In 2022, the subject I found myself wanting to write about was an idea I encountered in parsha study (a discussion of the parsha, or the section of the Torah that is read in synagogues on a given week according to a universal schedule). Congregants at my synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim, occasionally give sermons (also called drashes or divrei Torah), and so with the support of the clergy, I wrote and delivered this. It was my big writing effort of 2022.
You can watch it in the YouTube video below (starting at about the 31-minute mark) or read it here. Thanks for taking the time!
August 12, 2022, Congregation Beth Elohim, Park Slope (Brooklyn, NY)
Shabbat Shalom. On this August evening, I want to bring us back to the evening of January 19. It wasn't hot! It was winter. We were shaken because the previous Shabbat, a man with a gun had taken a Reform congregation hostage in Colleyville, Texas. In the Torah, the Israelites were at Sinai receiving the 10 commandments. And in Rabbi Timoner's Wednesday night parsha study class, on Zoom, a group of us were studying said commandments and trying to figure out how many there were, really. Also, citrus fruit was in season.
I had taken to buying oranges by the bag. All five pounds or whatever just about fit in the fruit bowl I had on the table. I'd bought them to eat, of course, yet they were beautiful piled in that bowl: uniform, balanced, and abundant. It was almost as if the bowl of oranges were a sculpture, or a still life.
But my oranges were not works of art. They were decidedly real. Within a week or so, I ate them or they began to mold. Unlike oranges in a painting by Matisse, say, who painted many a fruit bowl, real fruit doesn't stay ripe forever.
There's another distinction between my bowl of oranges
and some still life painting, a distinction that, in a general sense, came up in parsha study: While oranges are God's creation, likenesses thereof are prohibited in the 10 commandments.
“You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth,” Moses says to the people assembled at Sinai in Exodus chapter 20 verse four, transmitting the commandments from God to the people. God-via-Moses later tells us not to worship idols. But God initially says not to make idols, or likenesses, at all. Moses reiterates this commandment in this week's parsha, Vaetchanan.
The commandment against likenesses was news to me that January evening. Bad news. I'm a writer, and my love for art in its various forms is essential to who I am. Here God seemed to be saying that art was immoral. So I asked Rabbi Timoner about it, and she said that, indeed, though abstract art might be okay, likenesses are prohibited in the Torah. These stained glass windows in our sanctuary? Technically against the rules.
Torah commentators have disagreed about just how sweeping the prohibition is. Ramban, a medieval Spanish commentator, says that even images reflected in water are verboten. Italian commentator Sforno, who lived after Ramban, says that making a likeness is prohibited, quote, "even if you do not mean to use it as an object of worship."
But others say that likenesses are only a problem if you worship them. In the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 24b, verse six, the rabbis are discussing a previous teaching, called a baraita, against making likenesses of celestial bodies. "When that baraita is taught,” the rabbis write, “it is in reference to the prohibition against worshiping them. However, there is no prohibition against forming an image in their likeness."
While I'm personally glad to hear that, it's the strict rule against likenesses that grabs my interest. Why would likenesses–art–be a moral issue? Rabbi Timoner told our parsha study class that the supposed wrongdoing, in making a likeness, was breaking off part of the universal oneness. Art certainly does that. It sets things apart, outside of time. I think there's something instructive in using the phrase "still life" to describe a painting of oranges. While actual oranges live and die and decay, the painted oranges are stuck in one moment. Art can preserve oranges at their peak, but at what cost? You can't eat a painting.
Now let's substitute "people" for oranges in this analogy. Say I took a selfie right now. What would be the difference between me and my portrait? At first, there would be no difference. But this is also a photo of me (and my dad). It's the 80s, and I'm a toddler. And there will be a time when these photos may remain but we will no longer be alive. That, I think, is the crux of the difference between the real world and likenesses of it. The world changes with time, and living things move through life cycles. Likenesses don't. Photos seem to preserve life because a figure in a photo can't die. But a figure in a photograph doesn't live, either. It's we, with our graying hair and our fleeting smiles, who are alive. The way to preserve life is not to capture or still it but to sustain its forward motion. Maybe God banned images because God doesn't want us to still life. Maybe God wants us instead to engage with it.
I say this as a person who looks at my family photo albums every time I go home.
In addition to oranges my apartment has among its decorations framed photos, and prints, of women I find attractive. I like staring at them. But I think the God I'm envisioning here would rather I go out and meet real people. If I stared too long, unlike with a beautiful person in a painting, I'd have to make a move or turn away. And in real life, the other person could stare back at me, which is another way of saying that I'd be part of the scene. Maybe I do sometimes treat life as a potential work of art, with me, the observer, standing outside it. A more participatory approach might not be such a bad thing. Could it be a mitzvah, even?
Before concluding anything, I have to admit my bias: I couldn’t bear to say that making art is wrong because I love art. If the commandment prohibited all art, I would break the commandment. I’m not sure Judaism could withstand the prohibition either. From the Torah itself to divrei Torah like this one, narrative is central to our religion, and turning life into stories to examine and reexamine is one way of creating likenesses.
I don’t think that a God who gave us the Torah would want us to take the negative commandment literally. That’s not to say that there aren’t times when what’s right is absolutely to engage with reality and that when art prevents that, it is a problem.
Let me give you an example from my own life. The day of the 2016 presidential election, I dressed up, voted, watched some election returns in a bookstore. And then I went home and watched a chic flick. As history turned a corner, I was in a fantasy world in which movie stars live happily ever after. I don’t think my watching a movie influenced the election. It was just disrespectful. An occasion deserved my attention, and I chose instead to escape.
Or take me, writing this very drash, which I started thinking about that January night in parsha study class. In the wake of the Colleyville hostage crisis, I chose to write not "What can the 10 Commandments teach us about how to stop gun violence and anti-Semitism?" but "Is art immoral?" I chose this question not because I thought it held the potential to solve the world's problems but because it interested me personally. I wanted this to be a contribution to the community, yes. But I also did it for myself. Working on it has, on several occasions, lifted me out of a bad mood. I guess I escaped into my own art. Is that wrong?
I don't think it is. I think taking refuge in art would only be wrong–an abdication of responsibility and spurning of opportunity–if we left the real world behind altogether. Lucky for us, that's impossible. There is no art-only option. We cannot stand outside our lives and just watch. Nor is there a life-only option. Commandment or no commandment, art is not just going to disappear. Fundamentally, art is here to stay because one concept of art is that it's simply the world viewed through a particular lens, one drawn to beauty and prone to contemplation. That way of seeing things is ingrained in us.
The bowl of oranges is and will always be beautiful. They’re also delicious. Let us thank God for all of it. Shabbat Shalom.