Sholem Asch, One Destiny: an Epistle to the Christians PDF Print E-mail

(trans. by Milton Hindus; New York: G.P.  Putnam's Sons, 1945,  88 pp.)

Sholem Asch was among the most beloved writers in Yiddish literature for the thirty or more years leading up to the Second World War. Encouraged by the great Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz and vigorously promoted by Abraham Cahan in the Forverts, Asch gained a wide and loyal readership based upon his early, loving depictions of Jewish life in the shtetl in works such as The Town and Wealthy Reb Shlome and his later historical novels that include Kiddush Ha-Shem, Three Cities and Salvation. The publication of his life of Yeshua entitled The Nazarene in 1939 proved to be a turning point in his reputation among his Yiddish readers. Although this work garnered accolades in the English speaking world from such respectable sources as the New York Times Book Review and the Saturday Review of Literature, it had a far more mixed reception among Jewish critics.[1]

While some in the Yiddish press such as Chaim Zhitlovsky and Abraham Regelson lauded Asch, others criticized The Nazarene as an inappropriate foray into Christian subject matter or simply bad art.[2] Abraham Cahan, his former champion, panned the book in print and advised Asch to "Write literature."[3] In addition to the poor reviews, Asch also became the object of a personal vendetta by Cahan, who refused to publish his work and urged other publishers to blacklist Asch.[4]

In the decades leading up to the Second World War, a number of Jewish writers and artists had already enlisted the figure of Yeshua in their various works and it is evident that Asch was by no means breaking new ground. Various explanations have been offered as to why The Nazarene caused Asch's standing in the Yiddish literary world to plummet so dramatically. The most popular explanations include the poor timing of the novel's publication, coming as it did on the eve of World War Two and the Holocaust, the implacable enmity of Abraham Cahan, Asch's public statements after the novel's appearance, and his own temperamental personality. 

Although excoriated by his former supporters, Asch found an eager audience in the non-Jewish world. The Nazarene, which was followed by The Apostle (1943) and Mary (1949), gained Asch a wide, international readership. As a historical novelist, his ability to stress the Jewish context of the New Testament put him in a class of his own long before interest in the Jewish roots of Christian faith became anywhere near as perceptible as it is today.

Asch's own non-fictional works, such as What I Believe and One Destiny: an Epistle to the Christians, show that he seemed genuinely to have cherished Judaism and his Jewish heritage, while at the same time seeking a way to incorporate Christians into the fulfilled promises he envisioned in his messianic view of history. While he never produced a "Holocaust novel," One Destiny is an eloquent expression of Jewish sensibility that was published at the close of the war, and which serves both as an indictment of Europe's sordid record of anti-Semitism and a plea for a new era of reconciliation between Christians and Jews.

In order to understand Asch's view of the relationship between Jews and Christians fleshed out in One Destiny, it is important to examine Asch's understanding of faith itself. One of the purposes of Asch's positive emphasis on the common ground occupied by Christians and Jews is to imply that their hostile relations, generated mainly from the Christian side, were not a part of the original messianic movement that included both Jews and non-Jews. Rather, these hostile relations are an unhealthy condition that arose as this movement developed into the foreboding institution we call "The Church."

Asch's desire in One Destiny was to direct the gaze of Jews and Christians alike away from institutional rigidity and troublesome theological disagreements to what he considered to be the common well from which each religion draws its life. He wanted to challenge his readers to turn from the dividing influence of "religion" to the uniting force of "faith." These are two vastly different ideas in Asch's thought. He writes, "Religion is not yet faith. Religion is an act of subordination, a contract between . . . master and slave . . . Feeling and inner belonging have no part in this . . . Faith, on the other hand is an inner belonging, immediate contact with God."[5]

While he concedes that religion makes abstract faith concrete, it is evident that he considers it a lower rung on the ladder of humanity's aspiration. Writing on the relationship between Jews and Christians, Asch exhorts adherents of both religions, "Let their inspiration be rather faith itself than theologic form, and a God-fearing forthrightness which cannot be intimidated by the shallow zeal of the self-opinionated."[6]

Therefore, faith sets aside what are to him less important religious differences. What is more significant is the one destiny shared by the righteous who are united in a God who can be apprehended only through authentic faith. Thus, "faith" is portrayed as a superior, uniting force, while "religion" is, in Asch's thinking, "divisive, tyrannical and exclusive, and therefore prone to inspire prejudice and sectarian hostility."[7]

The heart of the message of One Destiny is that Jews and Christians stand together as a united front against the forces of evil, forces that are most fully expressed as those that operate under the banner of anti-Semitism. He writes, "Anti-Semitism is not a movement. It is a disease. He who is infected by it is unable to have an orientation, a judgment or an opinion. He . . . is ruled by his disease, the name of which is anti-Semitic insanity."[8]

Anti-Semitism has profound spiritual ramifications in Asch's thinking. It goes beyond religious and ethnic hatred. It strikes at the heart of the bond between the true Jew and the true Christian, a bond that Asch sees as an essential component of his own messianic eschatology. As he writes in One Destiny,

The preservation of Israel and the Nazarene are one phenomenon . . . The two are one. And not withstanding the heritage of blood and fire which passionate enmity has brought between them, they are two parts of a single whole, two poles of the world which are always drawn to each other, and no deliverance, no peace, and no salvation can come until the two halves are joined together and become one part of God.[9]

Moreover, the Christians' belief in Yeshua has given them, Asch asserts, an equal partnership in what he repeatedly refers to as "the Jewish-Christian idea." Anti-Semitism, by contrast, is nothing less than the litmus test that separates the true Christian from the false. Again, in One Destiny, he emphatically declares, "But the Anti-Christ, wherever he has planted this seed of hate, has destroyed the work of Jesus, upset his garden for a time, poisoned the deeds of honest Christianity for many generations, and undermined the work of God."[10]

{josquote}"I have shown how deeply rooted Christianity is in Jewish history and the Jewish religion. And my intention has been to demonstrate the interdependence of the two faiths." This statement, I believe, is a succinct summary of the major problem in Asch's ideology. {/josquote}

Asch quite openly asserts what he characterizes as an interdependence between Judaism and Christianity in his own public statements, such as those he made in the Christian Herald, where he said, "I have shown how deeply rooted Christianity is in Jewish history and the Jewish religion. And my intention has been to demonstrate the interdependence of the two faiths."[11] This statement, I believe, is a succinct summary of the major problem in Asch's ideology.  For it is one thing to say that Christianity depends on the Jewish history out of which it emerged. But to speak of "interdependence" is another matter - especially for the Jewish member of Asch's equation. It cannot be assumed. In what sense, then, is Judaism dependent upon Christianity? If Christianity is essential to Judaism, it could be for no other reason than because the Christian claim that Yeshua is the Messiah is essential to the Jew. What other basis for interdependence could there be? Asch is unwilling to say, and without this assertion, the model of interdependence is a sham.

This brings us to matter of Asch's own views of Yeshua expressed in One Destiny. Part of the difficulty in unpacking them is that Asch had the gift of the writer's imagination that enabled him to enter wholly into the viewpoint of the character he was portraying at the moment. In The Nazarene, his messianists are wholehearted believers in Yeshua - so much so that some of his critics assumed that those views were Asch's own. If they were, however, they are not necessarily the views found in One Destiny - at least not in the plain sense of New Testament proclamation.

Although he often expresses himself ambiguously, one thing that clearly emerges is that the issue of whether Yeshua is the awaited Messiah of the Jewish people is not the central point in Asch's perception of the one destiny shared by Jews and Christians. He writes,

Many of us who, for one reason or another, are unable to believe in or whose religious nature cannot conceive of - the physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth on the third day after his crucifixion, as the Christian faith teaches, must nevertheless admit, unless the outrages of the church have struck them blind, that in a moral and spiritual sense the Nazarene rises from the dead every day, every hour, and every minute in the hearts of millions of his believers.[12] 

In other words, for "many of us" the resurrection is not the main thing - the main thing is the result of that faith in the hearts of its adherents. He goes on to say,

I see in Christianity an entirely justified share of faith in the God of Israel - through the Messianic idea - equal to my own Christian faith. The preservation of Israel and the preservation of the Nazarene are one phenomenon. They depend on each other . . . The two are one. And notwithstanding the heritage of blood and fire which passionate enmity has brought between them, they are two parts of a single whole, two poles of the world which are always drawn to each other, and no deliverance, no peace, and no salvation can come until the two halves are joined together and become one part of God.[13]

Therefore, it is the Messianic idea that binds Jew and Christian together - and not any heretofore historic, concrete, incarnate expression of that idea. The gentile's belief in Jesus as Messiah grafts him into Jewish expectation, while at the same time leaving the Jew free to be noncommittal as far as messianic faith in Yeshua is concerned. One gets the idea that Asch would not mind if Yeshua turned out to be the Messiah, and I have a sense that he might not even object to some of his fellow Jews adopting that position, but it is by no means compulsory.

Asch builds an eloquent and compelling case that Christianity depends a great deal upon its Jewish foundations. He is certainly not breaking any new theological ground here, even for the time in which he wrote. Nevertheless, he fails to specify, within the framework of his own thinking, how Judaism depends upon Christianity. He asserts that, "Jewry itself (would) become petrified, barren, and dry if there were no Christendom to fructify it."[14] However, he does not tell us why, or how if not by faith in Yeshua the "two halves" may be brought together.

In closing, it may be said that some of what Asch wrote in One Destiny moves along a trajectory that might well lead to messianic faith in Yeshua. He was certainly right to remind us that Yeshua's ministry has no true meaning apart from the Jewish context in which it begins. He is also right to remind us that the Jewish spiritual heritage that Christians lay claim to through Yeshua exists in its own right. But we must be careful not to read into this work a belief that the Gospel is to the Jew first and to the gentile - or anything that demonstrates that it is even the other way around.


Alan Shore, M.Div. has recently undertaken Yiddish language studies at YIVO in New York City, with an eye toward entering a Ph.D. program in which he will focus on the work of Sholem Asch. He presently serves as Staff Writer and National Ministries Representative with Chosen People Ministries. He is well known for his presentation of the one-man drama, A Chosen Vessel - The Life and Legacy of the Apostle Paul. Alan and his wife, Kirsten, reside in Bellingham, Washington.


Notes: 

[1] Hannah Berliner Fischthal, "Reactions of the Yiddish Press to The Nazarene," in Sholem Asch Reconsidered (ed. Nanette Stahl; New Haven:  The Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, 2004), 267.

[2] Ibid., 270-271.

[3] Ibid., 268.

[4] Hannah Berliner Fischthal, "Abraham Cahan and Sholem Asch," Yiddish 11 (1998): 1-17.

[5] Sholem Asch, What I Believe (trans. Maurice Samuel; New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1949), 32.

[6] Ibid., 102.

[7] Goldie Morgentaler, "Foreskin of the Heart: Ecumenism in Sholem Asch's Christian Trilogy," Proof 8 (1988), 221.

[8] Sholem Asch, One Destiny: An Epistle to the Christians (trans. Milton Hindus; New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1945), 37-38.

[9] Ibid., 9.

[10] Ibid., 59.

[11] Quoted in Rosa Lyon George Bludworth, "Sholem Asch and His Plea for Reconciliation," Religion in Life 27 1    (1957-1958):  85.

[12] Asch, One Destiny, 6.

[13] Ibid.,  9.

[14] Ibid.

 
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