When Shoshana Golin-Cahn set her sights on attending fine-arts school almost 30 years ago, she did what many Orthodox Jews do when faced with a big decision: She called her rabbi. He told her the one limitation she would face was that she was not to draw live male nude models, because the rabbi felt that doing so would be immodest for a single woman.
Growing up in a large Orthodox community in Monsey, New York, Golin-Cahn, who’s 53, felt like an anomaly when she decided to pursue fine arts professionally; community members looked at her askance. “It was like art was too materialistic, like I was too concerned with portraying the world around me, what it felt like, the colors and the textures,” she told me over Zoom. “People felt like it wasn’t frum [religious], like it was too world-based.”
The Orthodox Jewish community adheres to the rabbinic interpretation of the Torah and its commandments, with a strong emphasis on mesorah, or the passing down of tradition, and in many Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities, on daas Torah, the unquestionable authority of the rabbinic establishment. Thus, Orthodox art is in some ways a paradox. Art can require a certain level of transgression, and in conservative cultures where social conformity is de rigueur and probing questions are rarely tolerated, art is typically a form of decor, not a form of commentary.