Who has heard of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch (1880–1957) or his masterpiece The Nazarene, published in 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War? The novel's vision of Jewish-Christian harmony endeared him briefly to Christians, as did the sequels The Apostle and Mary, but it lost him some of his Yiddish readers. Some didn’t care for a Yiddish Gospel, more were murdered by the Nazis, and the rest had little taste for interfaith reconciliation after the Shoah. Asch, once the enfant terrible of Poland’s Yiddish writers, and before The Nazarene a plausible contender for the Nobel Prize, fell out of the canon. But The Nazarene, Asch’s life of Yeshua ben Joseph, Jesus the Jew, deserves new readers.
Asch’s Yeshua is a Hasidic wonder-working rebbe translated from Tsarist Poland to first-century Galilee, a charismatic object of popular adoration who wears his tallit and daily recites the Shema Yisrael. He is a poor scholar from an out-of-the-way small town, a carpenter who worked in Nazareth by the great road to repair carriages. And he is given to parables—a penchant entirely consistent with the Jewish tradition that seeks to inspire thoughtful meditation on the word of God.
Yeshua’s concern for the poor—the unlearned, the tax-collectors, the lepers, the untouchables—and his alienation from both the Sadducees and the Pharisees echo the alienation of the radical young Jews of industrializing Tsarist Poland, Asch’s contemporaries who turned to Marxism as they felt the old tradition inadequate to new miseries. It is Yeshua’s love of the poor that leads him to break the rigors of the law—and to speak so frequently in parables suited to the understanding of laborers who love Torah, but whose toils leave them no time to learn it.
Asch interpolates a trip by Yeshua and his disciples to Tyre and Sidon, to see the misery of the world of the Gentiles: “And when our Rabbi saw the slavery of the weavers … his countenance changed, being cut as with pain...And I heard the groaning that came from within him, and the cry that broke forth with it: ‘Lord of the world, have compassion on thy creatures.’”
In this scene, Asch evokes a Christianity formed in part by the Diaspora. These Jews live among Gentiles, see their suffering, and with Jewish compassion wish to aid them in their misery. Yet Asch also evokes a Christianity beyond the law of the rabbis, something necessarily new, fit to give solace and salvation to the Gentiles marooned in Tyre and Sidon.
Something old, something new. Does Yeshua preach a Jewish Christianity? Asch focuses The Nazarene on that question. His Yeshua is neither a Zealot who pursues revolt, nor an Essene ascetic. He is rooted in the Pharisaic tradition rather than the Sadducean, but he revolts against the rabbinical elaboration of the law. When Yeshua says he comes to fulfill the Law and the prophets, there is a significant silence—he is not committed to their rabbinic exegesis. Yeshua dances on a knife’s edge, supporting the rabbis against Sadducees and Zealots and Essenes, but simultaneously abrogating the entire rabbinic weave of precedent and interpretation.
And is Yeshua the Messiah? The Nazarene’s brilliance lies not least in how Asch weaves this debate into his narrative. Asch presents event after event from the Gospels, but immediately subjects each to a debate about its significance. Yeshua’s disciples, invited to his mother’s home, hear Mary’s account of her son’s birth:
And my husband sat by me and comforted me, saying: “Be not downcast, wife, for in a stable shall be born he that is to help Israel. And was not our king and father, David, a shepherd of this city, and did not God take him from among the sheep to be a king in Israel? Who knoweth, my wife, but that our son shall likewise be a king—for he is of the seed of David.”
Who knoweth? The miraculous is always imminent in the prosaic, the possibility of a Messiah sparkles in every newborn boy. Mary herself raised Yeshua in this Messianic tradition. Yeshua, his family, his disciples—they all ask themselves, Does this latest deed fit the prophecies of the Messiah? Asch roots the Christian exegesis of Yeshua’s deeds in these pre-existing Messianic traditions. He allows for an alternate exegesis, but never by explaining away the Christian one as a retroactive confection.
Yeshua does in time proclaim himself the Messiah to his disciples. But he proclaims it to no one else. He hints and he hints, but he will not say. His refusal to confirm or deny that he is the Messiah drives many Jews mad—above all, Judah Ish-Kiriot: Judas.
The Nazarene’s central portion is the gospel according to Judas—a man forever yearning for the Messiah, daily sure he has found him at last, but then testing, realizing again that he was mistaken. Judah constantly pushes Yeshua to proclaim himself the Messiah. And he feels the agony Yeshua inflicts by not saying outright whether he is or not:
“Judah, why your impatience? Why your restlessness and your tottering?”
“It is because I cannot wait longer. I cannot. The waters have come to my soul, the cup is full. Suffering has ripened the time and Israel waits in anguish.”
When the Sadducees and the Pharisees agree to Yeshua’s arrest, when the Jewish crowd chooses Bar Abba rather than Yeshua to be released, they all do so in hope that in his time of trial, he will reveal himself to be the Messiah. Judah, too, betrays Yeshua to bring on that final revelation.“Rabbi, Rabbi, see, I go! down into the nethermost pit, in order that you may rise in the highest to God!”
Yeshua dies without the reveal the Jews had been waiting for. But Yeshua came not to liberate Israel from Edom and Rome. Judah commits suicide after realizing that Yeshua was the Messiah in unexpected form.
And after? The rabbis grieved for the death of Yeshua. There were Jews and there were Christians, but they were not so very different. The youth Jochanan, who narrates the end of The Nazarene, says:
My friend Rufus remained the pupil of my Rabbi even later, when he became a Messianist. And just as in former days he used to go with us to the temple, to offer sacrifice. So did all the other Messianists. We said the same prayers; and every day we mentioned in them the coming of the Messiah. And we waited for him, day after day. Because they, just like us, did not know when he would come, and therefore like us they expected him every day, and every hour of the day, and every minute of the hour.
Everyone was waiting, together. That is Asch’s conclusion: a heartfelt description of an irenic world shared by Jews and Christians, long lost but not beyond the power of man to recreate.
Asch did not time his publication well. He wrote remembering a Poland where many Christians hated Jews, and Jews had no great cause to love Christians—but a land where one could dream that hatred could be laid aside. That Poland disappeared with the Nazi invasion. Ahead lay Auschwitz, which shattered any faith that old hatreds could be set aside. But there were years after Auschwitz, when old hopes found new life. Asch, the boy of Kutno and young man of Warsaw, must have imagined Polish Catholics among his readers, young priests whom his words could reconcile with their Jewish brethren. I do not know whether Karol Wojtyła read The Nazarene, but his pontificate brought to the waking world some of Asch’s dreams.
Some. Asch blinks at the irreconcilable claims of Judaism and Christianity—some irate Jewish readers accused him of apostasy, and surely his ecumenicism would satisfy neither a precise priest nor a rigorous rabbi. To say that all the history of the two faiths’ sundering was a misunderstanding does not suffice. Christians and Jews have not perfectly reconciled and, while the Messiah tarries, I doubt they ever will.
Yet Asch wrote a novel of extraordinary style, wonderfully convincing in its evocation of the Jewish Yeshua and the rabbis who mourned him, gripping as it recounts the world’s best-known tale, and heartbreaking in its sadness that the followers of the rabbis and the followers of Yeshua parted ways. Asch does not quite persuade that these parted kindred can reunite, but he preaches a sweet sermon in that endeavor.
David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars.
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