Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Jenna Joselit Essay on 19th-century Depiction of Ten Commandments Draws Attention to Life of Symbols

On-Line Essay by Jenna Weissman Joselit on 19th-century Depiction of Ten Commandments is an important contribution (and an easy read)

I recommend a recent essay "History: The Symbol the Split the Synagogue," in the summer issue of Reform Judaism magazine by Princeton historian Jenna Weissman Joselit about the reception and dispute over the stained glass depiction of the Ten Commandments in the 1850 Gothic-style Congregation Anshi Chesed on Norfolk street in New York City.

Joselit's remembrance of this episode reminds us to consider the life of symbols - how their meaning can change, or be shaded, depending on time and place and expectations. This is especially true of the major Jewish symbols - Menorah, Magen David, Decalogue...and we see it happening in the contemporary world with the popularity of traditionally esoteric mystical and Kabbalistic amulet symbols (now ubiquitous as jewelry & tattoos), and the transference of traditional ritual objects (such as the mezuzah) into similar portable symbols.

Historically, debates over symbols have been most-often sparked by synagogue decorations. The stained glass dispute at Anshi Chesed is part of a continuum of debate that goes back at least to the responsa of Rabbis Elyakim ben Joseph of Mainz and Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Vienna in the 13th century. In this century there have been all sorts of controversies over the inclusion of figural art, narrative art and modern abstract art into synagogues.

I'd like to hear from my readers of disputes over synagogue art that they are aware of (or perhaps have even participated in). But please, no need to repeat episodes already documented in Vivian Mann's essential Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts (Cambridge Univ Press, 2000).

My favorite reaction to novelty in stained glass decoration is the responsum - or at least the verbal retort - of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise when asked whether figural memorial windows installed in the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation in 1899 were appropriate for a synagogue. According to memoir of Rabbi Morris Feuerlicht, Wise said "he could see no present danger of such a window tempting even the most indifferent of Reform Jews to idolatry." Wise dedicated the new synagogue in 1900, his last such act before his death.

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