Law and Art (Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 CE to 640 CE)


Imperialism and Jewish Society came out in 2001. I remember skimming it and liking the deflationary view of Jewish history in Roman Palestine, particularly in relation to the rabbis and the question of rabbinic authority. I like very much the highlighting of ancient Jewish society as urban. That’s where the action is, where things happen, where Judaism happens, in the cities. Sepporis (Tzipori) in the lower Galil gets a lot of attention here. Among its many virtues, there are three  things in particular that draw my attention.

[1] Imperialism and Jewish Society should give pause to a lot of contemporary Jewish philosophers who, in my opinion, overinvest Judaism and Jewish philosophy in law and politics. In contrast, a deflationary view such as this one would present “Jewish law” as a marginal force in Jewish society in late antique Palestine with little actual impact on Jewish communal and political life.  The rabbis like to pretend that they were in control of things, when in fact that control was determined, as per Schwartz, by local city councilors, rich Jewish magnates, the Patriarchate, which over time detached itself from the rabbinate, and, of course, by Roman authority. In the day, custom was king, not law, and that was true then, no less than today.

[3] The importance of art in telling and thinking about the story of Jewish life and religion. As presented by Schwartz, the synagogue and synagogue art play an important role in the re-constitution of Jewish society around 500 CE or so. As for me, I’m not entirely sure that the presence of Jewish art supports the lachrymose picture of the rabbis’ marginal authority, an argument that probably stands on its own. What the visual record suggests instead is another part of Schwartz’s thesis, one that takes sharper form in later work by him, namely that the Jews have always been a Mediterranean people. The picture it provides is one of Jewish life based on “riotous” “visual stimulation” full of color, figuration, and artificial illumination that mark out the passages between numinous terrestrial and celestial realms (pp.252-3).

[3] The idea of a “numinous Torah” takes shape in the 4th C. It suggests to me that if law is prosaic, then it’s not really law once it becomes holy. This was a point made by Franz Rosenzweig in The Star of Redemption, but one actually anticipated by Moses Mendelssohn in Jerusalem. More like a  colorful ceremonial art or a glittering surface presentation, Torah turns into something more like art than like dull and practical law.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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5 Responses to Law and Art (Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 CE to 640 CE)

  1. Jason says:

    This, and Kalmin’s book on the Jews in Babylonia, are probably my two favorite books on Late Ancient Judaism. Great stuff.

  2. zjb says:

    Jason: You have excellent taste. I’m about to jump into Lee Levine’s recently published Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity. It’s a huge tome!!

  3. efmooney says:

    I’m an amateur here, but have visited Tzipori where the Rabbi leading the Jewish community in those early centuries in a Roman town taught and lived in an old Roman villa on a hill with wonderful mosaics, including one with an enticing woman near the bath. You know the mosaic, I’m sure, and the story of the young students who asked how the Rabbi could abide not only such beautiful images, representations or idols, in a holy place, but especially images of seductive women in a bath. To which he replied, “I didn’t invite her in, and it would be rude to ask her to leave.” A response that to my ear speaks volumes about not letting law dominate tyrannically, and about tolerance, even love (of a sort) of Roman “pagan” ways in those early centuries.

  4. efmooney says:

    You write that “The idea of a “numinous Torah” takes shape in the 4th C. It suggests to me that if law is prosaic, then it’s not really law once it becomes holy.” Here a question, Zak: If we can find the sublime in the pedestrian (Kierkegaard), or the sacred in everyday ritual (Confucius, for example), is there a place in “Jewish thought” for finding the Torah simultaneously “numinous” and “prosaic” ?

    • zjb says:

      in theory, you’re perfectly right Ed. the law can be both numinous and prosaic. except historically and practically, at least among “the jews,” it works out that an expression tends one way or the other. take it from me. my father was a lawyer. 🙂

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