By the closing decades of the twentieth century, Jewish cultural historians had shown that the Second Commandment is not a blanket ban on visual art but rather proscribes the making and worshipping of images of the divine. The Bible forbids idolatry, but concedes that not all images are idolatrous. Although religious Jews have often been visually reluctant, the notion of Judaism as an aniconic tradition is, it seems, a modern one that owes more to Emmanuel Kant than the rabbis. Given that Jews have, in fact, been making, selling and buying art since the nineteenth century, Jewish commentators have instead turned their attention to what might be Jewish about Jewish art. These days, most deny that it has any definitive, ‘national’ characteristics. This talk, illustrated by slides, will invite debate by suggesting that, on the contrary, a Jewish image is one that exists because of the Second Commandment, not in spite of it. A Jewish image is an idoloclastic one that stabilizes power by both revealing and concealing, restoring and cancelling, the glory of its object.
Melissa Raphael is Professor of Jewish Theology at the University of Gloucestershire, UK and teaches modern Jewish thought at Leo Baeck College, London. Her books include Rudolf Otto and the Idea of the Holy (1997), The Female Face of God in Auschwitz (2003), Judaism and the Visual Image (2009) and Religion, Feminism and Idoloclasm: Being and Becoming in the Women’s Liberation Movement (2019).