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August 29, 2015 / 14 Elul, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Rome’

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



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


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



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




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.

Caravaggio And Evil

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

      Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610) was well acquainted with evil. His short violent life careened wildly between prestigious painting commissions from the most powerful men in Rome and drunken street brawls with the lowest of the low. Such behavior led to frequent encounters with the police, lawsuits, duels and finally murder. Exposed early in life to both the deep piety of his small hometown of Caravaggio and the violent tumultuous city life of nearby Milan, his view of life was a kind of brash cosmopolitanism laced with the passionate fervor of the Counter Reformation.


         Within a few years of his arrival in Rome, his starkly realistic depictions of contemporary scenes dramatically set in high contrasts of light and dark gained him immediate fame. As he matured, an uneasy synthesis of opposites emerged in some paintings, exhibiting a pictorial paradox that points the way to what one could call a modern sensibility of doubt, unease and disquiet. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in two paintings created only six years apart and yet separated by one event that would cut his life tragically short. Judith and Holofernes (1599) and David with the Head of Goliath (1606) speak to us across the centuries about the unexpected consequences of eradicating evil from our midst. Additionally, the dialogue between the two paintings addresses the multifaceted nature of evil itself.


         Judith is a Jewish book, originally written in Hebrew but only familiar to many now, in Greek versions that date from the Second Temple period. The narrative relates how Nebuchadnezzar, king of Assyria, intent on ruling the entire world, sends his general Holofernes to conquer Israel. Holofernes besieges the strategic town of Bethulia that blocks his advance on Jerusalem.



Judith and Holofernes (1599), oil on canvas (56″ X 76″) by Caravaggio

Palazzo Barberini, Rome



         Once water and food run out the town leaders were desperate, ready to open the gates to the murderous hordes. The beautiful and virtuous widow, Judith steps forward with a plan. After convincing the elders to allow her to approach the enemy camp, she prays to G-d for success in overcoming the general Holofernes, just as G-d had granted success to her ancestor Simon when he avenged the rape of Dinah.


         As she enters the camp, her beauty beguiles all who see her and she is immediately ushered into a lavish banquet with Holofernes. He is impressed with her beauty, wit and piety (she insists on eating only the kosher food she brought for herself). In anticipation of seducing her, he consumes much wine and retires in a drunken stupor. She enters his bedchamber alone, takes his sword and prays again; “Strengthen me this day, O G-d of Israel! Then with all her might she struck him twice in the neck and cut off his head” (Judith 13:6-9). Her maidservant enters and collects his head. Once out of the camp, the decapitated head is displayed for all to see and the invading army flees in terror. Jerusalem, the Temple and the Jewish People have been saved by the courage of Judith.


         The Book of Judith is not found in the Jewish canon (possibly because of the prominent use of a sword by a woman, a violation of the prohibition seen in Deuteronomy 22:5 that prohibits “kli gever, man’s equipment” for women). Nonetheless, it is seen in numerous Jewish contexts. The story is illustrated in the Rothschild Miscellany (1450-80) and The Prague Haggadah, printed in 1526, shows Judith posed with her sword and the head of Holofernes on the page illuminating the verse “Pour out your wrath upon the nations” She stands opposite Samson who similarly defended the Jewish people from the attacks of their enemies.


         This motif appears atop numerous 18th century menorahs (her connection with Judah Maccabee is obvious), especially on the beautiful silver Boller Menorah (1706-1732) found in the Jewish Museum. The story is extensively illustrated in Christian art as a motif of “virtue overcoming evil.” The artists include; Donatello, Mantegna, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Giorgione, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Correggio, and notably Michelangelo’s pairing of Judith and Holofernes opposite David and Goliath on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.



“Pour out your wrath on the Nations”, (1526) Prague Haggadah

Jewish Theological Seminary of America



        Caravaggio’s depiction is startling for both its violence and complexity. In this one painting the artist presents three points of view concerning of the eradication of evil: the victim, the old hag and the young heroine. The handsome Holofernes, suddenly awakened, is shocked in his own death. In mid-scream, he grasps the bed sheets that were agents in his own destruction, a river of blood spurting from his neck separated from his head. Anxiously observing the assassination, the old maidservant eagerly awaits the prize. She represents a mature woman well acquainted with male barbarism, lust and violence. In her angry eyes this is an act of judgment, if not vengeance. It is she who will fittingly receive his severed head.


         Judith’s ambiguity is disarming. The strength of her arms holding his hair and slicing with the sword signify exactly how determined and sure she is. Yet she pulls back, her brow furrowed in consternation. She is recoiled by the reality of a life coming to an end. Her youth, grace and beauty all bespeak the feminine role to give life, and to fulfill and create. Nonetheless, to save her people, she must deny her essence; she must annihilate him and destroy the threat of his army. Bravely, she grasps his head as she would a piece of meat to slice for dinner.


         Unlike most religious paintings of the Counter Reformation, this Caravaggio is not triumphant and self-assured. It recognizes that even when one must decide to confront evil and obliterate it, the act of violence necessarily affects us. With Judith, after this heroic act she is no longer simply the young lovely widow. Thrust into history, her youthful innocence is tarnished.


         David and Goliath, painted six years later, elevates his examination of evil to an intensely personal level. In May 1606, Caravaggio was involved in a brawl that escalated into a swordfight in which Ranuccio Tomassoni was killed. Caravaggio fled Rome and eventually reached Naples, where he spent a year. Early in this period he allegedly painted this work to be sent to the papal court in a plea to annul his sentence, as a kind of pictorial confession of his remorse.



David with the Head of Goliath (1606), oil on canvas (48″ X 39″) by Caravaggio

Galleria Borghese, Rome



         In this work, David is but a young lad forced to confront the wicked Goliath who taunts him, saying; “Am I a dog that you come after me with sticks? And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. come to me, so I may offer your flesh to the fowl of the heavens and to the beast of the field!” He was determined to further disgrace Israel and so David was forced to defend his people and their honor, and indeed he triumphed. Goliath was slain by a well-aimed slingshot. David decapitated him and thereby terrified the Philistine army into a chaotic defeat (Samuel I 17:41-54).


         But again Caravaggio’s David is no poster boy hero. With sad eyes and furrowed brow, he sorrowfully gazes at the head of the stricken Goliath, practically asking him, why did you force me to slay youwhy did you challenge G-d’s people? The sharp angle of the sword parallels David’s outstretched arm holding Goliath’s expressive head, creating the graphic metaphor that David could not have truly contemplated the personality of Goliath without first killing him. The meaning of this gesture deepens once we become aware that the face of Goliath is a self-portrait of the 35-year-old Caravaggio, weary, worn and defeated.


         The enormous empathy one feels for both David and Goliath allows us to see Caravaggio pondering his own image, mourning how the evil that seems so deeply ingrained must be eradicated.


         The parallels between the two paintings are startling. Each involve decapitation, each slayer grasps the hair of the victim, each utilizes the sword and arms as parallel agents of destruction, each involves a hesitant executioner, each knocks the evil protagonist out with either wine or a stone, and finally, each painting gives us insight into the emotions of the “victim.” Indeed, in each painting one might say that the protagonist is also trapped in the role of victim.


         But there are important differences. Judith is young and innocent of death, forced to eradicate an animal force that would consume her before destroying her people. Caravaggio’s David is different. For him, the conflict seems more of a personal struggle within the artist himself, a failure to control that which corrodes and slays the soul. Judith had to kill an illicit passion whereas David put to the sword his own hubris. These paintings contrast the evil within and the evil without.


         There are some who say that the painting of David and Goliath foretells Caravaggio’s own demise. In the four years left of his life Caravaggio continuously implored his influential friends to obtain a papal pardon from the death sentence he incurred. He fled to the island of Malta and then Sicily and finally, goes back to Naples. In each location he painted a handful of portraits and many masterpieces of religious art. His output was strong and confident, yet he felt he had to plead his case in person and remove the shadow that hung over his life. A pardon seemed imminent, and so he set out to return to Rome. He never made it. He died mysteriously, perhaps of malaria, perhaps murdered. His body was never found; at 39, the evil of violence finally consumed him.


         But he left a brilliant record in these two paintings of his confrontation with the evil that still stalks our world and still haunts our souls.


         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/caravaggio-and-evil/2007/08/08/

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