“The Scream,” a unique and evocative painting by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944), sold recently at Sotheby’s for nearly $120,000,000. The price was attributed to its being the last of four editions still in private hands and the fact that it has been an icon of Western culture for over a century. The colors are vivid, the mood is stark, and the being on the bridge is overwhelmed by his surroundings. It captures a man alone in a world awry.
In explaining the experience he sought to portray, Munch wrote: “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”
Munch was a secular man, not one easily led to converse with greater forces. He blamed his father’s obsessive religious practice for bequeathing him the seeds of psycosis. While historians attest that Munch did in fact touch madness, the popularity of his work and the duration of his prominence show that he also touched, through the medium of his art, a reality that underlies the human experience.
Munch was on a bridge with nowhere to turn. His hands were glued to the sides of his face, and he shouted a primal scream.
Judaism speaks to Munch’s experience. In Hebrew, the word for scream is “tze’akah.” It is used to convey the Jews’ calling out to God from slavery in Egypt – “And the Jews cried to God from their work” (Exodus 2:2).
In his classic philosophical work Gates of Prayer, Rabbi Shimshon Pincus explains that a scream is in fact a form of supplication. Prayer, he notes, is intensely primal and extensively faceted. Different words capture the different experiences – from fear to hope, confusion to inspiration – that lead one to reach out to the Almighty. A scream is a call to God from a world gone mad. It is the point where pain and fear grow so great that one cannot utter words to articulate the emotion within; all one can do is release a scream that courses through the veins and emits from the gut.
The Jews in Egypt were so aggrieved and afflicted that they could only scream. And the Torah says God listened to their screams and their ultimate redemption was set in motion.
In Jewish tradition, man calls to God and nature does, too. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” says the Psalmist, “and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). I remember one particular night when I was a rabbinical student in Lakewood, New Jersey. It was late and I was walking from the study hall to the dormitory. The world was calm, the earth peaceful. I could sense, through my very being, creation singing to God.
I have no doubt that what I heard paralleled Munch’s experience but that my Jewish processor interpreted the signals in a very different way.
Munch and I could not be more dissimilar. He was a talented artist and I am a hard working meat purveyor. He lived a solitary life raising neither children not students, and I am blessedly married and the father of six children.
We define life differently, too. As his end came near, Munch wrote, “From my rotting body flowers shall grow, and I am in them and that is eternity.” As a believing Jew I would have said, “From my rotting body my soul will ascend, to achieve closeness to the Perfection it has always pursued, and that is eternity.”
Yet, in a way, I closely identify with Munch. I too see a world aflame. I peer out of the walls of my insular Orthodox Jewish community and see a secular culture in which the rich and pretty are portrayed as cultural authorities, and Jewish and Christian leaders are cut down to size.
I see a world in which families inspired by Judeo-Christian values are presented as born into prejudicial sin, and where the nemesis of family, secular feminism, is given award and acclaim even though it only respects women when they acquire masculine traits – hardly a celebration of femininity. It weakens the mind and troubles the spirit.