The Homecoming of the Other: Representations of Jesus in Twentieth Century Hebrew Literature

Hebrew writers had different motivations for bringing this “lost brother” back home. Many of the older generation of writers located Jesus in the Land of Israel and viewed him as the embodiment of the ideal of the Jewish pioneer. The same Jesus, who according to the New Testament walked the paths of the Galilee, fit with the way they wished to view themselves, or perhaps more accurately, with the way they wished to create themselves. In this respect, the European Jesus remained "Jesus Christ" while the "historical" New Testament Jesus once again became "Jesus of Nazareth."

See Also: Other and Brother: Jesus in the 20th-Century Jewish Literary Landscape

By Neta Stahl
Assistant Professor
Humanities Center and Jewish Studies
The Johns Hopkins University
October 2012

Pre-modern Hebrew discloses a significant awareness of the role of the Other in constructing and marking the boundaries of the Self. The very Hebrew word for Other – Aher – is the standard Talmudic name for Elisha ben-Abuyah, the eminent Talmudic sage who became a heretic.1 Thus, one finds Talmudic passages that begin with the words: “Aher omer,” literally meaning, ’The Other says…”. But the Hebrew Other need not be human, - for Hebrew also denotes a very particular entity by the term “Davar Aher,” (the Other Thing), the traditional Hebrew euphemism for a pig. Even the Hebrew term for idolatry involves the Other: “Avoda Zara,” (literally foreign worship) denotes a foreign cult, or the Cult of the Other.

But even within this shady community of traditional Hebrew Others, the figure of Jesus stands out as what Derrida terms “the irrepresentable and unnamable, the absolute other of the system.”2 According to Derrida, the economy of such an absolute other dictates the obliteration of its name, and the complete avoidance of its presence. Indeed, in traditional Hebrew, Jesus is commonly referenced either by the deliberately anonymous expression “Oto ha-Ish,” (That Man), or by the name “Yeshu” written as the acronym Yud-Shin-Vav, which stands for “Yimah Shemo ve-zihro” (May his Name and Memory be obliterated).

Given this traditional highly antagonistic perception, the transfiguration of the image of Jesus in modern Judaism is quite astonishing. In the course of the last two centuries, “That Man” whose name and memory had been traditionally banished, turned into a brother for numerous modern Hebrew writers.3 The embrace of Jesus by modern Hebrew writers should clearly interest those who would consider this process the completion of a full circle in which Jesus is returned to his native culture, in which his cry on the cross – “Eli, Eli, lamah Shevaktani” – requires no translation. But this journey also provides a unique angle from which to examine the deep changes and tensions that underlie the formation of the modern Jewish Self.

During the second half of the eighteenth century, Jesus Christ was presented by Moses Mendelssohn (founder of the Haskala, or “Jewish Enlightenment” movement) and other Jewish writers as a kinsman of the Jews and Judaism in terms of both his religious and national roots as well as his teachings. Modern Jewish thinkers have offered various estimates of Jesus’ contribution to the Judaism of his time, but they generally agree that it was not Jesus but his followers, particularly Paul, who split from Judaism and founded Christianity. This perspective permitted Jewish historiography to formulate a clear distinction between the “authentic” historical Jesus and the Jesus presented by institutional Christianity. In 1922, this distinction received a sharper articulation in Joseph Klausner’s Jesus from Nazareth, the first historical account of Jesus’ life to be written in modern Hebrew and published in Palestine. This work is perhaps more significant for the great influence it exerted on modern Hebrew literature than for the accuracy of its historical research. Klausner’s representation of Jesus as a Jewish prophet and rebel who sought to bring about political and national redemption proved a powerful stimulus for Hebrew writers in the first half of the twentieth century.4

This contraposition of the historical Jewish Jesus against the Jesus of the Christian Church dominates the work of Uri Zvi Greenberg (1896-1981), one of the most important and controversial writers of Yiddish and Hebrew modernism. In Greenberg’s work, Klausner’s basic distinction between the Hebrew and Christian Jesus evolves into a much more complex and rich motif, containing a number of further sub-distinctions. Jesus’ spiritual and psychological journey rendered him a kind of kindred spirit for Greenberg and his literary circle, and corresponded to the modernist and expressionist tendency that they sought to convey in their poetry.

In Greenberg’s poetry, Jesus is a victim, a status he shares with his fellow Hebrews, but is also the god of the Jews’ Christian persecutors. Greenberg’s Jesus is simultaneously a brother to the Jews and the Christian god-idol of the "others". He portrays Jesus’ otherness as deriving primarily from his appropriation by the Christian Church and the Church’s subsequent exploitation of his suffering as a pretext for persecuting the Jews. Jesus’ suffering is depicted in Greenberg’s poetry as a symbol of the Jewish nation’s suffering, and Jesus himself is represented as someone who was unwillingly turned into the idol of Christianity.

The tension between these human and divine figurations takes an intriguing turn when Greenberg attempts to conscript Jesus into the alliance between messianism and Zionism. Here, Greenberg exploits both Jesus’ human and transcendental attributes. On the one hand, the speaker/poet seeks a corporeal Messiah, yet on the other, it is precisely Jesus’ supernatural qualities that allow him to be represented as a genuine Messiah. This is perhaps the reason why the salient symbols in these poems are “flesh and blood,” which are simultaneously signifiers of Jesus’ human and supernatural traits.

The opposition between these two conflicting perceptions of Jesus – as the human Hebrew brother and the inanimate Christian idol, receives sharp expression in Greenberg’s poetry collection Streets of the River (Rehovot ha-Nahar, 1951). In this collection, written as a response to the Holocaust, the two manifestations of Jesus acquire separate names and personalities: the Christian Yezus and the Hebrew Yeshu.

We find a very similar ambivalence toward the figure of Jesus in the works of Greenberg’s contemporaries. The figure of Jesus appears, albeit in a less central role, in the works of writers like Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Avraham Shlonsky, Natan Bisritski, Aharon Avraham Kabak, Hayyim Hazaz, Zalman Shneior and Avigdor ha-Meiri. These authors wrote during the first half of the twentieth-century, when the figure of Jesus offered a broad range of symbols that could effectively support contemporary nationalist and Messianic positions. At the same time, Jesus was still perceived as the old Other, the still-menacing god of the Christians. This ambivalent approach gave rise to a mode of representation characterized by variety of literary devices, including multiple perspectives and Bakhtinian polyphonies. These early twentieth-century writers limit themselves to presenting various voices that recount aspects of the Jesus-myth, while the authors themselves avoid taking a stand in the debate over the veracity of these stories and Jesus’ real metaphysical nature. This polyphony of sometimes 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.

The poetry of Avot Yeshurun (born Yehiel Perlmutter, 1904-1992) stands out for its singularity among his contemporaries. Yeshurun’s first Hebrew-language poem, written in 1937, took Jesus as its subject, as did his last cycle of poems, composed a day before his death. The Polish-born Yeshurun immigrated to Palestine at the age of seventeen, leaving behind his family, almost all of whom were later killed in the Holocaust. Although Avot Yeshurun directly experienced the Christian world of Europe prior to World War II, he portrays Jesus neither as a threatening other nor as a brother. The proximity of Yeshurun’s family's home to the local church produces a feeling of intimacy. As with many other objects from his past, the Catholic Church of Krasnistaw – especially the icon of Jesus on its wall – becomes a symbol of the Jewish world that Yeshurun left behind and later lost in the Holocaust. Yeshurun’s poetry is one of recollection; objects in the present serve as metonyms for his childhood. The Jesus of Yeshurun's poetry belongs to Europe and the past, but Yeshurun's memories - unlike those of his contemporaries - are pleasant ones that he struggles to recover and preserve. In this regard, Yeshurun’s mode of representing Jesus is unique in the field of modern Hebrew Literature.

Surprisingly, the Jewish fascination with the figure of Jesus did not fade after the Holocaust. In fact, post-Holocaust Hebrew literature adopted the figure of Jesus and did so in a manner that allowed for complete identification with him. In works by Pinhas Sadeh, Nathan Zach, Amos Keynan, Dalia Rabikowitz, Hanoch Levine, Yona Wollach and Meir Wieseltier, Jesus is "the other", insofar as he is different and rejected, but it is exactly this otherness which makes him human and a "brother" to the authors. These writers no longer associate the figure of Jesus with the threat of Christian persecution. Instead, they sympathize with Jesus’ otherness by depicting his social alienation. Jesus’ torment in the position of the “other” provides a model for the suffering artist who struggles to communicate with his audience. Another aspect of this later corpus is even more crucial to our discussion. In a shift typical of contemporary Israeli discourse on Jesus, and which reflects broader cultural tendencies in contemporary Israel, the figure of Jesus as Other is dislocated, or, perhaps, repatriated, to Europe. The very same Europe that Greenberg called “In The Kingdom of the Cross” (“In malkhus fun tselem”) entices this young generation of Israeli writers, who see in Jesus a representative of an attractive and remote culture. In contemporary Israeli poetry, Jesus is conceived neither in the historical context of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity nor in his religious role, but as a representative of an aesthetic world which gains its attractiveness from the fact that it is different and distant from anything associated with the old Jewish Self. Europe, now symbolically empty of Jews, is an attractive place for young Israeli writers who seek to become part of this foreign culture in which Jesus plays a central role.

A unique mode of representation of the figure of Jesus in contemporary Israeli literature is introduced to us by the avant-garde writer, Yoel Hoffmann (1937 - ). Hoffmann is a scholar of Zen Buddhism and Japanese philosophy, and one of the most innovative writers in contemporary Israeli literature. Jesus is a main theme in most of his prose-poetry work. Jesus appears in this work not as a protagonist but rather as a metaphor, symbolizing the sanctity of the mundane. Hoffmann colors the triviality of the mundane with the presence of Jesus in order to confer an aura of sanctity onto the lives of his characters. In his 1991 novel Christ of Fish for example, we find a Jesus who rescues the "others" from their "otherness". In the daily lives of the novel’s characters, the metaphorical presence of Jesus endows simple moments with a sense of divinity. This mode of representation illuminates the underrepresented stories of European immigrants to Israel, whose adjustment to their new lives was often difficult. These "others" of Israeli society, who inhabit a subculture of coffeehouses and Apfelstrudel, are recovered from oblivion by being recast as characters in a divine adventure.

The trajectory I have charted here, from Jesus’ representation as the god-idol of European churches who is closely associated with anti-Semitism, to a savior of the mundane in a coffeehouse in Tel Aviv, traces how the Jewish perception of Jesus has changed over the course of the twentieth century. Jesus ends up becoming a real brother to Hebrew writers, and perhaps even more than that. This is a complicated and nuanced story, replete with tensions and contradictions, a story that does not easily submit to the wide brush of simple dialectic.

Hebrew writers had different motivations for bringing this “lost brother” back home. Many of the older generation of writers located Jesus in the Land of Israel and viewed him as the embodiment of the ideal of the Jewish pioneer. The same Jesus, who according to the New Testament walked the paths of the Galilee, fit with the way they wished to view themselves, or perhaps more accurately, with the way they wished to create themselves. In this respect, the European Jesus remained "Jesus Christ" while the "historical" New Testament Jesus once again became "Jesus of Nazareth."

In many of the later works Jesus’ otherness is rooted in his human weaknesses rather than his divine or messianic nature. The element of suffering and anguish that is associated with Jesus is removed from its religious Christian context to become a dominant symbolic element in Israeli literature, emblematic of the suffering of modern humanity forced to live in an alienated society devoid of divine grace. The young Israeli writers offer readers a Jesus detached from any national or religious connection, underscoring instead the existential elements in his image.

It might be argued that the image of Jesus as it emerges in Israeli literature is not exclusive to Hebrew writers. However, the choice of Jesus as an intertext symbolizing suffering and torment -- in other words, an embodiment of the quintessential victim -- appears to contain an element of deliberate defiance towards the Jewish past, and in this sense is unique to Hebrew-Israeli literature. Presenting Jesus as the symbol of the suffering victim challenges the traditional perspective on Jesus in the Jewish frame of reference, and may be viewed as part of a broader process that occurred in the Israeli literature of the 1950s and 1960s, one that involved the consolidation of a new literary tradition. In the context of the relation to Jesus, this is a tradition that is completely divorced from the Judaism of the “Diaspora,” which perceived Jesus and Christianity as threatening.

The figure of Jesus in Modern Hebrew Literature has come a long way. I have here attempted to trace the footsteps of its journey—from Beit-Lehem Yehuda to the monasteries and churches of Europe, back to Eretz Israel, where Jesus is transformed into a Jewish pioneer, only to be placed back in Europe again by young Israeli writers, and then to re-appear in Tel Aviv. An eternally wandering Jew? Perhaps, or maybe this ultimate Other has finally been brought back home.


1 For the story of Elisha Ben-Avoya, see Alon Goshen-Gottstein, The Sinner and the Amnesiac The Rabbinic Invention of Elisha ben Abuya and Eleazar ben Arach (Stanford: Stanford University Press,2000) and Liebes, Elisha’s Sin: The Four Who Entered into the Pardes and the character of Talmudic Mysticism (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Academon, 1990).

2 “Economimesis,” Diacritics, 11/2, Summer 1981, 22

3 For a full and detailed discussion of the figure of Jesus in modern Jewish literature, see: Neta Stahl, Other and Brother: The Figure of Jesus in the 20th Century Jewish Literary Landscape (New York: Oxford University Press, November 2012).

4 For further discussion see: Neta Stahl, “Jesus as the New Jew: Zionism and the Literary Representation of Jesus,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, March 2012, 1-22, and Tsvi Sadan, Of Our Very Own Flesh: Jesus of Nazareth in Zionist Thought, (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Karmel, 2008), 217-90.

Comments (1)

Informative and educational. Interesting to note that Klausner and Greenberg represented the major ideologue and poet of Revisionist Zionism in their day. Suggesting an unapologetic religio-nationalist identity of Jesus with right-wing nationalism.

#1 - Zev Garber - 11/05/2012 - 16:48

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