The prohibition against idolatry is certainly one of the main precepts of Judaism. However, while everyone in the Jewish tradition would agree on condemning idol worship, an agreement on what idolatry specifically is and why exactly it is deplorable is far from being reached.
The question of idolatry can be broken down into two sub-questions, broadly corresponding to the first two commandments. The First Commandment condemns devotion to “other gods”, thus laying stress on what is worshipped, i.e. the object of worship. On the other hand, the Second Commandment is concerned with the activity of image making, presenting it as a decisive factor for idolatry. What the biblical text seems to suggest is a shift in the focus from marking the difference between the one true God and other false gods, to asserting a deep connection between idol worship and visual representation. The nature of that connection, though, is left unspecified and therefore open to interpretation.
A literal reading of the Second Commandment can lead – and has actually led – to fully identifying idolatry with production and reception of images. But from another point of view worship can be seen also as an attitude, a state of mind, which can be induced by visual representations, but does not necessarily result from them. Images are not essentially idolatrous; rather, they may, or may not, be regarded as idols, depending on the mindset they evoke in those who observe them.
Now, the legitimacy of visual art in the Jewish culture is based precisely on the assumption that not all images are necessarily idols. That means, in other words, that a Jewish visual art – i.e. an art form that is in compliance with the Old Testament law – can only develop by emphasizing the conceptual gap between the notions of ‘idol’ and ‘image’, keeping that gap unbridged, and creating images that are distinctively counter-idolatrous. To this end, a variety of artistic styles and techniques have been adopted to prevent images from being viewed as idols. And such aesthetic concepts as ‘sublime’, ‘obliteration’, or ‘distortion’, to name but a few, represent different strategies for making non-idolatrous images or for bringing discredit on idols.
Considering how theological foundations affect modern aesthetic conceptions, this lecture explores some of the most relevant paths in Jewish visual art.
Beniamino Fortis has a PhD in Philosophy. He studied at the ‘Ca’Foscari’ University of Venice and the University of Florence. He carried out research at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, the Freie Universität Berlin, and the Dartmouth College.
His research interests are in theoretical philosophy, aesthetics, and modern Jewish thought. He is currently working as a postdoctoral fellow at the ‘Selma Stern’ Zentrum für Jüdische Studien Berlin-Brandenburg and the Freie Universität Berlin, where he is leading a research group on the topic ‘Bilderverbot und Theorie der Kunst’.