Jesus as the New Jew: Zionism and the Literary Representation of Jesus

Neta Stahl. Journal of Modern Jewish Studies. Volume 11, Issue 1. March 2012.

The New against the Old Jesus

This article deals with Modern Hebrew writers’ attempt to present Jesus as part of the national project of Zionism. It argues that Jesus functions in these works in different and sometimes opposite ways and that the Zionist project was eager to distinguish itself from the world of traditional Judaism by embracing its ultimate Other. In this sense, the reclamation of Jesus by Zionist writers can be understood as an attempt to mark the boundaries of the new Jewish self vis-à-vis traditional Judaism. But Jesus’s Otherness functioned as more than that–it provided a kind of mirror that reflected to Zionist writers their own communal identities. In order to find themselves in this mirror, they had to distinguish between the Jesus of Christianity and the historical, “authentic” Jewish Jesus.

Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, numerous Jewish thinkers and writers appropriated the figure of Jesus, whose mention had been banished in traditional Judaism, and claimed him as one of their own. This appropriation involved ambivalent emotional attitudes toward Jesus, which were channelled into more concrete discursive questions, such as whether Jesus was part of the Judaism of his time, and what made a new religion, namely, Christianity, overshadow Judaism. Most of these Jewish intellectuals, as Susannah Heschel notes, claimed Jesus for Judaism as an act directed at Christian and Jewish audiences alike. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, primarily in Zionist circles, there was a turn toward a more internal Jewish appropriation of Jesus, which took a different and more specific direction. Zionist writers during the first half of the twentieth century adopted the figure of Jesus, not as part of an external and apologetic discourse, or as a mediator between Judaism and Christianity, but in the context of the new national identity, as a kind of model for the desired New Jew. In the Hebrew literature of the first half of the twentieth century, the figure of Jesus becomes not a bridging figure between Christianity and Judaism, but a figure that represents an internal Jewish attempt to redefine Jewish selfhood by reclaiming Jesus for Jewish nationalism and the Zionist project. Zionist writers, as I will show below, presented Jesus as an ideal type of Jew, one that could serve as a model for the new Jewish national identity, and as an integral and even necessary part of Zionist pioneering and national redemption. In this article I will explain why the figure of Jesus was so appealing to Hebrew writers, and what literary tools they relied on in their attempts to embrace Jesus as a lost brother, a pioneer and even a real messiah while still perceiving him as the menacing god of Christianity.

The concept of the Other may provide us with an insight into this somewhat contradictory and enigmatic attraction to Jesus. Hegel and Fichte introduced into modern thought the notion that self-consciousness depends on the acknowledgment, or recognition, of another self-consciousness. That is, we depend on a distinct Other for the establishment of our own Self. In the twentieth century, Hegel’s theory of recognition received much attention and was deemed by Jean-Paul Sartre as a breakthrough in the discussion of the problem of the Other. Psychoanalytic and postcolonial theories adopted the Hegelian viewpoint and developed the notion of our dependency on the Other for the establishment of our own self. More recently, the cultural theorist Homi Bhabha combined the psychoanalytical and postcolonial views in his conception of our relation to the Other who “is at once an object of desire, derision, and articulation of difference contained within the fantasy of origin and identity”.

Jesus’s Otherness served indeed as an object of desire for Hebrew writers at the turn of the twentieth century and became a fantasy of their origin and identity. It is in this Otherness that the young Jewish writers found their new and imagined self. This is the self that is referenced by the phrase “New Jew” which stands in juxtaposition to the “Old Jew”, the traditional, passive, uprooted, and non-productive diaspora identity they were eager to shed. These European writers imagined Jesus as a man who was born in the Land of Israel and was part of the biblical landscape which the early twentieth-century young Zionists were struggling to reclaim. In the story of Jesus they found the narrative they wanted to adopt, the narrative of the native and “authentic” Jew.

One of the most important texts in this process of constructing the new Jewish selfhood through the figure of Jesus is Yoseph Klausner’s Yeshu hanotzri: zmano, hayav vetorato [Jesus of Nazareth: His Time, Life, and Teaching] (1922). Born in Russia in 1874, Klausner studied philosophy and Semitic languages at the University of Heidelberg and arrived in Palestine in 1919. He was one of the founders of the Hebrew University, and later became Chair of its Hebrew Literature Department. Succeeding Ahad Ha’am as the editor of Hashiloah, one of the most influential Hebrew periodicals at the time, Klausner thought he was in a position to live up to his goal to become a Zionist intellectual leader. Despite the fact that a few decades later the Israeli right-wing Revisionist movement elected him to be its candidate for first president of the State of Israel, he did not become as central a figure in Israeli public life as he might have envisioned in those early years. Yet Klausner’s project on the life and teachings of Jesus was an important part of his ambitious mission to become a spiritual leader of the Zionist project. Assuming this role, Klausner writes his historical account of the life of Jesus as a text meant to lead the Jewish people toward re-creating a new self. Indeed, Klausner’s life of Jesus is the story of this idealized, fantasized, nationalistic Jew.

Chapters from Klausner’s work on Jesus first appeared in the Hebrew periodical He’atid between 1907 and 1913. After his arrival in Palestine, Klausner concluded this project and published it in 1922. As Tsvi Sadan shows, the book received wide attention not only in Mandatory Palestine but also in the United States and England, in both Jewish and Christian circles. Sadan analyses the reception of the book between 1922 and 1933 and shows its importance as what he calls “a public communication event”. In the current discussion I will focus on the book’s influence on the emerging Hebrew literature in Palestine. I will show that Klausner’s project was intended to shape the image of Jesus as a national Jew, and use the figure of Jesus as a model for Jewish nationalism.

Although both Christian and Jewish historians had previously made a distinction, between the “authentic” historical Jesus and the Jesus presented by institutional Christianity, Klausner went one step further by linking the Jewish Jesus with political and national redemption. For Hebrew writers in the 1920s and 1930s, this distinction between the historical, national Jewish and the theological, Christian Jesus allowed for literary ambivalence and gave rise to expressions of the duality of his character. Authors such as Uri Zvi Greenberg, Avraham Shlonsky, Natan Bistritsky, Aharon Avraham Kabak, Haim Hazaz, Zalman Shneour and Avigdor Hameiri found the figure of Jesus appealing because it offered a wide range of symbols that could be used effectively to support contemporary nationalist and messianic positions. At the same time, Jesus was perceived as the old Other, the still-threatening idol of the Christians. The contrast that Klausner stressed–of the historical Jewish Jesus against the Jesus of the Christian Church–allowed these writers to embrace the “authentic” Jewish Jesus while rejecting Christianity.

In 1910, as chapters from Klausner’s book began appearing on a regular basis in He’atid, the Zionist intellectual milieu was in the midst of a wide and bitter debate over the question of Christianity and its place in contemporary Judaism. This debate is known as “Me’ora Brenner” (The Brenner Affair) named after the Hebrew writer and publicist, Yoseph Hayim Brenner (1881-1921), whose 1910 article “Bàitonut uvasifrut” (In Journalism and Literature), published in Hapo’el hatsa’ir sparked the debate. In this article Brenner accused Zionist intellectuals of being too worried, obsessed even, by Jewish assimilation and conversion to Christianity. He argued that Christianity does not pose a real threat to Judaism, since most young Jews did not really care about “the nonsense of theology” (hevley hateologia) anyway. Brenner warned that this kind of concern would keep the Jewish people in its decayed past, and distract it from the important project of Jewish nationalism. Brenner argued,

Our people is diasporic, sick… we need to raise it… we need to be stronger than rock, we should labour and be productive as much as possible, to enrich the labour of our people and its material and spiritual fortune.

Using this bold, masculine tone, Brenner depicted the nature of Judaism in the past as weak, feminine and sick, contrasting it not so much with Christianity, but with his own vision of the New Jew. In his attempts to explain how his atheist views were consistent with his Jewishness, he went even further, arguing that despite the fact that as secular and atheist he refuses to ascribe religious importance to the New Testament, he still considers it “a book of our own flesh” (basar mibsarenu), that is, of Jewish origin. As for Jesus, Brenner insisted that since “there is no god in heaven, no one can be the son or the apostle of that god”.

Yet what kind of man was that “shepherd”: this is indeed interesting from the psychological point of view, in the same way as it is interesting to know who Buddha, Moses, Isaiah, Muhammad were; who were Shakespeare and Goethe … One way or another, that man was not coherent: undecided, unstable, and full of contradictions in regard to his mission, changing from day to day and comprised of different aspects, tragic and comic at once. And perhaps, even that is not true. Perhaps even with this thought we see nothing more that what we wish to see…

Brenner’s attempt to distinguish between Jesus as a religious and an historical figure was not very different from Klausner’s depiction of the life of Jesus. But while Klausner integrated Jesus into the story of the Jewish nation and presented him as part of the national narrative, Brenner chose to think of Jesus as part of a “world culture”, together with Buddha, Moses, Muhammad, Shakespeare and Goethe. Brenner considered himself to be a New Jew, and although he did not ascribe to Jesus any role in the nationalist transformation of Judaism, he used Christianity, and the Old Jewish fear of it, to prove his point. The public debate following his article took place mainly in literary journals and raised questions of Jewish national identity and selfhood. It was probably the response of Ahad Ha’am (Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg, 1856-1927) that turned the discussion into a self-formative debate over the nature of Judaism, Christianity and Jesus. Ahad Ha’am, who promoted the creation of a national spiritual Jewish centre in Palestine and espoused what was considered “cultural Zionism”, feared that while past Jewish generations had viewed Christianity as a threat and abomination, there were

those with national consciousness that do not dismiss the idea that a good Jew can relate with deep religious emotion to the Christian legend of the Son of God who was sent to mankind and with his blood atoned for the sins of generations.

In his book Basar mibsarenu, on Jesus in Zionist thought, Tsvi Sadan argues that Ahad Ha’am rejected the conception of Jesus as part of Jewish nationalism because, according to Ahad Ha’am, Jesus’s metaphysical nature stands in complete contrast to the nature of Judaism. Moreover, Jewish morality, according to Ahad Ha’am, is the opposite of the morality presented in the Gospels. Sadan, following David Kna’ani and others, suggests that the “Brenner Affair” was a debate about the designation of the boundaries of Judaism. Indeed, the debate was not about the nature of Christianity, but rather on the nature of Judaism and its relation to Christianity. Klausner, for example, argued against Brenner that he did not understand the importance of the Jewish past to the current national cause. As part of the debate, S. Ish Horwitz, the editor of He’atid, the journal in which Klausner’s chapters were first published, invited various scholars and thinkers to publish their views on the meaning of Christianity for Judaism and the differences between the two competing religions. Horwitz himself published a long article in that volume, arguing that modern Christianity is not that different in its nature from Judaism. According to Horwitz, the Christian attempt to get closer to an abstract god by glorifying religious figures, an attempt that Ahad Ha’am so strongly rejects, is common in Judaism as well. Horwitz offeres Moses as an example of a figure who served as a mediator between the people of Israel and God. According to Horwitz, even the “Son of God” is a Jewish concept that was in use as early as the Second Temple era, if not earlier. Although Judaism, he argues, did not admire the Son of God as a divine figure, it held certain religious figures as very close to God. Despite the intense public debate there is no doubt, as Shmuel Werses rightly notes, that it was the figure of Jesus, as depicted by Joseph Klausner around the same time, that left the deepest and most lasting impression on Hebrew writers during the first half of the twentieth century.

Zionist Jewish writers were fascinated by Klausner’s depiction of Jesus as a native Jew growing up in the Galilee, familiar with every inch of its distant and wild landscape. Connecting Jewish history to the territory of the Land of Israel was not uncommon in Zionist writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, but before Klausner the land was mostly associated with the First Temple Era and Hebrew Bible stories. Klausner embraced Jesus and thus stressed the continuity of the two Testaments and their bond with the Land of Israel.

Klausner begins his book with a lengthy description of the landscape of Galilee, highlighting the connection between the land and the man that Jesus came to be. This romantic nexus is intended to portray Jesus as a native Jew and to associate his Jewishness with his roots in the biblical landscape. But this depiction of Jesus is more than just a historical account: it figures Jesus as a flesh-and-blood embodiment of the idealized notion of the New Jew. In writing about Jesus, Klausner fashions the imagined new Jewish self:

This was indeed a fitting birthplace for the moralist and world reformer, and for his childish visions and youthful dreams […] The majestic beauty of the place was an awe-inspiring sight and must, even without his knowledge, have exerted an influence on Jesus. […]This was indeed a fitting place for the birthplace of the moralist and world-reformer, and for his childish visions and youthful dreams […] The majestic beauty of the place was an awe-inspiring sight and must, even without his knowledge, have exerted an influence on Jesus. […] There, cut off by mountains from the great world, wrapped-up in natural beauty, a beauty tender and peaceful, sorrowful in its peacefulness, and within a nation of land workers who ask for nothing, Jesus had to become a dreamer and a visionary, whose thoughts turned on his people’s future, on the heavy Roman yoke and, most of all, on the sorrows of the individual soul and on the “Kingdom of Heaven,” a kingdom not of this world… The mountains of Judea, overwhelming in their magnificence, the bare, terrible mountains of Jerusalem—these beget the prophet-dreamer, the man of might, who could oppose his will against the will of the entire world and rage against the perversion of social justice, preaching vengeance against the nations and reproving them.

Klausner’s romantic rendering is aimed at presenting Jesus as a native Jew who, unlike most of Klausner’s readers at the time, belonged to this new and wild landscape. Moreover, if Jewish historians before him had tried to claim Jesus for Judaism, Klausner was trying to claim Jesus for nationalism and more specifically for Zionism. According to Klausner, Jesus was not simply a Jew, but a Jew who belonged to his own land, aware of his mission to claim the land for his people. In fact, it was the landscape itself that inspired him to become a national leader who guided his people toward both spiritual and political redemption. Klausner’s Jesus embodies the qualities of the New Jew: charisma, courage, mastery of his own land, morality, and idealism. At the same time, this New Jew was also a poet, a man of fables and metaphors.

Klausner’s synthesis of the desired and actual selves fascinated twentieth-century Hebrew writers. Aharon Avraham Kabak’s novel, Bamish’ol hatzar [The Narrow Path] (1937), for example, draws a similar connection between the landscape of Jesus’s childhood and youth and the emergence of his nationalist consciousness. Moreover, like Klausner, Kabak creates a clear distinction between the historical Jesus, whose actions are given a psychological explanation in the novel, and the mythological figure, which is a product of his followers’ imaginations. In this way, Kabak is able to provide a literary illustration of the historical claims that Klausner had made, telling the story of the mythological Jesus almost entirely through the eyes of his followers. The “real” Jesus in Kabak’s novel is a charismatic and idealistic young man who struggles to find both a just and effective way to redeem the Jewish nation. In his struggle, Jesus comes to define national redemption not as a political and collective act, but rather as an internal and individual transformation. As the novel progresses, Kabak’s Jesus loses faith in the war against the Romans and struggles to find a balance between universal morality and the nationalistic values of some of his followers. In this regard, Kabak offers us a Jesus who struggles to release himself from the myth that surrounds him. Jesus is willing to sacrifice his life in order to dispel the myth. In fact, this is how Kabak solves one of the longstanding problems of Jewish apologetics with respect to the New Testament story: in his novel it is Jesus himself who asks Judas Iscariot to hand him over to the Romans, in order to prove Jesus’s flesh and blood human, not divine, nature.

Interestingly, Klausner himself thought that Kabak’s novel, though a great literary achievement and successful in describing the political and national background of the Second Temple era, exhibited too much sympathy for the Christian universalist conception of Jesus and too much hostility to Second-Temple Jewish nationalism. In a review of Kabak’s novel entitled “Kabak vehamish’ol hatzar shelo” (1942) (A. A. Kabak and His Narrow Path) Klausner argues that Kabak is loyal to the Gospels’ description of Jesus as the man who chooses the “narrow path”, namely, the path of the individual, rather than national redemption, in order to avoid bloodshed. Yet in Klausner’s view, this is where Judaism and Christianity differ. According to Klausner, Kabak’s sympathy with Jesus’s choice of the narrow path clearly associates him with the Christian point of view. Klausner contends that Kabak fails to explain why the Jews rejected the path of individual redemption.

Moreover, Klausner believed that Kabak’s great novel suffered from one major formal deficiency: it failed to create a plurality of competing ideological voices and, as a result, was unable to describe the cultural and ideological clash necessarily involved in the emergence of a new faith. Kabak’s novel could have been an outstanding literary achievement, claimed Klausner, if only he had given the nationalist perspective its due respect. Instead, Kabak portrays the kana’im–the Second-Temple Jewish zealots who called for a violent uprising against the Romans–with utter ridicule and derision. In short, Klausner accused Kabak of not writing a novel that appreciated the nationalistic drive. Such a novel would have stressed the different political agendas of the time and depicted Jesus as having the potential to become the real national redeemer, if only he had seen the need for violent resistance against the Romans.

Klausner’s review of Kabak’s novel provides an important insight into the relationship between the nationalist historian and the novelist. Klausner wrote his own “account” of Jesus’s life, but still expected Kabak, the novelist, to represent this story “properly” in fiction. In other words, the literary representation had to be subordinate to the cultural propagation of Klausner’s ideas about the historical Jesus. Klausner did not criticize Kabak for not being faithful to the historical facts but, rather, demanded that the novelist, as a storyteller, share with the historian the same values and ideology.

For his part, Kabak offered the following explanation of his understanding of Jesus:

That miserable man from Nazareth, whom people made into a miracle-maker kind of God, was created by these people because of their thirst for a myth and their desire to hold onto some anchor so that they would not be washed away by the vacuum of the depth of their empty lives.

Kabak, it seems, was interested in the genealogy of the old myth, while Klausner’s aim was to create (or rather, recreate) a new one, and to use it as a model for contemporary Jewish nationalism. Kabak’s Jesus searches for humanness in his attempts to realize a nationalist cause, but time and again he finds himself disillusioned with the options with which he is presented. Therefore, it is not only the figure of Jesus that Kabak exposes as a false myth, but also nationalist ideologies and ideas, such as death for the sake of the nation and national redemption through violence. As Kabak’s Jesus says to his followers:

What are frontiers that sometimes widen and sometimes shrink? This rod of earth that is sacred to me today because it is my land, and desecrated tomorrow because my neighbour came and took it from me for himself, what is it? Tell me, of what value are wide frontiers when he who sits within them has a jealous eye and a withered, shrivelled heart? What is the value of this freedom if the man who enjoys it has a fettered spirit, yoked and bound to the dust?

At the end of the novel Kabak’s nationalist Jesus preaches a careful reassessment of national ideas and ideologies. The “narrow path” becomes the path that Jesus chooses not to walk. Instead, Kabak’s Jesus chooses the wider path, the one that offers a universal and humanistic message, rather than nationalist ideology. Despite this critical attitude toward nationalism, Kabak’s novel was warmly received by readers and literary critics of the time (and later even became required reading in Israeli high schools). The distinction between the Jewish and the Christian Jesus may be the reason for this warm acceptance.

It may not surprise us that another contemporary Jewish novel about Jesus, Sholem Asch’s The Nazarene (1939), originally written in Yiddish and published shortly after Kabak’s novel, was welcomed anything but warmly. Unlike Kabak’s novel, Asch’s did not address questions of Zionism and the identity of the New Jew. The Yiddish press refused to publish Asch’s controversial novel and as a result, The Nazarene was first published in an English translation and republished in Yiddish only four years later (1943). The Nazarene was the first of Asch’s Christian trilogy, and was followed by The Apostle and Mary. Following the publication of these novels, Asch lost much of his respected status among his Jewish readers.

The main difference between Kabak’s and Asch’s novels, which were published only two years apart, was that Asch’s aim was to bridge the gap between the “Jewish” and the “Christian” Jesus, rather than contrast them. Kabak’s readers welcomed his transparent sympathy toward Jesus because he depicted a nationalist Jesus, who had deep reservations regarding his contemporaries’ nationalism but was still clearly Jewish. Asch, on the other hand, provided his readers with a Christian-Jewish Jesus, and attempted to blur the differences between the Jewish Jesus and the Jesus in whom his Christian readers were interested. Asch’s major literary achievement was left unnoticed because his Jewish readers could not tolerate his presentation of Jesus as a mediator between Judaism and Christianity.

The Nazarene‘s storyteller is a young Polish Jew who is invited to the house of an old Polish Catholic archaeologist, Pan Viadomsky, to translate a Hebrew account that, as the storyteller will later learn, is the lost gospel of Judas Iscariot. The young Jew starts coming to Viadomsky’s house on a regular basis, and while working together on the manuscript they overcome their mutual suspicion to the extent that Viadomsky trusts the storyteller enough to share his most closely-kept secret: he is the reincarnation of the hegemon Cornelius, a first-century Roman lieutenant of Pontius Pilate who was not only a witness to Jesus’s death, but the man in charge of his execution. The storyteller, whom Pan Viadomsky calls “Josephus” (alluding to the Second Temple Jewish historian), is himself the re-embodied soul of a young Jewish man from the first century named Yochanan, who, like Cornelius, was a witness to Jesus’s life and death. The story moves between realism and fantasy, as each character going through transfigurations of time and place, living both in contemporary Warsaw and Second-Temple Judea.

Asch uses the format of testimonies in order to establish the historicity of Jesus’s story. More importantly, this multi-narrative technique allows him to present the story of Jesus from different points of view, mainly from the Jewish and Roman viewpoints and later from the Christian perspective. By doing so, Asch emphasizes Jesus’s role in bringing together the two rival religions. In Asch’s work the figure of Jesus symbolizes the values of the two religions; he is the unifier who heals the wounds of the bloody past by offering a set of shared values. Neither witness was a disciple of Jesus when they first met him but became believers after witnessing his moral strength. By revealing their encounters with Jesus, both Jew and Catholic share in the “Jesus experience”, thereby symbolizing the uniting power of the figure of Jesus. For Asch, this figure unites people of different religions regardless of distances of time and space.

Goldie Morgentaler argues in her interesting analysis of Asch’s novel that the “frame story” is where Asch concentrates his ecumenical message: “Asch’s Jew and his anti-Semite establish their hesitant but ultimately harmonious relationship under the unifying influence of their shared memories of Yeshua…” In fact, this distinction between the frame story and the main story is somewhat misleading, since the frame story becomes the main story in this novel. Asch focuses on the story of the story of Jesus–the Gospels and their messages–and like many other Jewish writers of the first decade of the twentieth century, is writing more about the memory of Jesus than about Jesus himself. Morgentaler sees this elusive and “shadowy creation” of the figure of Jesus as an artistic failure, but in fact it seems to serve as a literary device intended to absolve Asch from the obligation to state his opinion of Jesus’s metaphysical nature. Asch’s goal in this novel is to illustrate what Jesus’s followers should take from him, rather than depict his true nature. Asch is clearly not interested in a full characterization of Jesus; indeed, that may have been counter-productive to his mission. After all, Asch wrote the novel during the 1930s and published it in 1939. Developments in Germany must have affected his choice not only to write about Jesus but also to depict him in such an elusive manner. Indeed, Asch had to tell the story of this figure carefully, without creating controversy over what he, as a Jew, thought about Jesus’s metaphysical nature. Thus, while writing around the same time and on the same figure, the agendas of Kabak’s and Asch’s novels differ dramatically. While Kabak’s novel was directed toward Jewish readers who read Hebrew and most likely lived in Palestine, Asch aims his novel at non-Jews as well. Kabak writes in order to shape the new Jewish self, while Asch writes to polish the image of the Jewish self in the eyes of those about to persecute them.

More important to our discussion is the fact that Asch’s Jewish readers in Mandatory Palestine accused him of something they considered an even greater sin, as can be seen in a 1940 article by D. A. Friedlander, entitled “Yeshu hanotzri: shtey gishot” (“The Christian Jesus: Two Approaches”):

Here we have an issue with a Hebrew Jesus and a diaspora one. One was created under an apologetic shadow, a creature of the diaspora psyche… and the other is a creation of Jewish renewal, and part of its natural process.

For Friedlander, Kabak’s Jesus is the Hebrew figure while Asch’s is the Christian.

While Kabak was generally perceived as creating a national hero, Asch was accused of depicting an “exilic” Jesus. This understanding of Asch’s apologetic Jesus as diasporic and Kabak’s non-apologetic Jesus as an illustration of Jewish renewal reveals the expectation of Jewish readers in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s that Jesus would reflect their new self-understanding. Indeed, Kabak created a Jesus who harboured doubts, but despite (and perhaps precisely because of) that, his readers could still find themselves in him. Asch’s Jesus conveyed to his readers the opposite because his project was not intended to depict a modern national hero, but rather to offer a Jewish Jesus with whom both Christians and Jews could live. In this respect, Asch’s depiction of Jesus was not much different from that of nineteenth-century Jewish historians and thinkers such as Heinrich Graetz and Abraham Geiger. Both Graetz and Geiger, as well as other Jewish nineteenth-century historians, argued that Jesus was a pious Jew whose teaching was based on Jewish law and values. However, Asch’s depiction of Jesus differed because while Geiger and Graetz presented the story of Christianity from a Jewish perspective, Asch did his best to narrate this story from both Jewish and Christian points of view. Zionist readers associated this attempt with the perspective of the old, exilic Jew, meaning a perspective that conceded too much to what Christians wished to hear. While both Kabak’s and Asch’s novels depicted Jesus from a variety of angles, at the end of his novel Kabak clearly preferred the Jewish perception of the historical Jesus. Asch, on the other hand, portrayed the different points of view as equally valid.

Revisiting the New Testament Jesus

As we have seen, both Asch and Kabak use the eyewitness account mode of representation to re-tell the story of Jesus’s life and death. But while in Asch’s novel this technique serves to emphasize the historical nature of the scriptures, Kabak uses it to distinguish between the historical and the New Testament Jesus. The New Testament serves as the main frame of reference in both novels, but they present different views with respect to its authenticity. While Asch’s agenda is to revalidate the New Testament as a text that Jews can embrace and share with Christians, Kabak tries to highlight the weaknesses and unreliability of this text as a source. This attempt to distinguish between Jesus as depicted in the Christian text and the figure of Jesus himself is typical of Hebrew works written in the first half of the twentieth century. It is a distinction slightly different from the one made by modern Jewish historiographers, as it emphasizes the fictional nature of the Christian scriptures. In other words, it calls for a critical reading of the Christian text as an ideologically motivated literary text. Such an attempt can be found not only in Kabak’s novel but also in an earlier work–the first Hebrew play to deal with Jesus, Yeshu minatzeret–hagadda dramatit [Jesus from Nazarath–a Dramatic Tale], written in 1921 by Natan Bistritsky, a Zionist activist and the editor of several modern Hebrew literary journals. In this play, the figure of Jesus appears almost entirely as mediated through the other characters, the people who accompany him in the last year of his life. Each of them constructs Jesus’s character according to his or her own ideological agenda. Through this technique, Bistritsky represents various trends and ideologies characteristic of Second-Temple Judaism, but leaves the image of Jesus vague, revealing the weakness of the first-hand or eyewitness story. Although the characters in the play present themselves as close to Jesus, they cannot provide a coherent description of his physical appearance. Instead, as one of the main characters admits: “Whenever I try to picture him, I cannot recall his image. As soon as he leaves us, I forget what he looks like. As if he has never existed”. The figure of Jesus is elusive not only for the readers, but also for the characters in the play who tell the story of a figure whom they can never truly grasp. Yet the protagonists in the play understand the importance of their stories and, even more, they value the very act of documenting them. The Jesus myth is written while it is still happening, and the “real” Jesus receives less attention than the one being constructed by his followers.

Bistritsky’s play echoes the story of Jesus as it appears in the New Testament, but this retelling reveals a critical view of the Christian text. The structure of the play, which unfolds the story of Jesus only through the unreliable and self-centred stories of his contemporaries, emphasizes the non-historical nature of the New Testament and presents it as a collection of stories, based on mythologies and various traditions, narrated by politically motivated authors. At the same time, this mode of representation reflects the ambivalent approach many modern Jewish writers took toward Jesus. After all, Jesus was perceived as the old Other, the threatening god of the Christians. The duality of the menacing figure of Jesus, on the one hand, and the “historical” or “authentic” Jewish Jesus, on the other, gave rise to a mode of representation characterized by multiple perspectives. Modern Hebrew writers such as Kabak and Bistritsky, as well as Hayim Hazaz, Yigal Mossinzon and Avigdor Hameri, limit themselves to presenting various voices that recount aspects of the Jesus story while avoiding a stand in the debate over the veracity of these stories and Jesus’s real metaphysical nature. The polyphony of inconsistent versions of the Jesus story presents the reader with a Jesus who is more of a social and cultural construct than a real historical figure. Like Asch in The Nazarene, Bistritsky avoids the actual depiction of Jesus. The story of Jesus’s followers becomes the main story in both works; but Asch uses his blurred version of Jesus to avoid preferring one story over the other, while Bistritsky depicts the nature of these multiple stories as problematic, unreliable, and politically motivated narratives.

While writing his play on Jesus, Bistritsky served as the editor of a collection of personal letters and diaries written by the Jewish pioneers of Bitanya, a communal settlement established in Palestine in 1920. In these non-fiction texts, written mainly in the 1910s, we find a deep identification with, and great admiration for, Jesus. Many of these young pioneers connect their own physical and emotional hardship, adjusting to the rough conditions and hard labour in the new land, with Jesus’s suffering. Moreover, one can find in these texts an emotional need for a transcendent figure that will provide both meaning and inspiration for these young men and women in their daily struggles. For example, the mountains of Nazareth remind one of them of “…the suffering of that man…this impression helped me very much to find the balance in toil”. Bistritsky’s play reflects this need to identify with a symbolic figure that gives great suffering a noble meaning. As Kabak would do over a decade later, Bistritsky critically characterizes this human weakness, using Jesus as a symbolic figure to inspire hope and admiration. Both writers use the figure of Jesus to deal with the greater issue of Zionism as an ideology that holds a secular set of beliefs, and at the same time develops messianic expectations, presenting the act of toiling on the land as part of a secular worship.

Jesus as a Redemptive Pioneer

In his long essay on messianism and politics in Hebrew poetry between the two World Wars, Hannan Hever argues that a real tension existed in both political and literary circles among the different options for understanding and representing the Zionist mission:

On the one hand, there was the fascination with the utopian dimensions of reality, which related to the pioneering act as a crucial stage in the process of creating a new national reality but, on the other, there was a real anxiety that this yearning for utopia would create false expectations and unrealistic hopes that would be followed by attempts to hasten the redemptive era by irresponsible violent acts. Yet, this ambivalence toward the messianic idea strengthened its appeal even more.

Bistritsky, who belonged to the socialist movement and was a close witness to the pioneers and their state of mind, explores various views of Jesus, and thereby implicitly warns against extreme apocalyptic and messianic perceptions of the Zionist enterprise.

One of the most prominent figures to voice this utopian message that presented the national project as a messianic act was the right-wing poet Uri Zvi Greenberg (1896-1981). In 1924, Greenberg published his book of poetry Eima gedola veyareyach [A Great Horror and a Moon]. The last section of the cycle “Yerushalayim shel matah” [Earthly Jerusalem] in this collection, entitled Kruz: tze! [Proclamation: Leave!] calls upon Jesus to leave the monasteries and join the Zionist project:

… And now, my brother, go forth from the monasteries, for the appointed time has come. Go up to Me’ah Shearim, and buy there a prayer shawl with golden coin you will take from the coffer: Payment for having been their mouthpiece, payment for your nudity.

So that you may wrap yourself and go to the Wall, to pray with Jews, if you are prepared for prayer.

Or better still: Buy shorts and a blouse there: the garments of a pioneer, and ask in Hebrew:

“Where is the road to the Valley of Jezreel–that is the earthly Jerusalem;

–and they will tell you whither.

The summons “the appointed time has come” alludes to Jesus’s messianic role, and is linked to his escape from the Christian world. The speaker proposes to clothe Jesus’s naked body, symbolizing his return to civilization and to Judaism. The two types of garment the speaker offers, the prayer shawl and the pioneer (halutz) garb, represent the ideological possibilities that will face Jesus upon his arrival in Palestine. This metaphor of the garment permits Greenberg to insert the figure of Jesus into the nationalist Zionist conception of the pioneer enterprise, imbuing it with messianic overtones, where the poet plays the part of a herald. But together with this mystical, messianic description of Jesus’s arrival in the Land of Israel, Greenberg maintains historical realism, representing Jesus as faced with options similar to those that confronted the many young Jews who arrived in Palestine during this period. Thus, Jesus can either join the old Jewish community in Jerusalem and become an observant Jew, or preferably, as the poet indicates, opt for the pioneer enterprise and learn to work the land in the Jezreel valley:

Go, and you will come to the Valley, and you will find brothers plowing the soil, unto them you will say:

“Shalom, my brothers!” and they will answer you:



And if you labour, like brothers will they love you, and you will eat their bread in holiness.

Jesus’s return to Judaism will materialize by means of his joining the settlement of Palestine, where he will work by day and learn Torah by night. In turn, his presence will impart a messianic dimension to the Zionist venture. The motifs of bread, sanctity, and labour combine to paint a utopian picture of the Messiah’s participation in the pioneering project. The Jezreel Valley symbolizes the pioneer act of settling the Land; it is the earthly Jerusalem, contrasted with—and yet, equal, or even superior, to—the heavenly Jerusalem.

In Greenberg’s early Yiddish poetry, written shortly after the First World War, Jesus appears as a monistic, universal symbol of human suffering. Greenberg first raises Jesus’s connection to Judaism in the context of Gentile persecution of the Jews. Jesus is depicted as having gradually lost touch with his people and religion; his loss of humanity is accompanied by the loss of his Jewish characteristics. But surprisingly, as Greenberg comes to recognize that his departure from Christian Europe is imminent, his poetry expresses a new type of affinity for Jesus, which stems from the fact that like Jesus, he carries the experience of exile with him into the Land of Israel.

This new affinity finds particularly interesting expression in another poem in Eima gdola veyareah called “Lefanav,” (“Before Him” from the cycle of poems “Bama’arav“, In the West) in which on the eve of departing for Palestine the narrator, sets out before Jesus his doubts about meeting the halutzim:

What shall I say in the Galilee, condemned brother, as I arrive and find the shepherds of the Galilee, tanned and with a dream in their eyes, if they see me clothed in European dress and in my eyes no remnant of an eastern sunrise fire, rather, glimmering splinters of the sunset: dark blood, from moment to moment the flashing of knives—and maybe that shadow of the three-corners on my body the Cross—that is the torment. And they will question me thus: of the exile of the world you certainly have much to tell–do tell, what is the lot of Jesus our brother condemned on several poles in the exile of the world; shall thousands of bells ring from thousands of towers for him, forgetfulness on his brain and he still abandons his naked back to the winds to the rain, to the sun and to the mouths of the people so that he may be kissed?

The shadow of the cross of Christian Europe, “The Kingdom of the Cross” in Greenberg’s famous 1923 Yiddish poem, is cast over both Jesus and the poetic speaker, distinguishing them from those who live in the Land of Israel. The latter are described as natives, part of the east; the narrator wonders how will he be able to shed his European appearance, manner and experience and become one of them. Furthermore, this “European” attire alludes to the traditional dress of “the Jews of the earlocks and beard” that appear in many of Greenberg’s poems from different periods, and the exile described here is experienced as a violent meeting of this exilic Judaism and Christianity that sheds fear over European Jewry. If it seems at first that the speaker’s shame stems from Jesus’s disgrace, it quickly becomes clear that his own diaspora selfhood causes him to feel ashamed before the native shepherds. Thus, Jesus is here the object of the speaker’s identification, onto whom he projects feelings of strangeness and alienation, but also admiration for these native Galilean figures. For the shepherds, Jesus’s shame embodies that of European Jewry. By describing Jesus through their eyes, Greenberg obliquely criticizes the attitude of the Jewish establishment in Palestine (the yishuv) towards diaspora Jewry. From the vantage point of the “shepherds of the Galilee”, Jesus was once, like them, a Jew of the Land of Israel, but has now forgotten his origins. Jesus is severed from his national origin by becoming the object of worship of European Christianity, which has lured him into forfeiting his humanity and national identity. Greenberg draws an analogy between Jesus’s gradual estrangement from his national origins and European Jewry’s remoteness from the Land of Israel; both are presented as having forgotten their national origins and as captives in alien lands, fearing Gentile oppression. Thus, while describing what Jesus has witnessed in the naves of churches, the poetic speaker slips into first person plural, representing dread of Gentile persecution as an element shared by European Jewry and Jesus himself.

This is more than mere sympathy for Jesus’s suffering and humiliation. Greenberg, who still views himself as a diaspora Jew, internalizes Jesus’s humiliation. Jesus and the speaker see and hear the same sights and sounds, while the shepherds who call Jesus “our brother” are rooted in a distant and radically different universe of experience. Thus, Jesus serves as a mirror of the poet’s self, reflecting both his self-image and unavoidable identification with the “Old” Eastern European Jew and his desire to turn into his Other, the native Galilean Jesus of the New Testament. The geographical transition that accompanied Greenberg’s linguistic switch from Yiddish to Hebrew also involved a transition in identity, and in that respect Jesus reflects both aspects of Greenberg’s duality: his identification with the old, traditional Eastern European Jew, and his desire to become a Zionist pioneer or a “New Jew” who fulfils the dream of rebuilding the land.

In the third section of “In the West,” in a poem titled “Hama’aneh” (The Reply), Greenberg depicts a different and less passive Jesus. Here, Jesus assumes his own voice and urges the narrator to go to Galilee and announce Jesus’s return to the Land of Israel. This speaking Jesus allows Greenberg to express both aspects of his torn identity, the new and the old Jew:

And my tormented brother answered me in his pain—(reddish twilight fell on me and on his tree, in the entrance to the mosque bells blazed.)—”Go, Go to the Galilee, for your body is wrapped, and do not say: he is hanged there dead on a tree. He is hanged in the midst of the world and looks out to the end of all generations, at the end of the world, and great are his longings for the Land of Israel. And he will return to the Land of Israel in a prayer shawl that was on his shoulders as he went to be crucified. He will arise at the time appointed for the redemption of the world at the end of all generations, like the Menorah that ascends, and the crown of the Son of David on his holy hea.”

Evoking God’s command to Abraham to leave his homeland and go to Canaan (“Lekh lekha,” Gen. 12:1), the “dead” Jesus urges the living poet to go to the Galilee and announce that he is destined to reclaim his life, humanity, and Jewishness. The justification for this Divine command rests on the distinction between the naked and “covered” body. By stressing that the poet, but not Jesus, has a “wrapped body” (guf atuf)–an expression which ascribes to the poet both vitality and Jewishness (by evoking his envelopment in a prayer shawl)–Jesus seems to disclose his regret for being detached from Jewish life. He casts the poet as a herald, who will come to the Land of Israel and announce Jesus’s reappearance.

Greenberg’s Jesus presents himself as a future Messiah who will ascend to the Land of Israel at “the time appointed for the redemption of the world […] like the menorah that ascends” (“kamenorah ha’olah“, a symbol of Jewish national rebirth), with “the crown of the Son of David” on his head. These images embody the messianic status Jesus wishes to attribute to himself, the crown of the Son of David replaces the crown of thorns that symbolize Jesus’s abasement. Shalom Lindenbaum finds in this poem “a clear, lucid expression of the strengthening of national consciousness, achieved through the effacing of universal valences”. Lindenbaum demonstrates this argument by comparing the versions of the poem that appear in the two editions of “In the West”. The first was published in Rimon, a Hebrew literary periodical, when Greenberg was still in Berlin, while a revised version, used here, was published after his arrival in Palestine as part of Eima gdola veyareah. Comparison reveals that Greenberg emended the poem to emphasize the nationalistic elements that tie Jesus to the Land of Israel. For example, the original poem does not feature the “Menorah that ascends” or the “crown of David”, and does not stress Jesus’s attachment to the Sea of Galilee. These emendations perhaps reflect the change in Greenberg’s own biographical and political circumstances upon his emigration to Palestine.

In 1924, Greenberg’s contemporary, Abraham Shlonsky (1900-1973), published his book, Dvay [Suffering], which also includes a long poem dealing with the question of the place of the Messiah in the Zionist enterprise. What is interesting for our purposes is that the figure of Jesus occupies a central role in both poems, and that both writers, who had only recently arrived in Palestine, chose to make Jesus a central figure in their poetry. However, while Greenberg depicts Jesus as a true messiah, whose presence is necessary for bringing about Jewish redemption, Shlonsky is more hesitant, appearing to question Jesus’s messianic nature. Using the genre of the dramatic poem, Shlonsky presents Jesus alongside the various potential Jewish messiahs, Elijah, Moses, and the future Messiah Son of David. Placing Jesus alongside these canonical figures is, in fact, a rhetorical device that allows Shlonsky to distinguish Jesus from the rest of this respected pantheon of biblical figures and to present him as a false, and non-Jewish, messiah. The last part of the poem is called, “habrit ha’ahrona” (“The Last Covenant”), and it presents the various covenants that God makes with his messiahs. In this way, Shlonsky compares the first covenant, between God and Moses, and the last one, between God and Jesus. The difference between the two is that Jesus is presented as an unreliable messiah, whose account of his relationship with God and the covenant between them seems exaggerated. Moreover, while the other messiahs suffer in silence, Jesus’s suffering is depicted here as a public show. A true and complete redemption is one that is based on genuine suffering, according to the poem, and here Jesus offers the opposite. While the other messiahs bring some solace to humanity, Jesus is presented as simply a man, who does not stop complaining about his suffering, and whose agony is all he can offer to humanity:

How can I stop and the traces of the nails like stamps of god’s ring on my flesh. Here I am and I come forthwith a crown of thorns on my head, and they will surround me and like then will say: Shall be crossed! Shall be crossed!

Shlonsky represents Jesus as a deceiving figure who misleads his followers. His clear attempt to separate Jesus from Judaism and from the canonical figures of the Jewish nation reveals his criticism of Christianity and its understanding of redemption. But Shlonsky is less concerned with Christianity than with the meaning of secular redemption in the context of contemporary Judaism and Jewish nationalism. He chooses Job over Jesus in an attempt to find a Jewish model that will represent universal agony for the sake of moral redemption.

Three years later, however, Shlonsky published his famous poem “Jezreel” [1927], where he represents the act of pioneering using similar Christian symbols of suffering. This time he associates the suffering of Jesus with the toil of pioneering. This change may be explained by the fact that Shlonsky thought of himself as part of the pioneering project and experienced first-hand the moment that he and his peers viewed as an epiphany. In “Jezreel”, Shlonsky does not present Jesus as the real messiah, but rather maintains Jesus’s usefulness as a symbol representing the pioneers and their act of working the land. In its first part, the poem depicts the landscape of Jezreel Valley as a huge breast of God, pouring milk and water from which the fields are able to drink and grow. Then, the pioneer himself becomes a nursing breast, full of milk:

Water! Water! Oh, milk the holiness from your breast, God! But here also my udders fill with milk–The human udders! And my flesh–overflowing breast–protrudes high from the earth. Oh, closed fields of Jezreel! Nurse! Suckle! Come now, she camels! Horses! Man! God! And I will suckle you-Because yours are the nipples of my breasts.

Like Jesus, the pioneer offers his flesh as bread, but not to his God or his followers—rather, he gives it to the land. In a symbolic twist of roles, man offers himself as bread to the land that produces bread for his sake. Shlonsky depicts the toil of the pioneers as worship of the land of God, and alludes to the familiar Zionist metaphor of redeeming the land by referring to the body of the pioneer as a human sacrifice. The pioneer becomes part of this nursing land, and at the same time he is the object of the nursing itself:

Like hunchbacked old women here the tents hang out their tongues, for heavy on the shoulder is the burden’s girth. Man is flesh, and he labors here in holiness, and bread comes from the earth. Like a limping lamb here the world is carried under the armpit. Here God’s curls descend in the air upon every human cheek, caressing it. Who is great here, who is small in the kingdom of work and flesh? The earth is unrolled here, the scroll of a new testament, and we arethe twelve!

The presence of God and the allusion to Jesus’s preaching love and peace (turning the other cheek) give the act of toiling the land a sense of sanctity. There is a new covenant now between man and God which, unlike the old one, is based on the worship of the holy land (instead of God). The allusion to the New Testament and the proclamation at the end of the poem, “And we–we are the twelve!” presents pioneering as an act with the nature of a holy mission of both toiling the land and spreading the new message of Zionism. Later in the poem, Shlonsky uses Christian symbolism to characterize the pioneer as a godlike man:

And then god will descend like a young lamb To graze your flesh that has grassed in its spring.
I will carry my body with my hands
And under the mane of a thick tree
On a chair of green grass I will sit him.
A man–Jehovah!
Here the sky crowns a big sun around his forehead
Like head phylacteries
And pours a prayer into my lap.

This Christian symbolism solidifies the symbols connected with the figure of Jesus and allows for their inclusion in the historical reality of pioneering. The pioneer is depicted here as a man-god, and both the land and the sky mark Jesus’s sanctity while the sun is depicted as his aura. The land replaces traditional Jewish objects of worship, and the sky articulates the prayer itself. God appoints the pioneer as a divine man. The lamb, the Christian symbol of Jesus, is now the pioneer himself, who both works the land and eats its fruit.

In order to create tension between the secular act of working the land and the utopian dimension of this very act, Shlonsky uses Christian symbolism while painting a concrete and typical picture of the Palestinian landscape. The lamb, the grass, the sun, and the new field are all associated very specifically with the Jezreel valley. At the same time, the allusions to the New Testament and Christian symbolism give this concrete scene a sense of sanctity, elevating a mundane act to a religious sphere. Moreover, the poem places the work of the pioneers at the centre of the act of creation, and depicts this work as divine emanation. Shlonsky needs the figure of Jesus because it provides a combination of both man and god. In order to depict the act of pioneering as a secular act of worship, he needs a figure that combines the two elements, the sacred and the worldly, at the same time.

Jesus offered this kind of combination not only to Shlonsky and Greenberg, but also to many other Hebrew poets fascinated by pioneering, viewing it as a great moment in the history of the Jewish people. It is no wonder that, as Hanan Hever mentions, some of the most cited lines in those years were the following from Ezra Zusman’s poem “Tveria bageshem” [Tiberias in the Rain, 1928]:

A young man came to see me toward me he came, sailed high and holy with shining face and garment. […] The space opened its gates as I was about to sail with the rain on my lips, and to the rain–a taste of redemption.

The allusion to Jesus celebrates the act of working in the field and tilling the new land’s soil as a moment of epiphany, presented as a messianic moment that is part of men’s own deeds. Jesus provides the perfect illustration of this oxymoron–secular redemption–allowing these writers to present the act of pioneering as human and godly at the same time. Moreover, this seemingly contradictory combination of sacred and mundane can also be understood in the larger context of the creation of modern Hebrew literature and its attempts to reconcile tradition and modernity. In this respect, the allusion to Jesus is part of a greater tendency to break from traditional Judaism while, nevertheless, presenting Jewish national life as Jewish. The figure of Jesus served as a religious symbol removed from its original religious context and presented as part of the secular national narrative of Zionism. In many of his poems from this period (most famously in “Amal” (Toil, 1927)), Shlonsky uses metaphorical language associated with traditional Judaism to describe the act of pioneering. This combination colours the secular actions of pioneers with a sacred dimension, presenting the actions as part of a utopian moment. At the same time, it presents the utopian moment as part of secular reality. Jesus himself may then be perceived, in light of this analogy with the pioneer, in a more secular light than his representations in the Christian scriptures might allow.


The attempt to present Jesus as part of the national project of Zionism functions in different, and sometimes opposite, ways. This choice may be understood as a rebellious, almost heretical act against traditional Judaism. Zionism was eager to distinguish itself from the world of traditional Judaism by embracing its ultimate Other. In this sense, the reclamation of Jesus by Zionist writers can be understood as an attempt to mark the boundaries of the new Jewish self vis-à-vis traditional Judaism. But Jesus’s Otherness functioned as more than that, as I have tried to show in this article, it provided a kind of mirror that reflected to Zionist writers their own communal identities. In order to find themselves in this mirror, they had to distinguish between the Jesus of Christianity and the historical, “authentic” Jewish Jesus. As I have shown above, Klausner provided, at least for some of these writers, what they considered an historical justification for this distinction. His book inspired their imaginations by connecting the landscape of the Land of Israel and the nationalist Jewish Jesus.

In many of the works of the1920s and 1930s, Jesus functioned as a symbol of the renewal of Jewish national life in the Land of Israel and assumed a central place in Zionist narratives during the first half of the twentieth century, mirroring the desired selves of the writers, who each saw something slightly different in this mirror.