Outside Aphrodite’s Bathhouse: On Rachel Neis, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture: Jewish Ways of Seeing in Late Antiquity, Cambridge University Press, 2013, by Zachary Braiterman
As a devoted reader, I was flattered by Yitz and Shai’s invitation to review for The Talmud Blog the new book by Rachel Neis, arguably the first full length study ever on “rabbinic aesthetics” or “rabbinic visual culture.” As a scholar trained in modern Jewish thought and philosophy, I have explored in my own work the intersection of art, philosophical aesthetics, and Jewish culture. It’s on that basis that I was asked to read Rachel Neis’ book. Why not?
Some back story: Many years ago already, either thirteen or fourteen years, I participated in a year-long forum devoted to modern Jewish culture and the arts. I’ll try to not name any names. The group assembled scholars trained in Jewish Studies such as history and literature with scholars trained in the arts, especially visual arts. It was a groundbreaking project. Art and visual culture were still under-developed fields of research and teaching in Jewish Studies. Indeed, the group was a disaster. It was complained that the veteran Jewish Studies scholars did not know anything about art and aesthetics, and that the scholars at work in the arts knew nothing about Jewish history and culture. Gender complicated the battle lines in ways that should have been obvious, splitting women to the arts, men to Jewish history.
To start off the year, a senior and distinguished scholar of rabbinics and rabbinic culture was invited to present to the group his thoughts about art and aesthetic culture in the rabbinic literature. As if on cue, the text that he brought to the group was Rabban Gamliel in Aphrodite’s bathhouse. He presented the story as if it represented some major surprise, but the choice was obvious and unremarkable and his comments unexceptional. No big surprise, the rabbis mediate their way around Greek aesthetic environments. When asked about their own aesthetic culture, the way in which the rabbis themselves shaped aesthetic worlds of their own invention, the distinguished scholar drew a complete blank.
I think today no further proof is needed than Rachel Neis’ The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture to realize that the study of rabbinics has left for good Aphrodite’s bathhouse and the facile association of art and aesthetics with idolatry and paganism. Part of the problem for an earlier generation of scholars may have well been not knowing where to look and what to look for in relation to what is, indeed, a complex relation between aesthetic, visual, and material culture.
Neis makes clear that aniconism is part of a larger regime of looking and viewing, that looking away is just one strategy that sits alongside other kinds of looking. Deeply immersed into contemporary visual theory, Neis points out that visuality is not just a physical or optical phenomenon. Visuality is instead prescriptive, filtered through cultural and political perspectives, including gender. God, eros, idols, and the sages themselves are the primary phenomena on view in The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture in chapters 2-3, 4, 5, 6 respectively.
In chapter 2, Neis argues that the tannaim in m. Hagigah 1:1-2 set up the ideal of the reciprocal looking between God and Israel as part of the re’iyah, interpreted by the rabbis as a separate ceremony at the Jerusalem Temple. Closeness to God has a visual register whose loss with the destruction of the Temple is mourned by the Babylonian rabbis who hope to see its restoration.
In chapter 3, Neis explores the cultic “culture of divine display,” the memory of cultic Temple objects such as the showbread table and the cherubim over the ark acting as indices to God’s presence.
Chapter 4 is devoted to the idea of visual eros , the fragmentation of female bodies, visual eugenics, seeing and touching, Romans and Jews and beautiful men, and the problem presented by the sight of naked men, an “autovisuality” by which “a man is the object of his own gaze.”
The subject of chapter 5 is idols, and the relative concern and the relative lack of concern about idols in Palestinian versus Babylonian rabbinic sources, and different ways of not looking and looking at forbidden things.
In chapter 6, Neis returns the discussion back to divinity, as represented by the sages as visual icons, as the cardinal object of rabbinic visuality, the rabbis recognized as radiant by Jews and Romans alike.
Along the way, Neis pays attention to Roman visual culture, the presence of icons and the living holy, while trying, speculatively, to make sense of visuality in the Bavli in relation to Zoroastrian visuality and its discourse of the visible and invisible. As a study of ancient Jewish iconicity, Neis’ discussion is Temple-centric. Visuality as imagined by the rabbis is framed according to the architectural space of the Temple, immersed in its precincts, especially the Holy of Holies, and preoccupied by the cultic objects. In contrast, the Hurban now represents not just a political crisis, but a spiritual crisis conceived as visual crisis, in which the sage stands in for God as a visual marker. As for the difference between rabbis in Babylonia versus the Land of Israel, the former are free from and critical of Palestinian visual asceticism, less exposed to and therefore less bothered by idols, satirical about visual piety, cool, abstract, and hyperreal. For their part, the Land of Israel rabbis are presented as more earthy, embodied, more given to touch and tactile objects.
While others are more clearly qualified to vet the reading of the rabbis advanced by Neis, I would only say one critical word about a marvelous book. About visuality and visual culture, there seems to be the remnant of a guilty conscience whose source may have less to do with the rabbis and more to do with the French theory that undergirds the analysis here. Much more than the rabbis are, Neis is a little rough on “images,” which she sees as “colonizing.” That her eyes here remain “downcast” (to paraphrase Martin Jay’s critique of occularphobia in twentieth century French thought) may stem from the place of politics in contemporary theory. The attention by Neis to “power” and to “subject formation” will, no doubt, remind many readers of Foucault. The political angle here relates to the prescribing, and rabbinizing, and legislating of vision. But one can just as easily imagine that this is simply the way the rabbis saw things in the world around them, and the way they wanted to see God, according to ideas and sets of ideas about the world. I wonder if the critical-scholarly attention that wants to be political, that wants to think about power ends up reducing everything to politics, obscuring the more overarching visual aesthetic that Neis wants to uncover.
A little bit of “post-critical” theory might have helped in this regard. Indeed, maybe subject formation is not the most useful or the only useful theoretical rubric with which to study, in this case, the rabbis. Reading the secondary literature produced by my colleagues in the field of rabbinics, it would seem they think that what mattered most to the rabbis was the rabbis themselves, their own position, their own authority, their own power, their own subject formation etc. Sitting outside this particular scholars’ game, I tend to be more naïve about these kinds of things. To frame these questions simply around power and politics is to beg the question. Whose power, after all, are the rabbis after? Maybe the central subject and object of visualization is not the rabbis. Do they really stand themselves in for God? I’m not convinced, and I’m not convinced that Neis herself doesn’t walk this argument back a little, when she maintains that the substitution of the rabbi’s face for God’s face may be “just a place-holder and one that points to lack of direct access to God himself” (p.246). As Neis herself notes, the rabbi as icon might stand less as an icon of God, and more as an icon of Torah (p.251). But the Torah is more visual a “thing” than is God, which might mean that the central object or subject of visualization for the rabbis is not so much the rabbis themselves as much as the Torah itself. Even if they understood the power and radiance of the one as invested in the power and radiance of the other, by framing the subjecthood and objecthood of vision and visuality in this way, we begin to see how the Torah, as systematized by the rabbis, especially in the Bavli, is as “hyper-real,” as unreal and abstracted from material conditions as Neis herself suggests it is (p.245-6).
Steeping the rabbis and ancient Jewish aesthetics in visual theory, The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture is a groundbreaking work. In importance, I would place this book alongside Elliot Wolfson’s Through A Speculum that Shines as a go-to work that should change the way all of us think about Judaism and the visual imagination. The signal contribution of this book is to have taken the study of rabbinic aesthetics out of Aphrodite’s bathhouse, placing it back into the Temple and its memory, into the lifeworld of the rabbis, as they imagined it; as they saw not just the object world of Roman paganism, but as they saw themselves as aesthetic subjects and aesthetic objects, or to paraphrase philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as both seers and seen. My only real complaint is that the book was not three times as many pages as it is. Neis writes in a limpid prose. I’d have followed her every step of the way. I cannot recommend this work enough to anyone at work in fields of Jewish Studies, in art, history, literature, philosophy and thought. A groundbreaking work, there is so much more area to cover, both inside and outside the folios of midrash and Talmud.
Zachary Braiterman works in modern Jewish thought and culture in the Religion Department at Syracuse University. He is the author of The Shape of Revelation: Aesthetics and Modern Jewish Thought, and blogs at Jewish Philosophy Place.