Students at the Maimonides Day School in Albany got up-close lessons in modern day idolatry when a travelling sculpture exhibit set up shop for several months in the New York capital.

Most people would be surprised to learn that idolatry, a fixture of ancient times prohibited by the Ten Commandments, still exists in the present day. And a host of Jewish texts, both classical and medieval, discuss the laws governing the prohibitions on idol manufacture and use. But for the students at Maimonides, the question was simple: Did the offerings of sculptor Seward Johnson’s “Sculpture in the Streets” fall under the rubric of “graven images” and thus, run counter to Jewish law?

“We integrate their Jewish learning with their experiences in the real world,” says Rabbi Mendel Rubin, director of Chabad on Campus at the University of Albany and the coordinator of special programming at Maimonides. “It is about our surroundings and exploring them in the Jewish lens.”

Rubin’s father and director of Chabad of the Capital Distric, Talmudic scholar Rabbi Yisroel Rubin, led the in-depth study.

“These case study classes bring Jewish law alive for these kids,” he explained.

The elder Rubin, who serves as Maimonides’ dean and authored numerous volumes and essays on Talmudic structure and Jewish law, prepared copies of relevant texts penned by legal authorities over several generations. He included the works of modern-day rabbis who grapple with such seemingly-innocuous questions as the status of dolls and visiting museums that contain sculptures.

More to the point: Are the citizens of Albany violating a crucial commandment?

“I personally don’t think they are,” offered student Eli Levine, who joined the class field trip to look at the series of statues sprawled across the capital.

The discussion, however, didn’t end there and veered into the hypothetical. Even if they didn’t fit the definition of idolatry, could a Jew – who is generally prohibited from sculpting lifelike works – create one of the statues?

“According to Maimonides,” said the elder Rubin, “one is not allowed to even create an image for its beauty.”

In his Mishneh Torah, a compendium of Torah-based laws grouped according to overall subject matter, Maimonides explains the prohibition of making a three-dimensional image in terms of the possibility that one may come to view the creation as an idol. Even when the artist’s intent is pure, the image would still be prohibited.

“An example of idolatry today,” said Rubin, who because of the complexities involved, refers people to legal experts when they have specific questions, “would be objects used in many Eastern cultures.”

According to most opinions, dolls are not prohibited, nor is visiting a wax museum, where full bodies are exhibited in their entirety.

But “to actually create a body,” said famed author Rabbi Gavriel Zinner, “would be prohibited.”

“No Mommy, that one” at the Cap Rep Theater Alcove
“No Mommy, that one” at the Cap Rep Theater Alcove

An exception exists in sculpting a body with an inherent deformation. For this reason, Jewish sculptor Jacques Lipchitz would maintain that his works were kosher.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, even discussed the question with Lipschitz when the artists came to his office for private audiences. In 1962, the Rebbe wrote to the sculptor about the issue.

“In the majority of your works of art, there is no conflict with the Second Commandment, since they express symbolisms and ideas which are not incompatible with the Torah,” the Rebbe wrote to Lipchitz. “Only a small proportion of your sculptures are subject to question in the light of the said commandment.”

Maimonides student Nachum Waldman said the excursion opened his eyes.

“I never thought of the statues that much,” he said. “It’s a different angle that one usually studies in school.”

Other projects at the school have looked at Jewish law through the lens of modern experience. When students studied the Torah’s view of property acquisition, they explored the difference between Talmudic analyses on the subject and New York State law. They even met with State Assemblyman Tim Gordon to discuss the issue.

“Once we started learning the texts,” said Chaya Labor, “you realized that all different kinds of things that we may feel don’t matter in Judaism are connected to Jewish law.”

After their sculpture tour, the students returned to school energized.

“Our goal is to get the students involved in their Judaic studies,” said Mendel Rubin, “while intellectually enjoying the topic.”