The Jews are Not The Nation Without Art (Hertz Pentateuch)


I thought I was done with the Hertz commentary, that he has nothing much to say after a few things. But then there was this important surprise in these comments about art in his famous Pentateuch & Haftarahs from 1936. What follows are his comments and, in bold, my own super-commentary. Hertz will, by the end disappoint, falling back into pat moralism. But he also tugs against the moralism. It turns out he had forward thinking things to think about art, art in the Bible and Judaism, about senses and sensualism, against theories of race privileging Greeks, against aniconism, even against ethics, and about the non-radical difference between image and word, between visual art and poetry. His comments anticipate arguments by Rudolf Arnheim, Kalman Bland, WJT Mitchell, and Margaret Olin (from whose work I grabbed the title for this blogpost)

Commentary to Exodus 35:

35:31: Wisdom, understanding, and knowledge are displayed in artistic skill

35:32: “To devise skillful works” is better translated, as per Hertz, as “to think thoughts.” He insists, “In all True art, there is a vital underlying thought, and artists have accordingly been among the great thinkers of mankind.”

Plastic art is not just sensual or imaginative. Its production involves thought and thinking. What follows in the Hertz and what I’m not citing in full is moralizing content. Art has to be “solemn” and ennobling.” There is simply no way beyond this bourgeois value schema. But psychologically, Hertz anticipates an argument made by Rudolf Arnheim in his his classic Visual Thinking and in postwar art trends like Conceptualism, where what matters is the idea or concept, a thought, not the work-object itself

35:33: “We are accustomed to limit Divine inspiration to thoughts expressed in words. This is not the Scriptural view. The worker in metals, the cutter of precious stones, and the cover of wood can likewise produce work that is inspired.”

Note here how Hertz stands against the privileging of language. Note too that what Hertz calls “divine inspiration” is what philosophers like Buber and Rosenzweig call revelation. According to Hertz and more boldly than these two, revelation takes shape not just in word by in metal, stone, and wood work.

35:34: “Proper understanding and appreciation of these verses should modify current view on Judaism and its relation to Art. The opinion is often expressed that there is no art in Judaism; that the Jew lacks the aesthetic sense; and that is largely due to the influence of the Second Commandment, which prohibited plastic art in Israel.  Defenders of the Jew and Judaism usually reply that Judaism was determined to lift the God-idea above the sensual, and to represent the Divine as Spirit only; that art was not Israel’s predestined province; that that whereas the legacy of Greece was Beauty the mission of Israel was Righteousness. Neither friend nor foe do full justice to the facts of the case. There is not such a clear-cut difference between the races as is generally assumed. Greek art is itself and now seem to be of Semitic origin whole; and Semites have produced many a monument of surpassing beauty in the world of Art. And is not poetry, too, a province of Art? Surely, the Books of Psalms Isaiah and Job need fear no comparison with any literary product of man. And the above applies not merely to the Bible age. The rabbis too had a passionate love of beauty. They prescribed a special Benediction at the sight of a beautiful tree or animal, as well as on beholding the first blossoms of spring (Authorized Prayer Book, p.291). Some of them conceived the whole of Creation as a process of unfolding beauty; and spoke of God as the Incomparable Artist. (ein Tzur k’Eloheinu – ein Tzayar k’Eloheinu). The highest artist, in the eyes of Jewish teachers of all generations, is not the master in self-expression but in self-control; he who fashions himself into a sanctuary. Such a view sounds strange in modern ears.”

This is Hertz’s major statement on art and the arts in the Bible and in Judaism. What follows in the commentary is more moralizing cant about art and the perversion of youth. But the main body of comments cuts against the conventional grain held by the Jewish bourgeoisie and even modernist avant-gardists like Adorno who make too much of the second commandment. (Ben Schachter has written about this in relation to contemporary art and contemporary Jewish art). These may sound strange to his own contemporaries. It is strange to find this kind of thinking about art, Judaism, language, and race in this commentary. What can explain this? Perhaps what were once considered strange thoughts were propelled by the biblical text and the desire on the part of Hertz to understand it on its own terms, even as they collide with understandings contemporary to his own time and place.

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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