Rabbi Aesthetics Outside Aprhrodite’s Bathhouse (Rachel Neis)


Shai Secunda and Yitz Landes kindly invited me to review for Talmud Blog Rachel Neis’s The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity. It was a great pleasure to write for Shai and Yitz about Rachel. What makes Rachel’s work so interesting and why I am so absolutely taken by it is the intense immersion in three different worlds: art, philosophy, and Talmud. It used to be when scholars of rabbinic and Judaic Studies were asked about the aesthetics of the rabbis, all they could do was to point to the famous story of Rabban Gamliel in Aphrodite’s bathhouse. Generally they drew a blank when asked about the rabbis and their own aesthetic culture, the way in which the rabbis themselves shaped aesthetic worlds of their own invention

For the complete review, go here.  Here’s part of what I wrote:

I think today no further proof is needed than Rachel Neis’ The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture to realize that the study of rabbinics has left for good Aphrodite’s bathhouse and the facile association of art and aesthetics with idolatry and paganism. Part of the problem for an earlier generation of scholars may have well been not knowing where to look and what to look for in relation to what is, indeed, a complex relation between aesthetic, visual, and material culture.

Neis makes clear that aniconism is part of a larger regime of looking and viewing, that looking away is just one strategy that sits alongside other kinds of looking. Deeply immersed into contemporary visual theory, Neis points out that visuality is not just a physical or optical phenomenon. Visuality is instead prescriptive, filtered through cultural and political perspectives, including gender. God, eros, idols, and the sages themselves are the primary phenomena on view in The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture


Steeping the rabbis and ancient Jewish aesthetics in visual theory, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture is a groundbreaking work. In importance, I would place this book alongside Elliot Wolfson’s A Speculum that Shines as a go-to work that should change the way all of us think about Judaism and the visual imagination. The signal contribution of this book is to have taken the study of rabbinic aesthetics out of Aphrodite’s bathhouse, placing it back into the Temple and its memory, into the lifeworld of the rabbis, as they imagined it; as they saw not just the object world of Roman paganism, but as they saw themselves as aesthetic subjects and aesthetic objects, or to paraphrase philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as both seers and seen. 

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. http://religion.syr.edu
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