Chagall’s Bible: Mystical StorytellingThrough January 18, 2009The Museum of Biblical Art1865 Broadway at 61st Street, New Yorkhttp://www.mobia.org/
It’s almost impossible to discuss Jewish art without mentioning Marc Chagall. One of nine children, Chagall was born in Vitebsk (now Belarus), which had about 20,000 Jews. Many biographies of Chagall stress his cheder attendance, where one would assume the young Chagall would have learned Hebrew and probably a bit of Aramaic in classes devoted to studying the Talmud.
But as even a cursory examination of the works in the fantastic show “Chagall’s Bible: Mystical Storytelling” at the Museum of Biblical Art reveals, the painter of “The Praying Jew,” “Jew in Green,” and the monumental windows at the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem was virtually illiterate in Hebrew. Despite designing sets for Sholem Aleichem, finishing more than 100 plates in a series of etchings on the bible, and completing several hundred other biblical works, the artist everyone thinks of as the foremost Jewish painter ought to be reevaluated.
Nowhere is Chagall’s bulky Hebrew more apparent than in his window dedicated to the tribe of Levi, the original lithograph of which hangs at the MOBIA show. The work is mostly yellow (perhaps celebrating the priests, who would wear golden garments while serving alongside the golden utensils of the Tabernacle and the Temple), and it depicts two birds and two animals, which could be either donkeys or lions, surrounding what appears to be a goblet holding fish. Above the menagerie, Chagall wrote Levi properly in Hebrew, and below he laid out a Shabbat table with candles, goblets, and perhaps even loaves of challah.
Marc Chagall, Levi
In the middle of the table, inscribed on the two tablets of the law, is Moses’ blessing of Levi from Deuteronomy 33:10. Just before he is to die, Moses prophecies of the tribe of Levi, “They shall teach Your law to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel; they shall place incense in front of your nose, and a burnt offering on Your altar. G-d, bless his service, and accept the works of his hands; strike his enemies, so they will never rise again.” This blessing was a huge improvement on Jacob’s “blessing” of Levi in Genesis 49:5, where he called Levi (and Simeon) murderers who wield weapons of chaos (“hamas”), but in the hands of Chagall it becomes muddied.
Chagall’s first line is mostly correct, but on the second line, he confuses a vav with a yud in the word “Your Torah,” and instead of writing “to Israel” he writes “to G-d,” truncating the word and forgetting the second, third, and fourth letters. Needless to say, a text that says Levi teaches Torah to the tribes of Israel is quite different from one that boldly claims that Levi teaches G-d. On the next line, when intending to write “they shall place,” the artist mistakenly forms a mem like a tet, which considerably alters the meaning, and he misforms the last letter of “incense” and writes a kaf instead of a bet in front of the next word.
At this point, Chagall would surely have failed a middle school spelling exam, but he is just getting started. On the following line, he again confuses a mem and a tet, confuses the next letter (which is supposed to be a zayen), and swaps a kaf for both the next bet and the first letter of the next word. On the next line, Chagall’s errors yield, “G-d, bless my service” in the place of his “service” — which means Chagall’s blessing casts Moses as the recipient rather than Levi – and he forgets a vav (the preposition “and”) in front of chalil, burnt offering, and stops the sentence midway cutting out the line about smiting Levi’s enemies.
Marc Chagall, Issachar
In the window for Issachar, Chagall turns not to Moses’ blessing in Deuteronomy 33:18, but to Jacob’s blessing in Genesis 49:14. Issachar’s window employs a mostly green palette, with red and blue highlights. The overall composition gives the appearance of a garden, wherein a rooster-like animal, several birds, snakes (perhaps Issachar’s brother Dan, who is described as a “snake upon the path” in Jacob’s blessing), and a donkey reside. Indeed, Jacob’s blessing declares Issachar to be “a donkey, who is weighed down by his burdens. And he saw that it was good to rest, and that the land was nice, and he turned his shoulder to withstand, and he became a slave to bearing.” Evidently depicting the Hebrew properly was too burdensome to Chagall, who again misrepresented a mem as a tet in the word “burdens,” and who confused a mem sofit with a samech in the second line. To his credit, Chagall spells Issachar’s name correctly (phonetically Issasschar), including the silent letter sin, but his other errors in the Issachar window include another confusion of a bet with a kaf.
Another of the lithographs included in the show – MOBIA has all 12, including another 100 etchings, lithographs, and oil paintings – is the window of the tribe of Reuven. For this window, Chagall again turned not to Moses’ blessing but to Jacob’s. Jacob’s blessing turned out to be more of a curse: “Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and the first of my might,” he begins in Genesis 49:3. But then the blessing turns to constructive criticism: “excessive dignity and excessive power. As unstable as water, you will not withstand, because you went up on your father’s bed, then you defiled it.”
Chagall’s Reuven window is a deep blue, giving form to Jacob’s depression and disappointment in Reuven’s betrayal. Birds fly overhead, as fish swim below, in the unruly water that was Jacob’s metaphor for his son’s hotheadedness. And sure enough, Chagall manages to misspell Reuven’s name (he writes Reuchen), and to forget a yud in the second word, so instead of Jacob’s statement “Reuven, you are my firstborn,” Chagall’s window declares, “Reuchen, a firstborn you are.”
Marc Chagall, Reuven
If not for Chagall’s incompetence with the other inscriptions, it would be tempting to applaud the painter for playing around with the text to further show Jacob distancing himself from his firstborn, whom he has passed over in favor of Judah, by saying Reuven is a firstborn, but not the firstborn. But Chagall has lost the right to the benefit of our doubt, especially as he misforms the letter aleph several times in the work. A painter who cannot even write an aleph surely did not get through many pages of the Talmud in school.
Being a Hebrew scholar is not a prerequisite to creating great art. Raphael produced fine works without knowing his aleph-bet, and El Greco worked splendidly without attending heder. My hope is not to mock Chagall or to discredit his works for their pseudo-Hebraic letters and poor transcription. In fact, Chagall ought to be applauded for creating such Jewish works, and for overpopulating them with Hebrew letters, the likes of which have hardly been seen since Rembrandt.
But it is also vital to study Chagall carefully and to examine his letters and words under the microscope even if he painted so many rabbis. Rembrandt’s Hebrew was not perfect, and neither is Chagall’s. Chagall’s resume makes a great claim for his being the quintessential Jewish artist, but maybe there ought to be an asterisk cautioning that he slept through Hebrew class.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.