Page 187 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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The Problem of the Second Commandment
T he second major problem derives from the so-called Second
Commandment. Most of the writers to be discussed intimate
that the Jewish attitude towards art can best be explained by the
two opposing forces of “revulsion” and “attraction״—stringency
versus leniency. According to these interpreters, at various peri-
ods of Jewish history, the “Second Commandment” was either
enforced, interpreted liberally, or blatantly ignored. Such a view
overlooks the fact that the problem of the “Second Command-
ment” is not un ique to Judaism. The daughter religions—Chris-
tianity and Islam—which had taken over Jewish Sacred Writ, also
had to cope with it; they interpreted it in each age according to the
needs of the various social structures w ithin their particular
societies. Thus, the attitudes of Jews toward the “Second Com-
mandment” throughout their history reflect, not inherent Jewish
forces of revulsion and attraction, but rather varying Jewish
needs dictated by the specific social structure of which the Jews
were a part.
The artistic needs of a tribal chieftain like Abraham in a
semi-nomadic society differed entirely from those of a monarch
like Solomon living in a settled agricultural society. Hence their
attitudes towards art as reflected in the B ible underscore this
vital difference. Similarly, the artistic productions of the Jews
and their attitudes towards art in an Islamic society differ radical-
ly from those of Jews liv ing in a Christiain environment, not
because of inherent Jewish strictures, but because they reflect
the needs dictated by the dominant culture in which Jews lived.
Any future study of this complex problem must show how the
Jewish attitude towards art is itself conditioned by the specific
society in which Jews reside, and must take into account that
in every age and religion differences may exist between the dog-
matic verbalizations of individuals and the actual practices ad-
hered to. For such an approach to the Biblical and Hellenistic
period, see my article “The ‘Second Commandment’ and the Image
in Judaism”
(.H eb rew Un ion C o lleg e A n n u a l ,
XXX II [1961]).
A sound overall study o f Jewish art has yet to be written, and
such a study must be expected to show that the art of the Jews
is a manifestation of the historical processes they have undergone.
Since Jewish art developed w ithin multiple societies, cultures
and civilizations, it cannot but bear the imprimatur of this long
and diverse experience. For instance, when a scholar treats the
development o f the early synagogue, he must trace its growth
out of Greco-Roman institutions and art; when a scholar studies
the art and subject matter in illustrated Hebrew manuscripts,
he must reveal how they are inseparably linked to Christian
thought and art of the Middle Ages. Further, such an undertaking