Analyzing Iconography in Judaism
Closing ThoughtsOpinion

Analyzing Iconography in Judaism

Rabbi Baroff spotlights a series of classical images featuring Moses and other Jewish heroes.

Rabbi Richard Baroff
Rabbi Richard Baroff

When we consider Judaism, few of us would think of iconography. We are, as the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, a people who prefer to build our monuments not physically, but in time, as exemplified in the Jewish Sabbath. Our G-d is incorporeal. In fact, in the Second Temple there was nothing at the structure’s center but an empty room, to underscore our veneration of our purely spiritual Creator– the universe’s sovereign has no form and is invisible.

Christianity of the Roman Catholic, and even more, of the Eastern Orthodox variety seem more at home with icons which both inspire and instruct the faithful. Consider the icons painted on wood and on walls which so animate the devoted of the Greek Orthodox and related churches. Various religious traditions indigenous to India, China, and Japan (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Shintoism) also rely on images to tell important theological and philosophical stories.

The Hebrew Scriptures for the most part disapprove of images as a way to bring us closer to the Holy and the Divine. The Ten Commandments, and the messages of the Prophets, forbid the worship of idolatrous images.

It is clear that when the Israelites turn away from the Creator, who has no image, and towards the gods of other nations and their religions, disaster always follows.

Moses is the greatest of all the biblical prophets. Moses in a rage decimated the first set of the Ten Commandments, the two tablets inscribed by G-d, because of Israel’s grave transgression of fashioning and worshipping the Golden Calf. None of the Prophets of Israel is more associated with the battle against polytheistic images than Moshe Rabbeinu — Moses our great teacher. The last of the Five Books of Moses — Deuteronomy (Devarim) — is really for the most part a series of sermons delivered by the great lawgiver just before his own death. In these addresses, the old and weary leader warned the Children of Israel, among other things, about the terrible consequences of running after graven images.

It is well known that HaShem made sure that Moses’ burial place would remain unknown, so that the Hebrews would not be seduced into turning that grave into a shrine, thus ironically undoing 40 years of his labor as Israel’s leader by making the great man into an object of worship. But consider: Moses is certainly one of the most iconic figures in all of human history. The image of Moses holding the two tablets of Covenant — the Ten Commandments — is one of civilization’s enduring images. It surely is as instantly recognizable as Jesus on the Cross or Buddha sitting cross legged in meditation.

But there are several other images of Moses that are instantly recognizable and unforgettable: As a baby, Moses is sent down the Nile River in a waterproof basket to save him from Pharaoh’s wrath. After about 40 years as an Egyptian prince, and then another equally long period as a Bedouin shepherd, he encounters the Holy One in an unconsumed burning bush. At G-d’s instruction, Moses and his elder brother, Aaron, confront Pharaoh, bravely announcing famously in the English translation, “Let my People go!” After the battle with Pharaoh embodied in the Ten Plagues, Moses parts the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) with his staff. Moses descends Sinai, twice, with the sacred tablets. Forty years later, the 120-year-old Moses gazes wistfully at the Promised Land but does not enter.

We Jews honor Moses through Torah study: the rabbis teach us that not one but two Torahs were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai — the Written Law (contained in the Torah scroll) and the Oral Law (the Talmud and other texts). Not in marble but through prayer, study, and helping others we show our respect to our greatest leader, teacher, and prophet.

We have recently celebrated and commemorated Passover and Shavuoth. Moses, of course, is the prominent (human) figure in both festivals. But even though he alone knew G-d face to face (panim el panim) we as Jews will only go so far in our love, respect, and gratitude towards this great man. We worship Adonai alone, who always stood behind Moses, and who stands behind all of us still, even in these days of trial.

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