It’s a myth that won’t go away that Rembrandt was Jewish. (His mother was Catholic; his father Protestant.) But is there a Christian artist whose renderings of Biblical scenes speak more deeply to the Jewish soul?
No argument there, judging from the overflow crowd that piled into the auditorium of New York’s Yeshiva University Museum on a recent Sunday to hear an all-star line-up of scholars and intellectuals discuss the enduring connections between Rembrandt and the Jews. The symposium, which featured Simon Schama and Leon Wieseltier among others, was co-sponsored by the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought of University and by the Yeshiva University Museum. The Straus Center’s director Meir Soloveichik and the museum’s director, Jacob Wisse, moderated the day’s events.
At the outset, Wisse quoted no less a figure than Rabbi Abraham Israel Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandatory Palestine, who declared the great 17th-century Dutch painter a tzaddik, an artist whose evocative use of light made him think of the light of the Messiah.
And there was much enlightenment throughout the day about why and how Rembrandt continues to command our attention. Schama, the best-selling author and Columbia University professor, riffed on themes from his book, “Rembrandt’s Eyes.” In contrast to today’s omnipresent “selfies,” he said, Rembrandt’s famous series of self-portraits are “un-selfies,” in which the artist unsparingly confronts himself in the mirror and portrays the “landscape of his flesh as a map” of his life.
Wieseltier, the author of “Kaddish” and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, compared Rembrandt to Rashi, in the artist’s ability to “comment” on Biblical scenes through visual means. He focused particularly on one of Rembrandt’s best known paintings, “The Jewish Bride,” which portrays the Biblical figures Isaac and Rebekah in a loving but furtive caress — a dramatization of the passage in Genesis in which Abimelech discovers that the two are not brother and sister, as Isaac had led him to believe, but husband and wife. The scene conjured by Rembrandt, Wieseltier said, is a “profound” homage to the erotic love between husband and wife.
Rabbi Soloveichek called Rembrandt’s portrayal of Moses with the Ten Commandments “profoundly Jewish.” To begin with, this Moses does not have horns, thus righting the mistaken interpretation and translation that had led Michelangelo to depict Moses with horns. Moreover, these tablets follow the division of five commandments on each tablet, traditionally used by Jews — but in Rembrandt’s time, Christians generally placed four on the first tablet, and six on the second. Then there is the Hebrew calligraphy, which is superlative, “almost like a Torah scroll.”
Acting as a self-described “amateur art sleuth,” Rabbi Soloveichek presented evidence he had gathered pointing to the probable source for this inscription: an Amsterdam shul that that no longer exists, and of which only two depictions remain, but which Rembrandt, or one of his students (one of whom was Jewish) almost certainly visited. This was the very same shul that had excommunicated Baruch Spinoza, Soloveichik commented, making it “more welcoming to Rembrandt and his student than to Spinoza.” Finally, the rabbi noted that while some call this painting the “shattering” of the tablets, he believes it depicts Moses restoring the tablets to the people of Israel — an interpretation to keep in mind as we contemplate the meaning of the High Holidays ahead.
Going from the speculative to the factual, Steven Nadler, author of “Rembrandt’s Jews” and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tried to pin down just how much is known — or cannot be known—about Rembrandt’s connections with the Jews of 17th-century Amsterdam, and in particular his interactions with Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, who was well-known to the Christians and Jews of the Netherlands as a writer of theological works and the founder of Holland’s first Jewish printing press. “There’s no evidence the two were friends,” he said. But it’s “compelling” to think that they were aware of each other and that Menasseh’s ideas found their way to Rembrandt through mutual friends. Boston University professor Michael Zell, author of several books about Rembrandt, believes the connection was stronger than that, however. “Rembrandt took extraordinary pains to put his art in service to Menasseh’s work,” he said.
What is known is that Rembrandt used Jewish models, said Shelley Perlove, co-author of “Rembrandt’s Faith” and professor at the University of Michigan. And one of those Jewish models became the model for Jesus in the 1648 painting, “Supper at Emmaus.” In this painting viewers also see Jesus pulling apart a braided challah — reflective of the challahs used in Jewish homes on Friday nights in Rembrandt’s time. Rembrandt’s desire for authenticity is further shown in works in which Jewish figures are seen wearing skull caps and tallit-like fringes, and even more impressively in scenes set in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem which adhere closely to architectural illustrations of those spaces published in Holland in 1630 and based on descriptions from the Mishnah, Talmud and Josephus.
“No other artist before or after Rembrandt,” Perlove said, drew on Jewish sources in this way. “He was not a scholar,” and erred on occasion in his depictions of Jewish traditions. “But he was authentic enough.” More than that, he left us his art, which never ceases to illuminate our own vision of the world.
Diane Cole, author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges,” writes for The Wall Street Journal and other national publications.