Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

Ancient Idol’s Foot Unearthed in Israel and Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes”

A foot broken off from a life-size sculpture was unearthed on Monday, July 25, 2016, at the archeological dig at Tel Hazor, north of the Sea of Galilee. This large limestone foot with an Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription on its base was discovered by an American volunteer at the excavation, a key site from the biblical period.

Professor Amnon Ben-Tor of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archeology said that it was most likely from a temple of the Egyptian god Ptah. He added that the deliberate mutilation of statues in the 13th century BCE commonly accompanied the conquest of towns in Canaan (1 Samuel 5:1-4 and Isaiah 11:9).

The Torah portion Mattot/Tribes (Numbers 30:2-32:42) read in synagogues in Israel this week and next week in USA relates to this discovery of an idol fragment.

The Talmud asks the question, “In what context is a foot or hand fragment of an idol considered idolatrous?” Exploring Andy Warhol’s artwork “Brillo Boxes” in relation to real Brillo boxes in a supermarket aisle can help us appreciate the centuries-old Talmudic dialogue about idolatry in contemporary terms.  The discussion below is based on the “Numbers: Aesthetic Peace” and the “Look Beyond the Image” chapters in my book, Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life.  


“None of the men over 20 years old who left Egypt will see the land that I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob since they did not follow me wholeheartedly.  The only exceptions will be Calev son of Yefuneh, the independent one, and Joshua son of Nun.” (Numbers 32:11-12)

“God said, ‘The only exception will be My servant Calev, since he showed a different spirit and followed Me wholeheartedly.  I will bring him to the land that he explored, and his descendants will possess it.’” (Numbers 14:24)

Moses brought the Torah to a band of slaves living for centuries in Egypt’s idolatrous culture.

The Torah today was brought to Israel by Jews after millennia scattered among scores of alien and hostile cultures.

Calev’s different spirit and independent thought is sorely needed by Calev’s descendants who have resettled the Land of Israel in our day.

Jews are called “Jews” since they are from the tribe of Judah, Calev’s tribe.

Ten of the spies feared that entering Canaan would rob them of a purely spiritual life and force upon them the drudgery left behind in Egypt.

Those Israelites who desired a life of Torah study divorced from enacting Torah in the everyday world were sentenced to die in the desert.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that “The miracles which sustained the Jews in the wilderness were not the apex of spiritual existence.”

“They were only a preparation for the real task: taking possession of the Land of Israel and making it a holy land.”

“The purpose of life lived in Torah is not the elevation of the soul; it is the sanctification of the world.”

Only Joshua and Calev with his “different spirit” could envision holy sparks emerging from commonplace tasks and hard work.

Calev saw that the same activities forced on slaves in Egypt could be transformed into acts of spiritual significance when done freely.


My creative work, teaching and research as artist, art professor at Columbia University and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies has made me understand that seeing is not just visual perception, it is conceptual construction.   What is seen gains its significance from the context in which it is seen.  Concept and context move seeing beyond a simple visual experience.

My research and teaching art in Jewish thought and aesthetic education as professor at Ariel and Bar-Ilan universities has given me the realization that new art forms in a networked world are redefining art in ways related to Jewish thought and experience.  I explore the “different spirit” emerging from the breakdown of the Renaissance definition of art in my books, The Future of Art in Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) and in Hebrew Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art.

In his ground-breaking book, Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, my Columbia University colleague, philosophy professor Arthur Danto emphasizes that what makes the difference between art and non-art is not visual but conceptual.  He writes: “The eye, so prized an aesthetic organ when it was felt that the difference between art and non-art was visible, was philosophically of no use whatever when the differences proved instead to be invisible.”

Danto describes how visual arts came to an end and were transformed into conceptual art at Andy Warhol’s 1964 exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York.  In the art gallery, Warhol stacked boxes on which he had screen-printed the Brillo logo. They looked identical to the cartons of Brillo soap pads that we see in supermarket aisles. We could no longer see the difference between “Brillo Boxes” (the work of art) and Brillo boxes (the mere real things). What Warhol taught was that there is no way of telling the difference by merely looking. The history of Western art as a progression of one visually discernible art style superseding a previous style came to an end.

I believe that what we are witnessing is not the end of art, but the end of art derived from a Jewish structure of consciousness. The contemporary redefinition of art is congruent with a Hebraic biblical consciousness as expressed in the Talmud. Danto’s radical new proposal that concept and context rather than visual appearance gives meaning to images and objects was discussed millennia ago by rabbis dealing with idolatry and Greek aesthetics.  Their discussion is found in the Talmud’s tractate on idolatry Avodah Zarah “Strange Worship.”  The Talmud is a 5,894 page compendium of Jewish law and lore that has a tractate about idolatry, what God isn’t, but none on knowing God, what God is.

The rabbis explored whether found fragments of a statue such as a hand or foot are prohibited or permitted.  Can you pick these parts of an idol up and place them in your home as a decoration?   They concluded that if you see an idol worshiper shatter the statue, it is as if he nullified it as an idol.  It is, therefore, permitted.  However, if the statue was broken by a Jew who never considered it to be an idol, it is prohibited.  The most interesting argument deals with an idol that fell down by itself and broke.  Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish reasoned, the hand or foot are permitted because the owner of the idol annuls it by saying, “If it could not save itself, so how could it save me.”  Both the permitted and prohibited idol parts look exactly the same, indeed they are the same hand or foot.  Concept and context decide what cannot be decided by the visual sense alone.

There are many other examples throughout the Talmud that emphasize that seeing is not enough.  In the same tractate on strange worship, the pagan Greek Proclos puts a question to Rabbi Gamliel who was bathing in a pool in front a large statute of Aphrodite. “If your Torah forbids idolatry, why are you bathing in the Bath of Aphrodite?” The rabbi answered, “I did not come into her domain.  She came into mine.” If the statue of Aphrodite was erected and then a pool was made to honor her, it would be forbidden for a Jew to bathe there. However, if the pool was made first and the statue was placed there as an adornment, then it is permitted.  The difference is invisible.

Concept and context determine meaning in the case of an idol’s foot and the statute of Aphrodite, like Pop art Brillo boxes in an art gallery rather than in a supermarket or Minimalist art plywood panels hanging in a museum rather than stacked in a lumberyard. The visual sense alone cannot discern between art and non-art today or between idol and mere decoration yesterday.  Significance is contextual and conceptual rather than merely visual.

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.
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