The following article appeared in “The Jewish Chronicle,” a British-Jewish publication, on Sept. 13, 1935. Rav Kook had passed away less than two weeks earlier, on Sept. 1 (3 Elul).

Rabbi Kook on Art
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Kosher [*] Jewish Sculpture
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REMBRANDT AND DIVINE LIGHT
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by A. Melnikoff

As an artist I am interested in the Biblical prohibition of making “graven images,” that has had so much influence in the creation of Jewish art.

One day I talked to the late Rabbi Kook about this prohibition. I asked him whether it is true that somewhere in our holy commentaries there is a passage which says that under certain circumstances, sculpture is allowed to be done by Jews?

The Rabbi knitted his brows. “Let me see, let me see,” he was saying to himself. A few moments later he brought down huge Gemoroth from the shelves; he piled them up on the table; he opened one after another, moving his delicate fingers along the lines of the holy script as he read. This went on for half-an-hour. He looked like a hunter on the trail, a hunter after truth and knowledge. At last he stood up triumphantly. “Here it is,’ he said. “Now listen to what our sages say about your question.”

I don’t remember the exact wording he quoted, but it iwas something like this — “Our sages say,” he read out, “that it is allowed to Jews to make images, if these are done imperfectly and maimed.” [1

This made me laugh.

“Why are you laughing?” he asked.

“In that case,” I replied, “I am sure my sculpture is kosher.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Because my work is far from perfect.”

Now [it] was his turn to laugh. He was all kindness. We talked about art and he told me the following story:

“When I lived in London [**] I used to visit the National Gallery, and my favorite pictures were those of Rembrandt. 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 G-d created light, it was so strong and pellucid, that one could see from one end of the world to the other, but G-d was afraid that the wicked might abuse it. What did He do? He reserved that light for the righteous [tzadikim] 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 G-d Almighty.”

I have read much about Rembrandt, but none gives such a vivid description of his genius as this. Only a man as pure of heart and soul as Rabbi Kook could have seen Rembrandt in that light.

(note: I cite the same anecdote, with Rabbi Kook’s source in midrash/Jewish literature, at:
https://rabbielimallon.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/7-11-11-rav-kook-and-rembrandt)

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[*] Both times the word “kosher” appears, it’s spelled “kasher” in the original publication. I’ve changed it to try to capture the tone of the conversation in English, using a more familiar Hebrew term.
[**] Rav Kook was unable to travel back to Palestine during WWI, and lived in London for part of the time.
[1] possibly referring to: “The rabbis of northern France discussed and even permitted the representation of the human form in the round, provided that it was incomplete (Tos. to Av. Zar. 43a).” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0018_0_17899.html