Art and the world as God wants it to be; Faith & Reason

Yesterday the Jewish festival of Chanukah began. Rabbi Albert H. Friedlander reflects on a triptych by a Jewish artist unveiled in a Christian church in Berlin last month.

The concordat between religion and art occasionally creates uneasiness, although art tends to win at the end: the painters of the Renaissance had their own agenda to which their patrons surrendered. In our sanctuaries we gratefully accept the artists' creations and add our own religious interpretations; or we accept their vision, which may be a new teaching.

Bezalel, in the Torah, was shown the Divine pattern which had to be followed strictly; but then he was only an artisan. The Menorah (candelabra) in Solomon's Temple is not copied in traditional synagogues out of respect to the uniqueness of the Temple. In our homes, during Chanukah days in the past, we did have nine-branched candelabras twisted into all possible forms - new artistic visions are encouraged here. Yet the sanctuary remains a special domain.

Is that always true? Last month I went to Berlin to dedicate an altar in a church. A job for a rabbi? I thought so. The community was consecrating Christ in the Holocaust, a triptych designed by the London sculptor and psychoanalyst Ismond Rosen, who had just died. Dr Rosen had suffered from motor neurone disease and, at the end, could barely move one finger and blink with his eye. Yet, assisted by his daughter and wife, he also designed an altar on his computer which will now stand before the triptych. The dedication was attended by the Prime Minister of Brandenburg, Manfred Stolpe; Bishop Wolfgang Huber of Berlin, who flew back from Sarajevo in order to participate; the mayor of Berlin; Canon Paul Oestreicher; and by me. The German dignitaries were united in their statements that the guilt of German Christians and of the Church during the Holocaust had to be acknowledged; and that prayer in the Church was strengthened by the knowledge that the Jew Jesus would have died at Auschwitz. How could there be prayers in this German church without the awareness of the Holocaust? Canon Oestreicher reminded them that this triptych had stood in St Paul's Cathedral in London, but that it had a mission to fulfil in Berlin; this was the Jewish artist's gift to the German people.

As a rabbi and friend of the Rosen family, I pointed out that the artist had also been a healer, and there was an inner trauma within that community which would open themselves to an artist's vision and its ethical, religious message. Germany had just acknowledged that reparations must be paid to Guernica's citizens, victims of a German air attack over half a century ago. Surely, it was Picasso's Guernica, one of the great masterpieces of 20th- century art, which had kept the memory of that crime alive. The German theologian Paul Tillich, looking at Guernica, had written: "He who can hear and express meaninglessness shows that he experiences meaning within the desert of meaninglessness." Language and poetry, according to the German thinker Adorno, had died after Auschwitz. Was this true of art as well? Kant's Third Critique had rescued art as the "asymptotic embodiment of human, rational, ethical values"; and his Jewish successor Hermann Cohen wrote: "Art depicts the Messiah; that is, art is man's anticipatory construction of the world as it ought to be, as God wants it to be."

In the synagogue one does not adore the utensils of worship. The menorah, the covers of the Torah, and the curtains of the Holy Ark are there to lead us to the awareness of the Holy, to the ethical commandments which stand behind each act of prayer. Religion does control art in the sanctuary and in the Jewish home. The Chanukah menorah was placed in the windows of the home to proclaim the miracle of faith which survives darkness. And at the doorway of our homes we affix the mezuzah: a capsule containing our central prayers affirming the Oneness of God. Entering or leaving through the door, one kisses that beautifully fashioned artefact.

Sometimes, as in the case of Guernica, an independent statement is made by the artist which challenges the faith, the community, society. Last week, on World Aids Day, the curator of Judaica at the Judah L. Magnes Jewish Museum in California wanted to bring the community to full awareness of this plague in the world. An artist created a special installation which incorporated a door frame that had a mezuzahaffixed to it, a capsule filled with his own Aids-infected blood. One kisses a mezuzah!! An Aids- infected mezuzah? Art has its own independent message, even when, as in this case, there was a mixed response. And each century finds ways of expressing the frightening dimensions of life.

Goya's dark pictures of war in the Prado have moved me more to tears than most sermons (there, I may cry for other reasons). And when I stood in front of Ismond Rosen's Christ in the Holocaust, I realised that some Christians must have been upset - but all of them learnt something at this point which belongs in both church and synagogue: compassion for the suffering.

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution