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


Rabbi Grushcow:

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.

Rabbi Korobkin:

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.

Rabbi Grushcow:

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.

Rabbi Korobkin:

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.

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