Religious statues fall under the umbrella of idolatry according to Judaism.
Religious statues fall under the umbrella of idolatry according to Judaism.

The second commandment states "Thou shalt have no other gods before me," and Orthodox Jewry has been known to use this as a restriction against all forms of creating and enjoying statues in various forms. This view derives from a fear that statues are a gateway into idolatry, a severe sin in Judaism. Artistic displays of statues, however, are often viewed differently by other Jewish denominations.

Statues as a Form of Idolatry

The second of the Ten Commandments forbids the worship of statues as a form of idolatry, and there is a further Torah prohibition against carving a graven image. This ban includes statues of people, animals and celestial beings such as the sun or moon. Maimonides explains that, even when the sculptor is creating the image solely from an artistic viewpoint and for that purpose, such an action is forbidden.

Statues as an Artform

While religious statues and prayer symbols are categorically disallowed in Judaism, statues in the form of art are a different story. Orthodox Jews follow the stringent law of the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, that states statues of human beings, animals or celestial bodies are not to be crafted or benefited from in any way, even without idolatrous intent. A distinction is made when the graven images are being made for educational purposes. The Conservative and Reform movements have a more liberal view, holding that art is not idol worship, and therefore, statues as art are allowed.

Further Leniencies

Even more traditional Jews take the stance that, so long as the statue is not an entire human or animal form, the artwork is acceptable. Carving mythical creatures or other characters that do not actually exist does not fall under this prohibition. The prohibition of the second commandment is against creating or worshiping graven images. Even Orthodox Judaism has no issue with two-dimensional artwork.

Current Views

While historically, Jews were fairly vehement against public or private displays of statues, currently most hold a more lenient approach. In fact, Jewish ethicist Rabbi Asher Meir notes that Moses Isserles, known as the Rema, wrote that even a statue of man is permitted as long as it is not complete. Most Jews today have no issue with, and even partake in, the beauty of, artistic displays, including statues.