The oldest institution of higher learning in the modern state of Israel is not Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, though that august university was founded over 100 years ago. Rather, Israel’s oldest university is the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, founded in 1906 by Lithuanian Jewish painter Boris Schatz. Aside from a brief closure in the 1930s, the Academy has continuously educated and graduated Israel’s most talented and successful artists.
Visual arts have a complicated legacy in Judaism. The Second Commandment reads, in part, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). For many Jewish interpreters, this meant that any art was taboo: In Mishnah Avodah Zarah, Rabbi Meir asserts that “all images are prohibited, because they are worshipped once a year.” But immediately after this, the Mishnah qualifies the blanket prohibition, explaining that only certain images invite idol worship. These conflicting viewpoints are further confused by archaeological remains in Tzippori, where excavations of a 5th-century synagogue uncovered a detailed floor mosaic full of imagery, including scenes of angels visiting Sarah and the binding of Isaac. Given the rabbinic ambivalence about images, how could an ancient Jewish community in the Holy Land so eagerly embrace them?
This week’s parashah is a helpful guide to this question. As the Israelites prepare to build the Holy Tabernacle, Moshe instructs the people to bring forward a special artisan:
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רְאוּ קָרָא ה’ בְּשֵׁם בְּצַלְאֵל בֶּן־אוּרִי בֶן־חוּר לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה׃ וַיְמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים בְּחָכְמָה בִּתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת וּבְכָל־מְלָאכָה׃
And Moshe said to the Israelites: See, Adonai has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. [God] has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft.
What follows is a detailed description of the great artistry, including metalwork, stone cutting, wood carving, and embroidery, that would go into constructing the Mishkan. Rather than see artistic flourish as an invitation to idolatry, the Torah here mandates it.
It is not surprising, then, that Israel’s Academy of Arts and Design would be named for such a craftsman. Disregarding any concern about idol worship, Bezalel Academy boldly set the precedent that modern Judaism, just like ancient Judaism, was to be a culture of art. Our Sanctuary at B’nai Jeshurun is a testament to this tradition: As we admire the detailed handiwork of our holy tabernacle, let us remember our people’s long history of appreciating beauty—and those individuals with the skill to create it.