The challenge of depicting God in art
We do ourselves, and God, a disservice if we only portray God one way, yet without a mental picture, we could lose touch with a far-away and ethereal cosmic deity
I am just coming back from a week of study in Israel at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Once again, I am renewed by learning with rabbinic colleagues of all different denominations. Like our dialogue, it helps me appreciate both the unity and the diversity of our Jewish world.
I am also constantly impressed by the creativity of Israeli society. We went to a new exhibit at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, featuring Jewish and Israeli depictions of Jesus. It was a stunning collection, and I was struck by the freedom with which these artists approached – and sometimes appropriated – Christian imagery.
I was especially moved by Chagall’s Yellow Crucifixion, showing Jesus with a Torah scroll against the backdrop of a pogrom. The use of a Christian image of suffering to depict a Jewish experience was striking, moving and challenging. Most of all, the museum reminded me how art can transcend taboos and make us think in new ways.
Your experience reminds me of Chaim Potok’s classic novel My Name is Asher Lev, about a young chassidic artist who paints a portrait of his mother being crucified. In the story, Asher Lev cannot find the appropriate Jewish symbol of martyrdom, so he chooses the Christian one instead.
The truth, however, is that suffering as a form of purgation is based in the Jewish Bible. Isaiah 53’s “suffering servant” graphically lays the foundational doctrine – for both Judaism and Christianity – that one finds redemption through suffering. Which leads back to your question about art. The Tanach is filled with art, because prophecy, the running narrative of all holy scripture, is essentially pictures. The Torah describes prophecy as a vision of an illustration or scene. Sometimes the vision is accompanied by words. Sometimes it isn’t. The idea of a “picture being worth a thousand words” finds its
origin in the prophetic experience, because images convey more profound ideas than words alone.
The only kind of art that Judaism does not allow is graphically depicting God Himself. Judaism is thus situated theologically in between Christianity and Islam. Christian art is drenched with illustrations of God and biblical stories, while Islam decries illustrating even its prophet. But it is unquestionable that the artistic beauty contained in a painting can inspire and awe.
Indeed. I would argue that the Jewish prohibition against visual representations of God has profound theological importance.
When we draw God, we limit God. From this perspective, even language is limiting. I think that’s why our tradition has so many different metaphors for the divine. Just within the Bible, God is depicted as both a man of war (in the Song of the Sea) and a woman in labour (in Isaiah). God is a father and a judge, a fountain and a rock. And when we go beyond the biblical tradition, we find tremendous – and sometimes shocking – creativity in the language of Jewish mysticism.
The lesson that I draw from this is that we do ourselves – and God – a disservice when we only describe God in one way (usually, as a male figure of authority). Our tradition offers us a theological toolbox in which we find many images and understandings, or perhaps a better metaphor would be a very wideranging and colourful palette.
I agree. And yet, if we don’t allow ourselves any mental vision of God, we run the opposite risk of losing touch with a too far-away and ethereal cosmic deity.
Theologians have thus expressed the tension that exists between transcendence and immanence – that is, blocking out any simplistic, anthropomorphized concept of God on the one hand, while at the same time imagining our personal God’s gentle embrace enveloping us when we stand in prayer, experience a beautiful sunset, or during any other inspirational experience. Balance, as it is in so many other areas in life, is the best ingredient in developing a relationship with God.