How Many Lives Is a Da Vinci Masterpiece Worth?

'Monuments Men' Illustrates an Everyday Talmudic Balancing Act

Saved: The real ‘Monument Men’ deliver Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady With an Ermine’ to safety.
National Archives
Saved: The real ‘Monument Men’ deliver Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady With an Ermine’ to safety.

By Elissa Strauss

Published February 26, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.

(page 2 of 2)

“A great painting will be seen by many people over the course of many years. One could argue that, even if the increase in their well-being was not as dramatic as that of the difference between life and death, it might amount to a very significant increase in overall welfare,” Wartenberg told me.

“Cruel as it might seem, if we apply the utilitarian principle in an unbiased manner, it could turn out that it’s better to let a small number of people die in order to save a lot of artistic masterworks,” he said.

In the Talmud, there is a brief anecdote that is quite similar to Singer’s drowning child scenario. Tractate Sotah Folio 21b states: “What is a foolish pietist like? — e.g., a child drowning in the river, and he says: ‘Let me first remove my phylacteries.’ By the time he removed his phylacteries, the child has drowned.”

The obvious difference is that it is the trappings of religion, and not materialism, standing in the way of the rescue. Though the other and, in my opinion, more important distinction is that there is no expectation that this pious man will permanently abandon the practice of laying tefillin, not to mention buying the phylacteries, in favor of dedicating his life to teaching every child on the planet to swim — therefore preventing future drowning deaths. This isn’t a lesson privileging physical needs over spiritual or cultural ones, but instead a point that one can temporarily abandon religious responsibilities in order to save a human life.

Thanks to the Second Commandment, Jews don’t have much of a visual arts tradition to maintain, but this doesn’t mean that we have avoided the fetishization of symbolic, and expensive, objects altogether. From our extremely costly hand-calligraphed Torahs, to the dwellings that house our places of worship, to our individual Sabbath table settings, we’ve got our fair share of possessions that we prize.

When I asked my friend, Jewish text scholar Ruby Namdar, what he thought about Singer’s imperative, he said he far preferred the Jewish philosophy of giving, which, as many interpret today, calls for giving 10% of one’s annual income to charity. He also pointed out that Jewish scripture doesn’t call for the eradication of poverty, but instead just to alleviate the suffering.

“The idea that you will be totally selfless, and will resist bringing beauty into your own life through art and pleasure, that is just not applicable philosophy,” Namdar said. “The beauty of the Jewish way of thinking is that it doesn’t create a model that is impossible to live up to.”

Namdar reminded me of a line from “our anti-Semitic friend” Ezra Pound’s poem Canto 13: ““Anyone can run to excesses, / “It is easy to shoot past the mark, / “It is hard to stand firm in the middle.”

Though perhaps it takes someone like Singer, in all his excess, to remind us of the importance of giving in the first place.

Even if I can justify buying tickets to Twelfth Night or giving to the Met over donating to malaria research, I want to be aware of what I am really deciding between, and accepting the discomfort that difficult decisions like this might bring.

Elissa Strauss is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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