I asked a Rabbi about Judaism and art. Art is very important to me. If I wasn’t a scientist I would have very likely become an artist. As you may know, I like playing guitar, sing and draw. But Judaism doesn’t seem to embrace or cultivate art. In the houses of Chassidic Jews you will only see a picture of their Rebbe. The only songs that are being sang are Hassidic “Nigunim”. Also most of Western art that I have been taught to admire is Christian art. Even when it depicts scenes from the Old Testament (=Torah), it is usually produced by artists who were Christian. Here is an example:
Rembrandt: Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, 1656 (public domain)
Here is what the Rabbi answered me.
Last couple of thousand years were hard for Jews and they left behind many things that were not necessary for survival. Art was one of those things.
The extent to which this has happened depends on the Jewish community. Sephardic Jews and Italian Jews have more art going on.
Jews value modesty very high which may in some cases contradict overly expressive art-forms. Pursuing beauty may look like, God forbid, idolatry.
Art is deep. It comes from the depth of the soul of the artist and it touches the depth of the soul of the viewer. With depth comes danger. We have to be very careful when exposing sensitive parts of our soul (psyche) to deep expressions by people who might not have shared our beliefs and our values. Hassidim believe that music touches human soul on a very deep level. This is why they have their own songs (“Nigunim”) which mostly praise God. But listening to classical music which was composed by Christian, or worse – Nazi – composers? Sounds as a dangerous thing to expose your soul to. It is by no means forbidden to enjoy art. But as a matter of fact many people would abide by these considerations.
It doesn’t mean that all Western art is dismissed. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is known to have enjoyed going to a museum and one Rabbi here in yeshiva (another one than the one I talked to about art) praised Monet’s paintings. And it doesn’t mean that classical music or Renaissance art would be rejected.
I was curious, so I pushed further: What about churches? Churches are some of the most beautiful buildings in the Western World. My favourite? Stephan’s Dom in Vienna. Also – Vatican! Rabbi’s answer:
Nothing wrong with enjoying looking at a church. From outside.
As a Jew he would never enter a church and discourages every Jew from entering one.
We can enter a mosque (!), but not a church. Islam is a religion of one God, but Christianity’s concept of trinity is considered idolatry by Jews; even though it wouldn’t be considered so by Christians themselves. There even are mosques which religious Jews regularly enter, because they contain graves of some prophets.
My takeaway: Having these considerations reveals a deep understanding of human psychology, the psychology of artistic expression as well as impression. It is true that every genuine artwork that we look at or listen to will influence us deeply. Will I personally protect myself and my family to the extent described above? Most certainly not. Will I stop entering churches? Probably not. But every time I will enter one, I will remember this conversation.
P.S. The Rabbi said he would hang my painting on his wall.