Michelangelo's David in Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence
Michelangelo's David in Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have gradually turned into cities that rival their European counterparts. Architecture, culture, and beauty abound, and like most cities, they are not cheap, with Tel Aviv recently declared the most expensive city in the world. Yet one thing differentiates them from the average European city: statues. Every city in the western world worth its salt has an impressive array of statues and monuments, from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to Florence’s David, from Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial to London’s Nelson’s Column. I would like to explore why and hope to glean some insights into this aversion from the human form.

The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin, at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor

The best place to start is the Ten Commandments. The second commandment states: “Do not make for yourself any carved image or likeness of any creature in the heavens above or the Earth below, of the waters beneath the Earth.” This comment is sandwiched between “I am the lord thy G-d,” and “Do not bow down before them or worship them,” which led to the collective understanding that it refers to Idols and other similar trinkets used for pagan rituals. This does not explain, however, why statues of human beings (politicians, generals, etc.) and of other living things are so hard to come by in Israel.

Some medieval commentators understand this commandment differently. Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, the author of the “Arba’ah Turim,” who lived in Toledo in the early 14th century, writes: “Do not make for yourself any carved image of likeness- ‘likeness’ in gematria [a numeric code based on the Hebrew alphabet, is equal to] ‘man’s face. ‘Or the Earth below’ in gematria [is] ‘These are the mountains and hills.” This commentary is radically different from the traditional understanding of the Ten Commandments: It seems that, according to the Ba’al HaTurim, this prohibition extends to drawings of a person’s face, or even a painting of a landscape. The Shulchan Arukh, the foremost halakhic authority echoes this idea: “It is forbidden to draw images… such as the image of man himself, these all are forbidden even for beauty.” A commentary on the Shulchan Arukh, Rabbi Shabtai Cohen, the Shach, explains: “These are living words of G-d, that because the Torah specified “making,” there is no distinction between creating [an image] for beauty or [making and image for] Idol worship – it is forbidden.” This reasoning does not satisfy me: Why is a statue of a leader or a champion of human rights forbidden the same way an Idol is? Is there really no distinction?

We’ll need to explore this question philosophically to get any serious answer. For this, we’ll need to enter the mind of the sculptor. What do they hope to achieve? A perfect likeness? More likely than not, they’re trying to render their subject artistically, flourishing and embellishing when needed. This creative drive to capture the human image in a way that includes personal expression is in some ways akin to creation itself: we ourselves are in some way created in G-d’s image, meaning that G-d the sculptor imbued his own personal muse into man. When man himself does the same, is he not emulating G-d?

Interestingly, this may be why there are few archeological findings of Israelite origin which contain drawings. Some cultic objects, most likely forbidden, have been found, but all jugs, plates, and tapestries are devoid of portraits. This comes as a complete antithesis to their ancient Greek counterparts, whose sculptures, jugs, vases, and coins all evoke divinity through the human form. This is best depicted in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where a large portion of the Greek antiquities collection is placed in a large, well-lit atrium, where their white marble shines. Walking amongst these statues, placed in sunlight as they most likely were in their original locations, is to walk amongst shining figures that evoke gods. While some of these statues really do depict members of the Greek pantheon, many of them are of people, likely commissioned for their private estates. Regardless, these marble statues (which were originally colored) made up their own language: that of divine perfection, of godliness, of the sublime. It’s easy to see how these statues would have been taboo in ancient Israel; even if they depicted a general, they spoke the language of creation, and evoked themes of divinity.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, room 162, photographed by the author.

Perhaps we can glean an additional philosophical insight for this aversion from sculptures by focusing less on the sculptor and the sculpture and more on the subject. When a human being decides to commission a statue of himself, he is essentially creating a copy of himself, one that evokes him when gazed upon. This copy, however, is a facsimile, a crude attempt at capturing man. It merely aspires to be and fails to capture man in his entirety. This mean that not only are man’s best features not represented in the statue, but, more importantly, his failures are glossed over by the sculptor’s chisel, creating an image which fails to fully embody its subject. Even Michaelangelo’s David, in its physical perfection, or Auguste Rodin’s expressive, twisted Thinker fail to fully portray man. The hubris required to attempt to physically capture man, and by doing so to pick and choose the relatively few attributes available, is antithetical to the humility expected of a Halakha-abiding Jew. Perhaps therefore the attempted reproduction of any of G-d’s creations is inherently problematic.

This also may provide a satisfying answer to the many controversies in the United States and Europe regarding statues. A painting, statue, or commemorative plaque fails to capture the true complexity of the human form. A biography can come closer, in its use of abstract ideas and reliance on the reader’s imagination. Maybe Western society needs to reconsider how it commemorates its great heroes: in many ways, a book or movie about a person does them more justice than a two- or three-dimensional facsimile.

The messy, contradictory, and confusing reality we live in isn’t fit for statues of people. They simply fail at capturing the kaleidoscope of properties that imbue every one of us. At their best, they evoke a half-hearted, half-baked approximation of their subject. At their worst, they are man’s crude attempt at creation, mocking G-d and His own creations. They are the tool of dictators and megalomaniacs. There is no place for them in the Jewish world.

Now we can return to the topic with which I began this article: the modern State of Israel, and the modern Jew. It is now impossible to exist on the global stage as a country without certain devices and systems, for better and for worse. On a more personal level, the pictures we take on our smartphone have become mandatory for participation in modern life. Therefore, it’s unrealistic for the state of Israel not to have official photo portraits of its leaders, or for modern orthodox Jews to not take photographs. Despite all this, there are still ways this idea lives on, mainly through Israel’s lack of statues. The few exceptions are small and in remote locations (the small bust of David Ben-Gurion outside of the Airport named after him, for example); most large statues in cities are abstract. Not only does this give Israel’s cityscapes a unique look, but it stops Israeli society as seeing their leaders as anything more or anything less than human.

About the Author
Eytan is a 18 year old Oleh from California, currently residing in Ra'anana and studying at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa. He can best be reached via Facebook Messenger.
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