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Posts Tagged ‘Rome’

Radical Judaism Is Wrong

Friday, February 17th, 2012

On my recent trip to Israel, I was disgusted to hear about the abuse of women at the hands of those calling themselves religious Jews. I expect better of my brothers and sisters. I do not wish to hold them to an unfair standard, but I do wish to hold them to the same standard I hold other people – that of being decent human beings. There is no excuse for spitting on little girls and there is no reason to believe you can practice gender apartheid in a Jewish land. If you want to make women second-class citizens, may I suggest relocating to Saudi Arabia?

I wish I could just hide behind the thought that it’s a fringe minority, but Jews have always been judged as a whole and usually judged by the worst of us. Sadly, with the advent of the Internet, anything Orthodox Jews do will be seen by the world at large. One cell phone and a wi-fi link and everything we do is on Youtube to be mocked by the world.

Yes, there is a serious problem in the Jewish world. The line between secular and religious has become a vast chasm of ignorance on both sides. Many seculars call religious self-righteous parasites, many religious call seculars worthless sinners. Both can present numerous proofs for why their side is correct. Both are doomed to fail because such strife has always been condemned to utter futility.

We are forgetting the lessons of the churban Beit HaMikdash, how we were not finished off by Rome, but destroyed ourselves through mindless hatred and zealotry. We bled each other dry through violence and bigotry until we were weak enough for Rome to come in and step all over our broken bodies. Rome did not defeat us – we defeated ourselves. Every side has reasons to believe that they are right, but in the end, rightness carried out wrongly only leads to more wrong.

Some are using their talents to make Orthodoxy more attractive to Jews. The delightful Allison Josephs of “Jew in the City” answers questions about Judaism with a wit and an elegance that makes me more proud to be Jewish. She presents us as rational human beings with intelligent reasons to practice an ancient faith. Her work is so incredible that instead of answering questions myself, I often just link to her videos because they are so much better than me fumbling for an answer.

Others are using their talents to make Judaism noxious in the eyes of others. They insult less religious Jews, trying to make them feel ashamed. They make evil videos mocking Jews who are at a different point in their spiritual journey. They mock anything secular, claiming they are doing it in the name of Heaven. They do not just devalue ideas, they also devalue people. It is an incredible thing to see people so thoughtful with what goes into their mouths, but so hateful with what comes out of it. They call themselves religious leaders, but they are mere frauds who have no love of Israel, and disguise their evil with a mantle of righteousness. They are the modern day Doegs, the beautiful facades with an empty core. They do not teach out of loyalty to their fellow Jews, but for the satisfaction of gaining more power.

When people reach out to them with real problems, they slap them down and mock them some more. Many even insult non-Jewish people, in hopes of proving their Judaism. They are the ones who burn advertisements in Israel, who spit at little girls, who harass women in the street with foul language. They are the tzniut patrol who harangue women just trying to take their children to school. They are simply modern day zealots who seek to restore a terrible and evil form of Judaism.

If that is Judaism, then I can imagine I would prefer to become a squirrel than become like them. I am blessed with the education to know that these people are the flakes on the head of Judaism, annoying and to be shaken off. Many secular Jews are seeing these people and missing the real people, the good and moral ones who love humanity and seek to unite Jews under a common mission.

Behind every off-the-derech person is a zealot, often a teacher who used his or her position abusively and destroyed Judaism in this person’s eyes. I have often advised my friends that it takes a lifetime to build but a mere second to destroy. All the beauty of Torah can be poisoned by a single cruel and humiliating remark, which bruises the person’s heart for years to come.

If we take on the mantle of heaven, we have a duty to be ambassadors for the Torah. Ambassadors for a country may not surrender their countries’ essential mission, but rather must convey it in a pleasant, respectful manner, which raises them in the eyes of others. They are held to a higher standard because they are given a special mission, a mission to represent a higher ideal. It sounds familiar, no?

The Meaning of Today’s 10th of Tevet Fast

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

Asara B’Teves, the 10th of Teves, commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar that ultimately culminated with the First Temple’s destruction on the 9th of Av the following year.

Of course, Jewish residents of our holiest city have been no strangers to military sieges. One of the most famous was led by the Assyrian monarch Sancheirev against the Judean king Chizkiyahu and his small nation (recorded in II Chronicles 32), over a century before Nebuchadnezzar rose to power. This siege ended miraculously when Hashem orchestrated the sudden deaths of nearly the entire Assyrian army.

Other well-known sieges of Jerusalem include the Roman encirclement that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the one led by the emperor Hadrian and his leading general Julius Severus in 135 CE in response to the revolt of Bar Kochba.

Yet one of the saddest and most painful sieges in Jerusalem’s history was imposed not by a force of gentile invaders but rather by one group of Jews against another. The siege marked a climax in an internal struggle that had been raging for centuries within the Jewish nation, and would ultimately result in the destruction of our Holy Temple.

After the death of Yehuda Aristobulus (103 BCE), Alexander Yannai became king. Yannai was the son of Yochanan Hyrcanus, grandson of Shimon and great grandson of Matityahu. He would rule for twenty-seven years, until 76 BCE.

Following Aristobulus’s death, Yannai married his brother’s widow Shlomtzion through the process known as yibum, or levirate marriage. At the beginning of their marriage, Shlomtzion prevailed on her new husband to deal kindly with the Pharisees, who represented the majority of the Jewish people and were the guardians of the Torah-true tradition dating back to Sinai. Her brother, Shimon ben Shetach, was the leading sage of the time and Yannai conferred with him on both political and religious matters.

But this peaceful arrangement would not last for long, largely because of Pharisee disproval of Yannai’s territorial ambitions.

Over time, a sizable rift developed between Yannai and his people, one that would lead to violence, bloodshed, and civil war. Many sages were tortured and killed. Others were forced to seek refuge, either by fleeing the country or by going into hiding.

Taking advantage of this situation were the Sadducees. Using their close relationship with Yannai, they secured practically every significant political position for their party. Even the Sanhedrin came under their control, the result of which was numerous errors in judgment and practice. (The Sadducees lacked sufficient knowledge in Jewish law. Their insistence on a literal interpretation of the Torah further guaranteed these errors.)

The strain between the two sides remained palpable yet subdued. In 90 BCE, however, all of that would change. Yannai set out on another military campaign into Transjordan. After experiencing initial successes, Yannai was repelled in a battle against the Nabateans. Caught in an ambush, Yannai “was thrown down into a deep valley… and hardly escaped with his life” (Josephus, Antiquities).

Yannai and his forces fled back to Jerusalem. The news of Yannai’s setback resonated with the Pharisees. Sensing an opportunity to rid themselves of their oppressive ruler, they rose up in open rebellion against him.

* * * * *

The civil war that followed would last six painful and torturous years. All told, in excess of fifty thousand Jews died. As the war progressed, Yannai and his supporters seized the upper hand. In desperation, certain Pharisees struck a deal with Demetrius III of Syria, inviting him to invade Judah. Many Jews joined the Syrian forces. The year was 88 BCE.

Demetrius, whose army was nearly double in size compared to that of Yannai, soundly defeated his adversary in a battle near Shechem. Yannai and his remaining forces fled. Out of pity and concern for their fellow Jews, six thousand Jewish fighters who had been serving under Demetrius now switched sides, forcing the Syrians to leave the battlefield and return home.

The Pharisees hoped Yannai would reciprocate this display of good will with a new attitude of his own. If their rebellion had not impressed upon him the need to rule over them with justness and kindness, perhaps this gesture would. Sadly, Yannai refused to come to terms with his people.

Shlomtzion and Yannai had two sons together. Neither of them, however, was viewed as a suitable candidate to succeed Yannai.

The elder son, Hyrcanus II, was a quiet and private man. He lacked the natural leadership skills and personal drive to serve as leader. Temporarily, he assumed the office of high priest and was regarded as the eventual heir to the throne.

His younger brother, Aristobulus II, was of a vastly different temperament. He was bold, ambitious, and a fearless warrior. For those reasons, he, too, was deemed an inappropriate fit to succeed Yannai, and would be limited to a secondary role in governmental affairs.

Apple Country

Monday, November 14th, 2011

One of the cool benefits of living way north of the GW Bridge and the Big Apple is that we are in real apple country.  On a whim, we can take the kids to a local orchard not ten minutes from our house, and become one with nature.  It feels just like the olden days – only back then, the farmers would pay hired hands to pick the apples, while we actually pay the farmers to please, please let us harvest their fruit.

With our toddlers in tow, it took the better part of a leisurely hour and a half to collect our bushel’s worth.  There were all kinds of folks up in those trees.  You can easily spot the real apple connoisseurs:  they come equipped with a knife and magnifying glass – and they taste each variety, talk about it, inspect it, thumb their noses at subpar apples, and toss them to the ground disdainfully.  I think they had fancy foreign accents too, but that could be my imagination working overtime.

Then there were plenty of families like ours.  Our apple criterion was not quite the same as those snooty gourmets, but it was based on our own very strict checklist.  To get into our basket, the apples:  1) must be reachable by someone smaller than three feet tall (there are only so many times Mommy and Daddy can pick you up), 2) must have no soft spots, and 3) no worm holes.

So we picked our Granny Smith and Rome, our Cortland and Macintosh, and we were on our way.  It cost us 25 bucks for the experience – but honestly, I think we wound up with 50 pounds of apples.  Back home, I started unpacking our produce and panic struck.  HELP!  What’s a gal who never baked an apple pie in her life to do with oodles and oodles of apples?  OK – I can make Puff Pastry Apple Purses, and even my 4-year-old can help.  Great!  The Purses were super.  Only 88 apples left.

I remembered that as a kid, one of my favorite treats was a caramel apple.  (I discovered a rocky road version – almost too fab for words.)  I was all ready to fire up the caramel, when my other half interjected that it would be such a waste — he doesn’t like caramel apples.

I should have been able to predict this impasse.  Since the day we got married and discovered that I’m into fish and salads and he’s all about meat and potatoes, we rarely relished the same meals.  Why should we agree on apples?

The man wanted candy-coated apples.  He yearned for candy-coated apples.  It had something to do with his childhood, a day at the beach, or the circus or something, a fight with his brother, a gift from his sister, I don’t know.  All I knew was that a candy-coated apple would resolve a long-standing ache in his heart.

I put away the caramel.  After all, I’m an adult.  I can give up my caramel apple if it means that much to my husband.  You know, I never thought I would enjoy the process, but we had such fun.  I discovered that making candy-coated apples is a great activity to do with the kids, and we munched and crunched our way to family bliss!

 

Candied Apples

Prep: 10min

Cook: 30 min

Cool: 5 min

Total: 45 min

Yield: 15 Candied Apples

 

INGREDIENTS

15 apples

2 cups white sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

1 1/2 cups water

8 drops red food coloring

The Real Occupiers: Judea, Circa 50 CE

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations show no sign of abating and the voice of collective dissent now echoes well beyond lower Manhattan. During the past few weeks, the movement has spread nationally, as protesters across the country came together in a leaderless association that rails against corporate greed and social inequality.

These American protestors were joined recently by tens of thousands of others worldwide, in hundreds of cities throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Organizers of the global demonstration said on their website they were demanding a “true democracy” for the international community. The global demonstrations came on the same day that finance ministers and central bankers from the G20 met in Paris to discuss solutions to the debt crises engulfing Europe.

Demonstrators in Rome turned violent, but crowds elsewhere were largely peaceful. In London, the atmosphere was energetic, with activists chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “We are the 99 percent” in different languages. In New York, protesters marched through the financial district to a rally in Times Square, banging drums and chanting, “We got sold out, banks got bailed out,” and “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street.”

Sadly, the word “occupy” conveys a very different connotation for the Jewish people today. Since the inception of the state of Israel, the term has largely been used to portray our nation’s return to its ancient homeland as a merciless imposition on the lives of millions of Arabs.

In the more distant past, however, the term referred to a foreign, non-Jewish presence in our Holy Land, usually accompanied by some degree of religious and/or economic persecution. In some instances, the occupation was so intense and oppressive that it forced our forebears to take a strong public stance in hopes of improving the political landscape.

Such was the case nearly two thousand years ago, in the century preceding the destruction of the Second Temple. At that time, Judean residents expressed displeasure with sustained economic and governmental heavy-handedness, perpetrated first by the Herodian rulers and then by Roman procurators. They gathered en masse to “occupy” their capital and their country, and attempt to force the hands of their tormentors.

Shortly before his death in 4 BCE, King Herod had bequeathed his kingdom to his three surviving sons: Archelaus, Antipas, and Philipus. Archelaus received the largest territory, which included Judah, Idumea and Samaria.

Herod’s death allowed the people to breathe a long-awaited sigh of relief. Surely nothing could match his extended reign of terror (Herod had ruled for nearly forty years). Upon ascending to the throne, Archelaus reinforced that impression. He received the people warmly, assuring them of future cooperation. Confident of his friendship, the Jews asked for the release of their political prisoners, and sought relief from the heavy taxation imposed by Herod. Archelaus indicated that he would satisfy their requests.

After a period of intense communal mourning for a number of sages who had been executed by Herod, the people asked for more. They wanted retribution against Herod’s advisers who had been responsible for the death of those scholars, the removal of his recent High Priest appointee, and the expulsion of Greek officials from the royal court.

This time, Archelaus made no commitments. He was tiring of their continuous requests, and was readying to set sail for Rome to secure Augustus’s consent to his appointment. Archelaus sent word in response with his officers for the people to wait until after his return. This, in turn, angered the people.

Soon after, on the eve of Pesach, the growing resentment burst forth. At the Temple, the Jewish masses again expressed their deep sense of loss for the murdered sages. Fearing an uprising, Archelaus positioned one thousand mercenary soldiers there, with orders to remove any unruly worshipers.

Crossword Puzzle – Books and Places in Israel

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Across

1. Some sloppy eaters

5. Works with hot medals

10. Fired

14. ___kazam

15. Crazy (about)

16. Surrealist artist Joan

17. Currency in Iran

18. Capital of Senegal

19. Big name in Kiruv

20. Book about an ancient Jewish kindgom with a famous ritual bath?

23. ___ ___ streak (bad quality)

24. Always, to a poet

25. Word said with dog, at times

28. Indigenous New Zealanders

32. Former slavery city, once

34. What Dolly of science fame might say

37. Our most important book that can also tell you where to find Machane Yehuda?

40. Israeli destination for many asthmatics

42. Total

43. Or ___!

44. Kabbalistic book about our holiest (unknown) site?

46. OK

47. Something to see in a microscope

48. What a beach might do

51. Nifty

52. Orange or apple drink, en Frances

55. Additional

59. Chabad book about where to learn more about the Shoah?

63. Star Wars. e.g.

66. Disagree

67. White tailed eagle

68. Fast month?

69. Part

70. Horse hold

71. Epic show coming to an end

72. Assignments

73. Gad, symbolically

 

Down

1. Hooded coat

2. Pelvic bone

3. What a doughnut might have

4. Hello in Farsi

5. Dry riverbed (like Nachal Paran)

6. Cheese choice

7. Norse figure of mischief

8. Pirate Francis

9. Start a tennis match

10. Torah measurement

11. The square root of CXLIV

12. Places where many RN’s work

13. Homer Simpson word added to the Oxford English dictionary

21. Genetic lttrs.

22. Rome has a famous one with the Menorah on it

25. Kind of roll

26. Got up

27. Loves

29. Lex Luthor sidekick

30. Indian wife

31. Silly

33. It might be on tap

34. Market

35. Smell

36. Oohed go-with

38. Having wings

39. Advertising award

41. Gentle touch

45. Husband of 30-Down

49. Narc org.

50. Thrust out

53. Not suitable

54. Not a friend of Israel

56. Total number of Levi’s sons

57. Blood pressure enzyme

58. Jeff of Pearl Jam

59. Sour

60. Iron and Ice

61. Having it said to you keeps you seated

62. Letters with two diagonal lines

63. My Gal ___

64. Word before about, in Shakespeare

65. Fuel

 

(Answers, next week)

Yoni can be reached at yglatt@youngisrael.org

 

Does Daniel Levin Know the Location of the Second Temple Menorah?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

The Last Ember

By Daniel Levin

Riverhead, 2009, $25.95

http://daniellevin.com/

 

 

There is no denying that Dan Brown has become one of the most successful contemporary writers on religious art. The Lost Symbol recently sold a million copies on its first day of release, and it would only take 81 such days to surpass total sales of The Da Vinci Code. Perhaps because of his success, many are less than impressed with Brown’s writings. “Usually we read the script, but in this case it wasn’t necessary,” a spokesman for the Roman archdiocese told The Telegraph (UK), explaining why a permit was denied for filming “Angels and Demons” at one of its churches. “Just the name Dan Brown was enough.”

 

Jewish responses to Brown’s books are harder to come by. David Klinghoffer has a great post on the blog Beliefnet titled “Dan Brown’s Jewish Connection,” and another key source is The Da Vinci Code: A Jewish Perspective by Rabbi Michael Skobac, education director of the Toronto branch of Jews for Judaism. “What is most puzzling is why this murder mystery/scavenger hunt with no real character development and a plot that’s little more than one long chase scene has become an international cultural phenomenon,” Skobac writes in the beginning of the pamphlet. The rest of the document continues to attack Brown, though critiquing a novel for its lack of historicity is about as absurd as insisting upon iambic pentameter in a science textbook.

 

 

Nicolas Poussin. “Sack of the Temple of Jerusalem” (1625-26)

 

 

Whatever one feels about Brown’s scholarship and his approach to Judaism, Daniel Levin’s new book The Last Ember, which is modeled on Brown’s bestselling techniques, is good for Jewish literature. Like The Da Vinci Code, Levin’s book can be accused of misinforming readers who aren’t clever enough to differentiate between history and fiction, but it also features a variety of historical facts, many of which are no doubt informed by Levin’s studies as a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome.

 

Without spoiling the plot of the book, The Last Ember is about former classics student Jonathan Marcus – a lawyer-hero in the tradition of John Grisham – whose firm calls him to Rome to offer his expert opinion on an ancient artifact. Marcus reconnects with an old friend Dr. Emili Travia, a United Nations official, and the two find themselves involved in an international treasure hunt for the Menorah looted from the Second Temple by Vespasian and Titus. The novel has all of the thrills and dangers of the The Da Vinci Code but a distinctly Jewish flavor in the plot’s reliance on Josephus’ history of the destruction of Jerusalem.

 

An anonymous tip delivered in Rome’s Jewish quarter becomes an opportunity for Levin to explain that all the Catholic souvenir vendors in Saint Peter’s Square are Jewish due to a 16th century law from Paul IV. Levin also maintains that all the artifacts in the book are real – including the ancient mode of preserving corpses by embalming them in oils inside Corinthian columns – and that he often found that stories from the Talmudic tractate Gitten corroborate Roman texts.

 

Several other elements of the novel are true. Titus declared on his deathbed that he had committed only one mistake, after an unidentified prisoner escaped the Colosseum, a detail that Levin manipulates as part of one of the novel’s many conspiracies. A large part of the story rests on the question of the Menorah’s whereabouts. The famous depiction of the looted Temple artifacts on the Arch of Titus shows the Menorah being carted off with the Temple trumpets, but in Dan Brown’s line of inquiry one can ask where the Menorah is being taken, by whom, and whether it is even the real Menorah.

 

 

Arch of Titus. 81 CE.

 

Levin also tackles a large political issue, which he says is very real: the destruction of artifacts beneath the Temple Mount. “The novel’s theme of ‘archaeology is politics’ is more relevant than ever,” Levin said in an interview. “The destruction beneath the Temple Mount depicted in the book is based on fact. The Israeli antiquities authority really did find 20,000 tons of archaeologically-rich soil dumped into the valley of Kidron.”

 

Recently, the “top religious official in the Palestinian authority,” Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi denied Judeo-Christian history in Jerusalem and said any artifacts that prove biblical history have been forged, Levin added. “The Temple Mount is the Bermuda Triangle of international jurisdiction,” Levin says. “The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that all illegal excavation must stop, but access beneath the Mount is open only to members of the Waqf.”

 

To Levin, supervision is the problem. A 2007 congressional bill, “condemning the Waqf’s digging activities at the Temple Mount site and deploring the destruction of artifacts vitally important to Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths,” curbed funding to the Palestinian Authority unless the illegal excavations ceased. UNESCO may be able to oversee the site given its role as a world heritage site, Levin said.

 

 

Engraving from a catacomb before fourth century. Courtesy of Daniel Levin

 

 

So does Levin know where the Menorah is? If you read his book you will find a story that is a good deal more probable than Dan Brown’s, but one that is unlikely to help biblically minded treasure hunters. The treasure might be in bringing more attention to biblical history, though. As it becomes harder and harder to find people who aren’t familiar with Robert Langdon, the symbologist, it is important to recognize all the good things Brown has done for the field. And the same can be said about Levin.

 

Before reading The Last Ember, I hadn’t given much thought to where the ancient candelabrum might be, but once one starts thinking about the question, one finds oneself heading down a really interesting path that is as much about mystery and ancient history as it is about Jewish art. And unlike some other people who have attacked Brown’s books on the grounds that they are fiction rather than scholarship, I think both Brown and Levin ought to be applauded for teaching their readers about Jewish texts, artifacts, and history.

 

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.

Michelangelo And The Jews

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

A Review of the Book, The Sistine Secrets
By Benjamin Blech & Roy Doliner
2008, HarperCollins, New York

 

 

The Sistine Chapel in Rome is at the very heart of the Roman Catholic universe, the pope’s private chapel in the Vatican and, notably, is one of the most famous tourist sites in history. Millions of people visit each year to view the world’s largest fresco painting painted by Michelangelo in 1512 and, according to a new book by Rabbi Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner, almost certainly all miss the hidden Judaic messages the artist embedded in ceiling above them.


In their book, The Sistine Secrets, Rabbi Blech, popular author and professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, and Roy Doliner, docent and guide to Rome and the Vatican Museums, make the radical claim that Michelangelo’s Sistine fresco contains many secrets and veiled messages “that preach reconciliation – reconciliation between reason and faith, between the Jewish Bible and the New Testament, and between Christian and Jew. While that claim is ultimately not convincingly proved, the journey of analysis of the complex images rewards the reader with many profound insights about the artwork and the complex nature of Michelangelo’s ideas.


The book is a fascinating and engaging, if at times infuriating, examination of one of the most famous and complex works of art in the world. Michelangelo painted the 12,000 square foot ceiling over the period of four years at the height of the Italian Renaissance. It depicts the narratives of the Creation and the Flood; the four salvations found in the stories of David and Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, Esther and Haman, and Moses and the Brazen Serpent; an odd collection of Jewish prophets and pagan sibyls; and a singular depiction of the Jewish people.


The book’s starting point is the surprising fact that there is not one Christian figure or image out of the hundreds of figures in the entire ceiling of the Papal chapel.  They assert that in defiance of the pope it was Michelangelo who, by sheer insistence, changed the original Christian design to an overwhelmingly Judaic subject. Traditional interpretations of the ceiling have emphasized that this choice of subjects simply presents the ancestors of Jesus and the theological antecedents to the triumph of Christianity.


Blech and Doliner dismiss this as a superficial misreading of the true (and forbidden) content of the ceiling which they assert is a complex presentation of Kabbalistic concepts that preach unity of opposites and refer to many aspects of the seferot. This argument posits that from Michelangelo’s youthful exposure to Neoplatonic ideas, esoteric philosophy, Torah, midrash and Kabbalah, he found himself forever at odds with mainstream Catholic theology; hence the need for “secrets and “hidden meanings embedded in his images.


Finally, they attempt to document the antagonism between Pope Julius II and the artist by pointing out a number of alleged visual insults directed at his patron.   Unfortunately, many of these assertions remain just that because of the flawed methodology of the book.


Perhaps the most grievous problem with The Sistine Secrets is that it’s fundamentally a popular and, therefore, superficial presentation of rather complex artistic, religious and cultural issues. The lack of an index, footnotes and primary and secondary sources makes many of their claims almost impossible to substantiate. Several of their arguments suffer from lack of sufficient quality reproductions. The introductory chapters and many other sections are rife with an endless banter about secrets, hidden messages and forbidden meanings that would have considerable more substance if original sources and documents had been quoted to illuminate the claims.

 

 


Zechariah (detail from Sistine Chapel), fresco (1512) by Michelangelo − Portrait of Pope Julius II, patron of Sistine Chapel

 

Additionally, sloppy writing and what appear to be simple mistakes of facts weaken the overall sense of trust the authors must engender with any intelligent reader. (Were artists really forbidden to sign their works even though we have numerous examples of signed works in the Renaissance?) In their popular “gee whiz writing style, the authors betray their over-investment in their interpretation of Michelangelo’s ideas.   It does not help that their final assertion that Michelangelo’s intention was to “construct a giant bridge of the spirit, spanning different faiths, cultures, eras and sexualities matches much too closely the contemporary “Pave the Way Foundation supported by Rabbi Blech, that is “dedicated to achieving peace by bridging the gap in tolerance and understanding, between religions through cultural, technological and intellectual exchanges.


What should have been an exploration of the significance of a work of art seems to have slipped into advocacy for a preconceived political and social program.  Nonetheless, there is much to glean from The Sistine Secrets.


The Sistine Chapel was designed to be an exact copy of the sanctuary of Solomon’s Temple, duplicating the dimensions found in I Kings 6:2 and even dividing the space into a larger Kodesh and smaller Kodesh Kodeshim with a marble partition grill echoing the curtain in the Heichel. This was part of a well-established Catholic theme of successionism − that the Church was the replacement of Judaism as the one true monotheistic faith. A series of frescos that circle the lower walls reflects this theme, depicting six scenes from the life of Moses opposite six scenes from the life of Jesus. 


Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of the book is the uniquely Judaic interpretations of some of Michelangelo’s works. The world famous Pieta in St. Peter’s is a prime example. The image of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus has one startling anomaly in that she has the face of a young woman. The authors interpret a parallelism of Mary, mother of Jesus, with Sarah, mother of Isaac and matriarch of the Jewish people.  And just as Rashi interprets “The life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years to mean that as an old lady Sarah nevertheless appeared as a 20-year-old, so too Michelangelo depicted the aged Mary as young. The concept that Isaac was a potential sacrifice and was the forerunner to Jesus as actual sacrifice strengthens this argument.   Positing Michelangelo’s knowledge of Jewish texts indeed opens up an intriguing reading of the Pieta.


Less convincing is their interpretation of the Creation of Eve on the Sistine ceiling. Again the authors posit that it was Michelangelo’s Jewish knowledge that led him to depict Eve emerging from Adam’s side, as the Torah text states, rather than from the more traditional Christian depiction of being created from Adam’s rib. Unfortunately almost the exact same image is found in a relief sculpture on the façade of the basilica in Bologna done 72 years earlier by Jacopo della Quercia, an artist who was an early influence of Michelangelo.


So too are the assertions that Michelangelo had special Talmudic knowledge that caused him to depict the serpent with arms and legs. We see exactly that depiction from a Hugo van der Goes 1470 painting of Adam and Eve. It is not an unusual phenomenon that there was considerable permeability between Jewish and Christian sources of textual interpretations. Michelangelo was hardly unique, and the inclusion of these did not necessitate secret or hidden Jewish messages.


In spite of a number of fallacious claims, the authors do present some other very intriguing observations. The interpretation of the triangular panels in the four corners (David and Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, Esther and Haman, and Moses and the Brazen Serpent) as referring to four exiles and four salvations of the Jewish people, if indeed intended by Michelangelo, would strongly point to a considerable amount of rabbinic knowledge.


Perhaps the most impressive argument Blech and Doliner make for Michelangelo’s uniquely Jewish message is found in the central ceiling panel of the Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden. On the left, Eve turns and accepts the forbidden fruit from the serpent as Adam reaches over her and plucks a piece of fruit for himself. This is, of course, totally contrary to the text and has almost certainly bewildered commentators for 500 years.


What we are actually seeing is the uniquely Jewish and midrashic interpretation that Adam was equally responsible for Eve’s sin. When Adam communicated G-d’s command to Eve, Adam actually added the injunction “nor shall you touch it. That was not what G-d said and, according to the Midrash, exactly that unwarranted addition allowed the serpent to fool Eve into thinking that there was no harm in tasting the fruit. It is more than likely that only the midrashic understanding of Adam’s culpability would prompt Michelangelo to depict Adam as literally eating the forbidden fruit quite on his own without prompting from Eve.


It is clear from both the success and failure of many aspects of The Sistine Secrets that Blech and Doliner have uncovered many complex Judaic meanings in this most famous work of art. What needs to be done is to put their substantive insights into a larger perspective that deals with the many contradictory messages the Sistine ceiling poses.  We shall explore some of these issues in my next review.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/michelangelo-and-the-jews/2008/08/27/

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