SHAVOUT May 28, 2009

Bringing in the offering of first fruits
Our traditional blintze and fruit meal after services
Rabbi Stern giving his lecture on the book: The Sistine Secrets: Michaelangelo's Hidden Messages and How He Defied the Pope by Benjamin Blech, Roy Doliner

Judaism creeps up in the strangest places. You can even find it in the Vatican, in the Sistine Chapel, right in the room where Popes hold conclaves to elect the next Pope. Since the Sistine Chapel was restored in the 1980s, scholars took a fresh look at Michelangelo's incredible frescoes. And what did they find? Lots of biblical scenes in which Jews are portrayed as noble and dignified, where biblical prophets insult the Pope, where Jews who were once persecuted, rise up and defeat their enemies.

Michelangelo, who was in the process of creating a legacy for Julian II, the Pope that commissioned him, had serious issues with the office of the Pope for its rampant corruption and rigidity. Far from saintly, this Pope sought to aggrandize his position, eliminate the competition, and create monuments through churches and tombs that bore his name.

Michelangelo was told to paint scenes that showed how the church had superseded Judaism, how the Old Testament had been replaced by the New, and how Jews would be damned unless they accepted the divinity of Jesus. Michelangelo said, "Sure," but he did none of what he was asked (except in the "Last Judgment," which he painted twenty-five years later) because, as it turned out, he didn't believe it. Indeed, there is not one Christian symbol or personage anywhere to be found in the Sistine Chapel—no Jesus, or Mary, or Joseph, or any of the Apostles. Ninety-five percent of all the characters Michelangelo pained were Jews from the Old Testament.

Michelangelo believed that all people share in the goodness of God, that the Jewish contribution to the world is too great to right off, and that the Catholic Church must respect the values and contributions of all people. So, he chose his paintings through which to communicate his displeasure of the Pope and the Catholic Church. And boy, did he express his outrage!

He deliberately selected scenes (Haman and Esther, David and Goliath, Moses and the Serpent, for examples) that showed the Jews rising up against their enemies. He chose prophets who prophesized the downfall of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (which the Sistine Chapel and the reigning Pope was supposed to represent), Angels that gave the "fig" (sign of insult—placing thumb between two fingers) to the Pope, God who mooned the Pope, Hebrew letters that reinforced the one God who is the God of everyone and not just Christians, and he painted depictions of many Jews with clearly Semitic looks (as compared with stereotypes). Even in the "Last Judgment," the Jews are the ones looking down as evil Christian clerics are damned.

How did Michelangelo know so much about Jews and Judaism? The answer is that he lived in Florence, which was a liberal city, and was sponsored by the Medici family that brought in Jewish teachers. So, Michelangelo studied Kabbalah and Midrash and used both in his paintings. For example, his biblical scenes of Adam and Eve have Eve tempting Adam with a fig (as taught by Midrash, and not an apple) and evolving out of his side (and not his rib, as Midrash teaches). And he showed his deep knowledge of Jewish mysticism by showing that goodness emanates from God and resides in everyone—even in non-Christians.

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