Jewish Art (Numinous Objecthood) (~ Social Identity)


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It might be that Jewish art, of necessity, is dominated by “Jews,” namely by pictures of Jews, Jews, and Jews. But the social turn in modern Jewish Studies creates or constructs what often seems to be an almost automatic reduction of Judaism to questions of social identity and history. This social-historical turn only gets you so far, and almost nowhere philosophically. What gets lost in the social turn is the aura of the story and even, perhaps more interestingly, a sense or creation or construction of the numinous objecthood of an illuminated Hebrew manuscript.

About the objecthood of Jewish art objects there has been very little, if any, theoretical reflection, and only then with great circumspection.

Comparing Jewish art to Christian art, Marc Epstein writes “medieval Christian art was believed capable of doing something additional [to illustrating sacred history] that might, on first consideration, seem unparalleled in Jewish  culture with its long-standing taboo on imaging the Divine: it evoked the numinous.” Epstein goes on to note, rhetorically, that one would be “hard pressed” to find something similar in Jewish visual culture (The Medieval Haggadah, p.15)

But watch carefully, because appearances are sometimes not what they seem. Indeed, Epstein goes on to claim that “The practice of visualizing scriptural narrative manifested and ‘incarnated’ what was most numinous for Jews: the biblical text, the concrete expression of God’s revelation to and continuing relationship with Israel.”  This is a theological claim. Pointing to the illumination of the scriptural verse on the opening folio of the book of Numbers in the Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, Epstein comments upon the first word of that biblical text ensconsed in the middle of the page standing in for  the sacred space of the Tabernacle. The word of God is surrounded by by knights, representing the Israelite camps, warding of grotesque hybrid creatures, protecting the word of God, “manifest as the sacred center of everything.”

As for theological or philosophical ruminating, Epstein will only go only so far. Art merely testifies to “the continuity of revelation” (p.16). This claim remains stand-offish, as if it has not quite entered the pictorial space of the image and its claims on its user. Art still can’t constitute the “reality” of revelation, or what I have elsewhere called the sense or idea of its “shape” or form.

A good place to start a more philosophical analysis might be to look at the physical constitution of illuminated objects  –the use of ink and parchment, the drawing of borders and box like spaces, the physical gesture, luminous letters, faces, banners, wings, and claws, all organized by blacks and golds, and green and reds. Consider too the use of black borders to frame the illustrations in Epstein’s book, which lends a special glow to the rich color photographic reproductions, creating the aura of black fire and color fires.

On top of and perhaps more than the fine iconographic and exegetical analysis, I’m most intrigued by Epstein’s closing remarks in his book on the medieval Haggadah. They concern the “experience” of physically handling these medieval artifacts. “When one is privileged to do this, one feels….as if one has come face to face with someone from history, so like us and yet so utterly different and distant” (p.272). Brought close to hand, the physical object is invested with the aura or persona characteristic of distance and difference. After all the careful historical work, the very suggestiveness of these closing words invites the philosophical readers to conceptualizations of Jewish art and numinous art objecthood that look past such dull social and historical categories as “Jewish identity” and its “construction.”

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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