The (Modern) Orthodox Forum Discusses Art and Culture

by Elke Reva Sudin for

A call for innovation in the arts was discussed this week at The Orthodox Forum, an academic conference hosted by Yeshiva University.

The mission of this year’s conference was to come to terms and innovate art and cultural trends not inherently understood in the community. The discourse reflected the Modern Orthodox insecurities balancing integration with general society while remaining halachically and traditionally Orthodox.

Major issues discussed were the boundaries of art in the Jewish community.

“The separation between art and religion is convenient for both sides.” Rabbi Yuval Sherlow stressed during the panel Sprituality, Art, and Halacha. He noted religious figures appreciate not having to deal with the hard issues of what is accepted in this very gray area, and artists like being free from judgment from those who don’t understand them. Sherlow advocated for the breaking of barriers which have been created by fear and lack of understanding.

The role of boundaries was central to the debate of how to be Jewish within broader society. Where are the lines drawn? Where can we innovate? What limit should be put on religious artists? Should they have limitations?

Artist David Moss noted that boundaries create opportunities. “You can’t think out of the box if you don’t have a box to start with.” In response the Rabbis could not predict how artists could work with limitations when they pictured artists as beings exploding with unrestrained expression. Art scholars participating pointed out that every art has the limitations of the medium as well as many other limitations to work around on a consistent basis. You cannot just thrust your soul on a canvas with unrestraint; it frankly wouldn’t come out very well.

The discourse concluded that art appreciation is lacking and did so in the traditional dry dialogue familiar to the academic community. This mode of discussion illustrates the essential lack of oomph necessary to properly address the issues of artistic integration and cultural revolutions. Participants were rabbinical educators for the most part, with a limited number of artistic representatives. In order to properly understand the role of the arts there needs to be a fair amount of people qualified to represent issues on the topics at hand.

What the Modern Orthodox academic community is just beginning to realize is that “art” holds value of its own. It is a natural extension of learning, a tool to explain the complicated, adding color, depth, and understanding. It exists everywhere whether you realize it or not and has the ability to translate and transcend.

The fears that built these limitations in the first place were the understandings of the intrinsic power of the image to alter perceptions. This is such a powerful draw with the ability to distract viewer from the power’s inherent source, the unifying oneness that is the source of thought and creation, the God factor.

Art is a majorly powerful tool for communication. An artwork becomes sacred when it takes on a power of its own. This power can be used to influence for the positive, transcend limitations, or be cast towards the opposite, used for the purpose of avodah zara, or idol worship.

We have the choice to break down barriers and use this power for good. The alternative is to lose out on Judaism. Without art, without culture, what is left is a long list of rules and history without any emotional or spiritual elements to give it life, and that would be a very great loss for us all.

Elke Reva Sudin is an illustrator and contemporary Jewish art advocate based in Brooklyn, New York. View her work on and follow her Jewish art news and resources site at