Jesus in Israeli Literature

Cristocenacolo Jesus

Teaching Israeli students about Jesus Christ is a fascinating experience. I am not talking about Christian theology, but about his depiction in the Gospels, as a literary character.

Generations of Jews saw Christ as an adversary and a foe, the cause of their endless sufferings. Most didn’t even pronounce his name, referring to him as ‘that man’. In the modern age, Zionism has focused completely on the future of the Jewish people. The Christian world, a variety of perspectives and worldviews, was perceived only through Zionist spectacles: as a realm exterior to Jewish life, distorting it by its ruthlessness. Eventually, this shaped the Israeli education system. Even today, most high schools do not teach the foundations of Christianity, which are, of course, imperative for understanding Western civilization.

But art, as is often the case, heralded a change. From the early twentieth century, several Israeli writers attempted to examine Jesus from a fresh perspective – not as victims of Christianity, but as independent thinkers who are influenced by it. Since the foundation of the State of Israel, the common sentiment of a persecuted minority has been transformed into a notion of potency and stamina; this, in turn, created a new, open-minded attitude to the image of Christ.

Pinhas Sadeh (1929-1994), an Israeli novelist and poet, was one of the forbearers of this change. Born in Poland, he immigrated to Israel with his family at a young age. A colorful character, some would say even controversial, a poetic soul surrounded by young admirers. At the age of 27 he published Life as a Parable. The book is a collection of personal experiences, each one illustrating a certain theme. Several years after its publication, it became a cult book among young people.

Though all the events depicted in the book unfold in Israel, it is hardly apparent. They could have taken place anywhere. Sadeh neither accepts Zionism nor rejects it. He exists in a universal human sphere; an artist unchained by any ideology.

Life as a Parable is profoundly influenced by the image of Jesus and the New Testament: an acknowledgement of human suffering, forgiveness, spiritual love, and the enlightenment of religious life. The author examines his surroundings from a fundamentally Christian perspective.

In his portrayal of Christ, Sadeh completely ignores the complex historical questions regarding his life. Jesus is the emblem of universal good, the healer of the sick and the maker of miracles.  Yet he is also tormented and lonely, betrayed by his disciples. Chapter twelve is a direct depiction of the passion of Christ. It begins with the author’s description of his own loneliness. On a cold, rainy night in Jerusalem, freezing in an attic, he is looking through the window and the world looks like a “single thick cloud – opaque, black, eternal”. In his desperation he turns to the Gospels, “I have read the story of his life (perhaps twenty times, perhaps fifty)”.

His point of departure for connecting with Christ is the notion of solitude; fundamental human loneliness, existential isolation. In his desperation he finds comfort in this ideal man, all generosity and kindness, who also experienced loneliness: “…lonely in the world, since his mother and brothers, it is told, felt he was dull-witted, and his disciples abandoned him in the hour of decision — so he lived the true and naked meaning of human life. He spoke of another life, another country, another time, of other rooms, faces, seasons and bodies, of another love…”.

He then portrays the miracles Christ performed out of mercy for the poor, the sick and the miserable, his love of the sinners, his aching heart witnessing human pain. Sadeh also refers to the poetical aspect of the New Testament. Describing the Sermon on the Mount he says, “…then (the scripture says) he left the desert and came to the Galilee. And there he went up the mountain and said the most beautiful words ever uttered by a poet. He spoke of the comfort that is contained, like a fruit in the seed, in mourning, of the fulfillment that is contained in thirst, of the Kingdom of Heaven that shrines with a dim but never-fading glory from out of the rags and tatters of human existence… “. The greatness of Christ is illustrated in both his acts and his words.

The students listen attentively; some look bewildered, encountering this perspective of Christianity for the first time. Here are some of their thoughts and questions:

–       If Jesus was such an enlightened man, how come the Church was so cruel and ruthless, especially to us, the Jews?

–       Why didn’t Sadeh convert to Christianity? Is it possible to believe in Christianity without being Christian?

–       I am sure Sadeh read the Old Testament. How can he say that Christ’s words are ‘the most beautiful’?

–       I never knew Jesus used so many parables. I feel it leaves more place for a personal religious experience than strict Jewish rules.

–       Looking at Sadeh’s depiction of him, in what way is Jesus Christian, and not Jewish?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Comments

  • Donna says:

    Yes, Yeshua /Jesus did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. His parables were designed to teach us how to live, “Our Father” prayer was to teach his followers how to pray to Hashem. The author did not convert, but found comfort reading words spoken by Yeshua/Jesus.

  • Raymond Armstrong says:

    the Christianity that persecuted the Jews is not the Christianity of the Bible. It is is a political construct produced by they conflation of Roman religious ideas with the syncretic Christianity of the fourth century.
    The original version was much less complex. It was iconoclastic and aesthetic valuing people before possessions. They were concerned more about serving the poor and worship through service. Strict Christians regard every day as holy to be lived in service to God. Just as Judaism is part of the everyday fabric Jewish life so Christians express their faith through living blameless holy lives. As the world we inhabit becomes more secularist and anti-god it becomes more imperative that we do not hang our faith in the closet.

  • Monique says:

    Perhaps because no one has stopped to think that Jesus actually was Jewish, which professed was the Torah, was called Rabi. after his death Christianity is instuye, theologically speaking, we call a Judeo-Christian institution, for their practices, if all summarize the message of all religions, we find that they have a common purpose, if we speak of man, would be defined in parameters Jewish law, as a liberal, revolutionary, without neglecting economic political situation at that time

  • How can the Jews despise a Jew who taught from Torah? He came to establish their Holy Book. He loved HaShem. How can He be so despised?

  • Emanuela Rubinstein says:

    Thank you for sharing you interesting answers. I thought the questions in themsleves are interesting – but your answers are fascinating.

  • Pedo says:

    If Jesus was such an enlightened man, how come the Church was so cruel and ruthless, especially to us, the Jews?
    To blame the teacher for what some irresponsible students do is not correct. Jesus did not persecuted the Jews he continually tried to share his insights about life with them. However, the leaders of Judaism of his time persecuted and took him to the cross Afterwards his disciples were kicked out of the synagogues. A natural reaction from most people to such type of treatment is to lash back. When Christianity was overtaken by the Roman world and most of its converts came from the ‘gentile’ world severe accusations and later persecution of the Jewish race began.

    – Why didn’t Sadeh convert to Christianity? Is it possible to believe in Christianity without being Christian?

    yes, it is also possible to agree with tenets of different religions without having to become a convert.

    – I am sure Sadeh read the Old Testament. How can he say that Christ’s words are ‘the most beautiful’?
    Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Many non-Christian people were also moved and touched by his words, i.e. Gandhi.
    – I never knew Jesus used so many parables. I feel it leaves more place for a personal religious experience than strict Jewish rules.
    Good observation
    – Looking at Sadeh’s depiction of him, in what way is Jesus Christian, and not Jewish?
    Jesus never abandoned Judaism. Christianity began to shape after the Jewish-christians were banned from entry to the synagogue. Jesus said I did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.

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