Straus Center Class Spotlight: The Image and the Idea

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This semester, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, and Dr. Jacob Wisse, director of the Yeshiva University Museum, are co-teaching The Image and the Idea, a class on the relationship between Jewish thought and art.

YU News sat down with Dr. Wisse to discuss the course, which is being offered under the Straus Center’s Graduate Certificate in Jewish Political and Social Thought.


What is the class about, and what can students expect to gain from it?

The class is an exploration of the dynamic tension that exists between the physical world or visual culture—the “image”—and the spiritual world or intellectual culture—the “idea.”

This is a tension that is vital to art, which uses materials and physical processes to express concepts and our inner or spiritual life; and this tension is an animating characteristic of Judaism, which celebrates and recognizes the divine origins of our physical being and the world in which we live, while recognizing the limits and frailty of physical existence and striving to express something of more monumental and lasting value in the unseen, intangible world.

At its heart, though, the class is a dialogue between an art historian and a Jewish philosopher/theologian, who explore and discuss together the overlapping, mutually inspiring and occasionally conflicting ideals that are at the core of their disciplines. We hope to convey the vitality of these traditions as well as to demonstrate the value of true interdisciplinary dialogue.

On the one hand, we want students to gain access to fundamental values at the core of our artistic and Jewish traditions. On the other, we hope they will find inspiration in, be challenged by and, ultimately, enjoy seeing two people navigate such rich, intellectual terrain together. We’re not just teaching. We’re learning from each other and bringing the students into that process, which I think adds a real element of excitement to the class.

(left) Rembrandt, Sketch of Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, after Raphael, 1639, Albertina, Vienna
(right) Raphael, Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, 1514-1515, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris

What do you think the role of art is in the Jewish faith?

I’ll happily leave it to my (rabbinic) teaching partner to tackle that one, but I will say that preparing for this class—and especially listening to Rabbi Soloveichik discuss the ways our sources and the greatest Jewish thinkers have reflected on art—has made it even more powerfully clear to me how receptive Judaism is to the experience and value of art. Indeed, even the concern expressed in the Tanach and Talmud over the human temptation to render the Divine into finite form resonates palpably with an inherent tension between descriptive and abstract tendencies in art. So, even when Jewish sources express trepidation about artists who depict things in ineffective or inappropriate ways, those concerns are echoed by debates taking place in and around the (non-Jewish) canon of art.

What texts and images will students be reading and discussing? Are there any images/artists in particular that stand out to you as essential to understanding the subject you’re addressing in the class?

In true interdisciplinary spirit, we draw on a wide range of texts and writers, from early and modern Jewish sources and commentators to artists and art historians to poets and philosophers. We expect many of the texts and writers to be new to the students, especially the art historical literature. Even the familiar sources, whether they are Biblical, Talmudic or rabbinic, we approach in new ways or juxtapose with unfamiliar parallels or counterparts.

We’ll be looking at everything from ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, Greek and Roman art to Renaissance masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Baroque painters like Rembrandt and Velazquez, and early modern artists like Turner and Courbet.

Going back and forth between ancient and modern and between Jewish sources and art historical criticism helps bring to life the fluidity of the tension we’re addressing.

How does the class exemplify the ideal of Torah Umadda?

I feel this class is a uniquely YU experience. It blends Jewish ideas and Torah values with an exploration of art and the ways artists depict the world. Not only does it express the ideal of Torah Umadda, it also reveals some of its practical and broader long-term benefits. The course brings together faculty from different disciplines but also students from a diverse range of majors and interests.

One of the most enjoyable things about the course is that students who may have taken a course in Jewish thought with Rabbi Soloveichik or a course in art history with me are now in conversation together, engaging each other. We want students to feel that these various interests they have, whether personal, professional, familial or worldly, speak to each other and shouldn’t exist in silos. The discussions taking place in class between students from different majors and between us are among the very goals of the course. As Rabbi Soloveichik has said, the course helps create a conversation between two worlds. If such conversations continue outside of class, even better.

In a non-COVID world, this course would feature trips to area museums, including the YU Museum. Why is it important for students to explore these locations? Is it possible to replace these visits with virtual tours or online content, or do you lose something by doing so?

As a small seminar-like group, we may indeed have the clearance and ability after the holidays to go on a few field trips to various museums. The advantages such opportunities offer are immense. New York’s unparalleled museums give us access to some of the greatest foundational works of art. There is also nothing quite like discussing art in the presence of the art. It allows you to see things you would otherwise miss.

That said, as a course that focuses on ideas and the intersection of ideas from different realms, there’s a lot we can do and a great deal of ground we can cover with virtual reproductions.

Why did you decide to teach this course? Why is it interesting and meaningful to you?

The course grew out of conversations I had with Rabbi Soloveichik and the interest we have in discussing things together, which to some degree has become the inspiration for the form of the class as well. We wanted it to be an integrated dialogue, channeling the spirit and energy of our conversations, not just a Jewish thought lecture and an art history lecture side-by-side.

The class offers me a remarkable opportunity to explore ideas I’m fascinated by and that have helped inspire my love of art and to do so alongside Rabbi Soloveichik and in the context of a broader discussion that has broader Jewish, philosophical and moral relevance and implications.

That is fulfilling and exciting stuff.

Maurycy Gottlieb, Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878, oil on canvas, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

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