Marc Chagall, an artist of Belarusian Jewish origin, painted this picture two years after his first visit to Israel. A rabbi sits draped in a prayer shawl, clutching the Torah scroll, his head in his hand. It is the pose Rembrandt van Rijn gave to Jeremiah in his painting Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630), now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Chagall may have known it.
Vitebsk, Chagall’s birthplace, is in the background, under a smoke-filled sky which reaches down and envelops the town, as it would envelop so many places in the next dozen years. The work may also evoke the pogroms which marked Russian Jewish existence in the first half of the twentieth century, and the turmoil of Stalinist Russia, which affected Chagall's family and friends.
Chagall called the picture ‘solitude’, but the impression is one of melancholy, almost of despair (cf. Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I). The rabbi has his arm round the scroll, as though encircling the body of a loved one. A scroll of Jeremiah’s words would be shredded and burned by King Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36)—it needs protection. The Torah scroll has a unique significance for Judaism: when the Temple was destroyed, and many were in exile, the Torah scroll, read in the synagogue Sabbath by Sabbath, became the heart of Israelite practice and kept later Jewish identity alive. The scroll records God’s Word, which humans live by and prophets internalize and announce (Deuteronomy 8:3; Jeremiah 15:16).
Two of Chagall’s favoured symbols accompany the rabbi in this picture.
The first is a violin—so characteristic of klezmer music (a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe), so expressive of passion and yearning, so capable of giving voice to the inexpressible. Its importance in this tradition may help explain why so many great violinists have been Jews. Is this musicality also a testimony to the way that the Word pushes to the edge of what can be said; the Word giving place not to silence (Wittgenstein 1963: 151), but to music?
The second symbol which re-appears in so many of Chagall’s works is a white heifer. Is this the heifer of Hosea 4:16—Israel run wild—as Jeremiah saw it? Or one of the cows that belonged to Chagall’s Uncle Neuch back in Vitebsk? Or one of the heifers whose terrified cries disturbed Chagall in his Paris studio, next door to the abattoir?
Chagall, Marc. 1989. My Life (Oxford: OUP)
Cassou, Jean. 1965. Chagall (London: Thames and Hudson)
Panofsky, Erwin. 1923. Dürers ‘Melencolia I’: eine quellen- und typengeschichtliche Untersuchung (Leipzig: Teubner)
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1963. Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (London: RKP)
20 Now Pashhur the priest, the son of Immer, who was chief officer in the house of the Lord, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things. 2Then Pashhur beat Jeremiah the prophet, and put him in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the house of the Lord. 3On the morrow, when Pashhur released Jeremiah from the stocks, Jeremiah said to him, “The Lord does not call your name Pashhur, but Terror on every side. 4For thus says the Lord: Behold, I will make you a terror to yourself and to all your friends. They shall fall by the sword of their enemies while you look on. And I will give all Judah into the hand of the king of Babylon; he shall carry them captive to Babylon, and shall slay them with the sword. 5Moreover, I will give all the wealth of the city, all its gains, all its prized belongings, and all the treasures of the kings of Judah into the hand of their enemies, who shall plunder them, and seize them, and carry them to Babylon. 6And you, Pashhur, and all who dwell in your house, shall go into captivity; to Babylon you shall go; and there you shall die, and there you shall be buried, you and all your friends, to whom you have prophesied falsely.”
7O Lord, thou hast deceived me,
and I was deceived;
thou art stronger than I,
and thou hast prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day;
every one mocks me.
8For whenever I speak, I cry out,
I shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
9If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
10For I hear many whispering.
Terror is on every side!
“Denounce him! Let us denounce him!”
say all my familiar friends,
watching for my fall.
“Perhaps he will be deceived,
then we can overcome him,
and take our revenge on him.”
11But the Lord is with me as a dread warrior;
therefore my persecutors will stumble,
they will not overcome me.
They will be greatly shamed,
for they will not succeed.
Their eternal dishonor
will never be forgotten.
12O Lord of hosts, who triest the righteous,
who seest the heart and the mind,
let me see thy vengeance upon them,
for to thee have I committed my cause.
13Sing to the Lord;
praise the Lord!
For he has delivered the life of the needy
from the hand of evildoers.
14Cursed be the day
on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
let it not be blessed!
15Cursed be the man
who brought the news to my father,
“A son is born to you,”
making him very glad.
16Let that man be like the cities
which the Lord overthrew without pity;
let him hear a cry in the morning
and an alarm at noon,
17because he did not kill me in the womb;
so my mother would have been my grave,
and her womb for ever great.
18Why did I come forth from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame?