In this weeks portion Moses father in law teaches Moses delegation, then the people get prepared for the big event: the revelation at Sinai, starting with the Ten Commandments. One of the ten, mentioned in many more places afterwards is this:
4. You shall not make for you any engraved image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;[Genesis 20]
This has brought up a question that has bothered people for generations afterwards. Is what an artist does a transgression?
As an artist, this is not a trivial question for me. As I usually paint figures of women, is this some form of idolatry I’m involved in? Figurative work adds a bit more weight to the problem, since Genesis states
27. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female He created them.[Genesis 1]
If God made man in the image of God, so any figurative work, any portrait is the image of God. This issue creates a ban concerning portraits found in the Talmud.
Why then has it been taught: All portraits are allowed, save the portrait of man? — R. Huna the son of R. Idi replied: From a discourse of Abaye I learnt: ‘Ye shall not make with me’ [implies], ye shall not make Me.6[RH 24b]
Key in this is another passage about making idols found immediately after the ten commandments, and also part of this week’s portion:
20. You shall not make with me gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold[Exodus 20]
The rabbis, noted an exception :
A man may not make a house in the form of the Temple, or an exedra in the form of the Temple hall, or a court corresponding to the Temple court, or a table corresponding to the [sacred] table or a candlestick corresponding to the [sacred] candlestick, but he may make one with five or six or eight lamps, but with seven he should not make, even of other metals.[RH 24a-b]
Therefore if something was not a direct replica, it may not be considered an idol. Possibly if there is some level of abstraction, then it is not a prohibited image. Pure geometry, as in Islamic design, would be permissible. Archaeological evidence might seem to contradict this. Abstraction seemed to be common in the Biblical Levant. Yet, by rabbinic times abstraction was not the only game in town. The Greco-roman aesthetic was less abstract and far more realistic.
The commandment seems to make an assumption, that all art is religious art. Yet the rabbis living in that Roman world saw things differently. All trees were not Ashera, and all figures were not idols. The most notable of these statement we have the following story from the Mishna:
Proclos, son of a philosopher, put a question to R. Gamaliel in Acco when the latter was bathing in the bath of Aphrodite. He said to him, it is written in your Torah, and there shall cleave nought of the devoted thing to thine hand; [Deut. XIII, 18] why are you bathing in the bath of Aphrodite?’ He replied to him, we may not answer [questions relating to Torah] in a bath.When he came out, he said to him, ‘I did not come into her domain, she has come into mine. Nobody says, the bath was made as an adornment for Aphrodite; but he says, Aphrodite was made as an adornment for the bath. Another reason is, if you were given a large sum of money, you would not enter the presence of a statue reverenced by you while you were nude or had experienced seminal emission, nor would you urinate before it. But this [statue of Aphrodite] stands by a sewer and all people urinate before it. [in the Torah] it is only stated, their gods — i. e., what is treated as a deity is prohibited, what is not treated as a deity is permitted.[Avodah Zarah 44b]
R. Gamaliel believes there is different intents for making a statue of even a goddess like Aphrodite. The primary purpose of the place was to bathe, not to worship. The Aphrodite images were in the margin as decoration. So much in the margin that the toilets were under the statue, hardly a sign of respect one would make of a goddess. As such disrespect is a constant, this could not be considered an idol.
In my modern mind, to connect art and idolatry one must first decide what is art, and that alone is difficult. But the verse above makes an assumption for the most part. Making something into an idol means you intend it to be an idol or a representation of an object. If an piece of art loses all symbolic value in its abstraction, say a Jackson Pollack painting for example, can it be an idol? Can a detailed piece with lots of symbol, like the ceiling in the Sistine chapel be an idol then?
When I paint, I get around the idolatry problem with a twist on the symbolic approach. I’ve yet to come up with a general solution, since anything might be turned into an idol. When I paint I am abstract enough that I cannot be considered real, yet even then it is not what I am painting that is important to me, but that I am painting and how I am painting. The process of art is far more important than the final product. In that time of close focus and deep attention, I am in a state akin to meditation, but not in worship of the object in front of me. Instead I am witnessing a creation of the Creator. When I look at a female model I do not see a goddess, but some great creation of God. One of the most poignant passages in Talmud say it best
For if a man Strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the supreme King of kings, The Holy One Blessed be He, Fashioned every man in the stamp of the first Man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. [Sanh 37b]
Since each man in therefore the image of God, I am looking in each model at a glimpse of part of God, and of God’s greatness that every model I use is different, even though we are all the same. I am not making an idol, I am recording a miracle. To note the difference in a nose, and eyebrow or lips, shoulders chest and arms all says the same thing: while the original mold is the same, everything that comes out of it is so very different. Oscar Wilde once quipped “if you want to lose a friend, paint their portrait.” Painting people means the artist will see everything, and record everything. Sometimes they might edit as they go along, sometimes not. Often such a process might show someone different than the model or subject expected, and may not even like. But an artist looks at people differently than a mere object. But each woman I paint, either from life or from photo reference is more than a mere picture, I see more of her than most who ever look at her will. Witnessing that and recording that is a testimony to God and what wonders there are in creation.
Such an answer may not be acceptable to everyone, but it works for me. Now if you excuse me, I’d like to paint.