Finding God at the Rijksmuseum

Finding God at the Rijksmuseum – William Kolbrener


I spent 15 years studying in yeshiva, but did not know what it meant to believe in God, nor to be a Jew, until an unexpected layover in Amsterdam, a winter afternoon at the Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum is a sanctuary for the beautiful, the rooms housing the Rembrandts the Holy of Holies. I had left America for Israel to finish my PhD on John Milton, but primarily to study Talmud and Jewish law. I did so, for those 15 years, while teaching Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton at Bar Ilan University, the last five years in Mea Shearim – from 9 until 1, every day. But not until that icy February day in the city that locals call ‘Mokum,’ Hebrew for place, did I finally ‘get’ what it means to be a Jew. In fighting for our Book, we are fighting for Rembrandt’s Jewish book, a multiethnic world of toleration, one without religious fundamentalisms and war.

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.

Back in 2018, I regretted the choices that I had made about becoming religious, and then even more religious – studying in an ultraorthodox yeshiva, living in an ultraorthodox neighborhood, having an ultraorthodox rabbi, putting my kids in ultraorthodox schools. I was up nights wondering how to pull myself (and my family) from the world in which my enthusiasm had landed us.

I had been happy at the beginning, blissfully so, discovering a culture revolving around what I loved most, reading. By the time I graduated Columbia, I was happy to leave an English Department – first generation woke – in which professors spoke endlessly about community and ethics, but did nothing to foster them. What the ultraorthodox get right, they get very right – community, study, prayer. I will always prefer to pray with an ultraorthodox minyan, for the intensity, care, and modesty.

But the community’s devotion to chosenness, especially in Jerusalem, was so narrowly defined, so restrictive, as to leave me out. The exhilaration of learning Talmud, discovering a sacred language that belonged to me, stopped offsetting the suffocating close-mindedness of the community I had joined. One neighbor described the community as a modern-day Noah’s Ark, protecting against the always-encroaching floods of secular destruction. A Hasidic friend chose a different metaphor: Auschwitz during the holocaust, protecting from even worse horrors outside the camp gates. A moment when I realized: ‘this is not for me.’

By the time I was standing in front of Rembrandt’s Jeremiah, I was lost as a Jew, as a human.

In the painting, the destruction of Jerusalem in the background, Jeremiah leans mournfully to his left, his face downcast, his right arm invisible, recalling the Psalmist: ‘if I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its skill.’ Jeremiah’s prophesies are fulfilled in the burning of the city. His head rests on his hand, his elbow on the closed book, the ‘Bibel.’

The closed Bible tells a story, both personal and national, that has suddenly ended, in tragedy. The People of the Book are now a museum exhibit, their closed volume destined for dusty library shelves. Similarly, the book I opened with idealism and joy, with the enthusiasm of discovery, closed on me.

Rembrandt paints the catastrophe, but Jeremiah’s naked right foot, his toe pointing away from the blaze, shows him en route to Rembrandt’s studio, to Amsterdam of the 17th century. Jerusalem is in flames, but the Jewish book, seemingly closed, is still open. Rembrandt paints the tragedy, responsible to the catastrophe through the creativity of midrash, he keeps the book, as well as its readers, alive. Jeremiah survives the destruction in Rembrandt’s painting, as does the Jewish book through which Jeremiah comes to life. Rembrandt shares the determination of Jewish mourning in his painting of catastrophe. Face the trauma: do not give into the allure of silence. Read the book and create.

Even in paintings of New Testament scenes, Rembrandt is the most Jewish of painters. He is a midrashist, a master in paint of the rabbinic genre. With midrash, the rabbis become the first sacred poets. Midrash is poetry about poetry – a commentary of stories on the stories of the sacred book.

Midrash was in the air, but Rembrandt did not own, as his contemporary Milton did, a Latin translation of a collection of midrashim, Pirke de Rebbe Eliezer. But Rembrandt lived in Jewish Amsterdam, not far from the most famous rabbi in Europe, Manasseh ben Israel, tutor to Spinoza, and instrumental in bringing Jews back to England after their expulsion in 1290. Rembrandt painted Manasseh’s portrait in 1636; the two surely talked over the etchings for the rabbi’s 1655 book, Piedra Gloriosa.

In 1635, Rembrandt paints Belshazzar’s Feast from the Book of Daniel, at the climactic moment, when the writing appears on the wall, which only Daniel can read:

At the feast, the wicked king, son to Nebuchadnezzar, desecrates the Temple vessels at the feast for his courtiers and their concubines. The bad news: there is more to life than consumption. It turns out that not knowing how to read – the Hebrew Book especially – is catastrophic, not just for the King, but for those that counted on him reading for

The terror on the faces of the couple shows their unwanted epiphany: our leader cannot read. Even worse, the woman in the left foreground, with other concerns, does not know there is something to be read. The figure barely visible in the left background, a musician – an artist, maybe Rembrandt himself – looks out of the painting and makes it personal for us. After all, we are standing in the place of Daniel who does know how to read, but the question is: do we?

The book features again in Rembrandt’s 1655 Hannah Instructing Samuel in the Temple; in the hands of the prophetess, her book at the center of the canvas.

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, but this-worldly. The painting, in the end, is Christian, but Hannah, the Jew, is not going anywhere.

In Rembrandt’s painting, Greek, Christian, and Jewish time are present, simultaneous. The Greek-styled angel, wings spread, next to the classical arch, recalls another Hannah, the Anna of Luke (2:36-38), visited by an angel. But the Hebrew book dominates the painting, as Hannah does. Behind her are the tablets with the 10 Commandments, in Hebrew. The staff that separates the tablets is a visual fast-forward from Mount Sinai of Exodus to the desert of Numbers. In that book, Moses puts an end to the plague besetting the people, holding up his snake-entwined staff. But the snake also recalls Genesis, the fall of man, and the salvation that Jesus promises. Rembrandt is a Christian, and this is a Christian painting. For a Christian viewer, Moses’s healing snake anticipates the true healer and redeemer, Jesus. The Old Law associated with Moses and the Ten Commandments is transformed, as is the staff, into a crucifix.

Rembrandt, however, is different from his contemporaries. I love Milton, but he turns everyone into Jesus: Isaac of the Akedah, Jesus; David of the Psalms, Jesus; Joshua arriving in the Promised Land, Jesus. The Hebrew Scriptures are flattened, by allegory, into Christianity’s rejected predecessor, the Old Testament. Infinity is taken out of the Jewish Book, as it is weaponized against the Jews.

Inclusion of the Jew is the first step towards democracy. The pluralism in the Jewish Book inspires Rembrandt as it does the rabbis, to the knowledge that God’s world can always only be seen partially: no perspective is sufficient. The pluralism they share does not lead to resignation, but to hard work, artistic devotion, to make art that reveals the poetry of the Jewish book. John Locke was the sober philosopher of liberalism in the 1690s; the first European emancipation of the Jews, was in France in 1791. But it was Rembrandt in his studio Jewish Amsterdam, Rembrandt taught ways of seeing and reading for a democratic world. In keeping the Hebrew book open, and the Jew on the canvas, 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.

Rembrandt taught me what I never learned in yeshiva: that liberal democracy only survives as long as our shared Jewish book does. And his Jeremiah: despair is where hope begins.