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Paintings at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

The Akeidah casts a very long shadow in the lives of all Jews, every day and particularly at this time of year.  The terrifying narrative in Genesis 22, only 19 lines long, and yet recited every morning as prelude to the first recitation of “Shema Yisrael” sets the essential tone of our prayers.  We begin our daily approach to G-d with the plea, “Master of all worlds! Not in the merit of our righteousness do we cast our supplications before You, but in the merit of Your abundant mercy.”

And by what right do we ask for G-d’s mercy?  Only because of the Akeidah: “Just as Abraham our forefather suppressed his mercy for his only son and wished to slaughter him in order to do Your will, so may Your mercy suppress Your anger from upon us.” This is how we start our days.

These emotions are brought to a fever pitch on Rosh Hashanah when we read the Akeidah from the Torah itself as if to place its story firmly in our minds before we stand to say Mussaf.  And in Mussaf we encounter it yet again in one of the three blessings of Kingship, Remembrance and Shofar.  G-d’s Remembrance of all deeds, all thoughts, all history, all sin and all goodness is the theme of this central blessing that concludes with our plea for G-d to remember most of all the Akeidah; “may you mercifully remember today the Akeidah of Isaac for the sake of his offspring.”

Once we have firmly planted this supplication in our minds we spend the next ten days immersed in heartfelt repentance, fearfully awaiting Yom Kippur, when we will fast and pray all day as our sins are laid out before us, and we again plead for Divine mercy.  Our fate will be sealed on that day and we commit ourselves to Repentance, Prayer and Charity to remove the Evil Decree.  Still on that day we are only able to approach G-d’s  mercy because of the incomprehensible worth of the Akeidah of Isaac that we demand G-d to remember.

Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-1879) was born in the Galician city of Drohobycz to a religious but liberal family and was educated first in heder and then in the secular gymnasium.  In the heady mix of Galicia, Vienna, Cracow and Lwow he knew Jewish life well, its ebbs and flows, its joys and sorrows.  And of course he knew the Akeidah.  In fact in a recent book on Maurycy Gottlieb and Jewish art, Painting a People by Ezra Mendelsohn, he is considered one of the founding fathers of Jewish art−quite a claim made for an artist who died at the age of 23.

Jews Praying in the Synagogue on the Day of Atonement (1878), oil on canvas by Maurycy Gottlieb Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel
Maurycy Gottlieb, Jews Praying in the Synagogue on the Day of Atonement, 1878, oil on canvas, courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel

His famous masterpiece, Jews Praying in the Synagogue on the Day of Atonement (1878), is at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.  It is one of the best-known Jewish images created, widely popular in its own day as well as ours.  Another Jewish Polish artist and writer, Leopold Pilichowsky, wrote in the 1920s, “Gottlieb was the first Jewish artist who perceived the poetry and beauty of Jewish life in exile.”

Gottlieb’s work is impressive in size (96″ x 75″) and clarity of vision, and easily dominates the gallery in the museum.  That is, until one notices an equally monumental and masterful painting by the 17th century Dutch artist, Jan Lievens, Abraham and Isaac Before the Sacrifice.  The dramatic visual dialogue between these two images is unavoidable and ultimately deeply revealing.
Gottlieb’s painting presents the moment in the Yom Kippur Mincha service right after we have heard the terrible listing in the Torah of possible moral sins.  Tosafot (Megillah 31a) comments that this “reading is an implied prayer: Just as we are cautioned not to uncover physical nakedness, so we beseech G-d not to disclose the moral nakedness of our sins.”  After the reading of the book of Jonah and praying the Amidah, the final closing Neilah service is the last chance they have to gain G-d’s mercy.
Gottlieb shows the congregation in various aspects of deep concentration.  The nine men, somehow temporarily bereft of a minyan, are all profoundly introspective.  Each person’s face is absorbed in his own thoughts about the aching need for teshuvah. The standing figure in the strange, striped robe is a self-portrait of the artist himself.  He alone is staring towards the viewer, exhausted from his fasting and prayer.  He is flanked by a young boy on the left and a youth on the right, also self-portraits at an earlier age.  One might even see in the dark profile behind the artist a kind of sitra achra (dark side) of the artist’s personality and Jewish life.

The women’s section is remarkably different, made up of 12 well-dressed women who are engaged in a much more varied experience.  At least three look directly at the viewer, establishing a kind of dialogue that carries us into the future, beyond this Day of Atonement, into the fabric of a vibrant Jewish family life.  It is more than noteworthy that many of the women interact with each other and, by extension, the viewer.

The proud, elegant woman standing on the left has been closely identified with Laura Rosenfeld, the artist’s beloved, subject of his unrequited affections.  She clasps her machzor to her chest and seems to survey the entire scene with calm aplomb, casting a worldly air, deeply contrasted with the seated older woman on the right who pictorially plays the role of the artist’s mother.  Love and family, childhood, youth and religious maturity; all participate and experience the most meaningful day of the Jewish year.
Remarkably, the Torah scroll mantle is inscribed with a Hebrew inscription that makes the dedication to “the memory of the soul of late honored teacher and rabbi Moshe Gottlieb 1878-1879″ inexplicably referring to himself in not only lofty honorifics but also as one who had already died.  The terrible irony is that the artist himself would be dead within the year.

Abraham and Isaac before the Sacrifice (17th century) [Detail], oil on canvas by Jan Lievens Courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel
Jan Lievens, Abraham and Isaac before the Sacrifice, 17th century, oil on canvas, courtesy Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel
Barely 10 feet away in the gallery the youthful image of Isaac seems to implore his father to complete his sacrifice in Jan Lievens’s Abraham and Isaac before the Sacrifice.  The artist, famous in his own time (1607-1674), had sunk into obscurity until a recent revival, notably a current reassessment of his work in Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered set to open at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. in October, 2008.  His career is particularly interesting, considering that his dates are almost the same as Rembrandt’s; he studied with Rembrandt’s teacher, Pieter Lastman and even once shared a studio with the young Rembrandt in Leiden, Holland.  Whatever his ultimate critical appraisal will be, his depiction of the Akeidah is unique in all of Western art.

While the angel staying Abraham’s hand just in time is a standard image for the 17th century, the full profile of the adolescent Isaac seeming to implore his father or G-d Himself is unheard of.  Without a doubt, this painting depicts not only a complacent Isaac, but also a youth who ardently wants to be the sacrifice G-d demanded from his father.  He is Isaac unbound, neither a victim nor a passive subject, but rather an active participant determined to fulfill G-d’s will.  He does not shield himself from the knife; rather he welcomes it with outstretched and open arms.  Isaac’s anticipation of becoming a Kiddush Hashem and implied disappointment turns the painting into the truest Sacrifice of Isaac on record.

So in whose merit do we beseech G-d on Yom Kippur?  Of course we use the paradigm of Abraham who suppressed his mercy to attempt to do G-d’s will.  But there is another part of the story uncovered in Jan Lievens’s painting.  Indeed it was the merit of Isaac, the willing sacrifice, that on Yom Kippur we summon to demand that G-d unlock his abundant mercy for our benefit, as we stand exposed in judgment, as the Jews in Gottlieb’s painting, each absorbed in what we can and cannot do.  Suddenly we understand that we are terribly limited, grounded by our introspection and our human frailty.  Only G-d’s mercy is boundless and upon that we depend, just as we demand that G-d remember another’s boundless sacrifice so long ago.

Tel Aviv Museum of Art
27 Shaul Hamelech Blvd.
Tel Aviv 64329, Israel

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