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The Artless Jew

The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual

Kalman P. Bland
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Artless Jew
    Book Description:

    Conventional wisdom holds that Judaism is indifferent or even suspiciously hostile to the visual arts due to the Second Commandment's prohibition on creating "graven images," the dictates of monotheism, and historical happenstance. This intellectual history of medieval and modern Jewish attitudes toward art and representation overturns the modern assumption of Jewish iconophobia that denies to Jewish culture a visual dimension.

    Kalman Bland synthesizes evidence from medieval Jewish philosophy, mysticism, poetry, biblical commentaries, travelogues, and law, concluding that premodern Jewish intellectuals held a positive, liberal understanding of the Second Commandment and did, in fact, articulate a certain Jewish aesthetic. He draws on this insight to consider modern ideas of Jewish art, revealing how they are inextricably linked to diverse notions about modern Jewish identity that are themselves entwined with arguments over Zionism, integration, and anti-Semitism.

    Through its use of the past to illuminate the present and its analysis of how the present informs our readings of the past, this book establishes a new assessment of Jewish aesthetic theory rooted in historical analysis. Authoritative and original in its identification of authentic Jewish traditions of painting, sculpture, and architecture, this volume will ripple the waters of several disciplines, including Jewish studies, art history, medieval and modern history, and philosophy.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2357-4
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
    Kalman P. Bland
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-12)

    The Artless Jewstudies an idea. It investigates the social origins, intellectual moorings, and cultural implications of Jewish aniconism. Aniconism refers to the ambiguous “historiographic myth that certain cultures, usually monotheistic or primitively pure cultures, have no images at all, or no figurative imagery, or no images of the deity.”¹ Jewish aniconism implies that Jews are a People of the Book rather than a People of the Image. Proponents of Jewish aniconism deny the existence of authentic Jewish traditions in painting, sculpture, and architecture. They concede that Jews imitate, in production and reception, the foreign art of their host or...

  5. One Modern Denials and Affirmations of Jewish Art: Germanophone Origins and Themes
    (pp. 13-36)

    In 1922, Marc Chagall was in Moscow and Erwin R. Goodenough was at Oxford University. Chagall, the famous Jewish artist, was preparing to leave for the West; Goodenough, the aspiring scholar, was contemplating the Greco-Roman provenance of Jewish artifacts and symbols. Chagall was musing in Yiddish. Goodenough was conversing with his mentors in English. Chagall remarked that “were I not a Jew (with the content that I put in the word), I would not be an artist at all, or I would be someone else altogether. . . . I know quite well what this small people can accomplish. ....

  6. Two Anglo-American Variations
    (pp. 37-58)

    In 1897, the London-basedJewish Quarterly Reviewpublished an art historical study of the paintings and sculpture that adorned early modern Italian synagogues. The study was written by David Kaufmann (1852–1899), a professor at the rabbinical seminary in Budapest, a specialist in medieval Jewish philosophy, and a pioneer in the scientific study of Jewish ceremonial art.¹ Kaufmann’s opening lines pulsed with revisionist optimism: “The fable of the hatred entertained by the Synagogue against all manner of art and the new time should at last succumb to the evidence of facts, and literary documents.” Fable or not, the ideologically overdetermined...

  7. Three The Premodern Consensus
    (pp. 59-70)

    Moshe Barasch, interpreting the controversy between Byzantine iconoclasts and iconophiles, observed that “in the Middle Ages or during the Reformation . . . whoever dealt with images had to come to terms with the Second Commandment, to interpret it, and to assess its place in a comprehensive system of beliefs.” Barasch astutely distinguished two interpretations of the biblical law: “comprehensive” and “restrictive.” The comprehensive interpretation “rejects every mimetic image, whatever the figure or object it represents.” The restrictive interpretation “prohibits the depiction of only one subject—the representation of God.” Although Barasch remarked that the “historical impact” of the comprehensive...

  8. Four The Well-Tempered Medieval Sensorium
    (pp. 71-91)

    Reconnaissance of sixteenth-century French literature convinced Lucien Febvre that “like their acute hearing and sharp sense of smell, the men of that time doubtless had keen sight. But that was just it. They had not yet set it apart from the other senses.” He wittily concluded that “there was no Hotel Fairview in the sixteenth century, nor any Prospect Hotel. . . . The Renaissance continued to put up [à descendre] at the Rose, the Wild Man, or the Golden Lion, refugees from heraldry that had stumbled into the hotel business.” Taking a cue from Febvre’s search for the “sensory...

  9. Five Medieval Beauty and Cultural Relativism
    (pp. 92-108)

    Medieval Jews were familiar with all sorts of beauty. For earthy types, consider this poetic testimonial: “Encircle the breasts of a beautiful woman at night, kiss the lips of a good looking woman by day . . . there is no life except in the company of beauty’s offspring. . . . Plunge your heart into pleasures, be merry, drink out of wine-skins by the riverside to the sound of lyres, doves, and swifts; dance and rejoice; clap your hands; get drunk; and knock on the door of a fair maiden.”¹ So wrote Moses ibn Ezra, the tenth- and eleventh-century...

  10. Six Twelfth-Century Pilgrims, Golden Calves, and Religious Polemics
    (pp. 109-140)

    Medieval Jewish philosophers and mystics had good reason to ponder visual images and imagery. Engaged in the systematic analysis of physical sensation and eager to understand human attraction to beauty of all sorts, they necessarily touched upon the psychology, aesthetic properties, and metaphysical implications of visual experience. Reading and writing books, they reflexively cherished sight. Practitioners of scholarship, they embodied the “implications of literacy.”¹ Not all medieval Jews, however, were sophisticated philosophers or virtuoso mystics. Not all medieval Jews authored books. Medieval Jews were nevertheless spectators, keenly observing the world. They were not immune to the power of visual and...

  11. Seven The Power and Regulation of Images in Late Medieval Jewish Society
    (pp. 141-154)

    Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, traditional Jewish regard for visual experience remained constant. It also became more elaborate. Twelfth-century authorities became late medieval classics. Arguments developed by Maimonides, Rashi, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor, Judah Halevi, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Rabbi Jacob ben Reuben were combined, challenged, and augmented by a host of scholars. Polemicists sustained the attack against Christian images. Biblical commentators continued to interpret golden calves, ritual objects, secular images, and sacred architecture. Kabbalists enriched the discussions by elaborating the iconographic complexities of theosophic symbolism. Talmudic scholars remained vigilant in guarding the border between...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 155-200)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 201-228)
  14. Index
    (pp. 229-233)