What should one die for?
The film “Monuments Men” tells how men risked their lives to save European works of art from being stolen or destroyed by the Nazis. Two of the men were killed during their somewhat successful endeavors. The film’s premise is that it is good to give up one’s life to save works of art. The film brought this out when President Truman asked the leader of the monument men: Do you think that the two men who died would be proud to have died to save art? He answered “yes,” saying art is more important than human lives. He said it more explicitly in another part of the film: if you kill people, others will survive and civilization will continue, but if you destroy art, a civilization is destroyed. The film highlights this at its end by showing that the monument men’s greatest success was that they saved a religious statue, the Madonna and her child.
I think life is more important than art, in fact more important than virtually anything, even religious objects. One should not give up one’s life even to save a New Testament, Quran, or Torah, even if the sacred object is a relic more than a thousand years old.
Judaism understands that life is important and stresses that the purpose of biblical commands is to create a good life. Maimonides wrote that the Torah has three purposes: to teach some truths, to aid individuals better themselves, and to help improve society. The Jewish sages interpreted Leviticus 18:5’s “You shall keep my decrees and laws that a person will do and live by them” to mean that Jews may violate every one of the biblical commands, except for three of them, if someone says “Either violate the biblical law or I will kill you.”
The three exceptions, according to the Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 74a, b are idol worship, sexual misconduct, and murder. The Talmud states that in the second century CE, sages debated this subject and the majority, but not all the sages, agreed that one should die if threatened with death and not violate these three laws.
Idol worship is no longer relevant because idol worship no longer exists. While sages said that one should allow oneself to be killed rather than commit sexual misconduct such as adultery, one might question whether this is applicable today. We are not talking about rape. The reference is to sex with a consenting married woman. Most people would agree with the sages that one should not murder an innocent person in cold blood because someone is threatening your life, for why is the other person’s life less significant than yours.
Whatever one feels about the three exceptions, I think that there are very few people who would agree with the premise of this film that art is more important than life. It is a good idea to send men to try and save art from the hands of Nazis, even if there is danger involved. We can and should say that the men involved were courageous. But we should not say that art is better than their lives.
A final word
What does Jewish tradition think about art? Maimonides, Judaism’s greatest thinker who emphasized the need to study and understand the world in order to live a better life in it, minimized the value of poetry and music. Yet, it appears that he had the view expressed above: art can bring beauty and meaning to our lives, but it is a means not the goal of life, certainly not something to die for.
In a recent article by the Maimonidean scholar Menachem Kellner, in Judaism and Artistic Creativity: Despite Maimonides and Thanks to Him, writes: “In seeking to understand the place of artistic creativity in Judaism, Maimonides hardly appears to be a promising source with which to start. His emphasis on intellectual perfection as the defining characteristic of humanity would not appear to make him a promising candidate for our project…. Despite this, I suggest that Maimonides can be very helpful in seeking to elaborate a Jewish approach to the value of artistic creativity. Maimonides may have been the first posek (writer of Jewish law) to count the imitation of God (imitatio Dei) as a specific commandment of the Torah.”
Kellner builds upon the concept of “imitation of God” without ascribing his idea to Maimonides. He suggests that it is possible to see an appreciation of art in Jewish tradition. For example:
(1) Judaism accepts the idea that we should imitate God. God created a beautiful world, so we too should create beauty.
(2) The rabbis explicitly associated the building of the tabernacle in the desert during the days of Moses with God’s creativity and the architect of the tabernacle filled it with artistic articles.
(3) The rabbis noted and appreciated the literary beauty of the Book of Psalms.
(4) The classical prophets of Israel wrote words that inspired the world for thousands of years, not only because of their content, but also because of the beauty of their expression.
(5) The entire Bible is a work of surpassing literary beauty.
(6) Despite his reservations about art, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, his Code of Jewish Law, in addition to its clear legal profundity and philosophic sophistication, is also a work of surpassing literary mastery. He wrote it carefully with unsurpassed literary beauty.
And, so, the Jewish sages, even Maimonides, recognized the value of art, what we would call its limited value, something that can better life, but not die for.
 Guide of the Perplexed 3:27.
 See also Pessachim 25a, b and Yoma 82a, b.