Making Art Sacred - Part I

March 3, 2017

There is a misconception that the Jews didn’t make art in antiquity because of the second of the Ten Commandments – the prohibition against making “graven images.” The misconception is that any representation art must have been forbidden.  How is this possible? No art? Actually . . . this week’s Torah portion, “Terumah,” (Exodus 25 – 27)is almost 100% about making art – sacred art. The details of this portion are the fantastic descriptions of the Tabernacle, the shrine in the desert that travels with the Children of Israel for forty years. It describes the fabrics and the gemstones and the spun silver and gold and crimson threads. And, included in the list of things to fashion are “cherubs:”

And thou shalt make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shalt thou make them, at the two ends of the ark-cover. And make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the ark-cover shall ye make the cherubim of the two ends thereof. And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover. . . . And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high…. (Exodus 25:18-20)

So. Cherubim. No – don’t start imagining little puffy cheeked babies with wings – that’s definitely a renaissance image of a cherub. We don’t know exactly what an ancient cherub looked like. It’s thought that they looked like dogs or griffins with wings. But in any case, they were representational. So what’s the deal with the second commandment. These Cherubim (the plural of Cherub) look like creatures. Doesn’t the second commandment apply to them:

Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:4)

It seems pretty clear. However, you must read the whole commandment. This commandment continues:

Thou shalt not bow down to unto them, nor serve them; for I the Lord they God am a jealous God…. (Exodus 20:5)

That’s the loophole! You can, in fact, make “graven images,” as long as you don’t worship them. In fact, making the sacred beautiful has always been part of our Jewish Tradition.