Rabbi I Have a Problem

Is it permissible to draw a nude in an art class?

An Orthodox and a Reform rabbi discuss issues in contemporary Jewish life


QUESTION:  I am really keen to take an art class as I love drawing. But would I have to stay away if we were asked to draw nudes as this would be against Jewish tradition?

Rabbi Brawer: The issue of making art from a halachic perspective stems from the second of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.”

On the surface, this verse appears to prohibit all forms of representation, both drawings and sculpture, of any celestial body as well as any terrestrial or amphibious being. That pretty much precludes all representative art. 

However, Maimonides takes a lenient view with regard to human representation (he is more stringent when it comes to depicting celestial bodies) inasmuch as he understands the verse to prohibit three-dimensional relief sculpture, but not two-dimensional drawing or painting (Law of Idolatry 3:10). Not everyone agrees with Maimonides’ lenient position. The Ra’abad , Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquieres, and Ritba, Rabbi Yom Tov Ishbili, take the view that even a two- dimensional depiction of the human form is prohibited.

Jacob ben Asher, author of the 14th- century halachic code known as Tur, sides with Maimonides and permits two-dimensional human representation but adds the caveat that the depiction must be an incomplete one.

Interestingly, the oldest surviving illuminated Ashkenazi Haggadah is known as the Bird’s Head Haggadah because its colourful depictions of Jews in various stages of festival preparation and celebration are comprised of human bodies with bird-like heads. It is impossible to know for certain why they are so depicted, but it is plausible that it is to avoid violating the law against complete human depiction.

Rabbi Joseph Caro in his Code of Jewish Law rules likewise that a human form may be depicted in two dimensions (Yoreh Deah 141:4). Several paragraphs later he adds that some authorities are of the view that the depiction must be an incomplete one. And Rabbi Moshe Isserles asserts in a gloss that this is  the definitive practice. The depiction of a celestial body however, is prohibited even in two dimensions, but if the depiction is for instructional or educational purposes, it is permitted in any form. 

In summary, the consensus is that it is permitted to draw anything less than a complete human form. And according to some, even that is permitted, provided it is in two dimensions and not three. Should one wish to be especially careful in this regard, omitting the most minor of features is sufficient.

Rabbi Brawer is Neubauer chief executive of Hillel, Tufts University

Rabbi Romain: There could be four objections. The first is fear of creating an image that might become the object of worship. But this is far removed from the purpose of the session, which I imagine is listed as an art appreciation class or for skills improvement and is not billed as a religious experience.

Of course, you could take the drawing home and gaze admiringly at it, but that is far from worship, involving prayers and rituals. 

Intriguingly, there does not seem to be any problem in a large number of synagogues at having depictions of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, adorning calendars and other items. It is a level of hero-worship that some might argue borders dangerously close to idolisation. 

Still, if it is acceptable for him to be all-pervasive, then your single drawing is far from sacrilegious.

A second objection might be that it demeans the men or women who are displaying their nakedness to others. But it is not only voluntary (and sought after), but something for which they are paid and gain from.

A third objection might be that you are being immodest for looking upon them, but you are celebrating the human form as created by God, not disparaging it.

The final objection might be that it leads to sexual temptation. This might be valid if it were a private session, which started with brush-strokes and ended in bed. However, it is a public class and so that scenario is unlikely.

Of course, the session might provoke lascivious thoughts, but they are part of our DNA anyway, while there is a wonderful rabbinic tale as how best to deal with them:
A man told his rabbi that his seat in synagogue was near a window and every now and then a beautiful woman would pass by, and the sight of her would distract him from his prayers. What should he do? Even when he moved seat, he still found himself thinking of her.

The rabbi replied: don’t try to force her out of your mind; instead, feel free to look up from the prayer book and gaze at her adoringly when she passes; think what a beautiful form she has; think of how wonderful is the Creator who fashioned her; praise God for His marvellous works; return to your prayers with added awe.
So, we can use beauty to deepen religious awareness. Enjoy the class.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue 

If you have a problem to put to our rabbis, please ring 020 7415 1676 or email with details

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