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Matthew Hoffman
From Rebel to Rabbi
Reclaiming Jesus and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture
Stanford UP, 2007
Studies in Jewish History and Culture

"From Rebel to Rabbi establishes how the changes that occurred in Jewish culture during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries stimulated a widespread fascination with the figure of Jesus and with Christian motifs among numerous Jewish theologians, historians, intellectuals, writers, and artists. It illustrates how and why the process of modernization for these Jews involved a radical reevaluation of Jesus of Nazareth. This book analyzes works of Jewish history, theology, Yiddish literature, Jewish visual art, and intellectual debates, in an attempt to situate this phenomenon within the broader context of a cultural history of how Jews have related to and depicted the figure of Jesus in the modern period. It suggests that for writers and artists, such as Sholem Asch and Marc Chagall, refiguring Jesus as intrinsically Jewish and using Christian themes to express aspects of the modern Jewish experience were an integral part of creating a new and distinctive modern Jewish culture" (Inside flap).

Chagall: The Yellow Crucifixion, 1942-43
"From the end of the eighteenth century, Jewish proponents of modernization, enlightenment (Haskalah), and reform began to reject the traditionally negative Jewish views of Jesus in favor of increasingly sympathetic appraisals of him. This complex and intriguin trend has come to be known by scholars as the Jewish reclamation of Jesus. Typically, definitions of this reclamation are limited to Jewish scholarship on Jesus and Christian origins, ignoring the ubiquity of this trend within modern Jewish culture as a whole. However, since its origins in the Berlin Haskalah circle of Moses Mendelssohn in the 1780s, countless rabbis and theologians, philosophers and historians, intellectuals and activists, poets and artists, have attempted to reclaim Jesus as a Jew in a profusion of different ways. Throughout the modern era Jews have appropriated Jesus as a malleable cultural symbol—a figure who can serve as the paradigm for a variety of religious, political, and cultural ideologies and positions. In fact, Jesus became a central symbol in virtually all forms Jews created in striving for a modern Jewish culture.
[...] Jesus became a mirror through which Jewish thinkers could reflect their own particular ideological or spiritual vision; they could relate to Jesus on some level as a kindred spirit, proud or persecuted, nationalist or universalist, reformer or redeemer. As Jewish notions of self-understanding and self-definition changed and evolved, so too did Jewish perceptions of Jesus evolved to correspond to these new identities. In its essence, Jewish writing on Jesus tells us more about Jews than about Jesus. Thus, closing scrutinizing these multiple Jewish reclamations provides us with a window onto how Jews have represented themselves in the modern world. [...].
Reclaiming the figure of Jesus functioned as an important part of modern Jews' attempts to secure a prominent place in Western civilization, to gain normalcy and even centrality in that civilization. Representing Jesus in a positive light served as a bridge between things Jewish and things Christian-Western and as a means of breaking down boundaries between the two. Embracing Jesus as a legitimate subject of Jewish discourse and cultural expression was a way of embracing the culture and civilization that had worshiped him as their Lord and Savior and at the same time persecuted Jews in his name. In this sense, Jewish intellectuals who were forging a new Jewish culture used the image of Jesus to simultaneously claim Western culture as their own and to show that Jesus was "just like they were." Differing images of Jesus often clashed with one another as these intellectuals seemed to be doing contradictory things—asserting their Jewishness while bringing themselves into Western culture. From the outset this process was beset with seemingly conflicting motives as the reclamation of Jesus has always involved Jews asserting his Jewishness thus implicitly rejecting the Christian Jesus of Western culture. The Jesus that these Jews wrote about and portrayed was not the Cristian Lord and Savior, but their ancient Jewish brother. Jewish writers have always disassociated the Jewish man, Jesus, from the Christian god, Christ, as they consistently tried to demonstrate the Jewish qualities of his life and teachings. [...] Furthermore, this re-Judaization of Jesus also equipped these modern Jews with a potent weapon for critiquing a still predominantly intolerant Christian world [...].
Thus, traditionalist Jews who rejected the changes wrought by modernity and chose to remain apart from non-Jewish culture typically maintained deeply entrenched negative views of Jesus and all symbols of Christian culture. [But] those Jews who accepted the basic premise of participating in non-Jewish society and culture while forging new forms of Judaism and Jewishness often reenvisioned Jesus in more sympathetic terms [...].
[While considering the Jewish cultural renaissance, the author suggests that rather than using the term assimilation, one should better describe this complex model of integration into non-Jewish culture as transformative integration. For, significantly,] modern Jews also revamped premodern Jewish perceptions of Jesus [...]. Traditionally Jews had depicted Jesus in disparaging and unfavorable terms. From the early years of Christianity, when the religio-cultural conflict between Jews and Christians commenced and quickly expanded, Jews saw Jesus as a Jewish heretic and rebel who had incited the antagonism that now raged between the two communities. [...].
In the Middle Ages, as relations between Jews worsened, and Jews increasingly became victims of anti-Jewish discrimination and persecution at the hands of Christians, the figure of Jesus became etched in the Jewish collective consciousness as the primary emblem of Christian antipathy. [...].
As polemics and disputations between Christians and Jews continued to escalate throughout the Middle Ages, derisive images of Jesus proliferated in Jewish cultural discorse, by far outnumbering the few relatively tolerant portrayals that existed. [...]. By the close of the Middle Ages, Jesus and the religious symbols assiciated with him—the cross, the crucifixion, the Madonna, etc.—had become emblems of fear and repulsion in the minds and hearts of most traditional Jews; he represented all that was other, alien, and dangerous.
In light of this premodern tradition, we can see that with the onset of modernity in the Jewish world, such tremendous changes took place in Jewish cultural discourse that, by the end of the nineteenth century, numerous Jews view Jesus proudly as a devout rabbi and paragon of moral piety. There developed a widespread fascination with the figure of Jesus among European Jewish intellectuals, as the Jewish process of modernization involved a revaluation—indeed a reclamation—of Jesus of Nazareth. In an ironic sense, this sort of possitive appropriation of Jesus was more challenging to Christians' cultural claims on him than all of the premodern Jewish polemics disparaging Jesus. Thus, the Jewish reclamation of Jesus reflects a more aggressive approach by Jews to participating in Western thought and culture than is generally acknowledged, and a far more complex engagement with non-Jewish cultural forms. [...].
Throughout this book, I present examples of Jewish thinkers, historians, writers, and artists who share in the civilization of the West, not by mocking or mimicking it, but by appropriating, and thereby transforming, some of its key intellectual motifs and cultural forms. What this amounted to was, on the one hand, an attempt to insert Jews into the heart of modern Western civilization by claiming the West as Jewish, rather than merely assimilating into the West by erasing all signs of Jewishness. On the other hand, this process also played a central role in the creation of a uniquely modern and predominantly secular Jewish culture by generating revised images of Jesus that came to symbolize contemporary movements and ideologies. It is a subtle distinction between "insertion" and assimilation, and the line between the two is often blurred beyond recognition. However, I believe it is crucial for a richer and more nuanced understanding of Jewish cultural history in the modern period that we attempt to uncover the tension between these two paths toward modernization.
Some of Homi [K.] Bhabha's ideas about minority cultural construction can be helpful in theorizing about the role of the Jewish reclamation of Jesus as part of the Jewish process of modernization and integration withing (secularized) Christian culture in Europe and America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His notions of cultural hybridity and the importance of the "in-between spaces" in carrying the burden of the "meaning of culture" are relevant and applicable to this trend [i.e., the Jewish cultural renaissance]. For Bhabha "in-between spaces" refer to a sort of no-man's-land of cultural space, which cannot be exclusively claimed by either the majority or the minority culture. He argues that "these in-between spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood—singular or communal—that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself".*
[...] Crossing borders and breaking down boundaries was an integral part of the Jewish intellectual's quest for a modern Jewish identity and culture, especially in literature and the arts, and embracing the figure of Jesus was part of this radical transformation of Jewish culture" (Introduction, pp. 2-6, 10-11).

"Before the Holocaust, most Jewish writers and artists had wielded the Jewish Jesus as their ultimate weapon against Christian anti-Semitism. However with the war and the genocide of European Jews, Jesus again became associated [...] with the persecutors [...].
To be sure, as Ziva Amishai-Maisels has shown,** the crucifixion and other Christian motifs still appealed to many Jewish visual artists, who attempted to confront the horrors of the Holocaust in their work, yet except from Chagall, none boldly depicted Jesus as a thoroughly Jewish figure. The crucifixion might have been an appropriate visual symbol of Jewish suffering, but for many Jews—artists and audience alike—Jesus was now beyond the pale; his old status as emblem of Christian anti-Semitism had resurfaced, and he was once again seen as treyf [Yiddish for non-kosher, impure, forbidden]" (Epilogue, p. 255).

* Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London, 1994, 1-2.
** Amishai-Maisels, "The Jewish Jesus," Jewish Art 9 (1982); Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts, Oxford, 1993.


Hoffman's research ranges over Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian literature, as well as modern painting. He uses the insights of contemporary critical theory as he develops his analysis. The history of the relationship between modern Judaism and the figure of Jesus—especially the Passion and the Crucifixion—is long and complex. Hoffman provides a detailed examination of the topic and its development in early 20th-century Russian literature and art.

To hold that the so-called Jewish Jesus motif was a means for Jews to insert themselves at the very centre of Western civilization is to go too far. Chagall painted Jesus as a universal symbol, that's all. A Jew including the image of Jesus in his paintings was not just an avant-garde artist, but an open-minded person.

The notion that Jewish art including Jesus is some sort of convenient shortcut to full integration is simply a mirage. History shows precisely the opposite. One only has to consider what happened to the European Jewry since the late nineteenth century onwards. In addition, Chagall painted not only Jesus, he also represented the rabbis, the shabbat, and other Jewish traditions. Integration: in 1937, one of Chagall's well-known rabbis was shown in Europe as a masterpiece of "degenerate art" (Entartete Kunst). The painter had to leave the Old Continent to save his life and artwork.

One supposes that Judaism was not so alien in Europe as some writers argue today. On the other hand, the Jews were certainly not the only historical victims in Europe. Yet, their condition was always different from that of any other European minority. Significantly, the "Old Testament" has always been of crucial importance concerning the Gospel; Christianity understands the "New Testament" as the fulfillment of the Hebrew prophecies.

Why some of the Jews, say, the Essens of Qumran (who called themselves "Sons of the Light") kept being Jewish even after Jesus's death remains always a mystery. Anyhow, the point is that avant-garde Jewish artists were creating a link to strenghten their ties with modern European culture. In this sense, appropriate is Hoffman's use of the expression transformative integration (rather than assimilation). Nevertheless, European Jews weren't conveniently "reclaiming" Jesus. They were just trying to find a common ground between Judaism and Christianity. And they did so through the figure of Jesus, who not accidentally had something to do with both. In their work they indeed acknowledged Jesus as an exemplar rabbi, teacher and model.

Hoffman writes of a "weapon," but the truth is that avant-garde Jews simply identified their condition with that of Jesus, who they indeed saw as an archetypal figure of suffering and victim of injustice, precisely as they were.

The re-emergence of a potent weapon?

A not-at-all modern yet very 21st-century Jewish Jesus: More kosher than ever?
Ask the Rabbi.

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