Is Judaism anti-art?

February 17, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi…

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Is Judaism anti-art?

A. First a reminiscence.

Some years ago I was one of the judges for the Blake Prize for religious art. A newspaper columnist asked: What does this rabbi know about art?

What does any rabbi know about art? The chairman of the prize committee had to write to the paper saying that the other judges felt that my contributions to the discussion were valuable. Fortunately, the columnist also said I was urbane and widely respected, so I was not too upset.

The incident raises the question of whether Judaism is comfortable with art.

There is a theological aspect, in the light of the Second Commandment. There is also a sociological question: were Jewish communities usually relaxed enough to develop a tradition in the visual arts?

In addition, rabbinic tradition felt the Greeks overdid the worship of beauty. Judaism saw beauty as an adverb more than a noun, saying, “Worship God beautifully”.

Yet some sages did explicitly approve of art, saying a b’rachah over anything beautiful, even a beautiful woman. But this too can possibly be part of the concept of worshipping God beautifully, implying that God is the great Artist whose creation is a work of art.

What about the modern view that the ugly, the bizarre, the provocative and the scandalous are also art?

Here too allow me a reminiscence.

A leading Australian artist painted a very effective portrait of me in white High Holyday robes. (It did not win the Archibald Prize, though it deserved to!) Yet another artist painted my rabbinical predecessor wearing Shabbat robes, and that portrait did win the Archibald that year.

The difference may be that artistic ideas have changed. Had I sat for my portrait sitting on the synagogue steps without my clothes on, I am sure I would have won (though professionally as well as physically I would have been unfrocked).

The bizarre and unconventional is the new orthodoxy. Hopefully, it will pass, but until then, Judaism will remain critical and judgmental.


Q. Why do we preface each chapter of Pir’kei Avot with the statement, “All Israel have a place in the World to Come”?

A. This is a quotation from the Mishnah, from the beginning of Sanhedrin chapter 10.

In Sanhedrin the context is that the courts have the power to sentence a criminal to death. The implied question is, does a person put to death by the court lose their place in the World to Come?

The answer is that the promise of the afterlife remains so long as a person has not rejected basic Jewish beliefs.

Why this passage is borrowed for use before each chapter of Pir’kei Avot may be as an assurance that a non-intellectual who cannot carry out in-depth Talmudic study should not feel rejected so long as they devote time to easier subjects of study such as this.

Another view is that living according to the wisdom of Pir’kei Avot gives a person a taste of the afterlife while they are still alive on earth.


Q. Why are tefillin called “phylacteries” in English?

A. It is such a strange word that it is no wonder people get it wrong: a famous painting of a man wearing tefillin was listed in an art work as “Rabbi with Physicians”.

The word is from the Greek “phylacterion”, which means a fort.

Whoever decided this described tefillin misinterpreted the mitzvah and thought it was a sort of lucky charm or talisman that brought protection.

A different mistake was made by a daily newspaper in Sydney during the Second World War when the “Dunera” which brought a largely Jewish group of Central European Jews to internment in Australia docked on Saturday.

The passengers had been given a very hard time on board and many of their possessions had been stolen, vandalised, destroyed or simply lost.

A handful of rabbis and other orthodox Jews had been able to hold on to their tefillin but the “Dunera” arrived on Shabbat when they could not carry anything ashore.

Given the difficulty of the situation, they decided it was permissible to wear their tefillin and left the ship that way.

A newspaper photographer took a picture of them which was published with a caption describing them as Germans who had landed with their radar equipment…

The fact actually is that in a spiritual sense tefillin are something like radar in that they pinpoint the wearer as a member of a God-fearing “army” whose members dedicate their day, by means of the Biblical verses in their hand and head tefillin, to serving the Almighty with their minds, hearts and hands.

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.

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