The History of Art in Judaism

Judaism: An Introduction


By Dr. Jessica Hammerman (left) and Dr. Shaina Hammerman (right) / 08.08.2015
Jessica Hammerman: Professor of History, Central Oregon Community College
Shaina Hammerman: Professor of Jewish History and Culture, Lehrhaus Judaica

Judaism is a monotheistic religion that emerged with the Israelites in the Eastern Mediterranean (Southern Levant) within the context of the Mesopotamian river valley civilizations. The Israelites were but one nomadic tribe from the area, so named because they considered themselves to be the descendants of Jacob, who changed his name to Israel.


Judaism stems from a collection of stories that explain the origins of the “children of Israel” and the laws that their deity commanded of them. The stories explain how the Israelites came to settle, construct a Temple for their one God, and eventually establish a monarchy—as divinely instructed—in the ancient Land of Israel. Over centuries, the Israelites’ literature, history, and laws were compiled and edited into a series of texts, now often referred to in secular contexts as the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh in other contexts), written between the eleventh century B.C.E. and the sixth century B.C.E. (although the stories it contains may be much older). The Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) contains three major sections: the Torah, or Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings.

Hebrew Bible, Italy, 13th century, decorated opening to the Book of Isaiah, Harley 5711, f.1r. (The British Museum)

An oral tradition emerged alongside the written Bible. Sometimes called the “Oral Torah,” the Mishnah is a minimalistic set of debates attributed to the great religious scholars, or Rabbis, transcribed and published in the second century C.E. The Rabbis’ intellectual descendants recorded and expounded upon the Mishnah in a series of writings called the Gemara and later generations compiled the Mishnah and Gemara into the Talmud.

Relief depicting a triumphal procession into Rome with loot from the temple, including the menorah, panel in the passageway, Arch of Titus, Rome, c. 81 C.E., marble, 6’-7” highWhile the Hebrew Bible is Judaism’s most sacred text, many of the laws it delineates concern the practice of Temple sacrifice and priestly behavior. But when the Roman Emperor Titus sacked Jerusalem in response to a revolt of the Israelites in 70 C.E., his armies demolished the Temple of Jerusalem and brought the spoils back to Rome (an event recorded in a relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome, see image above). The loss of the Temple resulted in the end of ritual sacrifice and the priesthood; Judaism became a religion based on the interpretive discussions and practices that were eventually compiled into the Talmud. Sometimes, Judaism is referred to as “rabbinic Judaism,” since centuries of rabbinic interpretation, rather than the Bible, informs Jewish practice.

Judaism and Time

Jewish law, called Halakhah, having been interpreted and re-interpreted over millennia, has changed over time. Even so, religious Judaism operates cyclically, and the linear way that modern historians view history does not correspond to this worldview. As historian Yosef Yerushalmi explained, the Rabbis “seem to play with time as though with an accordion, expanding and collapsing it at will.”[1] Major holidays, such as the weekly Sabbath or the annual Jewish New Year, provide a rhythm in order to structure a distinction between the sacred and the mundane. Other festivals rehearse ancient events, connecting modern Jews to the ancient Israelites. For instance, they mark the reception of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the exodus from Egypt, the fall harvests, and the Maccabee victory over the Hellenistic Persian kingdom.

Martin Engelbracht, Diorama showing a sukkah interior, paper, c.1730, Augsburg, Germany, 236 x 297 cm (The Jewish Museum, London). A sukkah is a temporary dwelling built on the holiday of Sukkot, that commemorates the forty-year period when the Israelites were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. It is also a festival of the harvest.

A collection of essays about Jewish cultures around the world opens with the phrase, “culture is the practice of everyday life.”[2] Judaism is a way of life that honors the cycle of days, weeks, months, years, and lives.  Shabbat, the Sabbath, serves as the ultimate reminder of the Jewish cycle of time. Based on the idea that on the seventh day of Creation God rested, Shabbat is a marker of sacred time. Religious Jews refrain from all types of work on the Sabbath, and spend the day with their families and communities, praying, listening as a portion of the Torah is chanted (readings are determined by a fixed schedule), and eating luxurious meals. A great twentieth-century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, described the Sabbath as “a cathedral in time.”

The Debate Continues

Despite the authority of the rabbinic voice in the Talmud, Judaism is non-hierarchical. There is not—nor has there ever been—a single authority; the religion is embodied by a collection of learned voices, which often disagree. We tend to conceive of Judaism as an ancient religion—based out of the Levant where God gave the Israelites the Torah. But an essential piece of the religious tradition was the fact that rabbinical scholars continued to debate, discuss, and re-conceive ancient laws.

Torah Case, Iraq, 19th-early 20th century, silver overlaid on wood, with coral set cresting (The Jewish Museum, London)

Ancient tribal divisions, as well as later sectarian movements, including early Christianity, set a precedent for Jewish cultural diversity. Even the Hebrew Bible was not written exclusively in Hebrew; it includes sections in Greek and Aramaic. But the religion is unified under the umbrella of the library of sacred texts, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, through the Talmud, and on to various ritual prayer books and mystical tracts. Judaism the religion, however, is distinct from the Jewish people. While it is clear that not all Jews practice Judaism, all those who practice Judaism consider themselves Jews. In other words, there are Jews without Judaism, but there can be no Judaism without Jews.

While the library and calendar unite Jews across the world, there are deep cultural and political divides. Jewish foods, music, literature, language, and interpretive practices vary immensely depending on a community’s ancestry. American Judaism, for example, is divided into movements, or denominations, much like American Christianity. These denominations have committees of rabbis who vote to determine the philosophy and types of observance their communities will uphold. But internal disputes are not only a standard feature of the denominations, they are part of the longstanding tradition of Jewish debate.


[1] Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi,  Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (New York:Schocken Books, 1989). [2]David Biale, Cultures of the Jews: A New History (Schocken, 2002).

[2] David Biale, Cultures of the Jews: A New History (Schocken, 2002).

Jewish History: Antiquity to the Middle Ages

By Dr. Jessica Hammerman and Dr. Shaina Hammerman

Panel from a Torah Shrine from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, 11th century, wood (walnut) with traces of paint and gilt, 87.3 x 36.7 cm (The Walters Art Museum). The patterns of vine scrolls and lozenges shows the influence of Islamic art.

For every period of Jewish history, interactions with non-Jews have been essential to forming Jewish culture and identity. The early Israelites made animal sacrifices at the Holy Temple, and they were distinct from other Levantine peoples, each of whom worshiped their local gods.

The Diaspora

Although there is no archaeological evidence for it, the Hebrew Bible describes a Temple in Jerusalem erected by King Solomon, probably sometime during the tenth century B.C.E. The Bible also describes the Temple’s destruction at the hand of the Babylonians 500 years later. Since the fall of the first Temple, Jews scattered throughout the Levant and Mesopotamia, creating competing cultures. Rabbinical scholars realized then that it would be necessary to write down oral interpretations—and they set the blueprint for future generations who would debate and reinterpret Jewish laws. The best-known rabbinical scholar was Hillel (70 B.C.E. to 10 C.E.).  Hillel developed methods for interpreting the Hebrew Bible that were flexible.  Since its inception, Judaism has been subject to community ritual interpretation and context.

A new Temple was constructed a century after the first was destroyed when some Jews returned to the Land of Israel. In 70 C.E., at the Roman siege of Jerusalem, Jews dispersed throughout northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. This widespread dispersion of Jews outside of the Land of Israel is called the Diaspora.

The Middle Ages

In the Diaspora, Jewish groups lived in both Muslim- and Christian-dominated areas. Local communities had distinct traditions, but the differences between those who came from Muslim areas and those who came from Christian areas was more pronounced. Jews who can trace their ancestry back to Central and Eastern European areas are now known as Ashkenazim, and those who come from the Islamic world are now known as Sephardim. Sephardic Jews technically trace their origins back to the Iberian Peninsula, but Jews from the historically Muslim lands of the Middle East and North Africa (referred to as Mizrahi and Maghrebi, respectively), have been conflated with contemporary Sephardim since they share many of the same customs. These labels did not become widely used until the 1960s, when Jews from Islamic lands emigrated into Europe, the United States, and Israel. On a global scale, these distinctions weren’t relevant until after World War II.

In both Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, Jews in the Middle Ages had to pay taxes in exchange for communal autonomy. Just as they came to speak the vernacular languages of the non-Jews among whom they lived, they also adopted the architectural, musical, culinary, and literary styles of their neighbors.

Santa Maria la Blanca, former synagogue in Toledo, Spain. Erected in 1180, it may be the oldest synagogue in Europe still standing. It is now owned and preserved by the Catholic Church as a museum (photo: Nik McPhee)

Synagogues in Christian-dominated lands are sometimes drab on the exterior but extremely ornate on the inside. Synagogues in Muslim lands have domes  and arches that mimic Islamic architecture, such as the Santa Maria la Blanca in Toledo, Spain, or the Algiers Grande Synagogue in Algeria.

In Europe, persecution of Jews began after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, crusading mobs massacred Jews throughout Europe. Crusaders blamed Jews for crucifying Jesus, an accusation that was extended in order to claim that Jews were committing the ritual murder of Christian children, known as the blood libel.

Jews that lived in Europe were easy, early targets for Crusaders since the Muslims,from whom they hoped to wrest the Holy Lands, were far from home.. Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Jews in Spain were subject to violent forms of anti-Judaism. The Spanish Inquisition forced conversions and expulsions of the many Jewish residents of the Iberian Peninsula.

Belt Fitting from Yemen (The Walters Art Museum) The back is blank except for an Arabic stamp with the name and date of the Muslim ruler, Imam al-Mansur al-Husayn, and an engraved inscription in Hebrew that names the silversmith, Yahya Tayyib

Life for Jews in Islamic lands was comparatively tranquil. In areas dominated by Muslims, Jews in the Middle Ages were tolerated as a “dhimmi”—a people of the book. Unlike in the Christian world, Jewish people were not the only non-Muslim inhabitants (there were also Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.). Jews were integrated into the economy, and they were allowed to practice their religion freely. Jews conducted business with non-Jews in the Middle Ages and the similarities in art, music, and food traditions speak to Jewish and non-Jewish interaction. But their communal lives remained mostly separate—Jewish dietary laws, or kashrut, meant that Jews had their own butchers, bakers, and even wine producers. The weekly Sabbath meant that Jewish merchants and peasants would refrain from work, while Christian or Muslim commerce might continue. And Jewish law forbid marriage outside of the religion, further solidifying boundaries between Jews and their neighbors—boundaries that in some later instances became walled ghettos within which Jews were forced to live.

Jewish History: 1750 to World War II

By Dr. Jessica Hammerman and Dr. Shaina Hammerman

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Self-Portrait, 1814-16 (The Jewish Museum, New York). “Moritz Oppenheim’’s life and work epitomize German Jewry’s journey from traditional life to modernity. Born in the ghetto of Hanau, he studied academic painting, an opportunity previously unavailable to Jews….He received commissions from both Jews and non-Jews ….In this work, one of the earliest self-portraits by a Jewish artist, a young Oppenheim depicts himself proudly holding his palette, a vivid testimony to the emergence of Jewish artists during the 19th century.” / Wikimedia Commons

The emancipation of European Jews from ghettos became a benchmark of sorts indicating a nation’s transformation from the medieval to the modern. Upon the formation of a secular nation, French Jews received civil rights in 1791 and 1792. Other European nations followed throughout the 19th century. National communities distanced themselves from old forms of Christianity, and they tolerated Jews, albeit with reservations.

Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah)

In Germany, which did not become a unified nation until 1871, Jews were not granted full equality. Rights depended on local municipalities and in some places, Jews were awarded rights only to have them taken away soon after. It is no coincidence that Germany was the birthplace of Reform Judaism. Progressive thinkers sought to transform Judaism from within when they could not stem prejudice against Jews from without.

Moses Mendelssohn  pioneered the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, which advocated many of the same ideas about freedom and equal rights as those that Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant explored. Mendelssohn openly discussed the ways that Jews could live in a multi-religious society. “Adopt the mores and constitution of the country in which you find yourself,” he wrote, “but be steadfast in upholding the religion of your fathers, too.”* In subsequent generations, many Jews—among them, Karl Marx’s parents—found it easier simply to convert to Christianity and live publicly as Christians in order to access jobs, property, and other basic rights.

Reform Movement

Isador Kaufmann, Man with Fur Hat, c. 1910, Vienna (The Jewish Museum, New York). “Kaufmann’’s portraits of religiously devout Jews conveyed aspects of Jewish tradition that his audience of acculturated Jews and non-Jews would understand. Here, the sitter’s orthodoxy is indicated by his fur-trimmed shtraymel (hat) and black kapote (coat). Hung in well-appointed parlors….they…provided a connection to Jewish heritage by linking the world of cosmopolitan Vienna to a traditional lifestyle that endured outside the capital.” / Wikimedia Commons

But there was another answer to the paradox posed by modernity. Inspired by Mendelssohn, Jewish questioners throughout German-speaking lands in the early nineteenth century developed the Reform movement. These reformers believed that their mission was to bring Judaism in line with modern thought; they also promoted the idea that prayers should be chanted in the local language rather than in Hebrew. They encouraged rabbis to look beyond the Talmud and Torah for guidance. Reformers spurned the idea that the past could dictate a way of life in an increasingly secular and industrial context. They modeled many of their religious practices after German Christians encouraging “decorum” in synagogue, introducing music similar to that heard in churches, and many even wanted to switch the Sabbath to Sunday. They wanted to remain Jews, while highlighting Judaism’s similarities with Christianity.

Orthodox Movement

These efforts infuriated traditionalists, who then reacted with steadfast conservatism.  Some traditional rabbis had long opposed emancipation, but in response to the Reformers, a group of adherents to Halakhah codified the new Orthodox movement. They opposed many of the secular cultural forms that Judaism took in the coming decades: the Yiddishist movement, Zionism, and any other divergences from strict Halakhah. Some insisted that established customs not grounded in Jewish law should take on the weight of Halakhah—this is why some groups continue to dress and speak like their ancestors from a century ago or more.  These extreme forms of observance are as much a product of modernity as Reform.

Hasidic Judaism

In Eastern Europe, another religious movement, called Hasidism, gained traction parallel to Reform and Orthodoxy. Founded in the eighteenth century by a rabbi and mystic who called himself Israel Baal Shem Tov, Hasidic Judaism grew out of a populist reaction to the elitism of the traditional Talmudic academy. Hasidic Judaism focuses on mystical interpretations of holy texts and the potential for uneducated Jews to experience holiness. The movement spread rapidly across Eastern and Central Europe. Hasidism gave rise to opposition from at least two sides: the traditional rabbinic legal structures that revolved around organized Torah study, and the “enlightened” Jews intent on both escaping the oppressive framework of the traditional Jewish family and acculturating into European society.

In spite of Hasidic Judaism’s strained history with what came to be known as Orthodoxy, it has become harder to distinguish stringent Orthodox Jews from their Hasidic counterparts. As Reform Judaism gained popularity, the two groups joined forces in support of Halakhah and in opposition to radical reform. Known for their distinctive dress (beards, fur hats, sidelocks, and caftans for men), Hasidim are among the most visible Jewish groups.

In 1894, French Captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused and convicted of selling secrets to the Germans. “A military sabre pins a notice of guilt into the body of a hydra which has sprouted the head of Dreyfus. The multi-headed beast, a symbol of indomitable evil, is just one of the many conventions used by Dreyfus’s anti-Semitic opponents to establish his inherent malevolence.” / Wikimedia Commons


Torah Crown, 1698-99, Bolzano, Italy (The Jewish Museum, New York) “Originally dedicated to an Italian synagogue in 1698/99, this crown was later plundered during a Russian pogrom and then recovered. It became part of the collection of the Great Synagogue of Danzig in the early 20th century. In 1939, it was sent to the Jewish Theological seminary in New York for safekeeping when the Nazis’ rise to power forced the Danzig Jewish community to disband.” / Wikimedia Commons

Amidst political and economic turmoil in Western and Central Europe, nationalism became a rallying cry and pseudo-scientific ideas about race proliferated.  A wave of antisemitism affected Jews within Europe and throughout the world in European colonies. From Russia to Damascus, and Danzig to Algiers, Jews were attacked as infiltrators and blamed for a wide range of social and economic problems. Accusations and rumors led to riots and pogroms (a Russian word that means to violently destroy, used to describe the riots in Eastern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries that resulted in the rape and murder of Jews and the theft and destruction of their property).


Several events from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries proved that Jews were not welcomed as equals. In Russia, violent pogroms and economic instability pushed over two million people to emigrate in the 1880s. The vast majority fled to North America, and a small fraction of pioneers traveled to Palestine, the site of ancient Judaism’s origins. Some Jewish leaders, responding to the growing nationalism and antisemitism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, followed Theodor Herzl who advocated for a type of secular Jewish nationalism, a return to the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Religious Jews had prayed facing Jerusalem and called for a Messianic return to the Land of Israel since the Second Temple was destroyed. But the modern political movement, known as Zionism, united the religious impulse to “return” with secular ideas about constructing a European-style nation for Jews. It is important to note that Zionism was but one form of Jewish nationalism that took hold in the nineteenth century. Some Jews fought for territorial and political autonomy on different parts of the globe, others fought for cultural autonomy in the nations where they lived. These Diaspora nationalist movements mostly disappeared in 1948 when Israel became an independent state.

Doris Clare Zinkeisen, Human Laundry, Belsen: April 1945 (Imperial War Museums) “On 15 April 1945 British soldiers entered Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to find a scene of absolute horror. Ten thousand corpses lay unburied, and around 60,000 starving and sick people were packed into the camp’s barracks without food or water. Doris Zinkeisen arrived soon afterwards. Human Laundry is arguably the most powerful work produced by any of the artists who were present…. The camp inmates needed to be washed and de-loused to prevent the spread of typhus before they could be admitted to the makeshift Red Cross hospital nearby.” / Wikimedia Commons


“The antisemite creates the Jew,” wrote the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in 1945.   Antisemitism had generated a false image of what a Jew is, making Jews seem like a social danger for the majority of Europeans. After World War I, liberal democracies everywhere appeared to be failing. The idea that Jews were responsible for social and economic crises convinced many to use race and ethnicity as a test to determine who belonged and who ought to be excluded. It was in this climate that the Nazi party was elected to power in 1933. Combining their expansionist vision with spurious theories of racial purity, the Germans quickly came to control most of central and eastern Europe.

Genocide became an everyday phenomenon—the Nuremburg Laws forced Jews to identify themselves with a badge, and criminalized sexual intimacy between Jews and gentiles. Laws were passed across Europe and the Mediterranean that excluded Jews from certain professions and the right to attend school. Citizenship was revoked and many people were forced from their homes into overcrowded wards. Inspired by the medieval ghetto, the Nazis went further—killing Jews by restricting food and medicine, packing thousands into spaces fit for far fewer, and, eventually, forbidding Jews to leave at all. Working in collaboration with governments across Europe, Nazi officials enacted a “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question” in early 1942. Jews were forcibly gathered and shipped to local concentration camps and to death camps in Poland and the USSR. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust.

*Moses Mendelssohn, “19. Judaism and civil law,” Jerusalem: Religious Power and Judaism, 1783

Jewish History in the Post-War Period

By Dr. Jessica Hammerman and Dr. Shaina Hammerman

Ben Shahn, Allegory, 1948, tempera on panel, 36-1/8 x 48-1/8 inches (Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth)

The genocide that overtook Europe’s Jews transformed Jewish identity throughout the world. Jews in Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Yugoslavia, Germany and Austria were reduced to a tiny fraction of their prewar numbers. Even still, Jewish populations survived throughout Europe, including in Russia, the United Kingdom, and France.

Western European nations received substantial aid from the American government, and the Jewish populations in those areas relied on American Jewish organizations for help. The geographic centers of Hasidism in Eastern Europe were disproportionately destroyed during the Holocaust, but many sects continue to thrive on almost every continent. In 1948 the United Nations unanimously voted for an independent State of Israel (the area was at that time under British administration).


In the immediate aftermath of the war in Eastern Europe, the Soviets continued to downplay the role of race, as they had during the Holocaust, but while many Jews were devoted Communists, they were once again targeted as a suspicious people who could never truly be trusted comrades. Especially during the Soviet show trials in the 1950s and 1960s, Jews were purged from government ranks and executed in public spaces.  Although Stalin voted for the creation of Israel in 1948, these public show trials served as “a form of public-pedagogy-by-example;” the goal was to exemplify the fact that ethnic Jews did not belong among the Communist ranks, that they were not equal with others. Even in the secular Soviet Union, overt antisemitism persisted during the Cold War decades. Many Jews made their way out from behind the iron curtain toward Western Europe, Israel, or the United States.

American Jews in the 1950s followed the patterns of other white ethnic immigrant populations. Many left large cities, focused on education, and joined counter-cultural movements in the late 1960s and 70s. American Jews often stood at the side of the oppressed, figuring prominently in the 1960s civil rights movement.

Meanwhile, Jews in Islamic lands emigrated from North African and Middle Eastern countries between the late 1940s and late 1960s when pan-Arab nationalism became exclusively Muslim and precluded participation from others. These Jews immigrated to Israel, Western Europe, and the United States. In France, the Sephardic population from Algeria, Morrocco and Tunisia brought new religious life and diverse customs to a community that was struggling after the trauma of World War II.

Jewish Identity Now

In the modern world, Jewish identity can seem scattered, confusing, and boundless. In the United States, Jews thrived in the postwar decades and several different movements gained popularity: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist. In Europe and Israel, inspired by these American movements, a smaller fraction of progressive Jews have formed Liberal or other kinds of Judaism. From the 1990s to the present, some American Jews have joined in a worldwide trend toward religious extremism.  At the same time, the Reform movement has grown. The traditional separation between men and women has been broken down and women are now integrated into the rabbinate in non-Orthodox circles.

Art Spiegelman, the artist and author of Maus, recently reflected, “One thing that’s become questionable to me is the way in which the Holocaust has become a central tenant of Jewishness in the late 20th century…. So that people see it as a Jewish problem and not a world problem.”  The omnipresence of Holocaust education within the Jewish community combined with a sort of alienation from tradition, made the Holocaust into the unifying agent that brought Jews together. In the twenty-first century, young Jews have pushed against the Holocaust as the defining feature of their Jewishness and have sought out alternative ways to express their connections to Judaism. Jewish film, music, and cultural festivals abound, attracting Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. The largest such festival occurs annually in Poland and draws tens of thousands from across the globe—that this festival takes place in the country where the greatest number of Jews were massacred during the Holocaust, signals a turn away from that dark period as the benchmark of Jewish identity and toward new forms of Jewish expression.

One popular joke says that Jews believe in “at most” one God. While monotheism is an important feature of Judaism, some of the greatest Rabbis from the Talmud have atheist tendencies, even as they espouse the centrality of Halakhah. As the scholar Shaye J.D. Cohen has written, “Jewishness, like most—perhaps all—other identities, is imagined; it has no empirical objective, verifiable reality to which we can point and over which we can exclaim, ‘This is it!’  Jewishness is in the mind.”

Lacking any unifying authority, doctrine, or practice, Judaism is highly diverse and cannot be pared down to any singular concept. Instead, a set of features like common texts, a shared history, and the rhythms of religious Jewish life can help us understand a religion shaped as much by its ancient origins as its contemporary disjointedness.

Writing a History of Jewish Architecture

By Dr. Steven Fine / 08.08.2015
Professor of Israel Studies
Yeshiva University

How is it that the Jews, called by Scripture “the smallest of all the nations” (Deut. 7:7) merit a section on religious architecture placed alongside the glories of Christendom, Islam, and Buddhism? After all, the Jews today number something around fourteen million, the same number that existed before the massacre of six million in Europe and the dissolution of communities across Europe and the Arab world during the 1940s. This is a numerical highpoint. In previous centuries, the numbers were far smaller. Just on the basis of demography, then, it would be hard to justify the inclusion of Judaism in this history of art and architecture.

A National Style?

More difficult, perhaps, from the first century through the establishment of modern Israel in 1948 Jews could not claim (or assert, as new European nations states did) a “national” identity or a “national” style of art based upon landed nationalism—categories that were of central importance to nineteenth and twentieth century constructions of architectural history and style. Theirs was a minority architecture, reflecting a minority existence.

The Temple of Solomon (c. 900 B.C.E.), modern scholars tell us, was a typical near eastern temple, while the great synagogues constructed at the turn of the twentieth century were art deco palaces. Even on a quality level, it is hard to include Jewish architecture among the great religious architecture of the world.

Model of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem, Israel Museum

The greatest of Jewish building, the temples of Solomon (destroyed 586 B.C.E.) and Herod in Jerusalem (destroyed 70 C.E.) are long gone, and never again have Jews controlled extensive resources for building, nor land for construction. There is no Jewish parallel to Saint Peters (neither the “Old” one built by Constantine nor Julius II’s), nor Hagia Sophia, the temples of Varanasi, nor the Forbidden City. Small Jewish communities, stretched across the world from late antique Palestine to Kaifeng in 17th century China to contemporary America and Israel built synagogues—often buildings of great beauty and historical significance, but mostly pretty limited from an architectural standpoint. There were no Jewish benefactors to compete with Justinian or Saladin or the della Rovere; and virtually no government sponsorship of magnificent synagogues. Jewish architecture is always derivative of local styles and patterns, and responds to the needs of local minority communities. It never drove those styles. Jewish “architecture” through the ages was a hybrid architecture—a term scorned by nineteenth and twentieth century racial and national purists, but celebrated in our own “post-modern” age.

The Zodiac, mosaic floor, Beit Alpha Synagogue, early 6th century (Beit Alpha National Park, Israel)


What Jews lacked in territory, wealth and numbers, they made up for in longevity. Jews—short for “the Judeans,” trace their cultural heritage, and sometimes their physical lineage, to the biblical patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (also called Israel) and to the land of Israel (called in Roman times Judaea)—an unbroken chain of 3000 years. This is not just an “imagined” history. No other western community can assert—based upon rich documentary and physical evidence—to have encountered both Cyrus the Great and Innocent III, Caligula and Mohammed, Victoria, Stalin and Rembrandt. Though a minority, Jews maintained rich mimetic traditions across the empires that make up the “Western world,” and an astonishingly complex book culture that has sustained their sense of group cohesion. From antiquity to modern times, it was (and in many ways, still is) possible to travel from Jewish community to Jewish community from Persia to Spain and beyond—as travelers did—and find Jews who shared an all encompassing religious culture—even if they ate “strange” (though always kosher) foods, dressed “funny” (though males still wore the biblically mandated ritual “fringes”) and practiced “strange” local liturgical customs. Not speaking the same vernacular language, a visitor from, say, Germany might have communicated with his hosts in, say, Egypt, by drawing upon mix of “peculiarly pronounced” Hebrew and Aramaic gained through exposure to vast quantities of canonical religious texts.

Jews and their texts—not always together—have been active in what some textbooks still call “the Western Experience” from its beginning. The religious traditions associated with Jesus and Mohammed both assert that Jewish scripture, and interaction with Jews, is essential their own revelations, both of which assert relationship by virtue of having “superseded” the revelation of Moses. In other words, Jews “matter” to Christians and to Muslims, and by virtue of living among them, Christians and Muslims “mattered” to Jews.

The Study of Jewish Art and Architecture

The academic study of Jewish architecture developed from the eighteenth century onward, when Christian Hebraists and bible scholars developed interests in biblical architecture—the Mosaic Tabernacle, the Solomonic Temple and the Herodian Temple—the latter visited by Jesus, who according to the Gospels predicted its destruction in 70 C.E. under emperor Vespasian. Post-“biblical” Jewish architecture did not become a focus of research until discoveries by the Palestine Exploration Fund of late antique synagogues during the 1860s. Medieval and early modern buildings took a bit longer to occasion scholarly interest. Jews in 19th century Europe, America and to some degree Islamic lands and south Asia, were engaged in a full-scale building boom; the largest since Herod the Great’s rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple beginning 20/19 B.C.E. Newly emancipated and emancipating communities asserted their presence by building huge synagogues, experimenting with a wide range of forms, from neo-Egyptian to neo-classical and neo-moresque, eventually settling upon the modern yet traditionalist tones of art deco.

Only at the end of the 19th century did scholars begin to look back and study “Jewish art,” including Jewish architecture; often looking—whether intentionally or not—for roots for the contemporary boom in earlier periods. Hoping to prove that “Jews do art too,” Jews of all stripes hoped to prove their humanity through the creation and study of Jewish art. It was only in post-war New York that the first—and perhaps still the best—comprehensive surveys of Jewish religious architecture were written, both by art historian/architect Rachel Wischnitzer. These were entitled European Synagogue Architecture and Synagogue Architecture in America. By then, the State of Israel had been established, and “Jewish art”—including architecture—became the national art.

The canonical book of this process was Cecil Roth’s Jewish Art: An Illustrated History, first published in Hebrew in 1958 and still in print in Hebrew. This anthology brought together scholars who had been scattered throughout the world due to the War to present a comprehensive history, from Solomon to the present. Architecture—until the modern period, all of it “religious” appears in every period and in almost every article, with some articles dedicated to this subject. The study of Jewish architecture has been of particular interest to Israeli scholars, but also to Americans and Europeans, and the Hebrew University’s Center for Jewish Art has sent teams across the world to document historical synagogues—most no longer used. In Europe, this work takes on additional significance, as it has been spawned by a real interest to regain a now-lost heritage—particularly in the East, as Europe, particularly since the fall of Communism, has sought to develop a more tolerant European tradition and usable history.

In recent years, Jewish visual culture has been deeply assimilated into the academic study of Judaism, really for the first time. Cultural historians, working with art historians and architectural historians, have begun to focus upon the very elements of Jewish “minority” architecture that in previous generations were often spurned. The process by which a small minority group melded with its general environment, transforming and being transformed within that environment has become the stuff of contemporary scholarship. In many ways, the Jews have been the “canary in the coal mine,” the test case for theoretical discussion of what it means to live in diaspora and to be Europe’s first, earliest and most intimate—colonized people.

The Spoils of Jerusalem Brought to Rome, Arch of Titus

By Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Fine

Relief panel with The Spoils of Jerusalem Being Brought into Rome, Arch of Titus, Rome, after 81 C.E., marble, 7’10” high

The Golden Haggadah

By Dr. Elisa Foster / 08.08.2015
Professor of Medieval and Early Modern Art and Architecture
John V. Roach Honors College
Texas Christian University

The preparation for the Passover festival: upper right: Miriam (Moses’ sister), holding a timbrel decorated with an Islamic motif, is joined by maidens dancing and playing contemporary musical instruments; upper left: the master of the house, sitting under a canopy, orders the distribution of matzoh (unleavened bread) and haroset (a sweet made from nuts and fruit) to the children; lower right: the house is prepared for Passover, the man holding a candle searches for leavened bread on the night before Passover and the woman and girl clean; bottom left: sheep are slaughtered for Passover and a man purifies utensils in a cauldron over a fire. From the Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, northern Spain, probably Barcelona (British Library, MS. 27210, fol. 15 recto)

On the eve of the Jewish holiday of Passover, a child traditionally asks a critical question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This question sets up the ritual narration of the story of Passover, when Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt with a series of miraculous events (recounted in the Jewish Bible in the book of Exodus).

Four plagues (clockwise from top left): painful boils afflict the Egyptians, swarms of frogs overrun the land, pestilence kills the domestic animals and wild animals invade the city. From the Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, northern Spain, probably Barcelona (British Library, MS. 27210, fol. 12 verso)

For the last and most terrible in a series of miraculous plagues that ultimately convinced the Egyptian Pharaoh to free the Jews—the death of the first born sons of Egypt—Moses commanded the Jews to paint a red mark on their doors. In doing so, the Angel of Death “passed over” these homes and the children survived. The story of Passover—of miraculous salvation from slavery—is one that is recounted annually by many Jews at a seder, the ritual meal that marks the beginning of the holiday.

The plague of the first-born: in the upper-right corner, three scenes: an angel strikes a man, the queen mourns her baby, and the funeral of the first-born; upper left: Pharaoh orders the Israelites to leave Egypt, the Israelites, holding lumps of dough, walk with hands raised illustrating the verse: “And the children of Israel went out with a high hand”; bottom right: pursuing Egyptians are shown as contemporary knights led by a king; bottom left: the Israelites’ safely cross the Red Sea, Moses takes a last look at the drowning Egyptians. From the Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, northern Spain Plagues (clockwise from top left), probably Barcelona (British Library, MS. 27210, fol. 14 verso)

A Luxurious Book

The book used to tell the story of Passover around the seder table each year is a special one, known as a haggadah (haggadot, pl). The Golden Haggadah, as you might imagine given its name, is one of the most luxurious examples of these books ever created. In fact, it is one of the most luxurious examples of a medieval illuminated manuscript, regardless of use or patronage. So although the Golden Hagaddah has a practical purpose, it is also a fine work of art used to signal the wealth of its owners.

Left: Taking his family back to Egypt, Moses meets Aaron on the way and Zipporah, holding two babies in her arms, rides a mule; right: an angel appears above the bush that burns but is not consumed and on divine instructions, Moses takes off his shoes and hides his face when he hears the voice of God. Upper part of a page from the Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, Northern Spain, probably Barcelona (British Library, MS. 27210, fol. 1o verso)

A hagaddah usually includes the prayers and readings said during the meal and sometimes contained images that could have served as a sort of pictorial aid to envision the history of Passover around the table. In fact, the word “haggadah” actually means “narration” in Hebrew. The Golden Haggadah is one of the most lavishly decorated medieval Haggadot, containing 56 miniatures (small paintings) found within the manuscript. The reason it is called the “Golden” Haggadah is clear—each miniature is decorated with a brilliant gold-leaf background. As such, this manuscript would have been quite expensive to produce and was certainly owned by a wealthy Jewish family. So although many haggadot show signs of use—splashes of wine, etc.—the fine condition of this particular haggadah means that it might have served a more ceremonial purpose, intended to showcase the prosperity of this family living near Barcelona in the early fourteenth century.

Gothic in Style

Moses and Aaron come before Pharaoh, from the Golden Haggadah, c. 1320, Northern Spain, probably Barcelona (British Library, MS. 27210, fol. 1o verso)

The fact that the Golden Haggadah was so richly illuminated is important. Although the second commandment in Judaism forbids the making of “graven images,” haggadot were often seen as education rather than religious and therefore exempt from this rule. The style of the manuscript may look familiar to you—it is very similar to Christian Gothic manuscripts such as the Bible of Saint Louis (below). Look, for example, at the figure of Moses and the Pharaoh (above). He doesn’t really look like an Egyptian pharaoh at all but more like a French king. The long flowing body, small architectural details and patterned background reveal that this manuscript was created during the Gothic period. Whether the artists of the Golden Haggadah themselves were Jewish is open to debate, although it is certainly evident that regardless of their religious beliefs, the dominant style of Christian art in Europe clearly influenced the artists of this manuscript.

Blanche of Castile and King Louis IX of France (detail), Dedication Page with Blanche of Castile and King Louis IX of France, Bible of Saint Louis (Moralized Bible), c. 1225–1245, ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum (The Morgan Library and Museum, MS M. 240, fol. 8)

Cross-Cultural Styles

So the Golden Haggadah is both stylistically an example of Jewish art and Gothic art. Often Christian art is associated with the Gothic style but it is important to remember that artists, regardless of faith, were exchanging ideas and techniques. In fact, while the Golden Haggadah looks Christian (Gothic) in style, other examples of Jewish manuscripts, such as the Sarajevo Haggadah, blend both Christian and Islamic influences. This cross-cultural borrowing of artistic styles happened throughout Europe, but was especially strong in medieval Spain, where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together for many centuries. Despite periods of persecution, the Jews of Spain, known as Sephardic Jews, developed a rich culture of Judaism on the Iberian Peninsula. The Golden Haggadah thus stands as a testament to the impact and significance of Jewish culture in medieval Spain—and the rich multicultural atmosphere of that produced such a magnificent manuscript.