Melissa Raphael



Melissa Rafael

Melissa Raphael

The Creation of Beauty by its Destruction: Idoloclasm in Modern and Contemporary Jewish Art

The Jewish tradition is not an aniconic one. Far from hindered by the Second Commandment, Jewish figurative art is produced by it, especially when it uses permitted idoloclastic techniques to produce images that at once cancel and restore the beauty or glory (kavod) of the human. This lecture suggests that Jewish art’s observance of the Second Commandment, which is practically indistinguishable from the First, is ever more relevant to a contemporary image-saturated culture that induces both hubris and shame.

The lecture will revisit Steven Schwarzschild’s interpretation of the halakhic requirement that artists should deliberately mis-draw or distort the human form and Anthony Julius’s account of Jewish art as one that that mobilizes idol-breaking. As an aesthetic consequence of the rabbinic permission to mock idols – and thereby render the ideological cults for which they are visual propaganda merely laughable or absurd – distortive, auto-destructive and other related forms of Jewish art are not intended to alienate the sanctity of the human. On the contrary, by honouring the transcendence of the human, especially the face, idoloclastic art knows the human figure as sublime, always exceeding any representation of its form. Idoloclastic anti-images thereby belong to a messianic aesthetic of incompletion that knows that the world as it ought to be, but is not yet; that remains open to its own futurity: the restoration of dignity, in love.

The lecture will be illustrated by slides of the work of twentieth-century Jewish artists including Sasha Sosno, Laurie Simmons, Joan Semmel and Gustav Metzger.

Melissa Raphael is Professor of Jewish Theology at the University of Gloucestershire. As well as holding several visiting professorships, and teaching Modern Jewish Thought on the Masters in Applied Rabbinic Theology at Leo Baeck College, London, she has been the Sherman Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester; the Hussey Lecturer in the Church and the Arts at the University of Oxford, and the British Government’s Foreign Office delegate to the International Taskforce on Holocaust Remembrance and Research. She is the author of numerous articles and books. Her books include Thealogy and Embodiment: The Post-Patriarchal Reconstruction of Female Sacrality (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996); Rudolf Otto and the Concept of Holiness (Oxford University Press, 1997); The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust (Routledge, 2003), and Judaism and the Visual Image: A Jewish Theology of Art (Continuum, 2009). She is currently working on a new book on gender, idol-breaking and liberation.