The Torah’s prohibition of creating artistic images, promulgated in last week’s parsha, was taken most seriously by Jews throughout our history. “You shall not make for yourself an image…” was considered by prominent rabbinic figures in different eras and lands a literal ban on all art. Some authorities forbade only 3-dimensional sculptures, while others inveighed against images of the full human figure. Others were particular that faces not be painted or sculpted.
And yet, despite these reservations, visual art has always been a part of Jewish culture. In a few weeks, we will begin reading in the Torah about the construction of the Tabernacle, the movable sanctuary that accompanied the Israelites in their desert journey. The Tabernacle was an artistic masterpiece of colorful embroidery, meticulous metalwork, and architectural design. Its chief craftsman was Betzalel, who is considered to be the father of Jewish art. Jews, then, have been artists for over 3,000 years.
Throughout antiquity and in the middle ages—at the same time as our Sages were debating the meaning and scope of the second commandment—Jews were adorning synagogues with paintings and mosaics, manufacturing jewelry and ceramics, and illuminating manuscripts. By the 20th century, even the most observant Jews had fully embraced the visual arts. In 1906, when the National Institute of Art was established in Israel, it was named the Betzalel Academy.
Why did the artistic instinct flourish in spite of the scriptural challenge? It is as if the human creative spirit fought to be free, and our holy tradition acknowledged its critical importance. Today, art is an essential part of Jewish expression, from Marc Chagall to Maurycy Gottlieb and Art Spiegelman.
At Akiva, visual art is a vibrant force that animates every corner of our school. The centrality of human creativity espoused by our founder, Rabbi Hartman z’’l, finds expression in the murals and projects that adorn our hallways. The remarkable art that our students produce is a result of the energy, imagination, and endless work of Isabelle Silva, our exceptional art teacher. We are so blessed to benefit from Isabelle’s talents.
Last Wednesday, our Art Speaks morning featured both the poetic arts, about which I wrote last week, and painting. Our 6th grade students had their pictures on display in a beautiful gallery, showing off their technique and talent. This week, Akiva students and parents were given the opportunity to create art together in our annual Art Fair. This Wednesday night our school was filled with artists of all ages decorating cakes, painting board-games, stringing lanterns and more. We thank all of the Art Fair volunteers, and a special thank you to co-chairs Joyce Levy and Myrla Azuelos for helping us carry on the Jewish artistic tradition.