2006 was the fifth centennial of the Vatican Museums, the occasion was observed by notable conferences where the very concept of museum was discussed, its place in society, its history, function, role, and future prospects. Two years later, in 2008, was yet another crucial year for great art in Rome. It was the five hundredth anniversary of Michelangelo’s conception and start of his execution of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It was a key moment in the museum’s history that provided an opportunity to continue, strengthen, and develop further the relationship between Judeo-Christian art. A relationship grounded in their shared geographical and theological history. Concurrently, the five hundredth year anniversary encouraged a further study of Michelangelo’s approach that incorporated Jewish themes in his portrayal of the world from the Creation to the Last Judgement. With the release of The Sistine Secrets (2008), it was brought forth a crucial understanding ‘given’ by Michelangelo that Judaism is the foundation of the Christian faith.

The opportunity now arises to present to a greater number and range of international visitors information and reflections on the relationship between the two great religions through the art of the Sistine Chapel, and thus broaden the intellectual and artistic relationship between the important Jewish and Christian communities in Rome and throughout the world.

I ask Rabbi Blech and Roy Doliner some questions “a double interview” with an orthodox rabbi and an art-historian-Talmudist who showed the world how Michelangelo chose rabbinical interpretation from the Torah over the ones accepted by all of the Christian contemporaries of his time.

In my interview with Enrico Bruschini who wrote the forward to the Sistine Secrets (Harper Collins, 2008), he confirmed that it was at Palazzo Medici where the young Michelangelo got to know philosophers and humanists such as Poliziano and Marsilio Ficino and in particular the great Pico della Mirandola, the most important Christian Renaissance kabbalist who at that time was trying to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus through the teachings of the Kabbalah. Catholic Florentines set about studying Hebrew, Torah, Talmud, Midrash and the mystical Kabbalah. The Talmud comprises six orders, which deal with every aspect of life and religious observance. It is further divided into 63 parts, or tractates, which are broken down into 517 chapters. Today Jews from around the world participate in Daf Yomi, [Hebrew for “page of the day”] the Jewish practice in which a person learns one page of Talmud every day. Thus, was there at that time any type of specific study like this and if so, what would have been the ‘calendar’ for this type of study that was under the auspices of the Medicis to teach Michelangelo?

Rabbi Blech. The novel idea of Jews in all parts of the world studying the same daf(page) each day, with the goal of completing the entire Talmud, was first proposed by Rabbi Moshe Menachem Mendel Spivak, and was put forth at the First World Congress of Agudath Israel which took place in Vienna in 1923. Prior to that Jews followed the suggestion of the Mishna (circa 200 CE) .“At fifteen the study of Talmud. At eighteen the bridal canopy. At twenty the pursuit [of livelihood]”. The specific choice of subject matter was left to the discretion of the Rabbi/teacher and student.

Roy Doliner. By most counts, there are 63 volumes in the Talmud Daf Yomi (daily page of Talmud) is a new development in Judaism, started in 1923, almost exactly 100 years ago. To get through the entire cycle of studying one page of Talmud (2,711 pages!) requires almost 7.5 years, a huge commitment to say the least. It has moved hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of Jews all over the planet to learn Talmud.

In the time of Michelangelo, there was nothing like this available. There were small Jewish communal schools, plus family and independent learning to carry the torch down through the centuries. Today, the amount of Jewish learning and number of students is light years beyond anything previous in all of Jewish history. For some, this is yet another sign that the final Redemption is on the way.

It has been suggested that the iconographic scheme for the Sistine Chapel was drawn up by Sixtus IV and his close friend Bartolomeo Sacchi [known as Platina], the head of the Vatican Library. The Pinacoteca [Picture Gallery] in the Vatican Museums is one of the areas where most tour guides make a quick stop to show Melozzo da Forli’s (1438-1494) fresco depicting Sixtus IV Names Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library, where the tour guides point to Platina, a humanist scholar with a particular interest in Plutarch’s theory of ‘parallel lives’; there were, he believed obvious parallels between the life of Moses and that of Christ. In addition, the ‘original’ Chapel illustrates two of St Augustine’s Three Ages; Before the Law - from Creation to Moses, Under The Law - from Moses to Christ and Under Grace - from Christ onwards. Before the Law was not a part of the original scheme; this was added by Michelangelo working for Sixtus’ nephew Julius II. In addition, some scholars suggest the Cycle was intended to emphasize the superiority of Christianity over Judaism and this is why the Moses cycle is full of acts of violence, while the parallel Christ images are not. Do the stories of Moses [south wall] have any inaccuracies, being that they were painted by other artists who depict a New Testament version of the life of Moses? However, this is not what is seen on Michelangelo's ceiling because there is nothing depicted from the New Testament. He paints scenes from the Torah. Can you comment on this?

Roy Doliner. It's important to recall that the original fresco plan of the Sistine Chapel commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV is a whole generation before Michelangelo's work there. These earlier artists were from Florence, but were not as passionate about Jewish wisdom literature as was Michelangelo. The one non-Florentine in the group of painters was Perugino from Umbria. Seeing how his color scheme and scenes are different from all the other fresco panels, it is clear that the Florentine artists did not let him in on the hidden insults to Pope Sixtus, to Rome and to the Vatican. Since all these artists had less Jewish learning than Michelangelo, there are many mistakes in their Moses cycle; e.g., instead of a column of smoke during the parting of the Sea of Reeds, they insert an actual Roman marble column standing on top of the waters. Due to the better-known Christian mistranslation - the "Red Sea" - they painted the waters in red. There is nothing accurate about the depiction of the Ten Commandments, including the bizarre characters of gibberish instead of Hebrew. Also, in the scene of the burning bush, the Almighty is actually depicted, which is strictly forbidden and alien to Jewish practice. [To be fair, even Michelangelo surrenders to the strong Catholic tradition of making images of God in his panels on the ceiling.]

Also, in the panels of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and of his wife Zipporah circumcising their son, he is shown as a young man with a strong resemblance to the traditional depiction of Jesus, when in truth he was about 80 years old at the time.

It is a false assumption that the Jewish Moses panels are all violent, and that the Christian Jesus panels are all peaceful. In the same early panel, there are two bloodless scenes which one might call "violent": Moses defending a Jewish slave by slaying the Egyptian who was about to kill him, and then defending Jethro's daughters at the well from pagan bullies who are bullying and threatening them. His "weapon" is his shepherd's staff, a Catholic symbol of peace (the papal pastorale). The other "violent acts" are the plagues of hail and darkness, the drowning of Pharaoh's genocidal army, and an earthquake. Several Moses panels are quite peaceful, such as the Circumcision and the giving of the 10 Commandments.

In the Jesus panels, we see Roman soldiers in full battle armor, with their swords drawn and ready to kill. There are also angry youths who attempt to stone Jesus to death, plus the Romans seizing Jesus in the garden, and Peter overwhelming a Roman and slicing his ear off. Of course, there is the classic icon of cruelty and violence: the crucifixion.

As described and documented in our book The Sistine Secrets, Michelangelo studied in the covert "School of Athens" under the protection of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He was one member of an entire movement that included many of the great names of the Florentine Renaissance: Neoplatonism. Neoplatonism was a fusion of Greek pagan philosophy, Jewish mystical and wisdom literature, and Christianity. The Church and the Inquisition vehemently condemned this movement and its members.

Why? At that time, the Church was based on the concept of Replacement Theology; i.e., claiming that the arrival of Jesus had rendered paganism and Judaism obsolete and invalid. They had been "replaced" by the "one true faith": the Catholic Church.

Michelangelo's ardent response was to weave as much Judaic tradition and mystical symbolism into his work for the Church as he could. So, instead of decorating the ceiling with decorative squares and rectangles centered around the stemma papale, the family crest of Pope Julius II Della Rovere, he depicted what a Neoplatonic thinker would place at the center of the universe: the Torah. For this reason, the central strip of the ceiling shows the first two parshiyot [weekly Torah portions] in the Hebrew Bible: the Creation and the flood of Noah. This is why, in what is still considered the largest painting in art history - all 1,200 square meters or 14,000 square feet - the Sistine Chapel ceiling doesn't have a single Christian image or symbol.

Rabbi Blech. Roy does an admirable job in pointing out the fallacies – many of them willful distortions – of the Cycle. The inaccuracies are shocking and make clear not only the superiority of Michelangelo’s knowledge of Jewish sources but his agenda – the very point in our book The Sistine Secrets – to bring an end to the biases of the Church in their efforts to discredit Judaism as well as to justify “replacement theology.

In the main scene for the last trio of the Noah panels on the Sistine ceiling. In the scene with the sacrifice of Noah, there is a ram being sacrificed on the far-right bottom. If you look closely, it is being sacrificed with the process of a shechita- where you see the windpipe. Was this process of sacrifice used during the time of Noah? Can you comment on why you observed the windpipe there?

Rabbi Blech. It is important to know that whereas Jews are obligated to observe 613 commandments – the legal number of mitzvot given by God and transmitted by Moses – there is a far smaller number of laws incumbent on all of humankind, not based on the covenant accepted at Sinai but implicit in the recognition of our having been created “in the image of God.” These universal laws are known as sheva mitzvot b’nei Noach” [the seven laws of the descendants of Noah]. Fascinatingly, this means that from a Jewish perspective non-Jews share with Jews a theological obligation to 7 fundamental laws of morality which transcend the specifics of particular religious law. One of these is the prohibition against eating “living flesh” – meat of animals not slaughtered by the method which is considered the most painless and takes into account the Biblical concern for humanitarian treatment of animals. Michelangelo was well aware of this law for non-Jews assigned to “descendants of Noah” and in all certainty chose to illustrate this universal mitzvah that sought the quickest and most painless death for animals.

Roy Doliner. According to the Bible, Noah is the first human to build an altar to acknowledge the One Creator. [Cain and Abel make offerings, but there is no mention of either of them building a formal altar.] To emphasize this fact, Michelangelo depicts Noah pointing one finger upward, a sign of monotheism; decades later, he will surreptitiously insert a religious Jew into Heaven, right over Jesus, making the same sign in the Last Judgment. [See Rabbi Blech's eloquent description of this in his reply to the next question].

By having Noah offer a kosher sacrifice centuries before Judaism, he is sending a subtle message about the Torah being the foundation of monotheism, even after the later arrival of Christianity. In his Neoplatonic background, Michelangelo believed that his Catholicism complemented Judaism, without denying or replacing the older faith.

Thirty-three years after Michelangelo completed his Sistine Ceiling, he was commissioned by Pope Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici, 1478-1534) to fresco the front wall of the chapel with a monumental version of The Last Judgement. Michelangelo portrays the very moment when Jesus returns to earth to judge all souls, the righteous to ascend to heaven, and the evil ones to be damned to eternal punishment in hell. Rabbi Blech, you explain how Jewish theology proclaims that “the righteous of all the nations of the world have a share in the world to come" (Hope, Not Fear, 2018). In The Sistine Secrets you and Doliner explain how Michelangelo paints “a universal heaven opens to all” and how he had the courage to defy the teachings of the Church of his time and proclaim the very same message. You and Doliner point out a fascinating detail that was overlooked, until it was finally recognized by the Italian Art Historian, Enrico Bruschini, and now mentioned by many of Rome and Vatican tour guides that Michelangelo had his own personal belief about salvation. Jesus with his right hand raised, points above his shoulder to a golden-haired Angel in orange (red) robe, specifically pointing to two men with beards and two hats in this inner circle of the righteous. They are two Jews, and how do we recognize that? Does this tell us that there is no divine prejudice in the afterlife?

Rabbi Blech. It is one of the most profound differences between Judaism and Christianity – and one that disturbed Michelangelo greatly, even as it agitates countless Christians and Jews to this day. For centuries, Christian theologians have insisted that non-believers in the divinity of Jesus are doomed to everlasting hell. Belief, creed, is key to heaven and immortality. For Judaism, it is not creed, but deed. God welcomes “the righteous of the nations of the world” into his eternal heavenly palace. And that is the daring idea Michelangelo allowed himself to introduce into the Last Judgment fresco! A heresy for the Church was superbly and surreptitiously inserted into a view of “the righteous” – 2 Jews recognizable because one is wearing the two-pointed cap that the church forced Jewish males to wear to reinforce the medieval prejudice that Jews, being the spawn of the Devil, had horns; the other makes the very same gesture we find Noah making on the Sistine ceiling, pointing one finger upward to indicate the Oneness of God rather than the Trinity. Yes, Michelangelo agrees that God who is the Creator of all mankind is also the One who loves all of His creations.

In Hidden Beneath the Beauty (2011), Roy you do an excellent job in explaining the Kabbalah. In addition, you share with your audience one of the ancient Kabbalistic proverbs advises: “Be in the world, but not of the world.” Judaism requires all Jews to study throughout their entire lives. Secular education, on the other hand, focuses on mastering a particular subject. With this being said, you mention that the Kabbalah is not for everyone. It is not magic, fortune-telling, nor a separate religion. Kabbalah means “reception”; it is a tradition and a way of life that you must receive personally through instruction from a proper teacher. You also mention in The Sistine Secrets that the seven prophets are related to the Seven Middot, that are considered to be the seven spiritual ‘steps’ to bring us closer to God. So was Michelangelo negating from the material world with his selection of Seven particular Hebrew prophets? How so? Can you comment more on this?

Roy Doliner. This shows a basic distinction in Jewish faith and practice, as opposed to some other religions. It is a misconception to think that mystical/spiritual Judaism cannot coexist with modern science and the material world. As discussed in Hidden Beneath the Beauty, Judaism seeks to bring the spiritual into the material, and elevate the material world into the spiritual.

What about the medallions, their significance and meaning, and also about the lineage back to King David depicted? Also, if possible, an understanding as to why Michelangelo chose one recount over the other since there are 2 different lineages mentioned in the Christian bible which are conflictual. In addition, tour guides have asked about the Jewish take on the neo-platonic explanations of the Sistine Chapel, perhaps some specific happenings during those years which are not well known?

Rabbi Blech. David was a descendant of Ruth. Ruth was a convert, a former Moabite. From this lineage, Jewish tradition teaches us we may expect Messiah. It is a remarkably universalistic neo-Platonic concept that Michelangelo hinted at to give voice – albeit in a whisper – to his strong commitment to a universal God who identifies with – and loves – all of his children. We need to remember that in 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain, where they had enjoyed a Golden Age, and the Inquisition, with its horrific excesses in the name of religion, was much in the minds of those who had difficulty justifying torture and death in the name of a loving God.

Roy Doliner. The bronze-colored medallions were "strongly suggested" (read "ordered") by Pope Julius II's theologians. Michelangelo vehemently resented and resisted any interference or unrequested "art by committee" about his work. The requested scenes mostly had to do with power; i.e. Biblical killings of political opponents, the defeat of pagans and the destruction of their idols, vengeance on one's enemies, etc. All of this had nothing to do with Michelangelo's theme of spiritual love and brotherhood for his ceiling, and everything to do with the craving for earthly power that was the focus of the Papal Court and the Vatican in the time of the Renaissance.

The medallions that we see today are the product of the artist's vengeance on the Pope and his coterie of advisors. Michelangelo made the medallions tiny - only about 135cm (about 53 inches) in diameter. He also painted them a secco, on top of dry plaster, instead of on fresh, wet plaster like the rest of the ceiling. This guaranteed that the hated scenes would decay and darken over time and become more or less illegible, which is exactly what happened. Further proof of Michelangelo's distaste for these dictated scenes is obvious. They are more like schizzi [rough sketches] and not polished frescos. Some are so unclear that we do not even know what they are depicting. At least two of them were delegated to an assistant, Aristotile da Sangallo. One of the medallions was even left blank!

The series of the Ancestors of Jesus on the upper walls is another example of Michelangelo's lack of interest in a theme. Even though this series of panels traces the genealogy from Abraham to Jesus - this succession of Biblical names served to dampen some criticism of the ceiling frescos for not being "Christian enough" - the artist undermined the whole idea by painting these captions completely out of order. Decades later, when he was dragged back into the Sistine to redo the front wall [the Last Judgment], he had no qualms about ordering two of his Ancestors panels to be completely destroyed to make space for the new work.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech is an internationally recognized educator, religious leader, author and is one of the Rabbis who blessed Pope John Paul II in 2005. Roy Doliner is an author and scholar docent of Judaica, including Talmud, Midrash and Kabbalah.