Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 20 January 2018 / 4 Shevat 5778

Maneuvering the Louvre

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Becky

Dear Rabbi,

I will be visiting a European city soon, and I was encouraged to visit the National Art Museum there. I’m wondering if there’s any problem with that, or if it’s OK. Thanks for your guidance.

Dear Becky,

Travel is always exciting, and of course there’s a natural inclination to want to see and experience the special and unique sites and activities which are characteristic of any given place. This might include sites of natural wonder or beauty, or cultural events and venues. This inclination to explore and experience is particularly strong when one is out of one’s regular routine and its restrictions – schedules, family, friends and society.

However, it’s obvious that one would not sample local, indigenous cuisine which is not kosher, or partake in pastimes which involve prohibitions, just in order to experience a different country’s culinary delights or cultural sites and rites. Similarly, one must ascertain and judge whether any of the other things tourists do may involve anything forbidden, even in the venue of what most might consider “high culture”.

And as innocuous as art museums may seem, there are definitely problems which have to be considered.

First of all, art from the Classical and Renaissance periods is replete with themes and stories from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. However meaningful the message, and however aesthetically beautifully it is conveyed, the bottom line is that this is paganism and it depicts gods and beings that are foreign to Judaism and Jewish beliefs. And while these artistic renditions are not idolatry itself, their visual beauty naturally enamors one to the subject, in addition to perking one’s curiosity to learn, read and discuss more about it. And in this way, one becomes moved by, and thereby integrates within oneself, even if only indirectly, paganism and idolatry.

Secondly, much of the art from these periods also depicts accounts, themes and scenes of a religious nature which are not part of the Jewish religious tradition. This is true even regarding the way events or individuals from the “Old” Testament are presented. All the more so is this applicable regarding themes from the New Testament. And as above, these subjects are intentionally portrayed by artistic masters, whatever their motives might have been, in a way to amaze the viewer and thereby compel him to interact with, and thereby spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and even physically internalize the subject. Obviously, when these events, icons, messages, and spiritual experiences are foreign to Judaism, internalizing them in either an overt or sublime way is not desirable.

What’s more, both of these genres, depicting and celebrating the pagan and the Christian, while generally not portraying outright nakedness, most definitely display exposed bodies, and even lay bare certain discreet body parts, particularly of women. Even this partial disrobing of the body is considered inappropriate and immodest by Jewish standards. And this leads to the third major problem with painting and sculpture, which is the portrayal, and even exultation, of nudity. And this is particularly so regarding the later, secular art of the Romantic period, whose subject is often solely and explicitly a study in the nude.

Interestingly, and perhaps ironically or counter-intuitively, art of the modern period is generally less problematic from a Jewish point of view. Its departure from classic pagan and religious themes and true-to-life depiction in favor of abstraction in color, form, substance and subject, or even its boldly stated social critique, renders modern art more compatible with the Jewish palate.

So despite the adage, “When in Rome do as the Romans do”, you’d be better off being more modern as far as art appreciation is concerned.

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