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The Twelve Tribes Of Israel - Art by Irene Mamiye

A site-specific installation at Congregation Magen David  of Manhattan



REGARDLESS OF DENOMINATION OR AFFILIATION, today it is virtually impossible to find a single Synagogue in the world that is void of visual arts. Synagogue arcs are often embossed with lions and crowns, as are Torah scrolls. Images of Menorahs are ubiquitous in synagogues worldwide, and stained-glass windows that depict scenes of the Torah can be seen today in centuries-old synagogues-turned museums in Europe and America. Most spectacularly, we have the privilege today to see preserved paintings and mosaics from synagogues of the ancient world, in Israel, Syria and Egypt. Many of those were discovered only in recent years, and they bear testimony to Jewish life and worship in those regions 2,000 years ago. If 2000-year-old synagogues have been excavated in northern Israel and Syria with their paintings and mosaics intact, it is appropriate to deduce that such visual art must have been commonplace in synagogues. To that effect, the sages of the Talmud must surely have commented on the phenomenon. Talmud’s commentary, however, in contrast to contemporary practice, is surprising. The Babylonian Talmud says almost nothing. It directs its attention only to specific types of images in synagogues. Namely, Menorahs, images of celestial bodies and images of human beings. In all cases, it inclines to forbid them but ultimately permits them in some forms, or permits them altogether, because in a public place such as a Synagogue, there is no concern for Idolatry. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, tell a different story. It states the following: ביומוי דר‘ יוחנן שרון ציירין על כותלייה ולא מחי בידון; ביומוי דר‘ אבון שרון ציירין על פסיפסס ולא מחי בידון In the days of Rabbi Yohanan, they permitted drawings on [synagogue] walls, and he did not protest the matter. Later, in the days of Rabbi Abun, they permitted drawings on the mosaic floors, and he did not protest the matter. In a comprehensive article on the topic, Joseph M. Baumgarten attests to archeological evidence of vandalism in many of the excavated synagogue murals, indicating that even when these were created and displayed, there were religious zealots, who disputed their legitimate place in the synagogue. Together with the above statement in Jerusalem Talmud, it has been argued that it took some time for Rabbinic Judaism to warm up to the idea of placing visual art forms in the Synagogue. Probably, the concern was that it too closely resembled pagan practices. Alternatively, Jewish Hellenists, whose places of worship were also excavated throughout Israel in the 20th century, incorporated images of Roman and Greek mythological figures on their walls and floors. The rabbis may have feared that mainstream synagogues would too closely resemble their Hellenistic counterparts if they were to embrace visual arts. And finally, the Rabbis were likely concerned with the several verses in the Torah stating: You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when the LORD your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire—not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman, the form of any beast on earth, the form of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the form of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the waters below the earth. And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. Most likely, the Rabbis were concerned that images on synagogue walls or floors would too closely resemble that which was prohibited in the above verses. However, what the above statement in Jerusalem Talmud teaches us is that with time, the images started to speak for themselves. With time, the Rabbinic leaders of the generation of Rabbi Yohanan came to accept these additions as complementary, and not contrary, to the synagogue. Finally, Babylonian Talmud, in Rosh Hashana 24B asserts that the great rabbis, Levi, Rav and Shemuel, prayed in the Synagogue of Nehardea, which contained paintings of human figures, and there was no concern about the matter, because such a public place as a Synagogue, would surely not have any idolatrous intentions with its art. From that point on, it would seem, any objection to Synagogue art among mainstream rabbinic opinion ceased. The practice would soon gain much traction and leave behind an inspiring archeological history of Jewish art, that is well preserved to this day. 

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