The Dreams of Sholem Asch | David Randall – First Things

Posted By on April 18, 2022

Who has heard of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch (18801957) 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 didnt 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 Polands Yiddish writers, and before The Nazarene a plausible contender for the Nobel Prize, fell out of the canon. But The Nazarene, Aschs life of Yeshua ben Joseph, Jesus the Jew, deserves new readers.

Aschs 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 parablesa penchant entirely consistent with the Jewish tradition that seeks to inspire thoughtful meditation on the word of God.

Yeshuas concern for the poorthe unlearned, the tax-collectors, the lepers, the untouchablesand his alienation from both the Sadducees and the Pharisees echo the alienation of the radical young Jews of industrializing Tsarist Poland, Aschs contemporaries who turned to Marxism as they felt the old tradition inadequate to new miseries. It is Yeshuas love of the poor that leads him to break the rigors of the lawand 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 silencehe is not committed to their rabbinic exegesis. Yeshua dances on a knifes 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 Nazarenes 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. Yeshuas disciples, invited to his mothers home, hear Marys account of her sons birth:

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 disciplesthey all ask themselves, Does this latest deed fit the prophecies of the Messiah? Asch roots the Christian exegesis of Yeshuas 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 madabove all, Judah Ish-Kiriot: Judas.

The Nazarenes central portion is the gospel according to Judasa 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:

When the Sadducees and the Pharisees agree to Yeshuas 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:

Everyone was waiting, together. That is Aschs 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 Christiansbut 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 Wojtya read The Nazarene, but his pontificate brought to the waking world some of Aschs dreams.

Some. Asch blinks at the irreconcilable claims of Judaism and Christianitysome 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 worlds 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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The Dreams of Sholem Asch | David Randall - First Things

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