Rembrandt’s Jewish Paintings Convey a Message of Liberty and Tolerance Rooted in the Hebrew Bible

Seven years ago, William Kolbrener found himself in a religious crisis, feeling unsure of the path of strict Jewish observance he had chosen. Now, looking back, he describes a visit to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum that helped him through the crisis, in particular a viewing of Rembrandt van Rijn’s paintings on Jewish and biblical themes. These often feature books and other texts, sometimes in Hebrew characters:

Rembrandt’s Jewish book gives life to his greatest works, and to the liberal world in the making in Amsterdam’s Golden Age. The painter treasures the Hebrew Scriptures as the source that animates the ideals of liberal democracy—fairness, justice, law, toleration. His is a Christian world to be sure, but the Jew is not erased, but present. With his studio in the Jewish Quarter, Rembrandt’s paintings put the Jew at the center of a democratic future. Tolerate the Jew, and other minorities follow. The Jewish presence in Rembrandt’s works is a painterly toleration act, the first step towards the liberal world that his paintings imagine.

One of these is Hannah Instructing Samuel (1655), which shows the prophet’s mother sitting in a chair, a book on her lap, and a young Samuel peering at it, with what appear to be the Ten Commandments engraved in Hebrew on the wall in the background.

Hannah sits, her face luminous. The white garment makes her angelic; but the black cape encircling her head, shoulders, and neck seems to hold her down, almost keeping her from floating away. The bulk of her skirt spreads over her tree-trunk legs. Her left sandal is discarded; she is connected to the earth. Rembrandt discovers the Jewish sacred in his Hannah, at once transcendent [and] this-worldly. The painting, in the end, is Christian, but Hannah, the Jew, is not going anywhere.

In keeping the Hebrew book open, and the Jew on the canvas, [Rembrandt] paints a world in the making. Hannah’s book remains literally open, her fingers holding a place. Her book, our book, gives life to everything Rembrandt paints around her—her surroundings, Greek, Christian, Jewish, and ours.

Around the same time Kolbrener was visiting the Netherlands, Mosaic published a series of essays on Rembrandt on the Jews by Meir Soloveichik. If the topic intrigues you, I recommend having a look.

Read more at Writing on the Wall

More about: Judaism, Liberalism, Rembrandt


Israel Just Sent Iran a Clear Message

Early Friday morning, Israel attacked military installations near the Iranian cities of Isfahan and nearby Natanz, the latter being one of the hubs of the country’s nuclear program. Jerusalem is not taking credit for the attack, and none of the details are too certain, but it seems that the attack involved multiple drones, likely launched from within Iran, as well as one or more missiles fired from Syrian or Iraqi airspace. Strikes on Syrian radar systems shortly beforehand probably helped make the attack possible, and there were reportedly strikes on Iraq as well.

Iran itself is downplaying the attack, but the S-300 air-defense batteries in Isfahan appear to have been destroyed or damaged. This is a sophisticated Russian-made system positioned to protect the Natanz nuclear installation. In other words, Israel has demonstrated that Iran’s best technology can’t protect the country’s skies from the IDF. As Yossi Kuperwasser puts it, the attack, combined with the response to the assault on April 13,

clarified to the Iranians that whereas we [Israelis] are not as vulnerable as they thought, they are more vulnerable than they thought. They have difficulty hitting us, but we have no difficulty hitting them.

Nobody knows exactly how the operation was carried out. . . . It is good that a question mark hovers over . . . what exactly Israel did. Let’s keep them wondering. It is good for deniability and good for keeping the enemy uncertain.

The fact that we chose targets that were in the vicinity of a major nuclear facility but were linked to the Iranian missile and air forces was a good message. It communicated that we can reach other targets as well but, as we don’t want escalation, we chose targets nearby that were involved in the attack against Israel. I think it sends the message that if we want to, we can send a stronger message. Israel is not seeking escalation at the moment.

Read more at Jewish Chronicle

More about: Iran, Israeli Security