The Interpretive Imagination



The Interpretive Imagination: Connections between Religion and Art in Jewish Culture in its Contexts

Scholion's new research group set to join the Center in October 2008 will focus on an integrated examination of the religious and the artistic, and their aesthetic, experiential and interpretive aspects. These two areas - religion and art - exist in culture, and are perceived by research both as interconnected and separate fields. The group intends to examine the system of connections between them, posing questions both from an historic perspective and a phenomenological aspect, in accordance to their areas of interest. Thus, they hope to understand the ways in which artistic traditions and genres contribute to religious (or, alternatively, secularized) consciousness and experience, and the manner in which these generate new artistic approaches.

The interdisciplinary integration of our group, which covers the principal expressive channels of the arts - music, literature and visual art - will allow a unique and productive devising of new methodologies for the investigation of Jewish culture. The reciprocal relations between the arts and the history of commentary on the Holy Scriptures, and all its traditional and innovative aspects, comprise an integral part of our thinking. The group believes that the commentary work of writers, poets, artists and musicians is worthy of extensive examination of the type devoted to the writings of the principal philosophers, such as Herder, Mendelssohn and Buber. Poetic freedom does not make the interpretive actions of artists less accurate or significant. On the contrary, borne on the wings of artistic imagination, artists can break through to insights that cannot be accessed by other means of interpretation. The group would like to examine not only the poetic and romantic choices of the individual artists but also of communities, the unique approaches they devised with regard to artistic interpretation and design, and to thereby re-examine the work of individuals that emerged from them.

Thus, the group proffers various research questions, such as: what characterizes religious art in different eras? Do the religious perceptions of a given culture, Jewish or otherwise, suit its artistic application? And, in the Jewish context: can one discern aesthetic principles that guided the formation of public and private Jewish life? Was theological or Halachic justice done to them?

Their research work, which will focus on formative moments in Jewish history, will include an equating angle, particularly in relation to Christian societies. They shall, therefore, ask to what degree were artistic designs in the Jewish world influenced by artistic approaches of the Christian (or Muslim) environment, and to what extent was there explicit awareness of these influences? How were the Jewish designs methods perceived by the surrounding cultures, and how did they contribute to the Jewish self-image and external image? How should artistic endeavor be interpreted within research of Jewish history, and how should this be integrated within the thinking of the overall intellectual work? What makes allegorical expression so central in the artistic formalization of the religious content? They will endeavor to indicate ways of understanding the manner in which the religious phenomenon generates change and artistic revolution on the one hand, and on the other hand artistic continuity and conservatism and how, alternatively, artistic creation allows a subversive process within existing traditions. They will look to examine the thought about these issues as developed by historians and thinkers, religious figures and philosophers, artists and writers in the periods relevant to our research.

Due to the integration of the fields, and focal points, various topics will lie at the center of their research, such as: the institutional-spatial context of religious artistic creation (the synagogue, the home, the study hall, the cultural center and the concert hall, and other private and community areas); the religious ceremony as a complex system that incorporates various channels of artistic expression and which comprises a source of inspiration for both ancient and modern artistic expression; the individual artists as expressers of group and private religious feelings; the area of sanctity and its connection to the area of beauty, artistic-poetic ways of taking canonical texts and works, and their adaptation to changing life experiences.

In historical terms, their areas of interest include the latter part of ancient times, as well as the beginning of the modern era, focusing jointly on the 19th century and early 20th centuries. With regard to this era they will relate both to the religious and artistic work of the actual period and to the formation of principal research approaches in the field of religion, literature, music, art, ethnography and folklore, approaches and thought processes whose influence is valid to this very day. In view of the modern emphasis of our research, they will deal extensively with, on the one hand, the dialectic relations between the role of the arts in empowering secularization processes, as well as their contribution in forming religious alternatives to traditional patterns on the other. They believe this aspect is of the greatest importance today, with the increase of religious ways of life that are perceived as threatening to the liberal approaches and secular way of life that are the bequest of the era of the Enlightenment. The global context of these phenomena is fundamental to the understanding of the dimensions and dynamics that characterize them: their forms of expression can be seen in all strands of contemporary Israeli and Jewish art. All these will engage them, separately and comparatively, in their various contexts.

The group believes that Scholion’s shared framework offers a rare opportunity for them to join forces in promoting general research into the connections between art and religion, in the wider Jewish context and beyond, and to thus mutually reinforce their individual research work.


Group Members:

Prof. Richard I. Cohen

Prof. Ruth Hacohen

Prof. Galit Hasan-Rokem

Prof. Ilana Pardes

Yonatan Benarroch

Irina Chernetsky

Anat Danziger

Vered Madar

Tehila Mishor




November 2008 – The group, together with the Department for General and Comparative Literature, held a symposium in honor of Ilana Pardes’ new book: Melville’s Bibles.

May 2009 – The group held a conference titled: ‘Emancipation Through Sound and Image: Jews Entering the Fine Arts

March 2011 – The Group held a conference titled: "Jew Süss” in History and Fiction: Literature, Cinema, Music

May 2011 – The group held a concluding international conference titled: ‘Interpretive Imagination: Religion and Arts in Jewish and Neighboring Cultures’