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Rembrandt and Moses - President's Message 7/10

07/10/16 01:28:23


In early September I went for Shabbos morning service in New York to Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. The senior rabbi, Meir Soloveichik, in lieu of a sermon delivered a lecture at the end of the service on the famous Rembrandt painting of 1659, Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law, in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie; he was scheduled to give the same talk the next day at a conference on Rembrandt and the Jews at the Yeshiva University Museum. He argues that the painting has been misunderstood. Here I summarise his arguments. (Rabbi Soloveichik is also a professor at Yeshiva University. He is a great-nephew of the Rav and was rumoured to be a candidate to succeed Jonathan Sacks as chief rabbi. He is 39 years old.)

Sympathetic portrayal of Moses. Note that unlike Michelangelo’s sculpture showing Moses with horns, here he is balding but has tufts of hair; the Torah’s description of Moses descending is ki karan or panav, sometimes mistranslated as “horns of light’ whereas we would say that his face “shone,” as it does in this painting.

Jewish depiction of the two tablets. The standard Christian showing of the Ten Commandments has the 1-4 on the right side and 5-10 on the left. There is a logic to this: the first four are about man and God and the latter six, starting from honouring your father and mother, are about man and man. The Jewish approach adopts the same logic, but views the duties to one’s parents as being about God, as they reflect God’s paternal love for humanity and the Jewish people, so commandment number 5 belongs on the right-hand tablet. You can see the top of the tablet (only the left-hand tablet is shown) with the first line lo tirzach, the sixth commandment – therefore, you know that Rembrandt adopts the Jewish 5-5 split. While Rembrandt did not know Hebrew, his lettering is accurate and note how the bet in the eighth commandment, lo tignov, is elongated, just like a sofer would do.

Rembrandt’s source. The gold lettering on black stone is the similar to those on the tablets on top of the wooden ark in the Great Synagogue in Amsterdam (also called the Portuguese Synagogue or the Esnoga). But this synagogue was opened in 1675, 16 years after Rembrandt’s painting. Soloveichik argues that the previous synagogue, located on Houtgracht (Waterlooplein), which no longer exists, had the Ten Commandments as tablets on the doors to the ark (there are a few drawings to support this interpretation). It was this older synagogue (where Spinoza’s excommunication was pronounced in 1656) that Rembrandt or one of his assistants visited.

What is Moses doing? When Moses came down from Mount Sinai the first time he saw the Israelites dancing with the golden calf, he became enraged and smashed the two tablets. But in the Rembrandt painting Moses does not look angry. Also, the allusion to the miraculous rays of light (Michelangelo’s horns) is associated in the Torah with the second set of tablets, not the first. Soloveichik argues that the Rembrandt painting has been wrongly titled: Moses is not about to break the tablets but rather is bringing the second, lasting set:

As Rembrandt, a careful reader of the Bible, might have noticed, the first set of tablets was given directly by God, but the second set was carved by Moses—or, one might say, was extruded by Moses from the stone itself. The human effort required to create the second set, the set that restored the covenant, brings to mind a paradox eloquently described by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The first tablets, Sacks comments, “were perhaps the holiest object in history: from beginning to end, the work of God. Yet within hours they lay shattered, broken by Moses when he saw the calf and the Israelites dancing around it.” The second tablets, carved by Moses with the letters once again engraved by the fiery finger of God, were eternal.

Here lies an anomaly. “Why,” asks Sacks, “was the more holy object broken while the less holy stayed whole?” The answer:

Receiving the first tablets, Moses was passive. Therefore, nothing in him changed. For the second, he was active. He had a share in the making. He carved the stone on which the words were to be engraved. That is why he became a different person. His face shone. [Emphasis added]

God’s miraculous intervention changes the universe, but only our own partnership in the covenant changes us.

The conclusion that we should draw is that Rembrandt was familiar with the Amsterdam Jewish community and synagogue, that he gave a sympathetic and Jewish portrayal, and that his Moses is not about to smash the tablets but rather is basking in the glory of bringing down the everlasting second set.

Thu, 23 January 2020 26 Teves 5780

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