Bible says what? We can’t make images of living things

Bible says what? We can’t make images of living things

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild takes a topic from the Torah and puts a progressive spin on it

While there are many Jewish writers and scientists, religious Jewish artists are thin on the ground. It is generally understood that Judaism has a taboo against creating images of living things.

This stems from biblical texts, most notably in the Ten Commandments: “Do not make yourself a carved-image or any figure that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth…”

The context is that such images are connected to worship leading away from the invisible and incorporeal God of Israel.

Unlike the pagan traditions surrounding them, the Israelite God was never seen; at most God was shrouded in cloud or fire.

It is likely then, that this law was to prevent the Israelites from assimilating with the different peoples they met in the wilderness.

One of my favourite psalms (115) describes these idols as having mouths that cannot speak and eyes that cannot see; everyone who makes them or trusts them will become like them, worthless and impotent.

But the prohibition against such images is honoured rather less than one might think. There were cherubim in the desert tent and in Solomon’s Temple as well as early synagogues, and we routinely have lions or flowers decorating Sifrei Torah.

Was the ban to prevent other beliefs polluting the Israelite God or was it to prevent assimilation? Was it to demonstrate the beauty of holiness rather than the Hellenic holiness of beauty? Or was it to prevent people gaining power over God by knowing God’s image?

Torah permits representations of humans as long as they are not used for idolatry and we no longer fear alternate ‘gods’.

Possibly the most powerful challenge is that we are made b’tzelem Elohim – in God’s image. So maybe more Jewish artists should emerge in the tradition of Betzalel, the artistic director of the desert tabernacle, and decorate our world fearlessly. 

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years


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