Eyal Bitton
Cantor, composer, lyricist.

Ki Tisa: Smash-Worthy Art

Two summers ago, my wife and I travelled to Italy. The landscape, the food, the wine, the history, the architecture, the music, and the art made it a spectacular experience in so many ways.

One of the most significant moments of my trip was when I stood witness to some of the magnificent works of the divinely-gifted Michelangelo.

As a young child, when I was six or seven, I came across one of his sculptures. It was his Moses. I was incensed. Putting horns on the most important prophet in Judaism was clearly an example of anti-Semitism, I thought. Upset, I spoke about it with my mother. I explained that I’d come across a hateful work of art by an artist named Michael – first name: Michael; last name: Angelo. Hey, I was a little kid. I didn’t know who he was!

So as an adult in Rome, I knew I had to see this brilliant work – because I had related to it as a young child, because it was my introduction to the genius of Michelangelo, and because it remains one of his many masterpieces.

I took the metro, then walked a few steps to San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains) and, before I knew it, there it was! Moses. Breathtaking. Powerful. Real. It’s an imposing work. Moses is larger than life – seated, Moses is actually larger than any human standing before him and would be more than ten feet tall if he were to stand. He sits gazing out toward us and beyond us, perhaps to God Himself, with the Ten Commandments resting under his right arm – and with those horns on his head.

Why the horns? Because the Torah tells us, in today’s parasha, Parashat Ki Tisa, that Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the two stone tablets and:

was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant.

(Exodus 34:29)

The Hebrew word for “radiant” is related to the word “horned”. The depiction of a horned Moses isn’t anti-Semitic at all; it is a physical manifestation of the beams of light which emanated from him after speaking to God.

The Jews of Rome were deeply attached to Michelangelo’s Moses, which he sculpted between 1513 and 1516. So moved were they that, as recounted to us by the 16th century artist Giorgio Vasari, Roman Jews would visit San Pietro in Vincoli to see the Moses every Yom Shabbat.

The Golden Calf

Speaking of this week’s parasha and sculpture, let us take a look at a disturbing moment when the Israelites lose hope that Moses will ever return to them from Mount Sinai. Believing that Moses is gone, the Israelites appeal to Aaron for spiritual guidance. Aaron takes their gold jewellery and uses it to fashion an idol for them to pray to.

And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’

(Exodus 32:3-4)

And thus the Golden Calf is born.

When Moses eventually returns from the mountain and sees that the people are worshiping an idol, he is enraged and has the statue destroyed.

ISIS Goes to the Museum

Last week, ISIS released yet another one of their “Look-How-Crazy-We-Are” videos. This time, it wasn’t a gory spectacle of their complete disregard, if not outright disdain, for human life. This time, their outrageous zeal was directed at inanimate objects.

A handful of proud ISIS men ostensibly destroyed several pieces of ancient Assyrian art in the museum in Osul, Iraq. The statues were a testament to a civilization that had lived in that region 3000 years ago. That any physical creation of theirs should have survived this long is astounding and should merit being designated a treasure.

One of the statues that was ruined was a winged bull – a religious idol from the 7th century BCE.

How interesting, given this week’s parasha. Just days after ISIS destroys a winged bull, we read about the Golden Calf in the Torah.

When learning of these actions committed by ISIS, I was appalled. Many in the media called it vandalism. How could these fanatics take such valued art and destroy it?

Now, what’s the difference? If the Golden Calf was “smash-worthy”, then shouldn’t this winged bull be as well? Both are statues, fashioned by human hands. Both depict cattle. Both were used for idol-worship.

Art and Its Beholder

Art is never just an unchanging object. Art has a relationship with its beholder. Not only does art speak differently to different people but it also communicates differently depending on the culture and the times in which we live.

The Golden Calf may have been a magnificent work of art. We don’t know. At the time of its creation, however, it was not art but a god to be worshiped. And so it was a threat to this emerging monotheistic religion.

The Assyrian winged bull was clearly used for similar purposes. But here we are, 3000 years later, and no one – no one – looks upon it as a deity to be worshiped. The relationship this Assyrian art has with its audience is entirely dissimilar to the one it had with its audience three millennia ago. No monotheistic religion, be it Judaism or be it Islam, is at risk that its adherents will gaze upon these works of art and pray to them. There is no threat.

After so much time has elapsed and after so much change in cultural context and religious outlooks, the Assyrian winged bull and other objects found in the Mosul museum can only be described as art. They cannot be described as religious icons or idols for no one today perceives them in that manner. Today they stand as works of art.

What the Torah Says About Art

Remarkably, this week’s Torah reading also addresses how God perceives art.

The Lord spoke to Moses: See I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft.

(Exodus 31:1-3)

The artist, Bezalel, is identified by God as being uniquely gifted. In fact, his skill is described as divine! But it is not because of his subject matter. It is his skill. First God sees Bezalel’s talent. Then God has that talent put to use in the construction of religious objects – the Tent of Meeting (ohel mo’ed), the Ark of the Covenant, and other related items.

The sequence is very telling.

It is not because Bezalel’s works deal with praise of God that he is called a divine artist. No. It is because he is a brilliant artist. It is his brilliance and genius as an artist that is seen as a divine gift.

A few lines later in today’s parasha, God says:

I have also granted skill to all who are skillful…

(Exodus 31:6)

And so the Torah teaches us that great artists – and therefore great art – are God-kissed. God is an appreciator of the arts!

What Makes Art “Smash-Worthy” and Praiseworthy?

So why is ISIS so threatened by this Assyrian art that it deems it “smash-worthy”? One of the vandals on camera explained their actions:

These artifacts that are behind me were idols and gods worshiped by people who lived centuries ago instead of Allah.

But this is not the real reason. The real reason is because art is expression. Art is freedom. Art is individualistic. ISIS sees all of these as its enemy: expression, freedom, individualism. These are what ISIS fears.

The statues are no longer idols. They have no religious significance today. In that respect, they are no threat to Islam – or to any other religion.

What these objects are today, however, is art. And that is a threat to ISIS. That is what makes them “smash-worthy” in their eyes.

But the Torah says the opposite. Such objects were indeed a threat to early Judaism precisely because they were seen as idols. Today, they are not for they are seen as art. And art, God tells us, is a heavenly gift. Expression, freedom, individualism are actually divine and worthy of God’s praise.

The horns on Michelangelo’s Moses are an emanation of God’s light, God’s word. Because true art, with its freedom of expression and individualism, is a divine gift, may it continue to emanate from humankind and be a blessing to all of us.

About the Author
Eyal Bitton is the cantor of Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Oregon where he incorporates Sephardi/Moroccan music, Ashkenazi music, popular adaptations, and original compositions into the service. As a composer and writer, his theatrical works have been produced in the US, Canada, Kenya, and China.
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