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A Jewish perspective on Art and Creativity

Debbie Young-Somers's picture

One of the 10 Commandments instructs (Exodus 20:4): ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ For some Jewish authorities this meant discouraging visual arts that might be understood as graven images. However, medieval manuscripts clearly show that artistic representations (and very beautiful ones at that) of people, animals, trees, etc. were not uncommon.

In the eighteenth century, when Jews were able to become much more part of mainstream society with the emancipation, Jewish art really flourished, and today works by artists such as Marc Chagall are well-known, and incorporate Jewish themes.

Jews have always used artistic expression to beautify their Judaism and particularly ritual items. Synagogues from 2000 years ago have the remains of beautiful mosaics, decorations for Torah scrolls in cloth and silver work, ark curtains and other beautiful ritual items can be seen in Jewish museums around the world as well as in working synagogues. These items even fulfil a religious obligation – hiddur mitzvah: the beautifying of a commandment – if we are commanded in a ritual, then we should endeavour to make it as beautiful as we are able to.

Bringing the community together
I grew up embedded in the idea that not only could we enjoy our ritual items and the rituals themselves more if they were made beautiful, but learning that projects that worked to decorate synagogues and communal ritual items could really bring people together. My mum is a textile artist who designs and makes Jewish ritual items, but who has also helped synagogue groups design and make their own projects. For several years there was a regular group of women meeting in our lounge to make tapestry chair covers for our synagogue, and I remember joining the women as a teenager and enjoying listening to them catch up on each other’s lives as they invested their time and learnt new skills to contribute to something the whole community would appreciate for years to come.

Appreciating the rhythm of life
As I look around my lounge where I sit writing this as a married woman, I can see so much Jewish art: a beautifully painted charity box, candlesticks, a calligraphic representation of the Tree of Life, kabbalistic (mystical) art, a yad (pointer used for reading the Torah) made out of Italian Murano glass, special cups with engravings and decorations for blessing wine on the Shabbat, and Jewish new year’s cards with paintings on. So even though some Jews have worried about creating art, the reality has always been very different. Jewish ritual items have long been an important artistic expression, with other artistic works also becoming popular in the last few hundred years. Jews don’t see this as breaking the commandment, but as appreciating the beauty of creation, and gaining enjoyment from life and rituals which form an important part of the rhythm of life.