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August 27, 2014 / 1 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Old Testament’

How Jewish Is Rembrandt’s ‘Jewish’ Bride?

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

As I sit to write this article less than a week before my wedding, my mind keeps returning to a particular work, which one must grapple with if one intends to take the history of Jewish art seriously.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn’s 1667 oil painting, “Portrait of Two Figures from the Old Testament, Known as ‘The Jewish Bride,’” in the collection of the Amsterdam-based Rijksmuseum, depicts a long-haired man wearing a hat, and dressed in ochre and gold, standing beside a bejeweled woman wearing red and gold. Though it is hard to ascertain how old the figures are, the latter could be the former’s daughter.

Given the quality of the work, one can hardly fault Vincent van Gogh for his famous declaration, “I should be happy to give 10 years of my life if I could go on sitting here in front of this picture for a fortnight, with only a crust of dry bread for food.” Or Chaim Soutine for traveling to Amsterdam to see the painting, perhaps only for the work’s title despite believing the subject was not a Jewish wedding, as Avigdor W.G. Poseq has suggested.

As Poseq and the dual thrust of the Rijksmuseum title suggest, much controversy and confusion surrounds the painting, which Rembrandt painted two years before his death.

Even the interaction between the two figures is hotly disputed. “The painting became known as the “Jewish Bride” in the early 19th century after the Amsterdam art collector, Van der Hoop, identified the subject of the painting as a Jewish father hanging a necklace around his daughter’s neck on her wedding day,” records the Rijksmuseum website.

The Jewish Bride

The Jewish Bride

Rembrandt van Rijn. “Jewish Bride.” C. 1665. Oil on canvas. 121.5 x 166.5 cm.
Rijksmuseum. A father putting a necklace on his daughter, the bride.

It is well known that Rembrandt lived in the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam, and some scholars have suggested that the many Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions in his paintings and his Old Testament references were inspired by his friend, the Jewish diplomat and scholar Menasseh ben Israel. There is no reason to doubt that many of Rembrandt’s models were probably his Jewish neighbors.

But there is a risk of overstating the Jewish content in the so-called “Jewish Bride,” according to the Rijksmuseum site, and “no one sees this man has [sic] the woman’s father anymore. It is clearly a couple, although who they are is not clear.”

In light of this interpretation, several scholars claim the couple could be figures from the bible, perhaps Isaac and Rebecca (having masked the true nature of their relationship to the Philistine king Abimelech), Jacob and Rachel, Judah and Tamar or Boaz and Ruth, or a variety of figures from the New Testament and the Apocrypha.

 

Detail of Rembrandt’s “Jewish Bride.”

“Despite the claim of one scholar that ‘there is no doubt that Rembrandt once again used a Jewish couple (probably Sephardim) to reconstruct a biblical scene,” writes Steven Nadler in his only reference to the “Jewish Bride” in his 224-page book “Rembrandt’s Jews,” “there are no solid grounds for thinking that either the sitters or the theme are Jewish or even Old Testament.”

Writing in “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt: The Myth Unraveled,” Mirjam Alexander-Knotter calls Rembrandt’s “Jewish Bride” “by far the most famous example of the mythologizing of Rembrandt and the Jews.”

In Rembrandt, the Jews and the Bible, Franz Landsberger notes the recent attempts (his book was published in 1946) to identify the man in the painting as the 17th century converso and poet Miguel de Barrios (also Daniel ha-Levi).
According to Landsberger, there is a “slight resemblance” between the female figure in Rembrandt’s painting and a depiction of de Barrios’ wife Abigail de Pina in an engraving by Ch. V. Hagen in Aaron de Chaves’ “The Poet Miguel de Barrios and His Family.”

greatjewishbriderembrandt

 

Rembrandt van Rijn. “The Great Jewish Bride.” 1635. Etching, drypoint and burin.

However similar the two seem, though, the features are “too typical to invite a conclusive judgment,” Landsberger argues, and besides, the de Barrios figure is depicted with “a drawn-down mouth, an unattractive nose, a tense and troubled expression,” while Rembrandt’s figure has “a straight mouth and a strikingly well-modeled nose.” Further, Hagen’s model exhibits a “tense and troubling expression, befitting the highly nervous nature of this poet,” while Rembrandt’s figure “is in no way troubled or nervous, but is shown as calm and solemn.”

Further, Landsberger mysteriously and perhaps offensively adds, “the slender, regular features of the man could not readily be associated with Jewish characteristics” (though he tries to tone down this observation in an unconvincing footnote).

In his book Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in 17th Century Amsterdam, Michael Zell observes that a 1731 catalog of Rembrandt’s prints records two etchings titled “The Little Jewish Bride” (1638) and “The Great Jewish Bride” (1635). But according to Zell, the former “clearly represents Saint Catherine” (there is a wheel behind her symbolizing her martyrdom) and the latter is probably a depiction of Esther “preparing to intercede with King Ahasueras on behalf of the Jews.” The latter then would have been a Jewish bride, but not a contemporary of Rembrandt’s.

Zell adds that the “Great Jewish Bride” was so identified due to her “string of pearls around her head,” which “was the custom of coiffure during the time in Holland among Jewish women about to be married.”

If indeed Jewish brides in 17th century Amsterdam did wear strings of pearls (and if that was a unique Jewish bridal uniform, and not something also worn by their gentile counterparts), there would be a good argument for Rembrandt’s so-called “Jewish Bride” to be a real Jewish bride.
Ultimately, though, and perhaps I am a bit sentimental so close to my own wedding, I see no reason to identify Rembrandt’s work as a biblical character or to identify the subject as just a biblical character. Rembrandt’s brilliance and prolific ability to cast his contemporaries in biblical scenes cannot be overstated, but it can be overextended. Every Rembrandt painting does not have to be a biblical character, and although some have seen a couple in this painting, there is no reason to dismiss the subject as a father putting a necklace on his Jewish daughter, the bride.
Does it matter if Rembrandt intended the subject to be a Jewish bride? Does it matter that we approach the work as Jews interested in Jewish art and art history? It’s hard to say. But perhaps due to our bias, it is easier for us to ask the natural question (which has somehow become a controversial question in light of recent scholarly trends): Isn’t it possible that Rembrandt intended to call attention to the necklace the father was placing (modestly and appropriately) around his daughter’s neck, and in so doing, deliberately emphasized an every day, un-heroic and non-biblical scene of a Jewish bride moments before her chuppah?

At least from where I sit, it is very appealing indeed to think that Rembrandt found such majesty and ripe subject matter in a Jewish wedding, which he immortalized for centuries to come.

 

 

             Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

Nothing ‘Old’ About The Jewish Bible

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

      A few weeks ago I attended the annual dinner of the National Bible Association, which admirably seeks to promote the reading of the Bible across the United States. I was seated at a table with other Orthodox rabbis, one of whom had kindly invited me. Things did not go smoothly.
 
      One of the honorees was a Jewish-born Christian chaplain from the armed forces who spoke of his conversion from Judaism and how he had chosen Jesus as his personal messiah.
 
      Fair enough. People are free to believe what they want and, sadly, there are Jews who, sometimes out of ignorance of their own faith, find their spiritual home in Christianity.
 
      But what bothered me more was how one Christian clergyman after another got up and voiced admiration for “the Old Testament.” It had a bad ring to it. “New” connotes vibrant, alive and fresh. “Old” brings to mind stodgy, musty and out of date.
 
      I am a rabbi who enjoys an extremely warm relationship with the Christian community and who has the highest admiration for my Christian brothers and sisters. And I had, of course, heard and read the phrase “Old Testament” on countless occasions. But that night something about the phrase grated.
 
      To be sure, Christians have used the expression for millennia to portray the Jews, who rejected Jesus, as God’s old, forsaken people; while Christians, who embrace Jesus, are the “new” Israel. But this organization’s mandate is to promote a love for the Bible and instill within the American breast an appreciation of its wisdom and values. Would they be successful if they referred to 70 percent of it as something turgid and dreary?
 
      Were the speakers who lauded the wondrous values contained in the “Old Testament” not aware of how they contradicted themselves by referring to the Hebrew Bible as obsolete?
 
      The time has come for Christians to finally retire the “Old Testament” pejorative and begin referring to Jewish scripture as “the Hebrew Bible,” in contradistinction to the “The Christian Bible,” which is what the New Testament is.
 
      We live in an age when we have begun cleaning up the language of so many past slights. We no longer call twenty-something women “girls” or “gals.” We no longer insultingly refer to Native Americans as Redskins, or to African-Americans as Negroes. Why, then, would our Christian brothers and sisters unnecessarily refer to our Bible as “Old?”
 
      Can we really be successful in promoting biblical values in America, most of which are based on Hebrew Scripture (as opposed to the New Testament), when we look at those scriptures as having been rejected because of their irrelevance? You can’t have it both ways – insisting, on the one hand, that America is based on the principles of the “Old Testament,” which suggests an eternal relevance, while describing those same scriptures as archaic and prehistoric.
 
      This follows a much broader need for Christian reexamination. Christianity is one of the world’s great religions, and it has brought knowledge of the Bible to more people than any other. But it has always suffered from a critical flaw – namely, its claim to a copyright on all spiritual truth.
 
      No doctrine has done more harm to Christianity that its insistence on the uselessness of other religions. And this doctrine of exclusivity lies in stark contrast to the incredible humanity one otherwise finds among believing Christians.
 
      In New York City on December 8, our Jewish Values Network will host a high-powered discussion featuring leaders in politics, media and the arts debating whether religion is a blessing or a curse to America. Truth be told, it is both.
 
      On the one hand, religion is the source of America’s most cherished values, none more so than religion’s emphasis on the infinite value of human life. The Bible is what inspired a faith-based army to fight two years ago on behalf of a severely mentally handicapped woman named Terry Schiavo.
 
      The elders of Sparta would carefully inspect newborn infants and, if they were judged to be weakly, cast them into a chiasm off Mount Taygetos. The Romans behaved similarly with adults of significant mental disability, throwing them from the Tarpeian Rock.
 
      By contrast, America declared on its most famous monument, the Statue of Liberty, that it embraced the “poor, your huddled masses … the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
 
      But somehow, in a rejection of biblical values, Terry Schiavo’s life did not even rise to the level of “wretched refuse,” and she was condemned to the monstrosity of death by starvation in the richest country on earth. Such are the consequences of rejecting religion and its value system.
 
      On the other hand, religion has become the single most divisive issue in our country, inspiring a culture war of Right and Left. This was never necessary. People can disagree on abortion and gay rights without assassinating each other’s character.
 
      Religion can use the power of rational argument and win over its critics, but not when it insists on wholly irrational and immoral doctrines, such as the conviction that whoever lacks belief is going straight to hell. That evangelicals continue to insist that irrespective of a non-Christian’s righteous actions he or she is going to burn forever because of a wrong belief seems utterly incompatible with the lofty ideal of Christian love.
 
      Jews can be guilty of the same sin. We sometimes hear religious Jews speak of “goyim,” a word that, while meaning “nations,” has also assumed a pejorative connotation and should therefore likewise be retired.
 
      We even sometimes hear religious Jews speak of the superiority of the Jewish to the non-Jewish soul, in direct contradiction to the biblical declaration that all humans are created equally in the image of God.
 
      Chosenness has never meant that Jews are better than any other people. The Jews are chosen to bring the light of God to all nations as a permanent reminder that God loves and values all His human children and wishes for them all to share in the bounty and glory of His light.
 

      That is the cornerstone of all religious belief. It comes from the Hebrew Bible, and there is nothing old about it.

 

      Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, popular speaker and bestselling author (his upcoming book is “The Broken American Male”), has just launched The Jewish Values Network. His website is  www.shmuley.com.

Reading The Mail

Wednesday, January 16th, 2002

Readers might find the following items from the Monitor’s mailbag to be of some interest. (The Monitor responds privately to all e-mails and letters, but every now and then selects a few for public viewing.)

Rick Hershkowitz of Philadelphia, who describes himself as “a faithful reader of the Monitor thanks to the Jewish Press website, writes: “Now that it’s been a few months since Deborah Sontag was replaced as the Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times, we can see even more clearly in retrospect how biased and unprofessional she was. I’m not saying James Bennett or Clyde Haberman are perfect, but their reporting is far and away more balanced.

“With Sontag you always felt you were reading the Palestinian Authority’s authorized version of events; now at least you don’t detect the same anti-Israel animus in the Times’s Middle East coverage.”

Speaking of the Times, Chaim Blitz of Jerusalem can hardly contain his new found appreciation for Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman. “While he’s still opposed to the Israeli government’s settlements policy – to the point that he regularly takes gratuitous shots at settlers and settlements – Friedman has been writing with a much more realistic and even pro-Israel bent than his just-retired colleague Anthony Lewis and the Times’s anonymous editorial writers,” Blitz enthuses.

“The intifada started by Arafat in Sept. 2000, and then the catastrophic terror attacks on America a year later, seem to have immeasurably sobered Friedman, who seems to recognize – probably for the first time in his life – that it’s not any single Israeli action or policy that alienates the Arabs. Friedman obviously now sees that it’s the very existence of the state of Israel that drives the Arabs wild with murderous hatred and fanaticism.”

Lillian Unger of Toronto alerted the Monitor to an op-ed piece by Alan Dershowitz that appeared in the Dec. 15 edition of Canada’s National Post. “That despicable publicity seeker is at it again,” complains Ms. Unger.

“The gist of his lengthy piece is that the recently-released tape of a gloating Osama bin Laden is not at all to be taken as evidence of his guilt. According to Dershowitz, ‘There is nothing on the tape that reveals bin Laden possessed information only a person guilty of planning this horrible crime would possess. In other words, the truth of the incriminating statements made on the tape is not self-proving: It relies on believing bin Laden is telling the truth.’

“Dershowitz goes on to argue that because ‘bin Laden is almost certainly a liar and he may have had a corrupt motive to lie about at least some of his claims,’ it would be difficult to prove in a court of law that bin Laden is being truthful on the tape.

“If that isn’t typical lawyerly obfuscation, I don’t know what is. Sounds to me like Dershowitz is auditioning for some future court case. Perhaps he’s salivating over the prospect of adding Mr. bin Laden to his list of such illustrious clients as Leona Helmsley, Claus von Bulow and O.J. Simpson.”

Finally, Saul Grossman of Flushing takes umbrage over a remark made by a very unfunny man who gets paid a fortune to be funny – or at least amusing – by CBS. “Andy Rooney made a statement on 60 Minutes tonight (Dec. 16) that the Old Testament is similar to the Koran in that nonbelievers of the true religion (Judaism and Islam, respectively) are destined to burn in hell,” writes Mr. Grossman.

“Rooney gave no reference to any chapter or verse in the Old Testament. Was this his way of saying to Moslems and Jews, a plague on both your houses?”

Frankly, the Monitor has a problem taking Rooney seriously, even given the huge audience of viewers pulled in by 60 Minutes. This is a guy who last said something meaningful way back when Jimmy Carter was president. He’s usually harmlessly shallow, as when he examines the contents of his desk drawers or muses about the glue on the back of postage stamps. When he tries something more meaningful, it’s obvious to all that he’s out of his depth.

Jason Maoz can be reached at jmaoz@jewishpress.com

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/media-monitor/media-monitor-26/2002/01/16/

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