Aesthetics and the Divine

Engaging Artists, Fostering Religious Art

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Shimon Dovid Cowen
  • Victoria, Australia: 
    Hybrid Publishers
    , August
     480 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Rabbi Dr. Shimon Cowen’s Aesthetics and the Divine: Engaging Artists, Fostering Religious Artrepresents several decades of his work engaging with a variety of artists. In this new book, Cowen offers a unique perspective on the intersection of Judaism and what he refers to as “high art,” informed by his affiliation with Chabad Hasidism. His strong adherence to religious orthodoxy is apparent in Aesthetics and the Divine, and while I will raise critical concerns about his arguments from my religiously progressive perspective, I do not intend to criticize his personal beliefs. Ultimately, Cowen’s exploration of the interface between aesthetics and Judaism is insightful and dynamic.

Cowen opens Aesthetics and the Divinewith the baseless and subjective claim that “there is little religious art and very little great religious art” (v). Surely, by “religious art,” Cowen means art that is informed by traditional, orthodox Judaism—yet, this statement ignores the artistic achievements of Jews whose religiously-informed art is based in other sects or practices. Additionally, Cowen underscores this broad claim by arguing that Judaism can be universalized to all religions via their shared Abrahamic heritage and the lineage back to Noah as the survivor of the biblical flood. That argument is easily disputable, because not all world religions share this lineage. If Cowen had more clearly specified that his focus would be on traditional Jewish thought, then the book’s premise would be sound.

In chapter 1, Cowen offers a powerful philosophical argument for the importance of art in religion, and vice versa. Hegel and Adorno agree that beauty exists not in the universe but in human interaction with the universe. Cowen beautifully connects this idea to religion: in art, we create beauty through our interaction with the object, much as in religion, we create beauty through our interaction with worldly manifestations of the Divine and the practice of Divine ethical precepts. This statement powerfully articulates the importance of the symbiotic relationship between religion and art. In the rest of this chapter, Cowen’s arguments on what makes art religious are Jewish-centric but nevertheless effective.

The middle three chapters detail Cowen’s interactions with three individual artists and present an argument as to what makes their art religious. Chapter 2 focuses on painter Victor Majzner’s “Images of Tanya,” a series of twelve paintings from 2001-2002 each inspired by a section of Tanya, the eighteenth-century book of Hasidic mysticism. Cowen’s choice of Tanyaas a model for universal religious art is dubious, as the book is exclusive to Hasidism. Furthermore, Tanyais controversial because of its concept that the souls of Gentile nations of the world are “impure” or “unclean” (in Hebrew, tameh—see Tanya, chapter 1). Nevertheless, Cowen’s descriptions of each of the twelve paintings provide a clear picture of Majzner’s work. His discussion of Majzner’s use of symbolism, color, structure, and humor clearly elucidates the connection of the aesthetic and the religious in Images of Tanya.

Chapter 3 focuses on author Richard Freadman’s 2003 book, Shadow of Doubt: My Father and Myself(Bystander Press), in which Freadman recounts his father Paul’s life. According to Freadman, Paul failed to realize his full potential due to a lack of willpower, deepening depression, and tendency to put others’ needs above his own. Cowen argues that Paul’s failures resulted from the dissonance between the “decency of traditional religious, in this case, Jewish, origin, and a success ethic of modern capitalist origin” (76). In short, Paul would have led a happier life if he had lived as an orthodox Jew. This assertion inadequately addresses the psychological underpinnings of Paul’s self-destructive decision-making by saying that they should have not been present in the first place. He might have found greater happiness and fulfillment in traditional religious life, but his failures were surely due to deeper factors. For example, Cowen admits that Paul’s propensity to worry excessively was likely a congenital psychological condition. Nevertheless, Cowen draws a fascinating and insightful parallel between Richard’s relationship with Paul and the biblical account of Jacob’s relationship with Abraham: just as Jacob “redeemed” Abraham (see Isaiah 29:22), Richard “redeemed” Paul by arguing in his book that he was a decent man despite his failings. Cowen’s understanding of Richard’s relationship with Paul through the lens of the commandment to “honor your father and mother” is insightful as well, demonstrating that Richard in fact gained religiously-based morals and attitudes through his father's decency.

Chapter 4 focuses on composer Felix Werder’s “From the Straits,” a setting of Psalm 118 for voice and piano. Cowen interprets Werder’s use of twelve-tone technique in the piece as an antithesis to the Hellenistic concept of beauty which “models G-d on nature and on the human’s natural sense and measure of harmony and resolution” (102). Whereas Pythagorean tonality models God on nature, atonality represents a transcendent God—“a smashing of the idols, including all representationsof the transcendent Divine” (102). This analysis is unique and fascinating, albeit narrow. In future work, maybe Cowen can explore how Jewish composers employ different atonal techniques to represent religious transcendence. Cowen’s analysis of text-painting in “From the Straits” is helpful, yet the chapter could be strengthened by an examination of the work’s numerous other elements—imitation between voice and piano, the non-metered structure, the interplay between consonance and dissonance, and so on.

In the final chapter, Cowen recounts an evolution in his thought: whereas he originally believed that Jewish “high art” could best be achieved by a return to traditional religion, his work with Majzner led him to believe that Jewish high art could be achieved through a “symbiosis…a fusion of skills of the artist with the spiritual knowledge of the teacher” (123-24). Each of the three artists created Jewish art through the process of developing deep Jewish knowledge. This new outlook suggests that artists of any religion should have deep knowledge of their religion to create meaningful religious art. Ultimately, this imperative is the universal message the reader should take away from Aesthetics and the Divine. Through the lens of Cowen’s Hasidic worldview, the book powerfully demonstrates that connecting religion and art elevates our experience of both.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Klaus is an Indepedent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shimon Dovid Cowen is Director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization in Melbourne, Australia. His books include The Theory and Practice of Universal Ethics – the Noahide Laws.


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