This post is part of the series “Scientific Naturalism and Rationality Meets Judaism“.

Art and Judaism

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.

3 replies
  1. 0tt0
    0tt0 says:

    “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”

    Hmm… I would concede that we christians have a bit of a logical conundrum with trinity and monotheism. But I don’t think trinitarianism is a prerequisite of being a true christian. Not all forms of christianity subscribe to the trinity so is it ok to go to their churches? Also, the trinity idea really took logical form only in the fourth century…so is it maybe ok to go inside a church that is older than that?

    Nor is it clear why subscribing to it would be implicitly assumed when you enter a church. Let me explain: The Trinity is, I think, indeed part of the evangelical-lutherian creed (this is the form of christiandom most church buildings in Finland belong to). But in lutherianism you can even go so far as to partake in communion, even if you have not had confirmation (a sort of second baptism). This is accepted according to “the rules”, if the person is in despair and appreciates the meaning of communion. (Which of course for a reformist church is not transsubstantiation, another metaphysical doctrine you do not need to subscribe to…but let’s not go there). So you are welcome to enter even if you don’t “belong”.

    I understand this is a very different mode of thought from the highly tradition-bound, communal, way of thinking you are studying… If it has power, its source is likely different. I think the basic underlying attitude is different – with different basis of psychologial appeal. “You have chosen” vs. “you will be saved”, “you have been created (by God)” vs. “you will be re-created (in Christ)” maybe?

    But I dunno, even if this is on the right track maybe this is indeed less important than being able to tell between one and three “persons” or “substances” – whatever they are, sounds Greek to me! – or adhering to the presumed self-evident transitivity of the relation expressed by “is”…? Maybe that’s what’s really important.

  2. Anssi
    Anssi says:

    “Sounds as a dangerous thing to expose your soul to”…
    Love the world and everything in it. There is no part of it that is unholy. By protecting, by building walls, you shrink; by allowing, by opening, you expand. You see an “enemy”?…embrace it and offer your very soul to it if it seems to ask for it. So…no exclusing by fear, okay :)?

  3. Veronika
    Veronika says:

    I might now ask a stupid question…But since I have a chance, why not to. I really, really do not want to harm anyone or be unpolite or something. Honestly. But.
    Last weekend Gay Pride took place in Helsinki and it was the first time, when Finnish Lutheran church took part in it, confirming that they have nothing against homosexuals.
    I assume that orthodox Jews don’t support homosexuals. But are there any conversations going on this issue? Or is it an absolute tabu and such a sin that you can’t even say it out loud?


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