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

February 26, 2024 | William Kolbrener
About the author:

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.

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