Review: Flesh of Our Flesh, Tsvi Sadan

Sadan, Tsvi Flesh of Our Flesh: Jesus of Nazareth in Zionist Thought
(Hebrew) Jerusalem: Carmel, © 2008. 314 pages.

Reviewed by Yaakov Ariel

Jewish attitudes towards Jesus of Nazareth have been of particular importance for the shaping of Jewish-Christian relations as well as of Jewish religious and cultural identity. A fascinating new book by Tsvi Sadan tells the story of the transformation that has taken place in the late modern era in Jewish perceptions of Jesus. The influences of the Enlightenment and emancipation, the renewed Jewish encounters with Christian societies and ideas, and perhaps more than anything else new attempts on the part of Jews to reshape their identity as a modern people brought with it interest in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and attempts to connect Jesus with a renewed form of Jewish collective identity. Perhaps, somewhat unexpectedly, a relatively large number of Jewish scholars and thinkers have taken a new look at Jesus, this time not as the God of their oppressors, but as “flesh of their flesh,” as a teacher and a source of inspiration for Jews as they were reconstructing of their national history and culture.

The author of this highly instructive book is an Israeli historian, theologian and public intellectual, who has done an amazing job of resurfacing and analyzing the new burst of interest in and debates over Jesus and his place in Jewish culture. This is not an easy task, and Sadan labored extensively, reading through numerous Jewish periodicals and literary publications over long decades. The result is amazing. While concentrating primarily on Zionist thinkers, the book offers a much larger view and includes discussions of the works and thoughts of non-Zionist writers and scholars as well. The nineteenth century saw a revolution in Jewish attitudes towards Jesus. In the late medieval era, in reaction to Christian brutalities, Jews often took an unfavorable understanding of Jesus, his personal history, and the claims made by his followers as to his Messiahship and deity, although Sadan points out that even at that bitter stage one school of Jewish writings tended to exonerate Jesus and place the blame on his followers for misconstruing his teachings.

The first Jews in the nineteenth century to claim Jesus as a Jew were scholars associated with the Reform movement, who believed that a study of the historical Jesus would bring Christians to change their opinion on Judaism and recognize positive similarities between the two traditions. By the turn of the twentieth century, a new phase came about, in which Jewish thinkers with different political and cultural points of views, including Zionist thinkers and revivers of the Hebrew language, studied, debated and considered the place of Jesus within the new cultural options now open to Jews, including the Jewish national revival. As the author points out, writing in the newly revived Hebrew allowed Jewish thinkers greater freedoms to embrace Jesus, and present him in a positive light as a Jew of his time. When the Yiddish writer Shalom Ash, who resided in New York, wrote novels about Jesus and early Christianity, many Jews were taken aback. But when Abraham Kabak, a Zionist Jewish writer who settled in Jerusalem, wrote a Hebrew novel about Jesus, In the Narrow Path, in which Jesus was portrayed as a highly humane, if not exemplary, person, it was enthusiastically embraced by the Palestinian Hebrew readership of the time (pp. 163–90).

Beginning in the late nineteenth century, as a growing number of Jewish thinkers began writing about Jesus, lively discussions and debates took place. Some of the thinkers were among the best known Hebrew writers and poets of their generation, such as Yosef Haim Brenner and Uri Tsvi Greenberg. Others, such as S. I. Ish-Horowitz have remained somewhat obscure. Flesh of Our Flesh does a remarkable job of reviving such persons and their interest in and opinions about Jesus. The book contains real jems. Brenner (1881-1921), a Zionist thinker and one of the more influential Hebrew writers of his times, spent a few years in London, before settling in Palestine in 1909. There, among others, he received material help from missionaries, as well as encountered Christian-Jewish intellectuals, including Paul Levertoff, a Christian Jewish leader and writer, and the two became friends. In Palestine, Brenner, a Zionist labor movement activist and the patriarch of Hebrew writers, openly expressed his opinion that the building of a Jewish national home in Palestine is divorced of attachment to the Jewish religion and that there is no reason for Jews holding to the Christian faith not to join in. His statement stirred a lively debate, in which everybody who was somebody in the growing circles of Hebrew writers and thinkers voiced his opinion (pp. 92–126). Some were less tolerant than others and did not hesitate to defame Brenner and claim that he had labored for missions in London. A similar reaction took place in response to the open and inclusive attitudes of Ish-Horowitz, a Russian Jewish merchant and intellectual whose opinion was similar to that of Brenner. Ish-Horowitz sued against his defamers in an ad-hoc constructed Jewish court in Lemberg (contemporary Lviv in the Ukraine) and won. However, one of his enemies continued to accuse him of being a missionary well into the end of his life (pp. 58–91).

As Sadan points out, new assessments of the role of Jesus in Jewish culture did not necessarily depend on the authors’ personal commitment to observance of the Jewish tradition. Ahad HaAm (1856–1927), one of the outstanding Zionist polemicists of his time promoted the idea of “the national spirit,” over and against a religious basis for Jewish nationality. Nonetheless, he was taken aback by studies and claims that came to close the gap between Judaism and Christianity and turned against the work of Claude Montefiore, an English Jewish leader and scholar, whose studies pointed to the similarities between early Christianity and Mishnaic Judaism. Although hardly an expert on the topic, Ahad HaAm would have none of it, insisting instead that Jewish teachings were more humane than Christian ones (pp. 30–57). Such opposition aside, Flesh of Our Flesh shows that a more open attitude towards Jesus and his teachings made its way into Hebrew culture, with even laypersons beginning to refer to Jesus as an example of righteousness and suffering (p. 7).

The author limited himself to examining Jewish written materials on Jesus, but he did include on the cover a reproduction of an outstanding oil painting. In 1950, Reuven Rubin, a leading Israeli painter and diplomat, painted “the first Passover in Jerusalem,” an optimistic and inclusive Israeli counter-version of the ‘Last Supper.’ In the picture a diverse group of Jews sit or stand around a large table. They include Hasidic Jews and Jews from Asian and African countries in their traditional garbs, a 1948 Jewish fighter and a secular Israeli Jew. The painter also included himself in a reflective mood and his family, and across the table from him, sitting is Jesus of Nazareth, in an ancient Second Temple dress and a contemplative expression that radiates righteousness, offering a blessing.

The book is exceptionally well-written. Sadan writes in a strikingly even-handed and fair-minded manner. He tries to do justice to all thinkers involved, presenting their theories and claims in a critical yet non-judgmental manner, while also providing historical and intellectual contexts. One is presented with a compelling and judicious manuscript. Jewish-Christian relations are a topic to which writers often bring heavy bags of sectarian notions, bitter emotions, or communal agendas. A balanced and fair-minded study of a difficult topic, Flesh of Our Flesh is therefore a refreshing surprise. However, Sadan is equipped with more than tact, a balanced approach, and good judgment. Flesh of Our Flesh is also an impressively learned study, which demonstrates an extraordinary good knowledge of Jewish cultural history as well as the history of Zionism and the history of Jewish-Christian relations. It is the best book I have read on Jewish attitudes towards Christianity in a very long time. The author should be commended for an extraordinary achievement. <

Yaakov Ariel, Ph.D., is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.