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The Talmudists

Max Weber (American, b. Russia, 1881-1961)

The Talmudists, 1934

  • Oil on canvas
  • 50 1/8 x 34 in. (127.3 x 86.4 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Gift of Mrs. Nathan Miller, JM 51-48

On view

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The Talmudists

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The Talmudists

Max Weber, who emigrated from Russia at the age of ten, was at the forefront of American modernism in the early decades of the 20th century. His early works focus mainly on the formal elements of color, line, and shape and are highly abstracted. Later, he starts to move away from abstraction, increasingly incorporating figures into his images. Around 1917, Weber began to explore spiritual and religious themes. By the 1920s and ‘30s, his interest had shifted decidedly to more representational scenes, especially those showing Jewish men engaged in prayer and study.

In The Talmudists, three pairs of men and one trio are shown immersed in the study of Talmudic texts. The Talmud is a collection of discussions of the Mishnah by the rabbis of Israel and Babylonia from the first centuries of the Common Era. Paired learning—or hevruta—is the traditional manner of Talmud study. In this scene, some of the groups engage quietly with the text; others gesticulate emphatically in their explication of the passages. Each group seems oblivious to the others. The setting appears to be a basement room (note the stairs in the right background and the absence of windows) that serves as a study hall and synagogue (evidenced by the Torah ark against the rear wall).

Weber was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home and retained ties to his Jewish heritage throughout his life, but he did not live as an observant Jew. This painting and many others by the artist are nostalgic recollections of his past and invocations of a traditional life that was no longer the mainstream of American Jewry. In 1935, Weber explained his reasons for painting The Talmudists:

"I was prompted to paint this picture after a pilgrimage to one of the oldest synagogues of New York’s East Side. I find a living spiritual beauty emanates from, and hovers over and about a group of Jewish patriarchal types when they congregate in search of wisdom in the teaching of the great Talmudists of the past…. To witness a group of such elders bent on and intent upon nothing but the eternal quest and interpretation of the ethical, significant, and religious content of the great Jewish legacy—the Torah—is for me an experience never to be forgotten."

Sources:

Baigell, Matthew. “Max Weber’s Jewish Paintings.” American Jewish History, vol. 88, no. 3 (September 2000): 341–60.

Berger, Maurice, and Joan Rosenbaum, eds. Masterworks of The Jewish Museum. New York: The Jewish Museum; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004, p 21.