ABSTRACT

The first sentence of the first systematic English language book on Jewish art begins with the author stating “The conception of Jewish Art may appear to some a contradiction in terms” (Roth 1961: 11). Indeed, Jewish art has caused controversy and confusion in the mere handful of decades the field has been actively researched. In this essay, we will first examine why Jewish art is still in its infancy, which includes a discussion of the Second Commandment and Jewish art’s place in art history in general. Then we will describe different ways that some contemporary scholars flesh out the meanings and argue over definitions of Jewish art. One of the reasons that Jewish art does not have a long scholarly history is that from the

nineteenth century onwards, students of Jewish culture have always accepted uncritically that Jews simply did not make art. Indeed, they assumed that obedience to the biblical proscription against “graven images” in the Ten Commandments perennially denied Jews the opportunity to make conventional religious representations. Interpreted stringently, the Second Commandment has been understood as prohibiting the creation of any art: “Thou shalt not make any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex. 20: 4). Deuteronomy repeats and broadens this ban:

lest ye deal corruptly, and make you a graven image, even the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any fowl that flieth in the heaven, the likeness of any beast that is on the face of the earth, the likeness of anything that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth.