Nathan Lopes Cardozo
Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Question to Ponder: Why does Jewish Law forbid religious images?

I believe that if a triangle could speak, it would say… that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus, each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God, and look on everything else as ill-shaped.  —Baruch Spinoza

Question to Ponder

Spinoza (1632- 1677) is quite correct in this observation. Not only triangles and circles, but human beings, too, can only grasp God in terms of their own nature. In other words, humans can only speak about Him in human terms. However, this does not mean that since we cannot do better than this, consequently using simplistic and limited descriptions of God, one can conclude that God does not exist.

This is similar to electricity or an atom. We only know of the existence of these because we observe their consequences. After all, human beings have never actually seen electricity or an atom. When scientists describe or teach about these, they use models and images on the blackboard or computer screen. However, these are but metaphors and symbols.

The danger Spinoza speaks of is when human beings start to believe that the image is “das ding an sich,” the very “thing-in-itself.” This is exactly what the Torah has in mind when it prohibits making an image of God. It does not mean that I am not allowed to have an image of Him, but that I am not allowed to believe that the image is the real thing.

The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) elaborates on this:

When your mind conceives of God, do not permit yourself to imagine that there is really a God as depicted by you, for if you do this, you will have a finite corporeal conception, God forbid. Instead, your mind should openly dwell on the affirmation of God’s existence and then it should recoil. To do more than that is to allow the imagination to reflect upon God as He is Himself, and such a reflection is bound to result in imaginative limitations and corporeality. Therefore, one should put reins on one’s intellect and not allow it great freedom, but assert God’s existence and deny the possibility of comprehending Him. The mind should run ‘to’ and ‘from’ – running to affirm God’s existence and recoiling from any limitations, since man’s imagination pursues his intellect. (Elima Rabati 1:10, 4b).

What, then, is wrong with the Catholic Church using marble images in its cathedrals? No doubt its worshippers do not believe that these images possess any divinity; they are just metaphors. If this is the case, why does Jewish law forbid any image of Moshe or other biblical figures in our synagogues? (Is this indeed the case?)

Is it possible that Catholics believe these images actually hold divinity and thus possess sanctity? In other words, when is idol worship that is totally forbidden in Jewish law actually idol worship? Is it when people believe that there is more than one god, or even when one believes in only one God, but believes that He has a corporeal image and that this image is the real thing? Can one make God into an idol?

Is this the reason Moshe broke the tablets of the Ten Commandments? Seeing the Israelites worshipping a golden calf they had just created, likely intended as a material representation of God, as “the real thing,” Moshe became concerned that the Israelites would do the same with the stone tablets, worshipping them and declaring them holy instead of relating solely to the text on the tablets?

Does this danger exist with the Western Wall in Jerusalem?

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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