Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Religion. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 17 June 2024

Judaism and Visual Artfree

Judaism and Visual Artfree

  • Melissa RaphaelMelissa RaphaelUniversity of Gloucestershire


Until the late 20th century, it was widely assumed that visual art could be of only negligible significance to a Jewish tradition that had been principally mediated through written texts. However, by the closing decades of the 20th century, Jewish cultural historians had demonstrated that, while Jewish worship and study is indubitably logocentric, the Second Commandment’s prohibition of the making and worshipping of graven images has not entailed a blanket ban on visual art. Jews have not been uniformly indifferent or hostile to visual art, a category that includes the architectural design and decoration of synagogues; funerary monuments; illuminated manuscripts; embroidery; liturgical seats, pulpits, and the other fittings and ornaments of religious Jewish life at home and at worship; as well as, since the 19th century, drawing, painting and sculpture. Most interpreters now read the biblical texts as prohibiting only the making and worshipping of images of the divine. The Bible forbids idolatry, but is aware that not all images are idolatrous. By around the 3rd century of the Common Era, rabbinical rulings recognized that the danger of Jews becoming idolaters, as they might have done under formerly pagan dispensations, had passed. In short, although in a number of Jewish historical periods and geographical regions there have been good reasons to be reluctant to accommodate visual art within the tradition, there is also ample evidence of visual art in settings that span the entire geography and history of Judaism. Jewish avoidance or neglect of visual art has usually been more historically contingent than theologically necessary. The religious culture of Jews resident in Islamic lands, for example, tended to conform to their hosts’ prevailing, though not historically or geographically comprehensive, tendency to aniconism.

On grounds such as these, it has been argued that the notion of Judaism as an aniconic tradition is a modern one. Kant’s appreciation of the Second Commandment as one of Judaism’s few redeeming features, proscribing any crude urge to see that which exceeds the bounds of sensibility, encouraged western European Jews to advert to Judaism’s lack of art a sign of its pre-eminence as the first enlightened religion. The 19th and early 20th-century claim that Jewish tradition is aural and literary, but not visual, seems to have owed more to the modern German scientific study of Judaism’s use of the Second Commandment to highlight affinities between Jewish and Christian monotheism and to Jews’ desire to integrate into Protestant culture, than to restrictions within their own legal and cultural inheritance.

Perceived violations of the Second Commandment no longer provoke much of a reaction in any but the most conservative Jewish communities. And even among the Haredim, artists have begun to paint semi-abstract pictures that are not considered a deviation from halakhic norms. Yet, while many Jews still regard abstraction as a more permissible form of Jewish visual art than others, it is evident that the art tradition that developed after Jewish civil emancipation in Western Europe has actually been predominantly figurative. A number of scholars have therefore proposed that the Second Commandment has not so much prevented figurative visual art as promoted a distinctive set of styles and techniques, especially those that allow Jewish artists to make images that fulfill their quintessentially Jewish obligation to criticize idolatrous images. Jewish art, it has been argued, exists because of the Second Commandment, not in spite of it.

This essay does not cover Jewish approaches and contributions to film and architecture. It examines both the history and theorization of Jewish visual art and Jewish religious approaches to visual art. The essay uses the findings of this two-pronged enquiry to suggest that Jewish visual art, which is more than art by artists who happen to be Jews, is properly counter-idolatrous art, art that is far from hindered by the Second Commandment but is actively produced by it. Jewish art does more than build cultural, political, and national Jewish identities; it does more than the commemorative work of visually constructing Jewish memory. Visual art made by Jews becomes Jewish when it serves a constructive theological, prophetic purpose and when it uses idoloclastic techniques to produce images that both cancel and restore the glory of the human. This claim counters the prevailing view that there can be no unified or normative theory of Jewish art.


  • Judaism and Jewish Studies
  • Religion and Art


The Second Commandment, as set out with slight, but not insignificant, variations in Exodus 20:4, 34:17; Leviticus 19:4, 26:1; and Deuteronomy 5:8 and 27:15, is textually and theologically indivisible from the First Commandment. The injunction of Exodus 20:3: “You shall have no other gods besides Me,” declares that God’s pre-eminence as Israel’s sovereign Lord is safeguarded by abstention from making images of foreign gods to whom the people might defect. Moreover, God’s refusal to allow his representation in any image, not least because he unrepresentable—not susceptible to the finition of an image—is a means by which to set him and his people apart from other gods and peoples as holy. The only one permitted to make an image of God is God, who makes humanity in his own image (Gen. 1:26–28). Human beings are not permitted to make an image of God in their own image. The only legitimate image of God, then, is the human, and human flesh is not made of wood, stone, gold, or silver, but dust (Gen. 3:19; Job 10:9).

The contemporary interpretative consensus is that the biblical Second Commandment does not forbid the making of images as such,1 but rather their worship. After all, in the Hebrew Bible, Bezalel, appointed by God, crafts utensils for the tabernacle in Solomon’s Temple, but there is no suggestion that he is an idol maker. On the contrary, Bezalel is a great craftsman because he is endowed with a divine spirit of knowledge, skill, and the highly developed aesthetic sense of a designer. His creativity, like that of his assistant Oholiab, is dedicated to the service of God, is a function of his purity of heart (Exod. 31:1–6; 35:30–35). The first book of Kings gives a thrilling inventory of the Temple’s decoration: its sculpted palms, lilies, oxen, lions, and other natural phenomena, and the winged, gilded cherubim carved from olive wood that flank the Ark (claimed by some to be an empty throne) in the Holy of Holies.

It was from about the 8th century bce that images came to be understood less as henotheistic representations of gods that are under ban, because their worship rivaled that of the God of the Israelites, and more as the reduction of the supernatural God of spirit into a piece of mere natural or humanly crafted material by which men merely worship themselves. To the prophets, idolatrous images were fetishes whose worship was an error for which the people would be severely punished. The prophetic criticism of idols was not the prohibition of any figurative image but a reminder that its power as image and subject was not superhuman. Idolatrous images are lifeless and heartless pieces of painted or otherwise fashioned matter; they answer to no human appeal. Where the human person created by God is alive and can speak and walk, the idol created by a craftsman is unmoving and unmoved, deaf, dumb, and blind, in short, dead and death-dealing (Isa. 44:9–21; Jer.10:14–15; and elsewhere).

Colonial rule in late Hellenistic or Hasmonean Palestine repeatedly imposed its own sacral images on the Jewish population (sometimes with gross sacrilegious offence) as symbols of its political and cultural power. The desecration of the Temple by Antiochus IV in 167 bce was a traumatic case in point. Hellenization, from around 335–65 bce, saw a reactive tendency to restrictive interpretations of the Second Commandment. Yet by the post-biblical period, diaspora Jews of the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries knew that the declining Graeco-Roman pagan cults had ceased to pose a threat to their religio-cultural identity. The 3rd century synagogue at Dura-Europos in eastern Syria, replete with images of the binding of Isaac and Moses parting the Red Sea

Figure 1. Jews cross Red Sea pursued by Pharoah. Fresco from Dura Europos Synagogue, 244–256 ce.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

, may therefore reflect rabbinic attitudes of the period, as well as the adaptive cultural environment of particular Jewish communities, rather than, as previously thought, representing a para-Christian deviation from Jewish norms. Figurative images on the mosaic floors in the late antique synagogues of Beth Alpha and Sepphoris (now in northern Israel) may indicate that in late antiquity pagan symbols had been subject to a process of Judaization.2 Such phenomena prompted Erwin Goodenough, in his 1953 Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period,3 to suggest that rabbinic opposition to the Second Commandment was not as pronounced as might be supposed.

In late antiquity, the rabbis’ rulings on figurative art, usually made with reference to the decoration of the synagogue, were relatively permissive. As rabbinic opinion did not constitute a monolithic institution, a degree of inconsistency and occasional laxity is not surprising. Rabbinic opinion did not entirely reflect or determine the wider community’s attitudes to Jewish art, and the rabbis (a more socially, geographically, historically, and spiritually diverse body of commentators than is sometimes thought) were well aware that not all images are objects of worship. The most famous instance of rabbinic permissiveness is that of Rabban Gamaliel who felt no halakhic compunction about using the Roman baths at Acre, in which stood a statue of the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. His common sense told him that the image was decorative in function and an image that is not treated as a god is permitted (BT Avodah Zarah 44b). The Talmudic understanding of idolatry (avodah zarah, lit. “strange worship”) was more ethically intelligent than a mere religious ban and encapsulated a nuanced criticism of an idolatrous culture and its practices.4

If Jewish communities went on to produce fewer works of visual art than many Christian ones, this may owe as much to historical and economic factors than to halakhic ones. Jews would not have been oblivious to the cultural upheaval and strife brought about during successive waves of Christian iconoclasm. And in areas of the world dominated by broadly aniconic types of Islam, Jewish art had few opportunities. Sephardi Jews living under early medieval Muslim rule, even with relatively high levels of religious self-government, generally refrained from figurative representation of animals and people in the synagogue. Jewish illuminated manuscripts and decorative textiles were usually decorated with semi-abstract images of flowers, vines, and so forth. Broadly speaking, however, Jewish tradition followed Nahmanides in accepting that there is no injunction against making images that are not objects of worship, albeit with special considerations being applied to images of human beings; but periodic expulsions, cultural isolation, and exclusion from craft guilds all served to elevate the textual competences of medieval Jews and limit the production of visual art.

By the medieval period, idolatry had long been regarded as a metaphysical error or category mistake, not a defection to paganism. Maimonides treated linguistic, especially anthropomorphic, images of God as no more permissible than visual ones. Anything suggesting an analogous relation between God and the human is gravely erroneous.5 Any who ascribe a corporeal image to God, whether conceptually or materially, forfeit their share in the world-to-come. Although it is recorded that richly decorated synagogues forced Maimonides to shut his eyes in spiritual distaste, he also accepted that legitimate visual arts that refrained from glorification of the human form could refresh the mind, soul, and body.

Indeed, all over medieval Europe, according to Kalman Bland, Jewish regard for the visual intensified. Jewish pilgrims were impressed by the world’s great architectural monuments, and Jewish artisans produced ever more elaborate ritual objects, embroideries, jewelry, ceramics, boxes, amulets, and tombstones.6 Before modernity, religion and culture were not separable. The visuality of Jewish material culture was theologically determined. Elliot Wolfson has rejected any account of Judaism as comprehensively aniconic as “a gross oversimplification” of the tradition. Despite the inevitable tensions between visionary, theophanic, and aniconic texts in the biblical and rabbinic literature, Wolfson finds that, between Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Jewish mysticism was “overwhelmingly visual” and that sight enjoyed an “epistemic priority” over the other senses. Jewish mystics, he notes, used visionary techniques in order to “see” the imaginal body of God.7

The ruling of the early modern biblical commentator Rabbi Obadiah Sforno is a notable exception to the relative permissiveness of the rabbinic aesthetic. Regardless of the artist’s intention, Sforno judges the making of any image to be an act of “rebellion” against God. But more commonly, it was only images of people that presented halakhic problems. The three-dimensional representation of a whole person in the form of a statue, even if only for commemorative purposes, and even if not in certain violation of halakhah, continued to particularly offend the rabbinic aesthetic. The image of a face in profile was widely regarded as less problematic than a frontal portrait, where the relationship between the human and the divine is most directly manifest.

Otherwise, with the glories of the two Jerusalem Temples in mind, Jewish communities took pleasure in hiddur mitzvah: the principle that Jews should aesthetically enhance the performance of a mitzvah (commandment) with the use of ritual objects that are as beautiful as the community can afford. The aesthetic worth of such objects glorifies God and celebrates the love of God and his gift of the Torah (BT Shabbat 133b; Bava Kama 9b).

During the 16th century, Rabbi Joseph Caro, in his codification of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, adheres to the principle of hiddur mitzvah; but in Chapter 141, “Laws about Images and Forms,” he echoed the aesthetic of incompletion found in rulings such as that of the 12th-century Rabbi Ephraim of Regensburg, in which two-dimensional paintings of human figures were permissible as long as they were not depicted with human faces and complied with the aesthetic of distortion commonly found in illuminated medieval Ashkenazi manuscripts that used birds’ heads, blank faces, veils, helmets, crowns, or rear views to portray the human face.8

Figure 2. The Birds’ Head Haggadah, c. 1300. Israel Musuem, Jerusalem.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Caro expressed the view that representations of divine, natural, and mythic entities can only be made on condition that the images are incomplete. Images of faces, where the image of God is made manifest, must be partial, defaced, or broken—given, say, only one eye or a broken nose—if they are to be a halakhically legitimate representation. If, by the end of the 17th century, rabbinical portraiture—rarely depicting more than the head and shoulders—had become widespread,9 the incompletion of images reminded the Jewish people that its joys, indeed its very being, is incomplete until Jerusalem is rebuilt in messianic glory.

After Jewish emancipation, the gradual weakening of halakhic control over western and central European Jewish culture allowed the greater integration of Jews into gentile culture as patrons, painters, collectors, critics, and dealers.10 The development of Jewish art for art’s own sake during the 19th century belied Hegel’s opinion that Jews despise images because they have no culture and derive no aesthetic pleasure from beauty. Depictions of traditional Jewish scenes and characters by artists, such as those by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800–1882), arguably the first Jewish artist, and later, Isidor Kaufmann (1853–1921), appealed to an increasingly acculturated Jewish bourgeoisie as reminders of a lost world of simple piety and spiritual authenticity. Jewish painters’ images of congregational ritual and family portraits were popular commissions from Jews who wished to share the cultural dignities of civic life with their gentile neighbors while maintaining their emotional commitments to Jewish particularity.11 As Nicholas Mirzoeff has pointed out, “Jewish art exploded in the era of emancipation, not because the age-old prohibitions of the Second Commandment were all of a sudden ignored, but because the question of appearances had now become paramount.”12

Isidor Kaufmann, whose most famous works are ceremonious portraits of Orthodox Jews (or possibly locals dressed as Orthodox Jews) in Austria and Alsace, painted in the first years of the 20th century, was from a relatively assimilated Jewish background; other artists had had Orthodox upbringings.

Figure 3. Isidor Kaufmann, Man with Fur Hat, c. 1910. Oil on panel, height: 410 mm (16.14 in), width: 310 mm (12.2 in). The Jewish Museum, New York.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But almost all were trained by non-Jewish teachers and were moderns in so far as they asserted the right to self-representation as rational civic Jewish subjects in a Christian culture that originated in a Jewish one. Subjects that had previously been confined to Christian art were now accessible to Jewish interpretation. The Galician artist Maurycy Gottlieb’s Christ Teaching at Capernaum (1878–1879), for example, set aside older Jewish prejudices against referring to Christ (let alone depicting him in images) and painted him as a preacher garbed in Jewish religious dress in an unambiguously synagogal setting. In reclaiming the Jewishness of Jesus, he could downplay the otherness of the Jew.

However, by the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, nationalistic anti-Semitism was gaining ever more political traction. In a period blighted, in Eastern Europe particularly, by pogroms, the former optimism of Jewish art gradually drained away. Polish-Jewish artists such as Szmul Hirszenberg and Maurycy Minkowski laid greater emphasis on the pathos of the Jewish condition as one of economic hardship and persecution. Hirszenberg’s Exile (1904) was a much-reproduced exemplar of this sombre European artistic turn.

By contrast, Jewish artists who had settled in the Ottoman Palestine of the Second Aliyah were producing art that was suffused with light and hope,13 The rise of Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th century had lent visual art a central role in the construction of a new national identity. At the Fifth Zionist Conference in Basel, in 1901, Martin Buber mounted a historic exhibition intended to define Jewish art and call for its development in Palestine as an expression of the collective Jewish soul that could now express itself in a national idiom. Buber and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook were key figures in the promotion of a nascent Zionist visual art typified by the printmaker Ephraim Moses Lilien.

Figure 4. Ephraim Moses Lilien, woodcut, Looking to the East 1901.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1906, under the leadership of its founder, Boris Schatz, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design was established in Jerusalem (where it remains as a center and symbol of artistic excellence in 21st century Israel).

By now, Jewish art had become an object of secular Jewish study and curation in its own right, most notably in the 1907 exhibition of around two hundred works of Jewish art in Berlin. Jewish artists were participating in a range of modern artistic movements including Impressionism (Camille Pissarro), Constructivism and Suprematism (El Lissitsky), and the Berlin Secession (Max Liebermann). The Jewish Museum in Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin, opened in January 1933, just six days before the Nazis came to power. The museum’s art exhibitions provided a cultural focus and refuge for a mere five years before its closure in 1938, after the 1937 Munich exhibition “Degenerate Art,” which had condemned distortion in modern art as being degenerate, that is, “Jewish.”

One might expect Jewish art to have all but ceased during the Holocaust. In fact, a body of work was produced and survived whose significance, as more than merely illustrative documentation of atrocity, makes a significant, often expressionist, contribution to the history of 20th-century drawing.14 After the Holocaust, when Jewish life began to revive outside Europe, in the newly founded State of Israel and in the United States, a revival of synagogue life necessitated the commission of Jewish artworks and buildings being designed and built at this time. Visual art was, once again, being used to reconstruct a new Jewish identity.

Despite unabated Jewish participation in all the major movements of modern art, the popular assumption that the Second Commandment entailed a blanket ban on art survived well into the second half of the 20th century. Despite the existence of a well-known and loved Jewish visual canon, and despite nearly a century of evidence to the contrary provided by archaeology, the history of art, and scholarly studies of the Hebrew Bible, mysticism, and philosophy, under-examined convictions about the un-Jewishness of art were difficult to dispel. In many respects, a residual logocentrism, as well as biblical and rabbinic suspicion of the deceptiveness of the eye as against the moral and epistemic reliability of the ear, continued to contribute to the relegation of Judaism’s material culture to a realm of negligible, or at least minor, religious significance well into the 21st century.15 But, at the same time, by the late 1990s, across almost the entire denominational spectrum, traditional Jewish suspicions about visual art as a violation of the Second Commandment were beginning to have an antiquated ring. By then, there were artists in some of the Haredi communities such as the Hasidic Natan Dov Stein,16 who, following the precedent set by 20th-century Hasidic artists Chenoch Handel Lieberman and Zalman Kleinman,17 was working in the conviction that both figurative and abstract art can be used in the service of God. Painting can be an expression of spiritual joy in color and form, and creativity itself.

Approaches to Visual Art in Modern Jewish Thought

The medieval view of idolatry as a conceptual error, rather than an act of rebellion against the sovereignty of the God of Israel, persists in modern Jewish thought. For the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen, to worship God is to devote oneself to the truth of the mind alone, which requires the repudiation of mere mimesis, seeming, and desire. Cohen felt that the Second Commandment’s suppression of the plastic arts had not only prevented Jews from self-idolization, its mandate for a literary tradition had also nurtured analytical thinking and poesis in the Jewish soul.18

Cohen’s pupil, Franz Rosenzweig, diverged from Cohen (and Maimonides) in his theological willingness to utilize his visual, figurative imagination. He did not regard the Second Commandment as a comprehensive ban on images and understood idolatry not so much as an erroneous conception of God but as the wrong kind of worship or relationship with God. In his most famous work, The Star of Redemption (1921), Rosenzweig is concerned with the visuality of revelation, as much as or more than he is the hearing of God’s truth as word.19 The very spectacle of the Jew, in his self-contained isolation and homelessness, induces a feeling of the uncanny that is instrumental to the Jewish mission to the gentiles as a sign of the messianic Other. Being revelation, Israel is itself the true image of God’s revelation to the world. The Star—as both figure and book20—ends in a cosmic explosion of light. From the center of the Star of David, with Judaism as its fiery core, and Christianity its rays, God’s countenance shines forth: “The Star of Redemption is become countenance which glances at me and out of which I glance.”21

Revelation ultimately takes a visual form, but the practice of visual art can be, in Rosenzweig’s opinion, both limited and limiting. Visual art, while not impermissible (original, non-mimetic art can awaken the feeling of eternity) becomes idolatrous when its static nature blunts religious sensibilities and stultifies the free, dynamic, redemptive will of God. The truth, not yet, is always on its way. In contrast to the art of liturgical poetry, whose language is at once its idea, form, medium, content, and truth, the plastic arts cannot participate fully in the relational, dialogical encounter between the human and the divine, as they belong to a self-contained, unreal world in which the original vision is detached from its object.22 Visual art, unlike the participative, petitionary arts of communal speech, is introverted into the silent realm of the enclosed self.23

Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophical theology is markedly less aesthetic in character than Rosenzweig’s, where God’s truth is at last seen, not merely heard. As had Kant and Hermann Cohen, Levinas regarded the proscription of images as Judaism’s supreme ethical commandment.24 Levinas’ God is a God who hides his face; there is no palpable presence.25 In being addressed by the word alone, we are brought to maturity by our obligation to a present absence or an averted face.26 Levinas’ ethical critique of visual art is stated with particular vehemence in early texts, such as the essay “Reality and Its Shadow,” written in the late 1940s, but rehearsed again in his 1961, Totality and Infinity and other essays.

Levinas did, in fact, occasionally express admiration for certain pictures and artists. He particularly appreciated the 20th-century French-Jewish sculptor Sacha Sosno’s “art of obliteration,” where the viewer, not the artist, was compelled to finish creating the incomplete pieces by the exercise of their imagination alone.27 But generally speaking, Levinas makes a clear distinction between ethics and aesthetics, insisting that, in contrast to an image of a face, the actual face is a revelation whose “nudity” (especially poignant in the post-Holocaust context), is a moral summons commanding absolute responsibility for its care. The infinity of the face cannot be reified into an image to be merely enjoyed. What is required is not a contemplative, “beautific” vision of the other, but a donation of the self to the other.28 Art, by contrast, is founded on a procedural substitution of the object and its concept for its image. An image of a face is a substitute for a face; one flattened and closed up into a mask, or counterfeit, or caricature that cheats a subject of his or her reality.29 An image of a person is a subtraction of a person from her own life. “Eternally, the smile of the Mona Lisa about to broaden will not broaden. An eternally suspended future floats around the congealed position of a statue like a future forever to come.”30 The artistic gaze, in effect, silences and freezes its human object. Art, he says, proceeds “as if death were never dead enough.”31 It is an eerily becalming disengagement from life that lulls us to ethical sleep; it is a carrier of death.

For most of the history of modern Jewish theology, the experience of revelation and its ethical consequence have not, then, been considered a primarily visual event. A. J. Heschel’s view that Torah is an exposition of an originally wordless or metalinguistic revelation that it would be an act of idolatry to represent or even imagine by visual means,32 is most typical of the view that revelation is mediated through language, not images. Even where revelation is an affective, meta-rational event, it not through the making of art, but through Jewish observance and ethical activism, that knowledge of God and the institution of his will to justice will be achieved.

By the end of the 20th century, Lionel Kochan had similarly refused to assimilate Jewish holiness into a general hierophany. The Torah’s statutes must not be deprived of their force by the aesthetic so that, finally, it “calls for nothing more than admiration and lacks all power to address any capacity for volition.” Like Levinas, Kochan cast the appeal of the aesthetic as passive and disarming: an emasculation of the ethical imperative by feeling alone. For the visual to become pre-eminent is eventually to degrade Torah “to a spectacle and thus mute its summons to action and thought. Whereas the visual is the media of illusion, seduction, and deception (Num. 15:39; TB Sotah 8a) that lends itself to “the aesthetico-idolatrous impulse,” the aural remains the medium of instruction, understanding, and transmissibility.33

To that extent German criticism, voiced by Kant, Hegel, Wagner, and Heidegger (among many others), that Judaism is artistically uncreative and lacks culture and may be anti-Semitic, but is not entirely wide of the mark. Although the charge that Jews, theologically blind and thereby lacking in aesthetic appreciation of natural phenomena, are too preoccupied with the calculation of commercial gain to notice beauty, or lack artistic skill because art is forbidden to them, is patently false, Judaism is indeed a practical religion with little interest in mere spectation. We have seen that non-Orthodox modern Jewish ethico-relational theology situates the encounter of divine and human in language, not the plastic arts, and Orthodox Judaism does not experience nature romantically as an aesthetic experience that is an end in itself, but as an occasion for fulfilling a given commandment. Aesthetic appreciation is inseparable from a sanctification of the world that is achieved not by art, but by the observance of revealed law and ethics.

Key Theorizations of the Role of Visual Art in Recent Jewish Studies

Perhaps the 20th century’s most important scholar of Jewish art, Joseph Gutmann, following David Kaufmann’s late 20th and early 20th-century lead, challenged iconophobic interpretations of the Second Commandment in an essay that first appeared in Hebrew as early as 1961.34 However, it was not until the late 1990s, reflecting a wider surge of scholarly interest in the world’s religious art and aesthetics, that pioneering Jewish cultural studies began to synthesize the visual and the verbal in order to move beyond a narrow 19th-century conception of Jewish culture. Richard Cohen’s insistence that throughout their history Jews have used images, among other means, to emotionally respond to and construe the world and generate its meanings was to inform numerous studies of Jewish visual art.35 Although, in my own view, it is important not to overstate the historical role of visual art, especially in the religious tradition, there is no doubt that the dichotomous opposition between an aural Judaism and a visual Hellenism was breaking down.

At the beginning of the new millennium, the cultural historian Kalman Bland observed that, historically, Jewish tradition has been permeable and adaptable to other traditions; its culture has not, in fact, been uniformly indifferent or hostile to the visual, and Jews have produced an artistic heritage. Scripture, he claimed, “is not an iconoclast’s manifesto.” Biblical and rabbinic sources are more accurately understood to have been spiritual and intellectual frameworks, not absolute proscriptions. The Bible forbids idolatry, but knows full well that not all statues, paintings, and architectural structures are idolatrous. On the basis of his study of the vibrancy of medieval Jewish aesthetics, Bland, like others, concludes that Jewish aniconism is an “unmistakably modern idea.” The Jewish (and Christian) assumption of Jewish aniconism is conditioned by factors such as Protestantism’s own iconophobias, Jews’ rebuttal of antisemitic charges of Jewish materialism, and Jewish apologetics, in which abstraction in art was to be credited to the genius of Jewish aniconism before it was to be credited to the avant garde.36

Recognition of the place of Jewish art within the wider gentile history of art was furthered by Aaron Rosen in his 2009 book, Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj, which (not wholly dissimilarly to David Kaufmann’s late 19th-century insistence on the continuity of Jewish with Christian art) demonstrates that whatever their Jewish contextual particularities, modern artists such as Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, Marc Chagall, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman did not paint outside the general history of western art—including Christian art and iconography—but engaged and utilized it with few genuinely exclusive claims to ethnically or spiritually particular characteristics. Mark Rothko’s paintings are a good example of the open boundaries of the category of Jewish visual art. Rothko’s experiences in Russia and New York inevitably conditioned his post-Holocaust perspective but did not entail the inclusion of explicitly Jewish symbols and references in his work.37 For reasons such as these, Rosen has argued that definitions of Jewish art are doomed to failure or over-qualification, though Jewish art’s Abrahamic context offers it a particular vantage point from which to contribute to inter-religious dialogue.

Rosen is not alone in rejecting any unifying theory of Jewish visual art. Margaret Olin has spoken for many in proposing that there is no intrinsically Jewish style, but that Jewish art can “speak Jewish” in certain contexts and to certain interpreters.38 Few commentators would now give an essentialist or normative account of Jewish visual art as, for example, non-figurative. Notwithstanding the over-representation of Jews as leading exponents of post-war American abstract expressionism (Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, and Barnett Newman were leaders in the movement), recent commentators have rejected the thesis, voguish in 1960s New York, that abstract expressionism is the fulfillment of an aesthetic founded in adherence to the Second Commandment. Harold Rosenberg, in his 1966 lecture at the Jewish Museum in New York, “Is There a Jewish Art?” claimed that, from the first, Judaism has practiced a form of anti-art whose Jewishness consisted in its resistance to existing at all.39 However, some of those who were claimed as quintessentially Jewish artists resisted any such categorization. Mark Rothko disliked being called a Jewish artist, as did Barnett Newman, who strongly objected to his work being marginalized and pigeonholed as Jewish art. (Newman’s dislike of the label “Jewish artist” did not, however, deter Avram Kampf from claiming Newman’s contemplative, aniconic “colour field” paintings not only for the canon of Jewish art, but as its paradigm.40 Others might claim micrographic images, composed of letters and words, to be quintessentially Jewish.

Steven Schwarzschild makes the historical claim, though not one many have considered persuasive, that the Jewish requirement of deliberate mis-drawing—a rejection of the Greek principle of art as mimesis or imitation—is one of the earliest and originary principles of modernist art, so that “in modernism, art is assimilating Judaism.”41 For Schwarzschild, modern distortive art of the kind for which Picasso and Modigliani are most well known, is an assimilation of Judaism; the mark of a “quintessential and aboriginal” Jewish aesthetic.42 In fact, just as little of modern Jewish art is abstract at all, so too one might observe that not all of it is distortive or deliberately mis-drawn. Rather, as Elaine Strosberg argues, modern Jewish art more often comprises a movement of predominantly secular figurative artists (Minkowski, Chagall, Lucien Freud, Philip Pearlstein, and numerous others) many of who came from Jewish backgrounds that, observant or otherwise, inculcated in them humanistic, justice-orientated values that actively countered avant-garde nihilism’s abstraction from life by the compassionate figuration and narration of the stories of ordinary, embodied, people.43

However to deny Jewish visual art a monopoly on any one style or theme is not to deny Jewish art any characteristic preoccupations and avoidances. In his 2000 book, Idolizing Pictures,44 Anthony Julius observed that the Second Commandment does not just prohibit idol making, but it actively encourages figurative art that mobilizes idol breaking. So, for Julius, iconoclastic art—whether that of, say, Jack Levine, Maryan S. Maryan, Vitaly Komar, or Alexander Melamid—is characteristically Jewish by virtue of its fidelity to the Second Commandment. Although not exclusively practiced by Jewish artists, their own iconoclastic art is a legacy of the rabbinic aesthetic of distortion and the rabbinic permission to mock idols, and thereby render the political cults for which they are powerful visual propaganda merely laughable or absurd.

In modernity, it becomes possible for Jewish arts to paint and draw images that are more or less separable from the religious beliefs and observances of Judaism. But while secular culture may operate without conscious reference to theology, most modern theologians have little choice but to consciously and positively engage secular culture in ways that do not cede to its reductionism. By the end of the 20th century and in the early years of the 21st, a number of Jewish commentators sought to apply theology to an image-orientated culture by taking a more visual approach than any ever taken before.

On the grounds that the vocation of Israel is holiness, my 2009 book Judaism and the Visual Image suggests that the politics of a Jewish image drive beyond humanism towards the theologically separative task of bearing witness to the sanctity or integrity of the human. A “maximally” Jewish image is a prophetic image calling for the redemption and resurrection of the human from all that diminishes, exploits, abuses, or erases it. Clearly, not all visual art produced by Jews is intentionally prophetic, and non-Jewish artists are also committed to prophetic art. But a Jewish image is not one that is merely permissible. It should participate in the process of revelation as a raised sign or standard of God’s judgment on history’s violation of the human and made in messianic anticipation of its restoration. Jewish visual art should operate under the aesthetic judgment, repeated six times over in the first chapter of Genesis, that the world is itself a spectacle or created image that is good to look upon. 45

In Judaism and the Visual Image, I argue that art is integral to the transmissibility of the Judaism. Following Rosenzweig, I affirm that Israel instates God’s presence through its own image or spectacle. As a collective image of God, Israel becomes, itself, a redemptive image or work of art. Jewish visual art is therefore more than the sum of its decorative traditions, paintings, and drawings. It is, theologically speaking, the visual configuration of the Jewish people as an object of God’s aesthetic as well as moral judgment and as a figure whose living, “dancing” form is created in the responsive mediation of revelation. It is the revelatory process(ion) of the figure of Israel as a collective body moving through time and space that draws an image of how to live—a visual Torah. Jewish migration is therefore no mere historical contingency but part of the very mode and process of God’s self-revelation to the world. As a different kind of scripture, each Jewish life follows the path or way of the tradition to make a figurative drawing of truth onto and into the material world. The dispersal of tradition through diasporic time and space produces a unitary moving spectacle or image, to its human and divine beholders, that thereby defines Jewish visual art theologically as the figurative image traced by the sanctificatory passage of a messianic dance towards divine presence. The figure of Israel is a causal metonymic representation of God’s presence; not a resemblance to God, but a dynamic representation inscribed upon the whole earth as a visual revelation of the self-revealing will, energy, and pathos of God.46

Idoloclasm and the Jewishness of Jewish Visual Art

The historical facticity of Jewish art and the likelihood that the biblical Second Commandment is only precautionary does not, by itself, establish what is, in a religious sense, Jewish about Jewish art. Various subjects, techniques, and styles have been proposed as being characteristically Jewish. The attempt to elucidate a single “national” Jewish artistic style has proved futile. It seems clear that, even after 1948, Jewish art is not and never has been a national art in the sense of its style or content being rooted in the history of one land. Jewish art might only be termed a national art in so far as it is understood as a collective enterprise of the Jews as a single people.

However, this essay has emphasized that it is not so much a question of how and why Jewish artists have circumvented the Second Commandment, but how they have used it in their art, consciously or otherwise, to express their identity as Jews.47 It is possible to define the Jewishness of Jewish art as its will to make images, not in spite of the Second Commandment’s prohibition of idolatry, but because of it. This observance of a commandment that is practically indistinguishable from Judaism’s first might constitute a common religious denominator uniting Jewish approaches to visual art, even if there is no defining theme or style owned by Jewish art alone.

The criticism of idolatry is widely considered to be Judaism’s defining moment. The rabbinic literature regards the repudiation of idolatry as encapsulating the whole Torah (e.g., BT Kiddushin 40a; Megillah 13a; Sifre Deuteronomy 28), and modern Judaism celebrates the criticism of idolatry as its most important contribution to world culture, liberating consciousness from the tyranny and alienation of oppressive ideologies and their corruption of the collective will and imagination. If a Jew is defined, as in the rabbinic midrash, as one who testifies against idols, and if “the litmus test for being a Jew is seeing things in the created order for what they are: natural objects of finite value and duration,”48 then the Second Commandment must be central to defining what is Jewish about Jewish art. The Second Commandment is a central negative prohibition that founds a prophetic aesthetic, ever more relevant to a contemporary image-saturated culture, which may be invoked to warn the world not to worship the images it makes but rather to make images that are witnesses to both the degradation of the human and the possibility of its mending. The Second Commandment urges us not to make facsimile images that lead us to mistake the idea or ideology for the reality; to be very careful that a created replicant image not be granted the power to substitute its creator with itself.

Jewish art should be a medium of witness and a challenge to dominant ideologies that belongs to Judaism’s greater monotheistic commission. The Jewishness of Jewish art is thereby constituted by the Second Commandment as a prohibition of idolatrous images. Steven Schwarzschild attributed the relative poverty of visual arts in Jewish history to the prohibition of idolatry and, in doing so, developed a distinctively Jewish theological approach to the production of images. Schwartzschild, a German-Jewish thinker of his time and deeply indebted to Hermann Cohen, may have under-estimated the extent of the Jewish visual heritage, but he was no less justified in referring us to Cohen’s Kantian reading of the Second Commandment as “Thou shalt not make an image of the moral subject.” Undistorted, perfect and complete images of ensouled bodies, made in the image of God, are sinful.49 Rabbi Joseph Caro’s ruling, Schwarzschild writes, leaves us “only one legitimate way of depicting the human: to indicate in some physical way that the physis is only an inadequate manifestation of real nature; and since spirit cannot be pictorially added to the body image, something must be taken away from that appearance.” Paradoxically, in doing so, Jewish art effects “not a reduction but an expansion of the human form. The negative commandment prohibiting the depiction of the complete human person is in substance a positive commandment to introduce the human spirit into the human form. In short, the slashed nose is the symbol of the soul.”50 Defaced images of human beings signal their spiritual imperfection and finite power and are therefore in no danger of being worshipped as gods. The only fully permissible image of spirit is the actual presence of a person, not his or her re-presentation in art. Because art cannot represent spirit, the Shulkan Arukh permits only the representation of the absence of spirit when depicting human beings. The aesthetic of distortion knows that the world, as it ought to be, is not yet.51

Many would reject as dogmatic and outmoded any claim that a single art form ranks as more authentically Jewish than any other. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to offer a halakhically restrictive but still inclusive account of Jewish approaches to visual art that encompasses abstraction, trace, distortion, and irony as all being characteristically Jewish ways of making counter-idolatrous images or anti-images that are messianically open to the world’s own transformation; its own futurity.52 In other words, the Second Commandment, as a prohibition of idolatry is the foundational possibility of Jewish art. In honoring the Second Commandment, Jewish art destroys destructive, bad, or false art. The Second Commandment mandates the breaking of idolatrous images—whether by an abstraction of their content or damaging, erasing, subverting, or laughing at them. More constructively, Jewish images are, thereby, also a summons to love, truth, and justice. For God’s arch-commandment is, as it is often expressed, “love me; love one another!,” and images fulfilling that commandment are images that indict history’s violation and erasure of the image of God in the human and that initiate its resurrection as the ontological glory and social dignity of the human that all images must respect. (In Hebrew, glory, honor, dignity, and respect are all indicated by the same word, kavod.)

Such an approach to visual art is exemplified by Aharon Gluska’s resurrective, post-Holocaust series of paintings, Reframing and Reclaiming (1996), which resurrect and restore erased Jewish names and identities by a process that painstakingly removes layers of obliterative dark paint from blown-up “mug-shot” images of Auschwitz inmates.53 Other examples of characteristically Jewish art (whatever other qualities and preoccupations such might share with non-Jewish art), might include the work of Laurie Simmons and Gustav Metzger. Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive, disintegrative art typifies this prophetic aesthetic. In common with other 20th century conceptual artists, he believes that art exists only in the mind. His work, made from valueless materials such as old newspaper or the application of hydrochloric acid on nylon, mounts an attack on capitalist, commercial, and militaristic values that idolize assets, while at the same time they assent to military technologies that would permit their nuclear annihilation. His are paintings that cannot be finished, bought, owned, or even destroyed.54 Just as God, always both with us and going on before, is an unbounded but situated presence, not a finished thing: the One called “I will be as I will be” (Exod. 3:12), so too, counter-idolatrous images like Metzger’s are unfinished and unfinishable images. In an interview in 2009, Metzger said: “It could be that I saw so much power that I needed to get rid of it in myself. That’s one way to understand the origins of auto-destructive art. In Judaism there is a tradition of rejecting power: the Prophets rejected power. That was part of my childhood [in Nazi Germany as the son of Polish-German Jewish parents], giving up rather than acquiring.”55

Observance of the Second Commandment is profoundly gendered (I have previously argued that images of women are doubly restricted under the fear of idolatry).56 Nonetheless, over the last several decades of the 20th century and well into the 21st, Jewish feminist artists have joined a long tradition of Jewish counter-idolatrous visual art by exploring their embodied identities as lovers, daughters, and mothers. Critiquing literally captivating, lifeless ideologies of female beauty that arrest women’s spirit and agency in an amortal youth, Laurie Simmons, for example, in her series The Love Doll 2009–2011, makes and photographs mannequin-like three-dimensional figures that critique the commodification of the female as a male/mail-order servant of masculine desire.57 Simmons breaks the Second Commandment in order to reinforce it. Similarly, Joan Semmel’s feminist paintings draw on a Jewish prophetic, political, interpretation of Judaism that was carried from Eastern Europe to early 20th-century America.58 Her work, as a self-apprehended representation of female sexual subjectivity, refuses its idolization and/or idealization as a mere image of the patriarchal gaze. As did Hannah Wilke, in her long series of photographic self-portraits, Joan Semmel’s nude self-portraits present an unflinching rendition of her own ageing body, often from oblique angles, its nakedness exposed not as its humiliation but its truth.59 In her 2013 show, “The Lucid Eye,” Semmel showed twenty-seven paintings of her own body, now in its eighties, some in visual counter-position to a background of plastic idols of the feminine.

To conclude this article on a theological note, permission to create visual art is cosmologically inscribed in the first chapter of the Hebrew Bible. Even as God begins to create heaven and earth, he creates the possibility of the visual image in the first command of all: “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). The creation of light, and then the lighting of the sun, moon, and stars, to shine as lamps from the “expanse of the sky” upon the earth (Gen. 1:14–17), enables first God, and then all created things, to see the world as a phenomenal entity that is a pleasure to behold: a composition or visual image. God creates not a primeval sound or other impression on the senses, but a world that is, from its first moment, an image or appearance—something for God to see. Revelation is mediated, therefore, not only through words, but also through images, not least the primary image in the world—the image of God in and on the human. Artistic creativity is the first known attribute of God. So too, human creativity, in imitation of God’s, is a primary attribute of the human. A human being is a divinely created entity that itself, an image of its creator, creates images that create its own world.

Links to Online and Digital Materials

Images: A Journal of Jewish Art and Visual Culture. A scholarly journal of Jewish art and visual culture. Edited by Steven Fine, Vivian Mann, Margaret Olin, and Maya Balakirsky Katz

The Israel Museum, and its Information Center for Israeli Art, Jerusalem

Virtual Museum of Artistic Responses to the Holocaust, at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota

Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

Further Reading

  • Baigell, Matthew. Jewish Art in America: An Introduction. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007.
  • Baskind, Samantha, and Larry Silver. Jewish Art: A Modern History. London: Reaktion, 2011.
  • Bland, Kalman. The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  • Bloom, Lisa. Jewish Identities in American Feminist Art: Ghosts of Ethnicity. New York: Routledge, 2006.
  • Bohm-Duchen, Monica, and Vera Grodzinski, eds. Rubies and Rebels: Jewish Identity in Contemporary British Art. London: Lund Humphries, 1996.
  • Braiterman, Zachary. The Shape of Revelation: Aesthetics and Modern Jewish Thought. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007.
  • Cohen, Richard. Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  • Epstein, Marc, ed. Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.
  • Fine, Steven. Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology. 2d ed. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Goodman, Susan Tumarkin, ed. The Emergence of Jewish Artists in Nineteenth-Century Europe. London: Merrell, 2001.
  • Gutmann, Joseph. Sacred Images: Studies in Jewish Art from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Northampton, U.K.: Variorum Reprints, 1989.
  • Julius, Anthony. Idolizing Pictures: Idolatry, Iconoclasm and Jewish Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
  • Kampf, Avram, ed. Jewish Experience in the Art of the Twentieth Century. New York: The Jewish Museum, 1975. Reissued as Chagall to Kitaj: Jewish Experience in the Art of the Twentieth Century. London: Lund Humphries, 1990.
  • Kleeblatt, Norman L., ed. Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel. “Reality and Its Shadow.” In The Levinas Reader, translated and edited by Seàn Hand, 130–143. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.
  • Levine, Lee I. Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity: Historical Contexts of Jewish Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012.
  • Mann, Vivian, ed. Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Olin, Margaret. The Nation without Art: Examining Modern Discourses on Jewish Art. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
  • Raphael, Melissa. Judaism and the Visual Image: A Jewish Theology of Art. London and New York: Continuum, 2009.
  • Rosen, Aaron. Imagining Jewish Art: Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj. London: Legenda, 2009.
  • Schwartzschild, Steven. “The Legal Foundations of Jewish Aesthetics.” In The Pursuit of the Ideal: Jewish Writings of Steven Schwarzschild, edited by Menachem Kellner, 109–116. New York: New York University Press, 1990.
  • Strosberg, Elaine. The Human Figure and Jewish Culture. New York and London: Abeville Press, 2009.
  • Van Voolen, Edward. My Grandparents, My Parents and I: Jewish Art and Culture. Munich and London: Prestel, 2006.


  • 1. The Hebrew terminology includes tselem (image); pesel (generally translated as a graven or sculpted image; and temunah (likeness).

  • 2. See Lee I. Levine, Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity: Historical Contexts of Jewish Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).

  • 3. Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period (New York: Pantheon, 1953).

  • 4. Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margolit, Idolatry, trans. Naomi Goldblum (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), 5.

  • 5. Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah. Code of Jewish Law, Laws of Idolatry, ch. 3, section 6. See also Book I of The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963).

  • 6. Kalman P. Bland, The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

  • 7. Elliot R. Wolfson, Through a Speculum That Shines: Vision and Image in Medieval Jewish Mysticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 4–5, 50.

  • 8. The Birds’ Head Haggadah (c. 1300), where some of the figures are drawn with birds’ heads and beaks, animal ears, and the conical hat that had been compulsory since the Lateran Council in 1215, is the earliest surviving Ashkenazi Haggadah.

  • 9. Richard I. Cohen, Jewish Icons: Art and Society in Modern Europe (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 117–121.

  • 10. See further, Richard I. Cohen, “An Introductory Essay: Viewing the Past,” in Art and Its Uses: The Visual Image in Modern Jewish Society, ed. Ezra Mendelsohn (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 6.

  • 11. Paula E. Hyman, “Acculturation of the Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe,” in The Emergence of Jewish Artists in Nineteenth-Century Europe, ed. Susan Tumarkin Goodman (New York: Merrell, 2001), 31–39 (esp. p. 37).

  • 12. Nicholas Mirzoeff, “Inside/Out: Jewishness Imagines Emancipation,” in The Emergence of Jewish Artists, 42.

  • 13. Dalia Manor, “The Dancing Jew and Other Characters in the Jewish Settlement in Palestine in the 1920s,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 1 (2002): 73–89.

  • 14. Glenn Sujo, Legacies of Silence: The Visual Arts and Holocaust Memory (London: Philip Wilson, 2001), 8.

  • 15. In the Authorized Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, translated and with a commentary by Jonathan Sacks (London: Collins 2006), 279. The modern received view, that Greek revelation is visual and the Hebrew, verbal; that paganism sees its many gods, but Judaism hears only its one God, is still being rehearsed to explain why Jews cover their eyes as they recite the first verse of the Shema, namely to signal that Jewish belief is non-visual.

  • 16. Shefa Art Gallery, paintings by Natan Dov Stein.

  • 17. See, respectively, Joshua Dubrovsky’s “The Chassidic Artist’s Tale,”, and the Zalman Kleinman Art Gallery.

  • 18. Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism, trans. Simon Kaplan (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), 37, 54, 55, 57.

  • 19. See further, Leora Batnitsky, Idolatry and Representation: The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig Reconsidered (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); and Zachary Braiterman, The Shape of Revelation: Aesthetics and Modern Jewish Thought (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), which interprets Buber and Rosenzweig as exemplifying a spiritual relationship between German modernist thought and German expressionist art.

  • 20. Compare David Gillis, Reading Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Oxford: The Littman Library, 2015), which interprets Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah as an aesthetic object of contemplation whose composition aligns its students with the order of the cosmos, and is thereby as much a work of visual art as it is a work of halakhic prescription.

  • 21. Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption, trans. from the second edition of 1930 by William Hallo (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 1985), 423.

  • 22. Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption, 38.

  • 23. Rosenzweig, Star of Redemption, 81, 147, 245.

  • 24. Emmanuel Levinas, “Reality and Its Shadow,” in The Levinas Reader, ed. Seàn Hand (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 141.

  • 25. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 171, 196, 295–297.

  • 26. Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, trans. Seàn Hand (London: Athlone, 1990), 143–145.

  • 27. Aaron Rosen, “Emmanuel Levinas and the Hospitality of Images,” Literature and Theology 25 (2011): 364–378.

  • 28. Totality and Infinity, 140, 174, 297.

  • 29. “Reality and Its Shadow,” 3, 12–13

  • 30. Totality and Infinity, 134, 138, 198.

  • 31. “Reality and Its Shadow,” 137–139.

  • 32. Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (London: John Calder, 1956), 184–187.

  • 33. Lionel Kochan, Beyond the Graven Image: A Jewish View (London: Macmillan, 1997), 110–111, 101, 104–105, 7–8.

  • 34. Joseph Gutmann, “The ‘Second Commandment’ and the Image in Judaism,” Hebrew Union College Annual 32 (1961): 161–174.

  • 35. Cohen, Jewish Icons, 8.

  • 36. Bland, The Artless Jew, 140–141, 143, 152.

  • 37. Aaron Rosen, “Finding Rothkowitz: The Jewish Rothko,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 12 (2013): 479–492.

  • 38. Margaret Olin, “From Bezal’el to Max Liebermann: Jewish Art in Nineteenth-Century Art-Historical Texts,” in Jewish Identity in Modern Art History, ed. Catherine M. Soussloff (London: University of California Press, 1999), 33.

  • 39. Cited in Vivian B. Mann, Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 151. See further, Norman L. Kleeblatt, “Greenberg, Rosenberg, and Postwar Art,” in Kleeblatt, ed. Action/Abstraction: Pollock, De Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

  • 40. Avram Kampf, Jewish Experience in the Art of the Twentieth Century (New York: Jewish Museum, 1975), 160–161.

  • 41. Schwarzschild, “Aesthetics,” in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, ed. Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr (New York: Free Press, 1988), 3 (1–6), 6.

  • 42. Schwarzschild, “Aesthetics,” 3 (1–6).

  • 43. Elaine Strosberg, The Human Figure and Jewish Culture (New York and London: Abeville, 2009).

  • 44. Anthony Julius, Idolizing Pictures: Idolatry, Iconoclasm and Jewish Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000).

  • 45. Melissa Raphael, Judaism and the Visual Image: A Jewish Theology of Art (London and New York: Continuum, 2009), 43–54.

  • 46. Raphael, Judaism and the Visual Image, 150–179.

  • 47. Elisheva Revel-Neher, “‘With Wisdom and Knowledge of Workmanship’: Jewish Art without a Question Mark,” in Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness and Modern Art, ed. Matthew Baigell and Milly Heyd (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 12.

  • 48. Kenneth Seeskin, No Other Gods: The Modern Struggle Against Idolatry (West Orange, NJ: Behrman House, 1995), 20.

  • 49. “Aesthetics,” in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, 3.

  • 50. Steven Schwarzschild, “The Legal Foundations of Jewish Aesthetics,” in The Pursuit of the Ideal: Jewish Writings of Steven Schwarzschild, ed. Menachem Kellner (New York: New York University Press, 1990), 296 (109–116), 114.

  • 51. Schwarzschild, “The Legal Foundations of Jewish Aesthetics”; “Aesthetics,” in Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, 5.

  • 52. Maurice Friedman, ed., Maurice Friedman and Ronald Gregor Smith, trans., The Knowledge of Man: Selected Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 161–162, 164.

  • 53. See Aharon Gluska.

  • 54. See Gustav Metzger: Auto-Destructive Art.

  • 55. Jonathan Jones, “Gustav Metzger: The Liquid Crystal Revolutionary,” The Guardian, September 28, 2009.

  • 56. Traditional ideologies of modesty, for example, apply differently to men and women, effectively suppressing the making or public display of images of Jewish women, while images of observant Jewish men, especially at prayer, or in the case of picturesque Hasidim, dancing, abound, some as veritable figures of the sublime. (See Raphael, Judaism and the Visual Image, 65–96.)

  • 57. Laurie Simmons Photographs, The Love Doll: 2001‐2009.

  • 58. See further, Gail Levin, “Censorship, Politics and Sexual Imagery in the Work of Jewish-American Feminist Artists,” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues 14 (2007): 63–96.

  • 59. Joan Semmel, interview by Lauren O’Neukk-Butler, ArtForum, January 25, 2013.