Art for Art’s Sake
If there were a Cliff Notes version of the Ten Commandments, Commandment #2 would simply read: “You shall have no other Gods before me.” But, in truth, the commandment itself is more detailed:
You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, even any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the third and fourth generations of those who hate me, and showing mercy to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-9).
This seems pretty straight forward–worshiping other gods and making idols is strictly forbidden! However, a frequently asked question about this commandment is whether the prohibition of making graven images includes images made exclusively as art (i.e. not for worship).
The Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon/Maimonides) in Mishneh Torah Avodah Zarah (3:10), rules that creating decorative items is included in the prohibition, particularly any images of the human form alone. However, the prohibition is only for images that are three-dimensional. In fact, Maimonides specifically states that images that are engraved, painted or part of a tapestry are not prohibited.
Even 3-D sculptures are not entirely prohibited. Beyond abstract art or sculptures of animals and inanimate objects, many opinions on this subject follow the Ba’al Ha’Turim’s understanding that one may make a statue of a human form as long as it is incomplete (missing a finger, bust of a head, etc).
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