By Daniel Ross Goodman
On display now at the Morgan Library & Museum’s wonderful “Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden” exhibit are two of the more important paintings from the Rococo era: François Boucher’s “The Triumph of Venus” (1749) and his “Leda and the Swan” (1741). “The Triumph of Venus” is a scene that has been depicted many times in art history, most famously in Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (1480s)—Venus, the goddess of love, emerging from the sea as a fully formed woman. “Leda and the Swan” is a representation of the Greek myth in which Zeus transformed into a swan in order to seduce Leda, the queen of Sparta. Both works are painted in the airy, elegant style characteristic of Rococo, with sumptuous coloring, playful figures and fanciful scenery. Boucher’s “Venus” is more orgiastic than Botticelli’s comparatively tame rendering of the story, while his “Leda”—despite Boucher’s addition of a second woman—is significantly less suggestive than other depictions of this oft-illustrated myth.
Today, we appreciate these paintings for their artistic charm and the eye-pleasing, idealized, almost sentimentalized way they bring to life two of the more bizarre stories of Greek mythology. But the stories themselves really don’t speak very much to us today. And why should they? They’re stories about mischievous, human-like gods—gods with the same impious passions and concupiscent bodily desires that we have. Nobody believes in such silly things anymore; we either don’t believe at all (and a growing percentage of Americans now identify as atheist or agnostic—7 percent as of 2014, up from 4 percent in 2007), or believe in a God who is pure, perfect and passionless—the kind of God that the mainstream traditions of the Abrahamic monotheisms have taught us to believe in. Nothing could be more blasphemous than asserting that God has human-like bodily desires. Yet this sacrilegious notion is precisely what millions of Jews around the world will be celebrating on Monday night, when the holiday of Passover begins.
The Passover seder is the most widely observed Jewish ritual; 70 percent of American Jews (and an astounding 93 percent of Israeli Jews) attend a seder, which is higher than the percentage of U.S. Jews who fast on Yom Kippur (53 percent), light Sabbath candles (23 percent), or keep Kosher (22 percent). Passover tends to be viewed as a holiday of deprivation—a kind of Jewish lent, where Jews must give up bread and all leavened products for eight days. But this is only a partial view of the holiday, and it obscures Passover’s passionate essence: Passover celebrates nothing less than God’s sensual, passionate love for the Jewish people. At the Passover seder, Jews across the world retell the greatest love story of all time: the story of what happened when God fell in love. “Then you grew up,” God said, recalling how He became enamored with us, “became tall and came of age; your breasts had formed and your hair had grown, and you were naked and bare. Later I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I declared my marriage vows and made a covenant with you, says the Lord God, you became mine.” (Ezekiel 16:7-8) This is some pretty outrageous stuff—and it’s recited during the heart of the Seder, at a time when even young children are still sitting at the table, before even the matzah ball soup has been served. We recite this even in the presence of children and we leave the text of the Haggdah uncensored because the purpose of the holiday of Passover is for Jews to pass down our story—our religion’s master narrative—from one generation to the next. The story of Judaism, we tell our children—and remind ourselves—is essentially a love story: God fell in love with the Jewish people, took her out of Egypt, and proposed a marriage that was later consummated when the Jews accepted the Covenant at Mount Sinai.
God courted Israel very much like a lover courts his inamorata, biblical scholars explain. And God rejoiced over Israel, says the Bible, “like a groom rejoicing over his bride.” (Isaiah 62:5) Lest Jews neglect this amorous aspect of Passover, the rabbis ordained that the Song of Songs—the graphic, erotically charged love story that symbolizes God’s love for the Jewish people—be read on Passover. And lest we try to pretend that this is a minor, embarrassing biblical book that we’d rather pretend wasn’t in the Bible, the rabbis not only affirmed its place in the canon but stated that it, the Song of Songs—not the priestly Leviticus, not the puritanical Deuteronomy and not even the pious Psalms—is the holiest book of the Bible. We are meant to understand that God loves us not in some pure, platonic way, but in a very human-like, passionate—and perhaps even erotic—way. We are not meant to take this literally, but we are meant to take this notion seriously.
Philosophically trained Jewish theologians like Maimonides tried vigorously—and misguidedly—to purify God and purge Him of His passion. But genuine Jewish theology, the theology of divine eros, was maintained by mystically trained Jewish theologians and preserved in the Kabbalah. The Zohar, the great work of Jewish mysticism, esoterically—yet very openly—speaks about matters such as God’s male aspect coupling with God’s female aspect. Had Jewish theology been less literary and more visual, we might have had a Jewish theologian paint a Jewish version of “The Triumph of Venus” (“The Triumph of Yahweh,” perhaps) because, as the holiday of Passover and Jewish theology teach us, these strange Greek stories are not as foreign to the world’s oldest monotheistic religion as we may have thought.
Check out the Morgan Library’s fantastic “Treasures from the Nationalmuseum of Sweden” exhibit if you want a visual illustration that comes close to approximating the true God of the Bible—the passionate, thick-blooded God of longing and love—that the squeamish philosophers, those high-minded spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsuccessfully attempted to unsex and cover up. But we shouldn’t need the Morgan Library’s exhibit, excellent though it is, to remind us of God’s passion. All we need is Passover, and an occasional look at the Bible.
Daniel Ross Goodman, a writer, rabbi, and Ph.D candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, is studying English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He is also a contributor to the Books & Arts section of The Weekly Standard. His essays and reviews have appeared in many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Tablet, Haaretz and Harvard Divinity School Bulletin, and his short stories have appeared in aaduna, Calliope (forthcoming), and The Cortland Review (forthcoming).