Ki Tisa: Idolatry and Artistry

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03 Mar 2010

In our parsha, we first encounter the inspired artisan, Bezalel ben Uri, who was specially called by HaShem to carry out the fine craftsmanship of the Mikdash (31:2). This includes representative art, including the Keruvim of the roof of the Mishkan, which were woven pictures of lions and birds (Rashi Shemot 26:1), as well as the Keruvim on the Ark which were statues of child-like figures (Rashi Shemot 25:18).

Yet in other places we find what seems to be grave reservations about representative art: “Make no statue or representation of anything in the skies above and the earth below, or in the water below the earth” (Shemot 20:3). How can we reconcile the strict prohibition of this verse with the presence of such representations in the Mikdash itself, as well as with the many leniencies our Sages discerned in this mitzva? In fact, the Shulchan Arukh permits making statues of any kind of animal, and the Rema rules that even a statue of man is permitted as long as it is not complete (Yoreh Deah 141:6-7).

Rav Kook related to this question in a famous letter to the Bezalel School of Art. Rav Kook writes that artistic beauty is basically a positive human endeavor. However, at the time of the giving of the Torah, aesthetics had been almost completely subordinated to the service of idolatry. “Idolatry, with all its abominations, rested its filthy and blood-stained hands on this lovely flower – beauty and art – and almost completely stilled it from its purity”. Against this background, the war against pagan worship expressed itself as a broad, nearly total, rejection of representative art.

Over the course of the generations, Jewish culture made tremendous inroads against idolatry: “Judaism almost completely defeated paganism from the world of high culture”. Then such a sweeping prohibition was unnecessary, and would have stifled positive artistic expression.

Of course, the basic mandate of the Torah, that forbidden areas of representation must serve as a demarcation between permitted art and idolatry, can never be erased. However, it is the nature of a partition that no matter how narrow it is, it is still successful in distinguishing the areas it separates. “Such a line, even if its length is reduced by the gates of insight which adapt judgment to the needs of life… even a single eternal point can encompass all the great and mighty spirit which expresses the force of its past victory, and its mighty hope for the future.” As long as any area of artistic expression is forbidden – for example, three-dimensional representations of the entire human face – then we are reminded that aesthetics must not be allowed to sink into idolatry.

We can summarize and generalize Rav Kook’s insight by saying that some Torah prohibitions are meant to prohibit evil, while others are primarily meant to demarcate evil – to prohibit activities which are in themselves harmless in order to create a fence against wickedness, just as building a wall around a dangerous region requires taking some area from harmless ones. When we find that our Sages extended and broadened the original Torah prohibition by the addition of numerous strictures, we can see that the prohibition is of the first type; the Torah warned us of a particular danger, and so we take it upon ourselves to distance it from.

When we find that our Sages took what seems to be a broad, sweeping prohibition and then discerned numerous exceptions and leniencies, we may conjecture that they considered it to be a prohibition of the second type. The Sages concluded that the irrevocable Torah commandment to create a “fence” could in certain instances be fulfilled even by a very narrow fence, which yet still completely distinguishes the good on one side from the evil on the other.

(Based on Igrot Rayan 158)

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.