Written by: Allan Nadler
Since biblical times, when the Israelite religion was forged as a resolutely anti-pagan faith that strenuously rejected all physical representations of the deity and commanded the destruction of any idolatrous icons and altars dedicated to the worship of "foreign gods," Judaism has remained a strongly iconoclast faith. As a result, one of the few areas in human creativity where there was, before the modern period, almost no Jewish contribution, has been the plastic arts. Even during the Renaissance, when there was an unprecedented surge of Jewish interest in almost all of the sciences and humanities, from astronomy and geometry to history, rhetoric, and music, Jews did not participate at all in the great artistic revival of the period.
For this same reason, traditional synagogues have historically been almost entirely devoid of the great religious art, from statues to frescos and stained-glass windows, typically found in the great Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. While the curtains covering the Holy Ark are beautifully embroidered, the art on them remains abstract; and while synagogue windows are occasionally color-stained, they eschew any specific representations from the natural world.
To the extent that traditional Judaism did create objects of art, these were limited to decorative versions of ritual objects—highly embroidered mantels, as well as silver crowns and breastplates, used to cover and adorn Torah scrolls; beautifully, but usually abstractly, painted seats for special occasions, like the one on which a baby was held during circumcision; intricately designed silver wine beakers for use at Shabbat and festival meals; and elaborately crafted silver items (gold was avoided due to its association with the biblical episode of the idolatrous worship of the golden calf) for religious use.
The aversion to artistic images, particularly those depicting human figures, even extends to the area in which Judaism has been, proportional to the numbers of its adherents, by far the most productive and prolific of the world's religious communities: namely, book publishing. Jewish books from the pre-modern period only rarely contain any illustrations beyond those absolutely necessary for clarifying points in Jewish law, such as simple diagrams. (Some notable exceptions include a small number of celebrated medieval illuminated manuscripts of the Bible and illustrated editions of the Pesach Haggadah.) So, while the "people of the book," as Jews have so widely been known, have produced a vast and impressive library of religious and philosophical texts, they are aesthetically primitive and do not begin to approach Christian artistic, calligraphic, and decorative achievements. Nor does the special Hebrew calligraphy used to write Torah scrolls, phylacteries, and mezuzahs approach either the beauty or ornate complexity of its Muslim counterpart, to say nothing of the latter's use in the history of Islamic architecture and decorative arts.