How can a Jewish State allow sculptures to be put on display when the Second Commandment bans making the form of anything?

August 23, 2021 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. How can a Jewish State allow sculptures to be put on display when the Second Commandment bans making the form of anything?

A. This was the view taken by the Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel in 1960 in relation to the Rose art gardens in Jerusalem.

Deeming the sculptures to contravene the Biblical prohibition against graven images, the Chief Rabbinate called them “contrary to the spirit of Judaism and a profanation of the name and character of the Holy City”.

The rabbis even forbade displaying sculptures within the walls of a museum, though they admitted that any protest flew in “the face of facts accepted by both the State and the public”.

Those who disagreed with the rabbis’ stance argued that the sculptures were works of art expressing the creative spirit of the sculptors, not idols or images for worship, and nobody would misconstrue what they saw when they visited the exhibition.

Though sculpture is a more difficult halachic issue than portraiture, it is on record that when Rav Kook lived in London during the First World War he used to enjoy visiting the National Portrait Gallery and was lost in awe and amazement when he studied Rembrandt’s paintings, including portraits.

A number of orthodox synagogues have rabbinic portraits on display and as far as I am aware no-one has demanded that they be taken down.


Q. Can you explain the law of yibbum and chalitzah?

A. The Torah provides (Deut. 25) that a childless widow is to marry her husband’s brother. The law is called levirate marriage.

The name derives from the Latin “levir”, a brother-in-law. In Hebrew, brother-in-law is “yavam”, and his marriage to her is “yibbum”.

If he does not wish to marry her, there is a ceremony of renunciation called “chalitzah” (literally, “removal”, since it entails her removing a shoe from his foot).

The basis of the Biblical rule is the ethical duty to protect the woman and preserve the memory of the deceased husband through the birth of a child to the woman and her husband’s brother.

Some commentators (Nachmanides, Abravanel and others) regard this as a form of gilgul, reincarnation, and suggest that the soul of the departed returns by means of the new child.

Chalitzah has also been given a spiritual interpretation.

According to Malbim, the essence of the human being is his soul, but the soul cannot exist on earth without a body.

The body is symbolised by the shoe, since standing on the earth requires feet and they in turn need to be housed in shoes. When the childless widow removes her brother-in-law’s shoe it is as if she is saying that he has declined to allow his brother’s soul a new home on earth.


Q. I get distracted during the High Holyday services. What can I do about it?

A. The prayers require “kavvanah” – intention or concentration.

Rabbi Chayyim HaLevi Soloveitchik of Brisk says out in his commentary on Maimonides’ Laws of Prayer, chapter 4, that there are two types of “kavvanah”.

One is the knowledge that we are standing before God and that nothing else exists or matters. The second is an understanding of the words so that not only do we speak the words but the words speak to us.

It would help you to cultivate both kinds of “kavvanah”. Turn off and turn away from everything and everybody else, even the service itself, and retreat into a spiritual cocoon where your heart and mind focus on God.

Then turn to the prayer book and focus your mind and thoughts on a prayer that appeals to you. Even if it means lagging behind the rest of the congregation and omitting a Psalm or “piyyut” (liturgical poem) or two (or more), have a dialogue with the words.

Whatever you do, do not let your shule neighbour break the spell and distract you with conversation.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.


One Response to “How can a Jewish State allow sculptures to be put on display when the Second Commandment bans making the form of anything?”
  1. Liat Kirby says:

    Sculpture and painting – including portraiture – are magnificent artforms and should be appreciated as such. To think of them in any way as ‘icons’ for worship is ridiculous.

    Just as poetry and writing can enable inspiration, empathy and insight, so too can sculpture and painting. If Judaism on any level banned artworks, it would become as narrow as the extremists of Islam.

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