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Artwork in the Sanctuary

As our renovation project, Chidush, progresses and more elements are installed, I’m asked some very interesting questions. The practical ones I refer to Mark Slifkin (especially if there is a hint of criticism in them), but the religious ones I answer myself. 

1. Since we hung the beautiful artwork in the sanctuary, several people asked me if by doing so, don’t we go against the halakha, Jewish law? Or to be even more specific, don’t we violate the second commandment stating that "You shall not make unto yourself a graven image" (Ex 20.4; Deut 5.8)?

The most authoritative halakhic book is the Shulhan Arukh written by Rabbi Yoseph Karro in the 16th century. In his discussion of the issue he lists some objects that are forbidden for Jews to create but limit them only to those objects which were three dimensional in nature; this excluded embroidery as well as wall paintings. In other words, sculptures and images of objects that people used to worship as idols were prohibited, but paintings were not a problem. 

Later on, the discussion of the prohibition against pictures and images shifted from focusing on the dangers of idolatry, which was the concern of the second commandment, but simply with the possibility of distracting the worshipper from appropriate devotion in the synagogue or concentrating on the text of a decorated book. 

When we look at decorations found in synagogues both ancient and modern, we see many of them adorned their walls with frescos and mosaics. Take for example the picture on the right. It was discovered in the synagogue at Dura Europa in Syria from the 3rd century. The artist depicts the prophet Samuel anointing King David. This is one example among many demonstrating that two-dimensional figures were frequently used. 

2. As you may know, one of our Torah Scrolls is a Czech Torah that miraculously survived the Holocaust. Since it was obvious that the scroll was in bad shape we asked a sofer, a scribe, to repair it so we would be able to read from it. Unfortunately, the scribe informed us that it could not be repaired.  

According to the Halakah, a non-kosher Torah scroll that is beyond repair should not be placed in the ark, but has to be buried. For obvious reasons, we didn’t want to go down this path. Instead, we built a beautiful display case and placed it in the Cohn Family Welcome Center. We believe that a Torah scroll on the main wall of the synagogue is the perfect symbol of our core values and Jewish identity. At the same time, it serves to honor the memory of the Holocaust and  to communicate that despite being the victims of the biggest genocide in the history of the human race, Am Israel Chai¸ the people of Israel are still alive. The case was designed in a way that allows us to take the Torah out. We will read from it on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Should you have more questions, please share them with me. 

Rabbi Alon Levkovitz

Fri, December 4 2020 18 Kislev 5781