'A Post-Holocaust Theology of Jewish Art'

Melissa Raphael-Levine, Professor of Jewish Theology, University of Gloucestershire

Sun 6 - Thurs 10 April 2008, 5.15pm daily

Venue: Leamington Theatre (LG12) of the Samuel Alexander Building, University of Manchester (Building 67 on Campus Map)


Community Lecture: Sunday 6th April 2008'Jewish Life as a Work of Jewish Art'
After considering some of the recent attempts to define Jewish art, this lecture proposes that Jewish art be defined theologically as a revelatory process carried within the patterning of Jewish diasporic movement across time and space. Informed by the diasporic aesthetics of Nicholas Mirzoeff and R. B. Kitaj and by Michael Wyschogrod’s account of Israel as a body in which God resides in the world, I will propose that this movement produces both a spectacle and a way of seeing that defines Jewish art not as the production of ceremonial or cultural artefacts, nor as anti-images of absence and deliberate distortion, but as the dance or figure traced by the sanctificatory passage of divine presence in the movement of the people Israel. The truly Jewish work of art, then, is that which is Israel itself: a religious assembly not so much displaced as processive.

By construing the migrations of the diaspora as a mimetic representation of God’s exile and return; a dance or series of rhythmic movements through space by whose progression Israel makes straight the path of the Lord (Is. 35:4-10; 40: 3-5), this lecture develops Halevi, Rosenzweig and others’ notion that Jewish diasporic movement is purposive or necessary agent of sanctification and redemption. This, in conjunction with a biblical theology of dance and contemporary Jewish diasporic studies, suggests a more celebratory historiography than that more popular ‘lachrymose account’ of Jewish history to which Jews and others are accustomed. This lecture’s representation of Israel as a dancing figure offers a theologico-aesthetic challenge to recent declarations of the end of Jewish exile or diaspora and to postmodernist denials that that the Jewish people and its destiny can be referred to in the singular as a historical and spiritual unity.


1. Monday 7th April 2008: 'Construals of Idolatry in Recent Jewish Thought'
There is a widespread assumption that traditional Judaism is highly logocentric: that it has a marked preference for the auditory over the visual and that its primary focus is on the textual word. Noting that the Second Commandment’s prohibition of graven images has been differently interpreted in differing historical periods and geographical locations, this first lecture will examine how idolatry has been construed in recent Jewish thought.

In particular, the lecture will explore some of the means traditionally deployed to prevent the production of idolatrous images, including that of the rabbinic aesthetic of distortion (Rabbi Joseph Karo) in which a permissible image is one that has been mutilated or distorted. A discussion of the aesthetic of distortion in modern Jewish thought, as well as an examination of Levinas’s diatribe against art in general and the image in particular, will set the scene for the three subsequent lectures’ aesthetic-theological challenge to Jewish logocentrism.


2. Tuesday 8th April 2008: 'Judaism and the Celebration of Visual Beauty'
Lecture 2 will use the more permissive interpretations of the Second Commandment to demonstrate that the justifiable precautions taken to prevent idolatry and the depiction of God by no means preclude a Jewish aesthetic theology grounded in visual experience and a cautious affirmation of the sanctity of certain images.

Positive biblical and rabbinic attitudes to visual beauty and the association of beauty and beautification with service to God’s glory and majesty will be discussed, but with the understanding that these do not, in themselves, constitute an aesthetic theology.

Rather, an aesthetic theology can be developed from a number of other sources, including an aesthetic interpretation of the creation narrative in Genesis 1 where God looks at the world after the creation of light and sees that it is beautiful (tov). This, coupled with prophetic and rabbinic notions of redemption (tikkun olam) in which God’s work of creation is, like a work of art, completed or restored, resolving the pain of absence, brokenness, and forgetting, suggest a more celebratory, messianic aesthetic than that of distortion. It will be argued that God’s witness and judgement is not only a quasi-cognitive divine process of weighing the evidence of human choice, but also an aesthetic judgment derived from seeing or watching the spectacle of history.

A post-Holocaust theology of image – for the divine image in the human is the central means by which God can see, judge and rejoice in humanity - will be developed against Levinas’ striking condemnation of artistic representation and Rosenzweig’s emphasis on the liturgical word as the primary locus of Jewish aesthetic experience. This theology of image will, more positively, draw upon Buber’s later acknowledgement of the role of art in the perfection of relationship, as well as Hermann Cohen’s messianic view of art as properly depicting the world as God wills it to be. It may be that the phenomenon of visuality – and the composition of the visual into images - is a function of divine being and creativity that is necessary to the mediation of revelation and redemption, especially in a the post-Holocaust era that is still coming to terms with the erasure or disappearance of European Jewry and its material culture.

Images of human beauty become idolatrous when they render beauty as an object of desire rather than a sign or agent of transformation. In this sense, the rabbinic aesthetic of distortion, the Suffering Servant narrative of Isaiah 53.2 who is without form or beauty (as distinct from the anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew as ugly or malformed) is a proper corrective to the hubris of the beautiful. Jewish commentators have been right to be wary of how, and what, images represent the human. The beautiful form cannot be permitted to arrogate power to itself; it is theonomous as a reminder of the first beauty of creation and an anticipation of its eschatological restoration.


3. Wednesday 9th April 2008: 'Looking Jewish: Gender and Appearance in Judaism'
Against a background of feminist aesthetic criticism, and illustrated by examples drawn from the work of male Jewish artists in the first half of the 20th century, this third lecture will ask how the image of Jewish women is mediated and regulated by Jewish tradition.

Jewish iconophobia has served women well in so far as their bodies have not been rendered the nude, passive objects of the male Jewish artist’s gaze. Nonetheless, it will be argued that gender distorts the symmetry of Jewish looking. When, in cultic terms, men look at women, the interpretative range of their seeing is different to that of the Jewish women looking back at them. When Jewish men see a woman they see, through the lens of biblical polemic, a figure whose appearance or phenomenality shares in some important respects the distractingly erotic attributes of an idol and it is therefore better not to look at her or represent her at all. Yet when Jewish women look at a Jewish man they see a representative Jew. In other words, the question of the visual in Judaism; the question of what is, in the widest sense, a public Jewish appearance is gendered. And to that extent, negotiation with the Second Commandment – with the nature and permissibility of images - is also gendered, with the making of images of women effectively doubly prohibited.

Referring to the parallel drawn by David Freedberg between the dangerously corrupting effects ascribed both to female bodies and material idols, this lecture will argue that there is a social and theological connection between Jewish iconophobia and gynophobia that suppresses women’s phenomenality or appearance as a Jew. While the display of the female image to public view is problematic, images of pious Jewish men are, despite the Second Commandment, widely reproduced in Jewish culture and identity, even that of ultra-Orthodox Jewry. In modern Jewish art the religious Jew is almost invariably represented as male. The male Jew at prayer and the dancing male Hasidic Jew are repeatedly painted by Jewish artists, even to the point of cliché. Or again, paintings such as Lazar Krestin’s The Transmission of Jewish Tradition (1904) visualise the transmissibility of Judaism as a tender relationship between grandfathers and grandsons and elderly rabbis and young boys. A fascination with the numinous appearance of the religious Jew has made the male Jewish face and the male Jewish body in the costume and posture of worship, both loosely and precisely speaking, iconic. Especially in picturesque Hasidic dress or wrapped in a prayer shawl, images of male Jewish bodies that are visibly devoted to God have become legitimate representations of the Jewish sublime (David Bomberg’s Hear, O Israel, 1955, is an almost theophanic case in point).

Towards the end of the twentieth century, when Jewish feminist artists began to explore their own embodiment and that of their mothers (whose bodies were often those of Holocaust survivors), the lack of a visual language for female sacral agency had still not been corrected, and perhaps could not be. (Abigail Cohen’s Psalm 1, 1995, is a rare exception, but even here the female body is figured logocentrically in the form of the letter shin.) Much feminist study of religion has attended to the role of female silence in religious ideologies of gender, but less to the visual dimension of female presence as a body or image in religious space. This lecture enquires whether there is a place in Judaism’s scopic economy for women if Orthodox women are rendered partially sighted by virtue of seeing Judaism through the figurative and actual aperture of the mehitzah and, as a consequence of tznius (modesty), they are only partially visible to men.

By way of a conclusion, the lecture questions what, in all senses, it means for a woman to look Jewish. How, under religious patriarchy, can the image of a Jewish woman’s face disclose its neshamah (soul)? If hers is an essentially secular and sexualised beauty, how might it reflect that elusive kabod – the dignity or glory of the divine trace that makes a Jewish face Jewish? What would it look like for a Jewish woman’s face to bear the melancholy trace of Jewish history, the passing shadow of God’s face?


4. Thursday 10th April 2008: 'The Holocaust as a Visual Revelation'
This fourth lecture suggests that the Holocaust has produced a theology of absence continuous with the traditional Jewish aesthetic of God’s unrepresentability. In the post-Holocaust era, Jewish theologies have commonly defended God’s apparent non-intervention in the Holocaust through the metaphor of self-hiding or turning away (hester panim) in order to safeguard the operation of free will as the defining attribute and possibility of the human. The trope of God’s averted face can be interpreted in a number of ways but broadly suggests that God absented himself from Auschwitz and, not seeing Israel’s suffering, did not or could not intervene.

It is now a commonplace of Holocaust Studies that the mediation of the Holocaust has become increasingly Americanized or mediated though American cultural values and socio-political projects. This lecture will suggest something rather different, arguing that far from domesticating the Holocaust, the aestheticization of the Holocaust has been a means of its accommodation in Jewish consciousness. The Holocaust now constitutes a numinous anti-revelation, where the blinding, absence or voiding of God and the sheer scale of human affliction and disappearance is in the process of becoming an aesthetic experience of the sublime for many contemporary Jews. For the non- or less observant Jew especially, the visual image-ination of the Holocaust can become a religious experience in itself.

Holocaust Studies, however, is almost unanimous in its criticism of the post-Holocaust transformation of the Holocaust into a quasi-sublime object of aesthetic experience on the grounds of its being a betrayal of the particular historical experience of the victims (Langer and others) and an emotional indulgence of the Holocaust ‘consumer’ or Holocaust ‘tourist’ in central and eastern Europe. There is little doubt that as Weisberg, Lanzmann and many others have insisted, the agonies of the Holocaust exceed the bounds of visual representation and signal a historical - even cosmic - rupture that cannot be mended by art.

While it is undeniable that art, which rarely consoled the victims, should not be used to relieve the burden of witness, from a theological perspective, the aestheticization of the Holocaust as a visual spectacle repeatedly re-enacted in art, cinema, photography, installations and so forth can quite properly turn the Holocaust into an object of what Christians sometimes call ‘devout beholding’. Even where the photographic record of the Holocaust is ‘tainted’ by its having been made by the perpetrators, images can be looked at in ways that move the beholder to compassion: a form of vicarious participation that seeks to distribute or carry the burden of the suffering other through an exercise of the imagination that is akin to the religious obligation of a distinctively Jewish remembering: zakhor. That Jews meditating on the Holocaust have already done so through a form of devout beholding might explain the use of the Christian crucifixion motif to represent the Holocaust during and in the first decade or so after the war. Through the lens of recent Jewish theologies that regard compassion as an ethical imperative and that predicate suffering to God, ‘watching’ the Holocaust as art can become a religious act of substitution: a quasi-divine act of disinterested and concentrated attention to the suffering other which is born of the will to justice, truth and, above all, love.

Revelation is an inherently aesthetic category and moment. The imaginative contemplation of the Holocaust that produces art (and theology might be classed as a form of religious art) takes the degrading spectacle of the Holocaust up into a transcendental narrative or cosmic patterning whose beauty is not the monstrous, terrifying, unthinkable beauty of the sublime, but that of the completion of foreshortened, broken, unresolved stories into the single unified story of the Jewish people. The re-presentation of the human(e) in and after Auschwitz is a way of countering post-Holocaust theologies of absence where Auschwitz comes to be represented only by the pit: the swallowing of light.


Melissa Raphael-Levine is Professor of Jewish Theology at the University of Gloucestershire. She has published widely in the area of religion, theology and gender and is the academic representative for the British government on the International Taskforce for Holocaust Remembrance and Research. Her books include Rudolf Otto and the Concept of Holiness (Oxford University Press, 1997 and 2004); Thealogy(sic) and Embodiment (Continuum, 1996); Introducing Thealogy (Continuum, 1999) and The Female Face of God in Auschwitz (Routledge, 2003). She is currently working on a study of Jewish theological aesthetics that will be published in 2008.