It has become fashionable among the modern day Jewish historians to present that controversial Jew, Jesus, in a favorable light. Yet, depictions of Jesus in Jewish art and literature remain rare.
To be sure, Jewish literature has portrayed the encounter between Jews and Christians, between the world of the Jew and the foreign world of the gentiles. While this treatment of the theme usually deals with the temptations of assimilation, it rarely comes to grips with the person of Jesus and his meaning for the modern Jew.
In recent years, however, two renowned Jewish artists—one a painter, the other a writer—have ventured to explore the significance of Jesus for the Jewish people. While some say there has been a shift in the Jewish community’s attitudes toward Jesus, the portrayal of Jesus by French painter Marc Chagall and Yiddish writer Sholem Asch forcefully brings home the need for modern Jews, as individuals, to consider Jesus (Yeshua) for themselves.
Let us then explore the world of these two 20th century artists.
Marc Chagall is perhaps best known to American Jews for his stained glass windows depicting the twelve tribes of Israel. For some, the name Chagall conjures up images of upside-down green horses or multi-hued, Picasso-like scenes of shtetl life. An overview of this master’s work must take into account the diversity of themes he had handled: his own town of Vitebsk, Russia; the sufferings of the Jewish people; and an assortment of biblical motifs. In this article, however, we will concentrate on those paintings which focus on Yeshua.
Chagall’s “Yeshua” paintings fall into two categories. First there are the scenes of the crucifixion. It took much courage for Chagall to deal with this theme which, in the minds of so many Jews, is associated with persecution. In these canvases, we notice from the settings that Yeshua is being portrayed as an observant Jew. But more than that, the crucified Yeshua serves as a symbol of martyred Jews everywhere, and in particular those who were victims of the Holocaust. In these paintings, there is no hint of him being anything other than the symbol par excellence of Jewish suffering.
Franz Meyer, the definitive biographer of Chagall, gives us a description of the painting White Crucifixion (right). He calls this work “the first in a long series.” Meyer writes:
Although Christ is the central figure, this is by no means a Christian picture… Round his loins Christ wears a loin cloth with two black stripes resembling the Jewish tallith, and at his feet burns the seven-branched candlestick… But, most important of all, this Christ’s relation to the world differs entirely from that in all Christian representations of the Crucifixion. There… all suffering is concentrated in Christ, transferred to him in order that he may overcome it by his sacrifice. Here instead, though all the suffering of the world is mirrored in the Crucifixion, suffering remains man’s fasting fate and is not abolished by Christ’s death.1
This same type of Jewish yet non-Messianic Jesus is seen in Yellow Crucifixion. Here Chagall shows us “the crucified Christ, who is explicitly characterized as a Jew by the phylacteries on his head and the prayer straps on his arms…2
In a second category of “Yeshua paintings,” Chagall does add a Messianic import. Sidney Alexander contrasts this with the martyrdom imagery of earlier works:
In works of the past quarter of a century…the Crucifixion can hardly be said to stand explicitly for the martyrdom of the Jews… That Chagall considers Jesus one of the great Jewish prophets (as he has declared on many occasions, and as his son David testified to me) is perfectly coherent with history and a certain kind of liberal Jewish faith. But when he places a Crucifixion in the background of his Jacob’s Ladder or Creation of Man, at Nice, he is inviting the spectator to read his iconography as Christian fulfillment of Jewish foreshadowing.3
Alexander goes on to say that Chagall only intended to “provide ‘universal’ symbols.”4
Indeed, as far as anyone knows, Marc Chagall was not a believer in Yeshua as the Messiah. However, as one schooled in Western religious art, it is to be expected that Chagall was keenly aware of the Christian understanding of Tenach themes as foreshadowing the life of Jesus. Indeed, he seemed to be sympathetic to the continuity between what is commonly called the Old and the New Testaments. Such continuity is dramatically present in paintings such as The Sacrifice of Isaac, where Yeshua, carrying the cross, is placed in the background of the Akedah.
Moreover, the red color covering Abraham streams down from the crucifixion scene in the top right hand corner of the picture, richly suggestive of blood. In both Old and New Testaments blood is God’s provision for atonement for sin. Thus not only is the Akedah joined together with the Crucifixion, but the suggestion of Jesus’ death being an atonement is present as well. When one considers that the Sacrifice painting is part of a series called Biblical Message, it becomes apparent that Chagall understood the association of the images. And, as is true in works of great art, such paintings go beyond themselves. They raise the question of the meaning of this continuity between the Testaments for Jewish people today.
This same Isaac-Christ image is employed elsewhere. So writes Ziva Amishai-Maisels concerning the tapestry Exodus, which currently hangs in the Knesset in Jerusalem:
This combination was an acceptable one within a Christian context, in which Isaac was a prefiguration of Christ and the Sacrifice a prophecy of the Crucifixion. It was not a combination which would have been acceptable in the Knesset, and Chagall was counseled against it. But the artist’s personal belief in Christ as the perfect symbol of the suffering Jew could not easily be silenced…. Christ does not appear, but Isaac is placed on the altar with his arms spread wide in the shape of a cross…quite different from Isaac’s previous position in similar scenes.5
But again, in such paintings Jesus must be seen as more than merely a symbol of the suffering Jew. Chagall is aware of the connection which exists between Isaac and Christ in Christian thought. Such connections are apparent in the tapestry Isaiah’s Prophecy in which Chagall portrays not the crucified Christ, but rather the baby Jesus:
In [certain] works he had juxtaposed the Old Testament themes, which formed his main subjects, to related episodes from the New Testament in an attempt to blend the two Testaments together by suggesting continuity between them. This had been the reason he had added Christ carrying the Cross to representations of the Sacrifice of Isaac, which in Christian’s theology prefigures the Crucifixion. This is also the reason he portrayed the Madonna and Child [in the Isaiah tapestry] in the corner of the prophecy Christians relate to the birth of Jesus.6
But far from a Madonna and Child being rendered in any traditional Protestant or Catholic way, above the figure “is a man suggestive of a mohel. The addition of such a figure tends to stress the Jewish nature of the child born to the woman…as Jesus had been circumcised.”7
Chagall’s work has not always produced positive responses. Shneiderman, writing in Midstream magazine in 1977, was especially upset that Chagall had accepted work for stained glass windows in several cathedrals in France, utilizing some of these very motifs:
Despite some misgivings, Jews came to accept even his Christ motifs symbolic of Jewish martyrdom through the ages… However, the Jesus motifs Chagall introduced into the cathedrals show no association at all with Jewish martyrology. They are mere illustrations, as it were, of the story told in the Gospels.8
Shneiderman quotes writer Raissa Maritain that “with a sure instinct he showed in each of his Christ paintings the indestructible link between the Old Testament and the New. The Old Testament was the harbinger of the New, and the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old.” Disapprovingly, Shneiderman goes on to say that “Chagall never expressed disagreement with…Mme. Maritain’s interpretation; [it was] included two decades later in the catalogue of the largest retrospective exhibition of his work.”9
Shneiderman then gives an anecdote of a conversation which took place between the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever and Chagall, which was published in the Tel Aviv Yiddish periodical Di Goldene Keit (No. 79-80, 1973):
Later I learned in Paris that Chagall had also asked the Chief Rabbi of France for advice [re: doing a work for a church in Venice]. The Chief Rabbi…had told Chagall, very simply: “It all depends on whether or not you believe in it.”10
Unfortunately, Shneiderman is not too pleased at the prospect that Chagall just might believe it after all. And whether in fact Chagall does or not is beyond our consideration at this time. But in the kaleidoscope of his large assortment of “Yeshua paintings,” his art raises the question for us, Do we believe it? And if not, why not? The traditional answer that “Jews just don’t believe in Jesus” cannot be offered so glibly—not after contemplating the work of Chagall, thought by many to be the greatest Jewish artist of the 20th century.
If Chagall stands almost alone in the field of modern Jewish painters who have explored the Yeshua theme, Sholem Asch finds himself in a large company of 20th century Yiddish and Hebrew authors. This would include poet Uri Avi Greenberg, and writers Avidgdor Hameiri, Aharon Abraham Kabak, and Nobel Prize winner Samuel Joseph Agnon. However, in the United States, Asch is the best known. There has certainly been more controversy surrounding his trilogy of “Christian” novels, The Nazarene (1939), The Apostle (1943), and Mary (1949), than for the writings of any of the other authors mentioned. Heated debates have surrounded these works, yet they form but a small percentage of Asch’s total output, most of which has to do with more traditionally Jewish themes.
The novels deal in turn with Jesus (called by his Hebrew name “Yeshua” or “Y’shua”), Paul and Mary (again, given her original name of “Miriam”). According to Ben Siegel, who has authored the only available English language biography of Asch, the controversy which erupted over the publication of The Nazarene was not due so much to the subject matter as to the timing, coming as it did in the year 1939. But in light of what Asch himself has written of his beliefs, he may well have seen the publication of a Jewish book about Jesus as a way to bridge the divisions between Jews and Christians at a time when such a bridge was needed. The popularity of The Nazarene was indisputable. Now out of print, “two million Americans may have read [it] in the two years following publication.”11 Asch himself offers an explanation for writing The Nazarene:
I couldn’t help writing on Jesus. Since I first met him he has held my mind and heart. I grew up, you know, on the border of Poland and Russia, which was not exactly the finest place in the world for a Jew to sit down and write a life of Jesus Christ. Yet even through these years the hope of doing just that fascinated me. For Jesus Christ is to me the outstanding personality of all time, all history, both as Son of God and as Son of Man. Everything he ever said or did has value for us today and that is something you can say of no other man, dead or alive. There is no easy middle ground to stroll upon. You either accept Jesus or reject him. You can analyze Mohammed and… Buddha, but don’t try it with him. You either accept or you reject.12
This remark, it should be understood, came from the mouth of someone who did not embrace the tenets of Christianity for himself. Nevertheless, his portrayal of Jesus was entirely sympathetic to the Jewish background of the Gospel message. Here is a typical passage from The Nazarene, based on a scene in the Gospel of Luke in which Yeshua is called to the bima in the Capernum synagogue to read the Sabbath portion. In the interest of space, we have condensed the passage, which is actually several pages long:
Then came the unforgettable moment of our first meeting with the Rabbi of Nazareth.
The presence of the Nazarene in Jerusalem was by this time widely known, and the miracle which he had wrought by the pool was the subject of much discussion and much division of opinion, especially among the scholars; for he had cured the sick man on a Sabbath. As the news of his presence among us spread, the whispering changed to a loud murmur of curiosity. Wrapped in his tallit, as during the reading, he ascended the pulpit… His lips moved, but it was in silent prayer. Then he approached the officer who held the scroll of the Torah. He lifted it up, and seated himself on the “Chair of Messiah” which is built into the pulpit, and which is occupied by the head of the court at trials. And with the scroll of the Torah in his lap he began to preach… [He] did not do as other Rabbis did, that is, stand before the congregation while he preached. But he sat down in the seat of judgment, holding the Torah in his lap, as if he were a king…
[We] began to perceive that there sat before us a Rabbi who, was wholly different. Indeed, he was not a Rabbi, he was a thousand times higher than a Rabbi. Who could measure him? Were we, perhaps, in the presence of the highest Jewish hope? For now we heard words which had not been spoken even by Moses on Sinai. Who was this that sat before us, with the scroll of the Torah on his lap? Our hearts began to melt in terror, and our knees trembled. We looked at each other with terrified eyes. We knew not whether God was not about to lift us to the gates of heaven, and fling them open, that we might behold the shining of that power for which our hearts had so long hungered. Or were we about to be thrown into the abyss?
He began to speak of himself as if he were the carrier of the highest of all authority. He spoke of our eternal expectancy to help, he bade us stand momently with loins girt, awake at our posts. “Let your candles always be lit. It may come with the lightning of heaven, at every instant.”
“Israel, are you not God’s most beloved inheritance? The field which brings forth the first growth? The vine whose first fruits are brought upon the Table of the Holy House? Who, then, has sown your furrows with stones, so that the plow breaks against them and is dulled?”
Impatience seized the worshippers. They cried: “Tell us who you are!”
Indeed, Siegel remarks that for Asch, “Christianity was the culmination of Jewish thought, with its rituals and concepts rooted in Jewish ideas and practices.”13 This viewpoint once again found expression in The Apostle, and later on in Mary. By authoring the three novels, Asch brought upon himself vilest vituperation and greatest praise. Probably the harshest criticism came from Herman (Chaim) Lieberman in The Christianity of Sholem Asch: An Appraisal from the Jewish Viewpoint published in 1953. So negative was Lieberman that he caused even those who did not care for the three novels, such as Samuel Sandmel, to come to Asch’s defense. Others responded more in the vein of Yiddish critic Samuel Niger, who called The Nazarene “Asch’s highest achievement.”14
In reviewing all the furor, it is illuminating to consider what Asch has written of his own faith. In a 1941 volume entitled What I Believe, Asch speaks out clearly on his view of the Messiahship of Jesus:
The first coming of the Messiah was not for us but for the gentiles. Such, I believe, must be the conclusion of those who shake off the memory of the tortures which have been inflicted on us and estimate the significance of the moral contribution which Christianity brought to the world. They must feel this with Gamaliel, when he said at the trial of Simon: “If the work is the work of man, it will fall; but if it is the work of God ye cannot destroy it, lest ye find yourselves at war with God”. If the thing is of God then, I believe that it was not created with human power, but with the power of authority; and if the authority is not for us, the Jews, it is certainly for the nations of the world who have thereby been brought nearer to their Father in heaven.
And seeing him in this light, we bow our heads before him as we do before every one of our Prophets.
And for the second coming, that is to say, for the coming of the Messiah, we wait together with the rest of the tormented world.15
Interestingly, Asch’s quotation of Gamaliel is taken from the New Testament book, The Acts of the Apostles. And the reason that he gives why the Jewish people cannot accept the authority of Yeshua is that “the Jews were [already] bound to the authority which had been given to Moses on Sinai.”16
These two Jewish artists, Chagall and Asch, may challenge us with their respective brush and pen to consider the question, Is Yeshua the promised Messiah? And if so, what are we to do about it?
- Franz Meyer, Marc Chagall: Life and Word (N.Y.: Abrams). pp. 414-415. 2. Meyer, p. 446.
- Meyer, p. 446.
- Sidney Alexander, Marc Chagall: A Biography (N Y Putnam, 1978).
- Ziva Amishai-Maisels, Tapestries and Mosaics of Marc Chagall at the Knesset (N.Y.: Tudor), p. 47.
- Amishai-Maisels, p. 79.
- Amishai-Maisels, p. 81.
- Shneiderman, p. 49.
- S. L. Shneiderman, “Chagall — Torn?”. Midstream. June-July. 1977. p. 62.
- Shneiderman, p. 53. 10.
- Ben Siegel. The Controversial Sholem Asch: An Introduction to His Fiction (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976), p. 143
- Siegel, p. 148, quoting an interview with Asch by Frank S Mead in The Christian Herald in 1944
- Siegel. p. 162.
- Siegel, p. 150.
- Sholem Asch, What I Believe, tr. Maurice Samuel (N.Y.: Putnam, 1941), p. 115.
- Asch, p. 110.