Stranded in England at the end of World War I, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, then chief rabbi of Jaffa but later the first chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, sought to lift his spirits with a trip to the National Gallery in London, one of the world’s greatest repositories of classic art. He later commented:
When I lived in London, I used to visit the National Gallery, and my favorite pictures were those of Rembrandt. I really think that Rembrandt was a tzaddik… We are told that when G-d created light, it was so strong and pellucid that one could see from one end of the world to the other, but G-d was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous when the Messiah should come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by G-d Almighty.
Rav Kook’s reference is to Tractate Chagigah 12a, where the Gemara challenges the claim that light was created on the first day: “But is it not written: ‘And G-d set them in the firmament of the heaven’ [Genesis 1:17] and ‘And there was evening, and there was morning, a fourth day” [ibid. 1:19], indicating that light was created on the fourth day?”
The Gemara answers:
This should be understood in accordance with Rav Elazar, who said: The light that the Holy One, Blessed be He, created on the first day was not that of the sun but a different kind of light, through which man could observe from one end of the world to the other. But when the Holy One, Blessed be He, looked upon the Generation of the Flood and the Generation of the Dispersion and saw that their ways were corrupt and that they might misuse this light for evil, He arose and concealed it from them, as it is stated, “And from the wicked their light is withheld” [Job 38:15].
Indeed, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was the unparalleled master of light, and his work is infused with an unmatched quality of ethereal luminosity that uniquely breathes life into his subjects. A grandmaster in three media – as draftsman, painter, and printmaker – he is one of the greatest and most important visual artists in the entire history of art. Among his greatest contributions was his transformation of the printmaking etching process into a true art form.
Unlike most masters of the time, Rembrandt worked with a broad range of styles and subject matters, including portraits, landscapes, allegorical and historical scenes, animal studies, and mythological themes. Perhaps his greatest work, however, were his biblical scenes, which reflected both his sharp knowledge of biblical texts and his close observations of Amsterdam’s Jews, many of whom were descendants of Jews who had come to Holland after their 1492 expulsion from Spain.
For 20 years, Rembrandt lived in the Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam, the first great cosmopolitan European metropolis since ancient Rome and famous for its multiculturalism, tolerance, and acceptance of Jews as equal citizens. Dwelling in the midst of Amsterdam’s Jews on Jodenbreestraat, the “Jewish Broad Street,” he developed a warm relationship with them; used his Jewish neighbors to model for his Old Testament scenes, in part because of their distinctive physiognomy; and was among the first classic artists to depict Jews as sympathetic characters and, in some instances, as revered and heroic personalities.
Rembrandt’s depictions of biblical subjects are often more a reflection of Jewish tradition than the prevailing Christian tradition, which leads many academics to conclude that he must have consulted with various rabbinical authorities in Amsterdam, who provided him with details from Talmudic sources and other post-biblical Jewish literature.
Hitler and other top Nazi leaders were collectors of Rembrandt’s works, and the Nazis took extraordinary steps to hold him out as a model of Germanic racial superiority, to fold him into fascist ideology, and to earn sympathy in the Netherlands. Among other efforts, they awarded a Rembrandt Prize for artistic contribution to National Socialist culture and even attempted to institute a national holiday on Rembrandt’s birthday.
In a 1941 film, the Nazis attributed Rembrandt’s considerable financial problems to the Jews who, they claimed, purchased his paintings cheaply and then resold them at great profit. The Dutch people, however, were not fooled.
Rembrandt’s close relationships with the Jews of Amsterdam and his enduring pro-Jewish legacy caused no small problem for the Third Reich, particularly Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Rembrandt’s philo-Semitism was broadly recognized by noted fanatical anti-Semites including, for example, Edouard Drumont, editor of La Libre Parole and perhaps the leading Jew-hater and anti-Drefussard of his time, who said that “one must look at Rembrandt if one really wants to see the Jews.” But the Nazis swept these “inconvenient truths” aside because Rembrandt was too essential to their efforts to construct a new German-Dutch identity.
Evidence of Rembrandt’s artistic interest in Amsterdam’s Jews may be seen through his numerous sketches of them in pen or chalk, and an estimated 40 oils by the artist are said to depict Jewish subjects; some scholars estimate that although Jews comprised maybe one percent of Amsterdam’s population, some 20 percent of his male subjects were Jewish.
However, many critics now claim that art historians – so eager to see Jews behind the beards and costumes of Rembrandt’s subjects – have mischaracterized them as Jews and that, in fact, many of Rembrandt’s “Jewish” subjects have been proven to be non-Jewish.
The best example may be the subject of Rembrandt’s Head of a Jewish Rabbi; despite the modern name of this painting, revisionist critics see no fewer than two crucifixes on the chain of the “rabbi’s” necklace. Another example concerns what used to be thought was a portrait of Saul Levi Morteira, the chief rabbi of Amsterdam; it is now believed that the painting actually renders Jan Amos Comenius, a Czech Protestant.
Moreover, some critics now argue that the setting of the artist’s 1648 etching, Jews in the Synagogue (1648) – which, ironically, shows only nine Jews, one less than the requisite minyan – is not a synagogue but, rather, a street scene in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam.
There is considerable dispute regarding whether Rembrandt’s famous The Jewish Bride depicts Jewish poet Miguel de Barrios and his wife or, as others argue, is merely a generic biblical rendition of Isaac and Rebecca. Even in Portrait of a Young Jew, where the subject seems to be wearing a yarmulke, critics claim that the headgear is not distinctively Jewish but, rather, was the common head covering of Dutch scholars at the time.
All this Rembrandt revisionism perhaps reached its apex with “The Jewish Rembrandt,” a 2006 exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam where all references to Jewishness in Rembrandt’s work – save one – were declared erroneous: a small oil sketch of Ephraim Hezekiah Bueno, a prominent Sephardic physician and a close personal friend of the artist. (This portrait was one of Rembrandt’s works that Hitler appropriated – i.e., stole – for display in his personal collection.)
Other critics, however, argue – convincingly, in my opinion – that the mere suggestion that Rembrandt’s Jewish subjects somehow are not Jewish smacks of rank revisionism and is belied by the facts. For example, in Repentant Jesus Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629) – painted when the artist was only 23 years old – the Tetragrammaton (YKVK, Hashem’s four-letter name) appears on the cap of the priest to the right, clearly identifying him as a Jew.
Moreover, many of the “common shawls” in Rembrandt’s work referred to by the revisionist critics are identifiable as talitot customarily worn by the Sephardi Jews of Amsterdam and, in particular, in St. John Preaching in the Desert (1634-35), one of the members of the obviously Jewish audience is wearing a tallit on which is written the Hebrew letters of Shema Yisrael.
A Sephardi Jew who remains central to any analysis of the work of Rembrandt is his good friend and patron Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657), a prominent and renowned Dutch rabbi who founded the first Hebrew publishing house in Amsterdam, produced 26 books in six languages, and played a major role in the readmission of Jews to England.
Among the artist’s 1636 works is a famous portrait of Menasseh which, like most of Rembrandt’s “Jewish” portraits, is questioned by contemporary critics. However, almost all agree that the source for the Aramaic inscription in Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast (1635), which has continued to fascinate art historians through the centuries, was his friendship with Rabbi ben Israel.
Almost all. Even here, some academics note that when Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburgh in 1634 – a year before he painted Belshazzar’s Feast – he became the brother-in-law of Reformed theologian and Hebrew Scholar Johannes Maccovius who, they claim, may well have been the artist’s advisor for the Hebrew letters in the painting.
Rembrandt also may have been exposed to some Hebrew during his brief attendance at the local university in Leiden (his birthplace) in 1620. This is all admittedly very confusing, made more so by the fact that Rembrandt, an intensely private man, left no personal writings and no one is known to have recorded any conversations with him.
As the story is told in chapter 5 of The Book of Daniel, King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for his thousand nobles, in whose presence he got drunk and ordered an unimaginable sacrilege: that the gold and silver vessels that his grandfather Nevuchadnezzar had stolen from the Beit HaMikdash be brought so that the king and his assembly could drink from them.
Jeremiah had prophesized that after 70 years of exile, G-d would return his exiled people to Eretz Yisrael (Jeremiah 25:11-13), and Belshazzar was celebrating the fact that, after 70 years, the Jewish people had not been redeemed. However, he had erred in his calculations by commencing his count from the ascension of Nevuchadnezzer to the Babylonian throne rather than from the destruction of the Temple, and “the writing was on the wall” for the end of the Babylonian empire.
As they drank and praised their false gods, the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote an inscription on the plaster of the wall of the palace, which badly frightened the king. He summoned the kingdom’s best exorcists and diviners, promising royalty to whoever could interpret the mysterious writing, but no one could. (See Sanhedrin 21b-22a for a discussion on the reasons for their failure.)
Finally, Daniel, who had been Nevuchadnezzar’s “chief of magicians,” explained that the inscribed words, “mene tekel upharsin” were written by G-d himself to proclaim that, due to Belshazzar’s great sin in appropriating the holy temple vessels for profane use, his Babylonian kingdom would be brought to an end and pass to the Persians.
Thus, explained Daniel, “mene”: G-d has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; “tekel”: you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting; and “peres”: your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and the Persians. That very night in 539 BCE, Belshazzar was killed – by Cyrus and Darius, according to Midrashic literature.
Rembrandt’s painting is striking, as Belshazzar, dressed in luxurious royal gold and silver thread, is depicted as the embodiment of terror and panic: perplexed eyes, tensed neck, left arm raised in a protective position, right arm inadvertently flinging a vessel of wine as he recoils from the frightening writing on the wall.
At its essence, this is a dramatic image of a powerful sovereign suddenly faced with his own demise, but it is virtually impossible for the viewer’s eyes to veer for very long from the mystical inscription that, through the artist’s extraordinary use of light, totally commands the scene.
The mysterious inscription is indecipherable partly because the characters are not arranged from left to right in the usual Hebrew and Aramaic manner but, rather, in vertical columns in the form of a “magic square.”
Some critics note that this arrangement is identical to a diagram in a book by Menasseh ben Israel, but there are two problems with making this connection. First, Menasseh wrote the book years after Rembrandt completed Belshazzar’s Feast and, second, Rembrandt made a spelling error in the work (he etched a zayin instead of a nun-sofit).
Rembrandt used Hebrew letters in many of his works, including Moses Holding the Tablets of the Law (1659), in which he depicted the luchot with five commandments on each tablet in accordance with the opinion of the Sages, a remarkable departure from the Augustinian view adopted by the Catholics and the Lutherans, who have three commandments on one tablet and seven on the second.
Moreover, in his rendition of Moses, he conspicuously corrected Michelangelo’s famous exegetical error by rendering Moses without “horns,” for which he must have received input from a knowledgeable Jewish source.
Rembrandt’s Hebrew lettering is superbly faithful, in some instances remarkably adopting the exacting style of a Torah scribe. Such detailed and esoteric knowledge surely came from a Jewish authority, and that the most likely source was his friend Rabbi Menasseh, who may have shared his magic square analysis before his book was published.