Forbidden images

What, exactly, is a so-called “graven image” of God, and how does the Second Commandment forbidding such both inspire and intimidate Jewish artists?

An upcoming art exhibit designed for the annual “Feast of Jewish Learning, “called “Divine Images: Community Artists Encounter the Second Commandment,” explores the theme within the local Jewish art world.

“Divine Images” begins with a grand opening celebration Sunday, Feb. 8, at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

BJE Library Director Jonathan Schwartz said the “Divine Images” exhibit was planned to tie in to the overall theme of the “Feast “— “Visions, Prophecy and Dreams” — and to make the artists think.

“We find that challenging the artists with ideas, with a new way of looking at things, is the best way to go,” he said.

The curator is Ruth Caprow, 49, a lifelong artist and student of Torah at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom, where she has discussed artistic dilemmas with Rabbi Alan Lew.

Caprow said she has always feared creating art that would violate the Second Commandment, although most scholars agree that it does not prohibit painting or sculpture except for purposes of idolatry. But recently, she began a series of commissioned paintings on Jewish mysticism, the first of which, “Ezekiel’s Vision,” will appear on the cover of the book “Jewish Gnosticism, Merkabah Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition” by Gershom Scholem.

While Caprow ultimately became liberated by the idea of painting an image that was commissioned, she was resistant at first, she said.

“I had never done it,” she said, recalling she asked herself, “You’re going to do the vision of Ezekiel? Yeah, right! That takes chutzpah.”

In her letter inviting artists to participate in the exhibit, Caprow wrote, “When we transform our dreams and visions into an object or image, we inevitably face the Second Commandment’s prohibitions against creating images: ‘You are not to make yourself a carved image or any figure that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth.’ We urge you to take heart and create your dreams or interpret those of our history which speak to your soul.”

Some 25 artists accepted her invitation, and if the titles of some of their pieces are an indication — “G-d looks like nothing and nothing looks like G-d,” “Kabbalah” and “We are One” — the artists have risen to Caprow’s challenge. The materials and formats they used run the gamut of artistic expression and include oil, watercolor, acrylic, textiles, beads, ceramic, gold leaf and metal. There’s a sculpture, paintings, collage, quilts, photography and digital imaging.

Jennifer Kaufman, 34, an artist participating in the exhibit and a longtime Torah student, said she has never felt constrained by the Second Commandment.

“I’ve never thought in those terms. When I’m creating art, I’m neither turning my back on God nor defining God. The activity of art is what’s sacred, not the final result. Being in my studio, I’m connecting to my experience of God in my full being. I’m opening myself to the deepest I-Thou experience.”

Kaufman came to grips with the commandment back as a kindergartner, when she rode by a statue of Jesus every day on the way to Congregation Sherith Israel religious school in San Francisco, she said.

“I knew that was what that commandment meant. It was a prohibition of going outside oneness. ‘No graven images’ meant ‘don’t look elsewhere, everything connects here,'” she said.

Kaufman has a bachelor’s degree in studio art from Wellesley College and a master’s degree in drawing and painting from California College of Arts and Crafts. She has been a sculptor, but above all she prefers the depth, spontaneity and visual punning potential of drawing with ink, charcoal, pencil, graphite, pastels and acrylic. Her art and religion are inseparable, she said.

“The questions I’ve always had in my life have been the same in my art and my Jewish observance. Am I living life to the fullest? What’s going to happen to me? The questions keep you anchored, commanded to walk with God but not give it all over, like the structure and the chance, the representational and the abstract in art.”

Curator Caprow also turns to her art with questions.

“Painting is how I understand things, how I understand the world,” she said.

Caprow said she has found it rewarding to gather questions and reflections for the panel discussion on “Divine Images: Community Artists Encounter the Second Commandment.” It will be held Thursday, Feb. 19, at the library. Panelists involved in the Bay Area’s Jewish art world will discuss their interpretations of image-making and a rabbi will offer a religious perspective. Participants include George Krevsky, owner of the George Krevsky Gallery at 77 Geary, S.F.; Anthony Dubovsky, professor of architecture at U.C. Berkeley and an exhibiting artist in “Divine Images”; Natasha Perlis, curatorial assistant at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco; Chanan Feld, Berkeley Chabad rabbi and mohel; and Daniel Y. Harris, poet, visual artist and faculty member of Lehrhaus Judaica.

Caprow, the coordinator for the BJE Art Educators Network and the art educator at Congregation Beth Sholom’s Religious School, will serve as panel discussion moderator.

While the exhibit offers an ongoing visual dialogue, engaging panelists from the art community and the audience in conversation will add new perspectives and insights, Caprow said.

“Every time an artist sets down a dream, vision or prophecy, the Second Commandment, if taken literally, denies the ability to do that. It will be interesting to examine what the Second Commandment tells us now, and in the past,” Caprow said.

Divine Images: Community Artists Encounter the Second Commandment” opens with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 8, and runs through May 22 at the BJE library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. A panel discussion takes place at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19, at the library. Information: (415) 567-3327.