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He Cast a Look and Went Mad

Maurycy Minkowski (Polish, 1881-1930)

He Cast a Look and Went Mad, 1910

  • Oil on canvas
  • 43 x 52 1/2 in. (109.2 x 133.4 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Gift of Mrs. Rose Mintz, JM 14-75

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He Cast a Look and Went Mad

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He Cast a Look and Went Mad

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The narrative underpinnings of He Cast a Look and Went Mad by Maurycy Minkowski are rooted in a Talmudic parable. However, the artist has recast the parable in a contemporary context.

The Talmud is a collection of discussions (ca. 3rd–6th centuries CE) by the rabbis of Israel and Babylonia on the Mishnah. The Mishnah is the earliest written compilation of rabbinic laws that constitute the Oral Law. The Mishnah forms the basis for all subsequent Jewish legal commentaries and codes.

The title of Minkowski’s painting (which is inscribed in Hebrew on its ornate frame) refers to a Talmudic parable about four 2nd-century sages who entered a "Garden." These men were named Ben Azzai, Elisha ben Avuyah, Ben Zoma, and Akiva. The "Garden" is understood as either Paradise or the realm of mystical knowledge. The parable speaks to the dilemma of choosing between faith and secularism. Ben Azzai is said to have "cast a glance and died.” His death is considered saintly. Ben Zoma “cast a look and went mad” (or “was hurt”). By mad, it is understood that he was no longer able to study rabbinical texts. Elisha ben Avuyah fell under the influence of secular thought and left the Jewish faith as a result. Only Rabbi Akiva emerged unharmed.

Minkowski uses the Talmudic tale as an allegory for the confrontation between tradition and modernity in his own time. The late 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, in Europe. This movement encouraged intellectual and social interaction with non-Jews while it challenged the observance of traditional Jewish rituals and customs.

Minkowski’s painting depicts twelve figures in a yeshiva. A scholar, perhaps a rabbi, appears to be reading aloud from a text at the back left of the composition. The other characters variously listen or seem caught up in their own thoughts.

The four central figures are contemporary analogues of the four Talmudic sages, reimagined in this early 20th-century yeshiva setting. They, too, have been tempted by the offerings of the “Garden,” but their “Garden” is the world of modern secular thought. The influence of the Haskalah is evident from the clean-shaven faces of some of the students.

The central figure—the “Ben Zoma” character—gazes out at the viewer. He has been affected by his experience of Haskalah. Like Ben Zoma, he cannot fully embrace the new, nor can he return to the life he knew before. He seems stuck, uncertain.

This figure may represent the artist himself. Minkowski was a product of the Enlightenment, and his painting simultaneously reflects the influence of secularism and a preoccupation with Jewish scholarly tradition.

The body language, facial expressions, and gazes of the characters seem to hint at underlying spiritual and psychological struggles—or reactions thereto—suggested by the parallel Minkowski has drawn to the Talmudic parable.

Sources:

The Jewish Museum, New York, Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey, April 16, 2003-present.

Harten, Jürgen, Marianne Heinz, and Ulrich Krempel. Bilder Sind Nicht Verboten: Kunstwerke Seit Der Mitte Des 19. Jahrhunderts Mit Ausgewählten Kultgeräten Aus Dem Zeitalter Der Aufklärung Exh. cat. Düsseldorf: Städtische Kunsthalle, 1982, no. 130.