Art, Torah, and Nature: An Interview with Rabbi Ozer Glickman

Rabbi Ozer Glickman is a Rosh Yeshivah at RIETS and teaches about the intersection of Halakhah and business at Sy Syms School of Business. Over the last few months, Rabbi Glickman and I have chatted about a number of topics. Through these conversations, his deep knowledge of art history, the philosophy of art and a wide range of literature became increasingly apparent. It was a discussion about the intersection of art and Judaism that sparked the idea for this interview, conducted by email with an in-person meeting to clarify a number of points.

David Selis (DS): As a halakhist and Rosh Yeshivah, what are some challenges of being an art lover?

Rabbi Ozer Glickman (ROG): A little introduction to explain the minor role of the visual in my religious persona: Spending so much of my life with texts, I have become even more of a verbal person than my natural dispositions may have made me. The bulk of my Torah learning is not spent reading. When I sit down to learn, I may read a few lines or a whole sugya. Most of the time is spent with my eyes closed thinking, reconstructing, saying over, saying better, asking questions, trying to answer questions. Talmud Torah is a cognitive act, not always a declarative act. I think about the material more than I physically perform it in the act of reading.

It is clear that the material, the raw stuff of my Torah learning, is words. They may represent things, or relationships between and among things, but they are words, and I internally ponder them more than I read them aloud.

With my eyes closed then, the visual recedes. This already circumscribes the physical in my internal world.

I have often joked that for Litvishe benei Torah, “keitzad merakdin lifnei ha-kallah[i] is more a sugya than a song. Torah learning can be very formalist and the physical realities that underlie it can even disappear completely from view.

I did not love art in my younger years. One, I have a tendency to lose interest in things where I am a passive observer with limited inside understanding. I cannot watch hockey, for instance, because I don’t ice skate and never played the game. I couldn’t appreciate any more than the physicality of it and that misses the art and the technique that probably makes the sport exciting to those who do understand it. As the math kid in my class who couldn’t draw, I never had an interest in art.

I actually came to art via philosophy, specifically Hegel. At Columbia, we enjoyed the presence of the late Professor Arthur Danto. In addition to being the art critic of The Nation for many years, he was professor of Philosophy at Columbia. Under his influence, all philosophy majors took Aesthetics and we all read Hegel. That is the beginning of my love of art. Characteristically, it came via words, not images.

If you haven’t read Hegel on art, you need to get to the library or Amazon and get hold of it. A brief taste, although this is my take as I have assimilated it into my own thinking over the years: all of human life is a struggle toward perfection, a very Maimonidean idea. Art has stages (Kunstformen) as well. At first, art went through what he calls the symbolic phase. Symbols are awkward expressions of ideas. They never quite capture the idea which is the ikar. Egyptian figures with their animal heads and grotesque depictions of evil spirits and demons are a good example.

Art progresses from here to a second stage, the “classical,” where the technique of representation is perfected. Think of the Greek statues of the gods and great athletes—the human form without distortion, perfect, graceful. Ironically, art had moved farther from the pure aesthetic as everything is taken up with the replication of the human form. Representative art is a profanation of the artistic idea because it attempts to create an equivalency between the representation and the idea.

This to me is the fundamental profanity of idolatry and the key to understanding the Torah’s objection to the reproduction of the human form. Reduction of a human being to musculature and shape and coloris an abomination of a sort. Worship of God in physical form is the essence of profanity. 

The highest stage, the third stage, is the romantic. It focuses inwardly. The figures are blurred and even intentionally distorted, to rely more on what is inside the observer.

Just as there are stages in the human development of art, there is a hierarchy in the arts themselves. An outgrowth of this analysis of stages is that the less grossly representational the art, the more closely it approaches the aesthetic. Beauty is the expression of rational perfection. In Keats’ words, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty .”[ii]

And so the basest forms of art are three dimensional: sculpture, particularly lifelike sculpture. The more we abstract, the closer we get to beauty. Two-dimensional drawings are closer to pure aesthetics. Music is among the highest, because it represents almost pure relationship and idea. The highest form of art is mathematics.

This is why I am surprised you haven’t asked me about music. It is the art form in which I have the most experience both as an aficionado and a composer.

Although I can see craft in the works of Christian artists like Fra Angelico, the profoundly Christian nature of the subject has too many connotations in history that interfere with my appreciation of it.

It is less the avodah zarah aspect of alien religion (isn’t that what avodah zarah means?) that offends me. It is more Christian art as an expression of the Catholic Church and its role in Jewish history that I find off-putting. In its identity as an orthodox religion with its own particularistic traditions of language and law, I can relate to some aspects of Catholicism but the role of the Church in the mass murder of Jews complicates any interaction with Christian art.

These are more visceral than formally halakhic objections. I just cannot relate to depictions of the apostles, Crusaders, august clerics, or the Church hierarchy.

DS: What are your thoughts on visiting the Sistine Chapel to see the Michelangelo paintings?

ROG: My understanding of the halakhah is clear. The only circumstances in which it is permitted for me to enter a church is to save Jewish lives. Since I am a Jew of little consequence on the grand scheme of things, I never enter churches.

In Walter Benjamin’s[iii] era of mass reproduction, art loses its iconic nature and I can view such works in digital reproduction in the privacy of my den where it is certain permitted to enter.

DS: How do you understand the Torah prohibitions on graven images as they relate to art?

ROG: I interpret Torah prohibitions as both rabbinic tradition and Jewish law interpret them. For me, that is found in Yoreh Deah. We have moved past the understanding that two dimensional representations of the human face are prohibited and follow the legal opinion that the human form may be drawn, certainly if the entire body isn’t depicted. I understand the impetus behind banning the bird’s head haggadah[iv] but Jewish law would not require it.

While I am sympathetic to the opinion that the force of the law was to prevent idolatry and that there is little if any true idolatry today, we are not in the practice of eliminating mitsvot because of their perceived ta’am (reason). The law remains in force. 

DS: What restrictions would a frum artist face in painting scenery and how can these be overcome?

ROG: No restrictions come to mind other than not painting religious symbols of other religious traditions, or engaging in mixed dancing while painting. Because I do not see the sun, moon, and stars as objects of religious worship, taking photographs of them or painting a sunset does not offend me.

DS: What is your favorite artistic movement and why?

ROG: Easy–the impressionists. The creation of light through the mixing of simple, two dimensional oils and dyes…The technique amazes me. But most of all because they abstract from the representational and capture the purer aesthetic. My favorite artist unsurprisingly is Monet and my favourite painting is his Le Jardin a Argenteuil.

DS: Are there are depictions of nature in popular culture which speak to you on a spiritual level?

ROG: Well, it’s not popular but Claude Debussy’s La Mer. It is an impressionist painting in sounds. More specifically, the sounds of the water lapping at the dock as the great Otis Redding sits on the Dock of the Bay.

DS: What is your favourite Biblical depiction of nature?

ROG: Easy. The second perek of Shir ha-Shirim. The image of the lovers under the apple tree, his arm under her head, reminds me of a summer day 28 years ago when I sat by the Kinneret with my pregnant wife. Incidentally, the daughter who was born is named Maya because just as she kicked as we sat there, we heard a young mother call her toddler Maya not far from us.

That perek has enormous theological power for me, partly because of the resonances with my own experience.

DS: How do you find God in nature?

ROG: Just a random thought…when I am in Eretz Yisrael, I like to look up at the night sky and block out my surroundings so that when I return to Teaneck, I can look up again and know I am broadly on the same planet. For me, God is to be found in memory and time more than in nature.

DS:  What are your thoughts on Paradise Lost[v] and East of Eden[vi] as secular literary midrash?

ROG: I’m usually disappointed by secular writers who are unconsciously attempting to improve on the midrash. Example: Fear and Trembling.[vii] I studied the book closely for my senior thesis in Philosophy. It is so completely a Christian perspective, the Divine not as Non-rational but as explicitly irrational. Kierkegaard must break off his engagement precisely because he needs to submit to an irrational command, to take the leap of faith.

East of Eden is not my favourite work by Steinbeck. Very spelled-out, intricate plotlines are too representative to be good midrash. Midrash works because canonical texts are indeterminate. They leave much to the reader to work out, re-imagine. There is too much grit and detail in East of Eden to be good midrash.

DS:  What is your favourite illuminated manuscript or compilation of illuminated Jewish works?

ROG: There was a big coffee table book called Ha-ketubah[viii], I believe, with beautiful examples of ketubot. My wife and I took elements of different ketubot for our own. I find few things more evocative than love and family.

DS: What are your thoughts on illuminated megillot from an artistic-halakhic perspective?

ROG: I have a visceral dislike of the very idea. Megillot are mikrapesukim to be read aloud in the order and format in which they are written. Illuminations interfere with my ability to reimagine on my own. They are like vocalized texts. The nikkud may capture the plain meaning, but it may also interfere with my ability to read the text in its full range of meanings. Illuminations are one peirush.

DS: Which secular works had a profound impact on your emotions and thinking?

ROG: Books that disrupted my emotions: Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man[ix], Augustine’s Confessions. A young friend, a student, once told me he felt like Joyce had written A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man specifically for him. I felt the shock of recognition as he said it. I encountered Augustine’s Confessions[x] through an article by Professor J.J. Schacter, one of my favorite YU personalities, on autobiographies and the Jews.[xi] Rabbi Schacter was reflecting on why religious Jews wrote more about community than self before the Enlightenment and mention Augustine, or referenced scholars who mentioned Augustine, as the first of the religious autobiographers. This moved me to read the Confessions and some of the expository literature on it. It seems that Augustine may have invented the Western concept of the self.

DS: Who is your favorite poet and which of their poems is your favorite?

ROG: John Keats; specifically his poem Ode on A Grecian Urn.

Postscript: There were further points about literature, photography, and other philosophical views of the interviewee which, although originally intended to be part of the interview, are not included here.

David Selis is a sophomore in Yeshiva College majoring in early modern Jewish history with a focus on Western Europe and Wissenschaft des Judentums. His main interests are rare Hebrew books and manuscripts, the intersection of the yeshiva and the academy, and how the tools of academic Talmud can be used in the beit midrash.


[i] BT. Ketubot 16b. translation:  in other words, while the phrase is a sugiyah in shas, it is also a wedding song. This second use is at times lost on litvish bnai yeshiva.

[ii] See John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” first published in Annals of the Fine Arts 15 (1820).

[iii] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969).

[iv] Technically known as the worm’s haggadah (Israel Museum, Jerusalem MS 180/57. Southern Germany, 13th century). The illuminations in this haggadah are distinctive in that the figures have a human lower body and a bird’s head. Many scholars long assumed that this unique feature was due a to a literalist interpretation of the prohibition on graven images which was taken to mean that creating realistic depictions of figures was strictly forbidden. However, current scholars are divided as to whether the unique nature of the figures depicted is due to halakhic or artistic considerations.

[v] John Milton, 1674.

[vi] John Steinbeck (New York: The Viking Press, 1952).

[vii] Søren Kierkegaard, 1843.

[viii] David Davidovitch. Ha-ketubah be-‘iturim / The Ketuba: Jewish Marriage Contracts Through the Ages (Israel 1968).

[ix] James Joyce, 1916.

[x] Ca. 397 CE.

[xi] See: Jacob J. Shacter, “History and Memory of the Self: The Autobiography of Rabbi Jacob Emden,” in Jewish History and Jewish Memory: Essays in Honor of Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi,” ed. by Elisheva Carlebach, John M. Efron, David N. Myers (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1998), pp. 428-52.

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