Commentary Magazine

Jewish Ceremonial Art, edited by Stephen S. Kayser and Guido Schoenberger

Art for the Synagogue
Jewish Ceremonial Art.
by Stephen S. Kayser and Guido Schoenberger.
Jewish Publication Society of America. 189 pp. $3.00.


Among Jewish historians and theologians nowadays one often encounters the notion that the plastic arts were never a particular concern of the Jewish people, and that Judaism traditionally has been opposed to “sensate culture.” Art did flourish among the Israelites in antiquity, and the dearth of medieval Jewish art should be ascribed (as Dr. Kayser, the curator of the Jewish Museum, writes in the introduction to this book) to persecutions and wanderings. Nevertheless, uneasiness about the arts can be felt even in the foreword by Louis Finkelstein, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, which administers the Jewish Museum. (The book is a guide to the Museum’s collections.) Dr. Finkelstein observes that “the effort to express love for God through creating beautiful ceremonial objects for His worship and His commandments is as ancient as Judaism itself”; yet he later declares that “the heritage of Jewish art consists mainly of intangibles”—that is to say, literature, music, rituals, and the harmonious life demanded by the Law. He does note that there are “some tangible witnesses to the love for God and His Torah,” but this modest statement seems strange in a book which lists, describes, and illustrates more than two hundred ritual objects in the Jewish Museum—several of which, in quality, can bear comparison with the treasures of Church art to be found in the nearby Cloisters.

These strong puritanic, iconoclastic trends in modern Jewry—relics of ghetto prejudices against images and luxury—may have blocked a serious effort toward an aesthetic appreciation of Jewish religious art, and a proper comparison with the pagan, Christian, and Mohammedan religious art produced by the kehillah’s contemporaries. Dr. Kayser’s introduction, informative and lucidly written, is too short to permit any comparative study. Nor do the notes introducing each chapter (e.g., “Torah Scroll and Ark,” “Sabbath,” “Passover”) or the brief paragraphs describing each item contain much more than historical and iconographic material.

Most of the items in the book come from the baroque era and its rococo successor; if they are more recent, the baroque spirit (with modifications) was retained even after Europe had entered a new period. Ideologically, the Jews were incapable of liking the heaven-directed Gothic style or its metaphysical basis (only in some of the spice-boxes is the favorite turret form a faint reminder of the Middle Ages). They did, however, develop a great affinity for the baroque, which brought “the heavens down into the terrestrial orbit in manifestations of glory and splendor.” The baroque, which was both expressionist and naturalistic, exuberant and sometimes flamboyant, was in essence more appealing to the Jews; and it was also during the baroque period that anti-Jewish discrimination began to abate. In fact, baroque implements (generally in horrid, mechanically contrived imitations) continued to be used in the shul until quite recently.



Not all of the two-hundred-odd items in this book are aesthetically unchallengeable, even by 18th-century standards. Among the silver pieces, in particular, some are frightfully over-decorated. For the most part, however, we find pleasure again at the sight of these silver pieces with their carefully wrought repoussée work, these elaborately brocaded textiles, these glass cups with minutely drawn illustrations. We enjoy them even though the photographs are very poorly reproduced (halftones printed in offset on uncoated paper). The puritanical spirit at work again; indeed, most Jewish publications seem barely to tolerate pictures.

The same spirit was at work when noses were chipped off the little figures that adorn many of the Chanukah menorahs. By this mutilation, the pious Jew made these three-dimensional figures, all taken from Biblical lore, sufficiently incomplete to render them acceptable to religious demands. But one cannot blame puritanism for the fact that the majority of the pieces here are the work of Gentiles. Jews did a lot of embroidering, and were capable of adorning Torah wrappers or marriage contracts, but for many centuries they were excluded from the goldsmith’s guilds. If a Jew needed objects of precious metal for synagogue or home, he had to commission a Christian craftsman. Even so, Dr. Kayser insists, the resulting work should be regarded as a sample of Jewish art—for the Gentile worker was instructed in minute detail.

However, the instructions in many cases dealt with religious demands (e.g., the workman must not work on the Sabbath or High Holidays) rather than aesthetic problems: too often, pieces made for the synagogue greatly resemble items produced for the church, or even for the secular pleasures of Gentile burghers and noblemen. In any event, the pieces reveal that the pre-Emancipation Jew had eyes for beauty and hands to caress objects with an understanding touch. His aesthetic delight was confined to ritual art, but if he did not look at Rubens or Claude Lorrain, he found pleasure in the gold and silver appliqué on a silken Torah curtain. If the sculpture of Bernini or Goujon was unknown to him, he looked, at least, with satisfaction on the silver in his shul: the elaborately decorated Torah breastplate, often studded with semiprecious stones (for the tribes of Israel); the Torah pointer, sometimes shaped like a fish out of which stretches a hand holding another hand (as the Torah is likened to the water, the element of the fish); the spice container, with turrets and pennants; the wine cup, decorated with every kind of image; and, of course, the lamps for different festive occasions. A special volume alone might, indeed, be devoted to the countless variations of Chanukah lamps; here twenty-five are listed, and most of them are illustrated as well.

This book must be considered a promising start, rather than a final work on its subject. It is not complete: prayer shawls, Mizrach tablets, alms boxes, Simchas Torah flags, Omer calendars, and many other items used in connection with services in synagogue or home are not included. It is to be hoped that a larger, more adequately illustrated edition will be forthcoming, which should also include the little we know about ritual art in the Middle Ages. The absence of 19th-century pieces should be explained to the reader (they are not worth showing, we surmise), and something might be said about the—entirely different—Jewish ceremonial art of our time. The editors of the present volume are well equipped to prepare such an expanded treatment.



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