Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Iconoclasm without Idolatry?

Could sacred Jewish figures be turned into caricatures, as have Muslim figures? This may seem to be a strange question, but considering that some have said that recent depictions of Mohammed in European newspapers are not comparable to antisemtic depictions of Jews, rife with references to the Holocaust, in Arab newspapers, the question has strange relevance. Perhaps there are differences, but it may be because of the historic hostility of Judaism to all representations of the human form. What stable images of the Jewish prophets exist that can be lampooned? Representations of Abraham, Moses and David are Christian in origin (which is to say either religiously Christian or the product of secularists oriented towards Christian cultures. Even Freud went to Michelangelo to find Moses, depicted as a cool rationalists in opposition to the impassioned man described in the Bible.)

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A Google search of Judaism and iconoclasm produces interesting results: iconoclasm is not a problem for Judaism, it is its nature. Douglas Rushkoff has called iconoclasm one its central tenets:
"Judaism is founded in iconoclasm, a principle especially relevant to a world so hypnotized by its many false idols. Judaism finds its expression in radical pluralism, an assertion that there is no name for God [--] at least none that any human being could conceive. And because it puts human needs above anyone's notion of deity, Judaism is ultimately enacted through the very real work of social justice."
Perhaps this feature, above even monotheism, was more important for Jews in dealing with other civilizations (especially Hellenic and Roman), becoming the major source for interethnic/interfaith tensions. This dimension has been used to explain the lack of a tradition of high art from within Judaism.

The poverty of images does not translate into a lack of descriptions. Much of Jewish mysticism is built on contemplating the few available descriptions of G-d in scripture, notably as the chariot that descends to take Elijah away. But these contemplations, like the original description, were highly unstable, and thus difficult to turn into a permanent image.

(I don't want to suggest that Muslims are hypocritical for opposing depictions of Mohammed. There are two issues, one regarding the rules of representation and the other the defamation of Mohammed. But since there is, in fact, a tradition of depicting Mohammed that lends itself, unfortunately, to the appropriation of his image.)


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