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.
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The Independent Online
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.