Rembrandt’s Divinely Inspired Light: An Unheard Cut from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a man, half length, with arms akimbo” (1658) (photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
"Sometimes you have to kill your puppies." This is radio producer insider baseball talk for cutting your most precious, beloved bits of tape — the ones that aren’t serving the bigger story you’re trying to tell. Such was the case with Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a masterful storyteller appearing in our recent shows "Pursuing Happiness with the Dalai Lama" and "The Dignity of Difference."
On stage at Emory University with the Dalai Lama this October, Sacks told a story about Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine. When the First World War broke out, he was stranded in Switzerland and later made his way to England. There he found solace in the company of Rembrandt’s paintings at The National Gallery in London.
In the clip above (mp3, 01:31) that never made it into the show, Sacks points out that Rembrandt’s subjects weren’t all that beautiful, but his paintings nevertheless reveal their “inner radiance.” He invites us to find beauty where it’s not immediately obvious, and to expand our perceptions of what’s beautiful.
Rabbi Kook commented on Rembrandt’s masterful use of light in this 1935 interview with The Jewish Chronicle:
"I really think that Rembrandt was a Tzadik. Do you know that when I first saw Rembrandt’s works, they reminded me of the legend about the creation of light? We are told that when God created light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one and of the world to the other, but God was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous when the Messiah should come. But now and then there are great men who are blessed and privileged to see it. I think that Rembrandt was one of them, and the light in his pictures is the very light that was originally created by God Almighty.”
And these lines from Rabbi Sacks’ short reflection about art, timeless beauty, and Rabbi Kook’s particular love of Rembrandt resonate:
"Art which aims to shock, shocks only once, while art which aims at beauty never fades. Art as sensation eventually deadens our sensations, while art as wonder wakens them."