What Makes Jewish Art Jewish?

The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of L...

The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance with Old Customs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The short answer is that there is no real answer-or perhaps, many answers. The problem begins with the definition of "Jewish"-which is both a historical and a conceptual problem. Abraham was called a Hebrew and Moses and David were Israelites-the words "Jew" and "Jewish" didn't exist yet. When exactly does Judaism begin? What is Judaism: a religion? An ethnicity? A nation? A culture? A body of customs and traditions? A civilization? If we apply the adjective "Jewish" to the noun "art" the problem expands. Are we referring to symbols, subject, content, style, intent, purpose as these elements are part of the work of art? Are we talking about the artist's identity? What of a convert into or out of Judaism: does his/her art suddenly become or cease to be Jewish?

What of an 18th-century Eastern European spice box for Havdalah, almost certainly made by a Christian artisan (due to guild restrictions and inhibitions), contrived in the late Baroque style known as rococo and offering a strong visual relationship to Catholic monstrances?  Our criterion in this case must be its purpose. Moritz Oppenheim's ca 1850 painting, "Sabbath Afternoon," will be labeled Jewish art due to the identity of the artist and his subject, but an Impressionist landscape by Pissarro a generation later will be defined as Jewish strictly in terms of the artist-secular but known by everyone as a Jew.

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (...

No. 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953, 115 cm × 92 cm (45 in × 36 in). Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What of Mark Rothko's canonical works of a century later? His chromatic Abstract Expressionism would at first glance offer nothing particularly Jewish about it-until one realizes that Rothko is trying to put the world back together again (tikkun olam) after Auschwitz and Hiroshima on his large, frameless paintings that glow from within with light (that ultimate ordering element, in Genesis I) and which push the viewer's eye toward a unifying center.

The criteria are likely change, depending on the time and place. When we recognize that the First Temple was built for an Israelite king (Solomon) by Tyrians (Phoenicians) and that the second Temple was built by Judaeans, we might well shy away from referring to them as examples of "Jewish" architecture. But we still need to ask what the basis is for defining, say, the mosaics on the Bet Alpha synagogue floor (ca 525 CE) as Jewish. They served a Jewish community; part of their subject and symbols are distinctly Jewish-the image of the akeda and that of the Holy of Holies flanked by two Temple menorot-but the central area offers a zodiac with Helios, God of the sun, riding his chariot. So are the mosaics part Jewish and part not-or are they all Jewish in being part of a synagogue?

Many are the contemporary Jewish artists who wrestle with this question: depending upon the particulars of a work of art and its maker, the criteria cannot be boxed into a simple frame. But then asking questions without easy answers is the consummate Jewish art-ask the rabbis who made the Talmud!

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