn Abu Zimra was consulted about an incident in Candia, Crete, involving a powerful community leader who insisted on placing a marble statue of a crowned lion as part of his family crest, in the most prominent position in the local synagogue.
Even if lions or other synagogue decorations did not technically transgress any specific ban against graven images, there were scholars who objected to them on other grounds. Thus, Maimonides had reportedly lamented that it is inappropriate to be facing illustrated tapestries or clothing during prayer because they create distractions. “We are accustomed to shut our eyes when we find ourselves praying opposite a painted garment or wall.” For this great theologian who equated Judaism with the intellectual grasp of an abstract deity who is utterly non-physical and indescribable, all graphic representations are impediments to proper spiritual meditation.
For similar reasons Rabbi Isaac Or Zarua‘ of Vienna related that when he (or perhaps his father) was still a young lad, he had protested against the decorative birds and trees that adorned the walls of the synagogue in Meissen, Saxony. In support of his position he cited the the Mishnah’s austere condemnation of people who interrupt their studies to admire an exquisite tree or a field. Beautiful distractions, he argued, place even greater obstacles in the way of prayer, when the artistry of a well-painted landscape is more likely to impede concentration.
Over the centuries, numerous conflicts arose in Jewish communities over the the propriety of artwork in the synagogues. One such altercation arose in the twelfth century with regard to the stained glass windows in the Cologne synagogue which featured images of lions and serpents or dragons. Rabbi Eliakim ben Joel of Mainz applied his immense erudition and ingenuity to marshalling all the talmudic texts that opposed the creation or preservation of images, while dismissing all those passages that appeared to warrant a permissive policy. On the other hand, his colleague Rabbi Ephraim ben Jacob of Bonn was satisfied that whatever problems the ancient sages might have had with such pictures had been rooted in their idolatrous associations; nowadays, however, nobody really worships the ornamental birds and horses whose likenesses adorn the synagogue windows.
A particularly intriguing episode occurred in seventeenth-century Italy. The Jewish community of Ascoli possessed a beautifully carved Torah ark that was borne by crouching lions carved with impressive realism out of walnut wood. The ark had been standing in the synagogue for generations and nobody thought to question its appropriateness to the sanctuary or to congregational worship.
In 1569 Pope Pius V issued a decree evicting the Jews from the territories under his control, which included Ascoli. The exiles were received graciously by their coreligionists in Pesaro and by Pesaro’s tolerant Christian rulers. The Ascolian emigrants made a point of bringing with them their beloved old ark which was given a new home in the Sephardic synagogue of Pesaro. It continued to be used and admired for its inherent beauty and as a tangible relic of the community’s glorious past. After a while, when it became too small to contain the growing collection of Torah scrolls, the ark was replaced by a larger one, but it was still kept on exhibit in the women’s gallery.
The time-honoured living tradition of the Ascoli Jewish community and its spiritual leaders was eventually called into question by a younger generation of rabbinical scholars. The expertly crafted lions were singled out for criticism, noting that they were among the creatures in Ezekiel’s chariot.
A scion of an old Ascoli rabbinic family, Rabbi Joseph Salomo Graziano, was impelled to compose an essay in defense of the ark, in which he demonstrated that there was no legitimate halakhic objection to the presence of the lions in the synagogue. Even if some previous authorities (like Rabbi Ibn Abu Zimra) had found reason to prohibit similar creations, it was because the beasts in those cases had occupied more conspicuous and distracting positions in the sanctuaries. The ones in Pesaro, however, were crouching humbly and inconspicuously underneath the ark, and therefore gave no grounds for complaint.
It would appear that in Italy, as in most other Jewish communities, the people’s fondness for inspirational art prevailed over the stringencies of the austere nay-sayers. The evidence for this is readily apparent in the many stalwart lions of Judah that continue to stand guard over our synagogues, Torah arks and sacred scrolls.
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