Jewish Art and the Fear of the Image:
The Escape from an Age-Old Inhibition
When interpreted by Gentiles, the commandment “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image. . . .” is usually attributed to the Israelites’ hatred of the idolatry of neighboring nations, and is construed as “make unto thee no graven image for purposes of worship.” But it has been understood by the Jewish people themselves as a prohibition against representation irrespective of its purpose—a kind of general exclusion of delight in art. As a result, in the field of the visual arts Jewish genius suffered a thwarting that was self-imposed, and hence all the more damaging.
In Judaism, no less than in Islam, which imposes a corresponding veto on the image, the strictness of its imposition has varied in various ages. It has depended, to quote Sir Thomas Arnold, “on the influence of the theologians upon the habits and tastes of society at any one particular time.” It has equally depended on the surge and ebb of conservative and liberal opinion among theologians. Thus, for example, Rostovtzeff, describing the trend that eventually led to the murals in the synagogues at Dura-Europos in the third century CE, notes: “Some time in the course of the first century AD a group of rabbis tried to substitute a more liberal interpretation of the passage [in the Decalogue], which would permit the adorning of synagogues with pictures illustrating the sacred books of Judaism.”
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