A Dialogue Between Paintings and Jewish Texts

Michal Bergman


Art is an additional mode of interpreting Jewish texts and practices. Beyond that, it expands and enriches the dialogue between students and ideas. An artistic source can be seen as an additional commentary, a link in the chain of commentaries on a specific topic.


Art requires of us that we pause and respond to the question, “What does this say to me?” In many ways this is the same challenge we face when learning texts. The moment a work of art leaves the artist it takes on a life of its own, arousing a multiplicity of interpretations in different observers.

In the following article I will not relate to visual works of art in an academic-historical fashion; instead, I respond to them in a dialogic-humanistic way, in the context of Jewish studies. In other words, just as the human spirit, ideas and moods on a range of issues are expressed in source texts in general, and more specifically in Jewish sources, so too they can be found in works of art.



Judith Leister, Self Portrait, Holland, 1630. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA.    


It is well known that countless works of art have been inspired by the Bible. A work of art is not a substitute for learning the text, but it definitely provides an additional mode—or better yet, modes—of interpretation.

Let’s look for a moment at one of the most dramatic moments in the family of our forefathers, the moment in which the blind Isaac gives the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau (Genesis 27). Behind this act stands the mother Rebecca, and Jacob’s arms are covered with fur to make him seem hairy. Isaac senses that something is not right, and he says, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”


This is a moment of high drama—will Isaac uncover the deceit? Will Esau enter before the blessing is given to Jacob? Will Jacob succeed in carrying out the impersonation his mother has imposed upon him?


These questions relate to the overt script, but, as in any great work, questions arise as to the motives of the characters and the complex connections between them. How could Rebecca take the initiative to change the order of the blessings between her two sons, and what motivates her to do so? What relationships are exposed in Isaac’s family between parents and their children, between husband and wife, and between the brothers themselves?

The story of the exchange of the birthright provides many and varied possibilities for discussion with children of different ages, fundamental questions that are raised here about the characters, as well as questions of morality, justice, good and evil, family relations and even human blindness. Was Isaac the only one who was blind in the family drama?


The Midrash, medieval and contemporary commentators, and many works of art interpret these moments. We will focus upon two works of art from the Baroque period that offer differing interpretations.


Isaac Blesses Jacob by Govert Flinck Isaac Blessing Jacob by Gioachino Assereto
Isaac Blesses Jacob—Govert Flinck,
Holland, 1638, Rijksmuseum collection, Amsterdam, Holland
Isaac Blessing Jacob—Gioachino Assereto,
Italy 1640, Hermitage Museum Collection, Saint Petersburg, Russia


Even though both artists base their work on the same verses, each one chooses to present the drama from a different angle. Gioachino Assereto’s painting shows Jacob unsure of how to deal with Isaac’s suspicions, and Rebecca instructing him to be quiet. She in fact is the central figure in the painting. Jacob is dependent on his mother, who is dominant. His father has a look of nobility, concentrating on giving the blessing. The variations of light and shadow add drama and tension, compounded by the artist depicting Esau standing in the shadows.


In contrast, Govert Flinck chose to place Rebecca in the background, while Jacob’s expecta- tion is at the center of the drama, as expressed in his gaze toward the unseeing Isaac. Jacob is focused here on his father, while his mother seems tense and worried but is not as dominant as she is in the Italian painting. Isaac appears in all his weakness—not a noble figure but an ill, frail and old man. While the Italian artist chose to present the drama in all its power and aggressiveness, the Dutch painter presents an  apparently innocent pose. If we did not know what was happening behind the scenes we would not know that we were witnessing a tense drama. He chose to portray a feigned innocence, with Isaac’s weak and tired figure as a pawn in the hands of his family members.


These paintings provide multiple possibilities for discussion and interpretation. But first and fore- most, they provide students with an encounter with the creative variety of the human spirit, and with the way that cultural riches develop layer upon layer: work done by one is an inspiration for those who follow.


Responding to these two works of art requires time for observation, comparing and exploring the connection between the observer and the painting. We can probe the artist’s choices and interpretive approach. Which of the paintings seems more loyal to the original text, and why? What did the artist choose to show and what did he choose to omit? What feelings do the characters portray, and what are their relationships—are they covert or overt? Is there mystery here, tension, compassion, joy or feigned innocence? What is the artist trying to tell us?


All these are important questions, but in my opinion we should begin with the foundational questions: what does this painting say to me, and what captures my attention? For the purpose of art is to generate dialogue. If we want to nurture not only the students’ interpretive understanding, but also their understanding  and appreciation for the variety of artistic creation, making room for this dialogue—immediate and beyond words—is critical.

Until now I have ignored the archetypal Christian interpretation that underlies  much of the art created in the West. I might add a few words then about the theological-historic context of many of the works of art that describe biblical scenes. The blessing of the firstborn was also interpreted archetypally: the biological first-born, Israel in the flesh, is replaced by his younger and better brother, the spiritual Israel—i.e.,  the Christian faith.


The question of how to present this and at what age is a complex one. I prefer not to ignore the historic context in which a work of art was created, but I think that doing so is appropriate for students only in high school. In any case, the historical and cultural background does not replace the centrality of dialogue between observer and art. Rather, it adds an additional layer.



Therefore a single person is created … to tell of the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, that man stamps many coins with one seal, and each is like the other, but the King, King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, stamps every man with the seal of Adam and not one of them is like his fellow. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

This famous mishnah is an introduction to the study of the uniqueness and importance of the individual, of the wonder of Creation and the creation of man, and of the relationship between body and spirit in Jewish sources. Aside from studying and discussing the text, we can look at  those sitting in the room and observe that indeed we are all human beings but each one of us is uniquely stamped.


Another way to understand the text and to connect the worlds of verbal and visual creation is to look at a variety of artists’ self-portraits. We can also encourage the children to look at their own unique features and to draw their own portraits—giving artistic expression to the mishnaic saying “Therefore a single person is created.”


From among the many available portraits I choose to bring those painted by women artists—both because women artists are under-recognized, and because doing so gives the concept Adam—which in Hebrew is masculine though it refers to both male and female—its expanded meaning. Presentation of female self-portraits thus affects students’ understanding of the text and of art in one stroke.

These examples can be used in any personal-dialogic context for learning Jewish sources. Since art is an expression of humanism and pluralism, this approach is of utmost importance in an educational system whose students have varied Jewish identities. It invites human beings into dialogue with one another, and with the cultural riches beyond our world in the here and now. Art is an expression of artists’ identities, values and beliefs, of the way they experience and understands the world, the way in which they dream and the ways in which they, as people and artists, see their place in the world.


Very young children can already engage in a personal dialogue with works of art. Through this dialogue they come to understand human diversity and the beauty of multiple voices: the special way artists choose to present themselves, to draw trees, or to understand the story of Adam and Eve. This special dialogue between the observer and a work of art provides a context in which individuality, freedom, the forces of creation, art and imagination can all emerge.


This was beautifully captured by philosopher Eulàlia Bosch (in her book The Pleasure of Beholding):

Artists see what most people miss. … Art provides the sense that reality—even if it seems familiar as we perceive it through our day-to-day lives—can always surprise us. This is a feeling that the world in which we live can always be a mystery to us, in which every new real work of art can expand our vision and deepen our understanding.

Caterina van Hemessen, Self-Portrait,
Flanders 1548, Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland.
Berthe Morisot, Self-Portrait,
France 1885, Musée Marmottan, Paris, France.
Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowiczowa, Self-Portrait, Poland 1887, National Museum, Krakow, Poland.


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HaYidion Art and Aesthetics Summer 2016
Art and Aesthetics
Summer 2016