Judith Mendelsohn Rood
The seers and the prophets had foretold it long ago
That the long awaited one would make men stumble
But they were looking for a king to conquer and to kill
Who’d have ever thought He’d be so weak and humble
He will be the truth that will offend them one and all
A stone that makes men stumble
And a rock that makes them fall
Many will be broken so that He can make them whole
And many will be crushed and lose their own soul
Along the path of life there lies a stubborn Scandalon
And all who come this way must be offended
To some He is a barrier, to others He’s the way
For all should know the scandal of believing
It seems today the Scandalon offends no one at all
The image we present can be stepped over
Could it be that we are like the others long ago
Will we ever learn that all who come must stumble?
— Michael Card
The 2017 Israel Museum Exhibit “Behold the Man”
Gracing a hilltop near the Knesset, the Israel Museum commands a majestic panorama of Jerusalem. The enormous compound displays the artifacts of the peoples of the Land of Israel throughout time, preserving and interpreting their artistic legacy to world history. Thousands of visitors from all over the world experience Israeli culture through the museum’s exhibits every week. Often, the signage in the museum includes descriptions in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, contributing to the impression that Israeli culture is at once global and regional, Jewish and Middle Eastern. This message is underscored at the entrance to the museum, where stands the Dead Sea Scrolls building, shaped like the lid of one of the jars in which the scrolls were hidden for millennia by a still mysterious Jewish sect from the Second Temple Period. Here too is found the Aleppo Codex, a precious remnant of that vanished world of the Jews of the Arab world, rescued from the ashes. The visitor encounters artifacts from all of the Land’s cultures during their visit, but the emphasis is on modern Israeli culture and its interactions with the world.
Of course, part of that story is unavoidably Christian. The Israel Museum curated the story of Christianity’s earliest days for its ongoing “Chronicles of the Land” exhibit in 2000. Entitled “Cradle of Christianity: Treasures from the Holy Land,” that collection of sacred artifacts from Byzantine and Crusader history presented the history of the Other, the Medieval European Church, the enemy of Judaism. The museum also presented a groundbreaking photography exhibit entitled “Revelation: Representations of Christ in Photography” in 2003, signaling that the Other is entwined with the Jewish people.
It is difficult to do justice to the compelling work that Amitai Mendelsohn, Senior Curator of the David Ogler Department of Israeli Art at the Israel Museum, undertook to mount the exhibition “Yeshu: Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art” in 2017. Amitai graciously allowed me to interview him as I prepared this article. I wanted to know whether his last name, which I share, influenced him in any way as he delved into the topic of Jesus in Jewish and Israeli art for his doctoral dissertation at Hebrew University. He replied that his name did not make him feel connected to Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, whose children, with the exception one, all became Christians. He explained that his father, the renowned historian of European Jewry, Ezra Mendelsohn, was the greatest influence on his historical thinking—although he was quick to add that his mother and her extended family also gave him a lively and deep appreciation of literature and art. Nevertheless, Amitai’s engagement with the ideas and ethos of the Haskalah and the emergence of the “Science of Jewish Civilization” in the nineteenth century pervades his discussion of the emergence of the Jewish individual as artist as a category of Jewish intellectual history. Amitai wrote the exhibition catalog based upon his doctoral dissertation at Hebrew University. The catalog is so fascinating that it should become required reading for all students of Jewish history and thought.
The Israel Museum “Behold the Man” exhibition brilliantly documented the scandalous interaction of Jewish and Israeli artists with Christ in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The exhibit takes its title from the New Testament, which records Pontius Pilate’s declaration, “Ecce homo!”— a phrase first appearing in the fourth century Vulgate Latin translation of John 19:5.
Carravagio, Ecce Homo (1605)
According to John, Pilate presented a scourged Jesus Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd shortly before his crucifixion. The original Greek is ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος
(idou ho Anthropos). The Counter-Reformation Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible (1592–1610) was the first to translate the phrase into English as “Behold the Man.” The scene has been widely depicted in Christian art.
Photograph by the Author
The exhibit identifies “that man” in Hebrew as “Yeshu,” using the traditional—and derogatory—Jewish aspersion for Yeshua. In Hebrew, the acronym “YESHU” means “May His Name and Memory Be Blotted Out,” associated with the biblical curse on the Amalekites and Haman, who sought to destroy the Jewish people. The spiritual sin of his generation of leaders, according to the gospels, was that the Temple authorities accused Jesus of healing with demonic power (Matt 9:32–34, 12:22–30; Luke 4:6, 18, 11:14–23). Their political sin was to claim they “have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15). The traditionally antagonistic and derisive attitude of Jews towards Jesus is exemplified by a series of texts known as Sefer Toledut Yeshu, composed from the fourth to the twelfth century in Europe and the Middle East, all supposedly tracing back to one original source. These texts, and some found in the Talmud, ridiculed Jesus and instigated Christian polemics against Judaism in the medieval era. In the Sefer Toledot Yeshu, Jesus is described as a bastard who stole the Tetragrammaton, the YHVH, from the Temple in order to work magic, allowing him “to heal the sick, resurrect the dead, and become God” (19). The antisemitic polemical association of the Jews with the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9) reinforced the charge of deicide against the Jewish people that has poisoned Jewish-Christian relations for millennia.
In the Israel Museum exhibit, Christ’s name is translated into Arabic as “Yasu’a,” derived from Jesus’ name in Greek in accordance with its use in the Arabic Bible. This term has no etymological connection to the meaning of the Hebrew name “Yeshu’a,” He Who Saves, that is “Savior,” used by Jewish Christians and Messianic Jews, who now spell it simply “Yeshua” in English. And so the sting of “that name” would not raise an issue for Arab Christians who came to explore the exhibit. They, more than any other visitors, would find the Arabic explanations familiar and straightforward. Importantly, not used in the exhibit is the Quranic name for Jesus— ‘Isa. The Jewish interaction with the person named Yeshua was shaped first by the political forces at work during the Second Temple Period, at a time when Jews were deeply and hatefully divided by politics and theology, which enmity the rabbis explained was the reason for the loss of Jewish sovereignty, exile, and suffering.
In our interviews, Amitai assured me that the meaning of the words “Yeshu” and “Yeshu’a” to modern Israeli Jews have merged and so the choice to use “Yeshu” was “not an issue” for the mostly secular Israeli Jewish and Christian visitors to the exhibit. For Orthodox Jewish visitors to the exhibition, the polemical Hebrew name of Jesus Christ remains unmistakable. The theme of scandal permeated the exhibition, coming up again and again in the discussion of each work. For almost all Jews, belief in Yeshua remains an offense, a betrayal: a scandal.
Amitai’s exhibit deepened the revelation that Jewish and Israeli artists recognized Jesus as an enigmatic “figure who was born and died in Judea and yet became central to European high culture” (182). The exhibit focused on Jewish portrayals of Christ in conversation with European Civilization, a civilization destroyed by the Nazi Aryanization of the Jewish Christ.
At play in the exhibition is one sweeping paradigm: The reality of the Hidden Christ of Judaism revealed against the background of the Gentile Christ of Christendom.
Six interconnected themes about the Jewish relationship to Jesus emerge from the exhibition. 1) Jesus as the emblem of the suffering, persecuted Jewish people. This impulse stemmed from the secular “science” of Jewish civilization that was organized by German-Jewish intellectuals in the early nineteenth century. Their labors gave birth to 2) a Jewish Jesus, Yeshu’a, who had been misrepresented by Christianity and who is in the process of being reclaimed as one of our own. In Europe, Jewish Christians were especially involved in this process, evangelizing the Jewish people by reintroducing Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, their kinsman-redeemer, and even more significantly, defending Judaism by making Jesus into a Jewish emblem. As Jewish missions introduced Jesus to Hebrew and Yiddish speakers in the nineteenth century, especially under the influence of believing German, British, and Scottish preachers, university professors and seminarians, the Jewishness of Jesus was becoming a controversial theological topic. The next phase in this process was that Jewish artists began to embrace 3) Jesus as a symbol of a new Jewish civilization in the Land of Israel, a Jewish prodigal who understood the yearning for the return of the Jewish people to history, and of being misunderstood and maltreated by his own people. Modern Zionism led Jewish artists to see in Yeshua a man existentially like them, a 4) Jesus who suffered grief at being misunderstood by his own culture. With the establishment of the State of Israel, Yeshua was no longer barred from Jewish society due to Gentile animosity. Jesus returned to his people next as 5) a paradigmatic dissenter from worldly power and the violence of the state, the victim of war and conflict. Finally, for the individual Jewish artist, 6) Jesus was a brother who, like them, suffered pain, disease, and sorrow. Each of these six themes posits theological concepts in Jewish life following the Shoah: 1) the hiddenness of God, 2) the immanence and transcendence of God, 3) the God who allows suffering, 4) the God whose promises will be fulfilled; 5) the humanity of Christ, who suffers with us in the time that remains, and 6) the Messiah, who will rule the nations in fulfillment of his promises.
The “Science of Jewish Civilization” on Jesus Christ and Christianity
As long ago as the Renaissance, Jews, influenced by Maimonides, began to understand Jesus in a new way. Although in their view he decidedly was not the Messiah, these Jews recognized that he had done good deeds by spreading the name of God, and belief in God, throughout the world. Some Jews began to believe that Jesus’ teachings had been distorted by the Church. The founder of Reform Judaism, Abraham Geiger (1810–74) led the modernist charge against the Apostle Paul, whom he criticized as the founder of a new religion that Jesus never intended and would never have condoned. As the Enlightenment propelled the process of Jewish assimilation into modern European culture, the project of the new secular “Science of Jewish Civilization” emphasized the Jewish contribution to the world, adopting Jesus as the teacher-philosopher who had most influenced European morality and ethics. Indeed, the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah developed within a broader philosophical exploration of epistemology—the theory of reason that allows for the possibility of historical knowledge—that shaped modern theology. This new science was based upon the grammatical and historical methodologies of biblical higher criticism. Hebraists in Germany and Great Britain, fortified by the discoveries of biblical archeology, fought for an appreciation of the cultures behind the biblical texts. European scholars began to treat what for centuries had been read spiritually as allegorical texts, instead as historical documents about real people and real civilizations. This yielded a new Jesus, a Jesus embedded in Second Temple Judaism.
Amitai traces the genealogy of the exhibit back to Renaissance art and the Protestant Reformation. Protestants, who experienced persecution and martyrdom at the hands of the Catholic Church, began to have a new grasp on the persecution of the Jewish People. Some began to call for the restoration of the Jews to their ancestral homeland as a prelude to, and indeed a prerequisite for, the Second Coming of Christ. Christian Zionism, as this movement would become known in the twentieth century, was both theological and humanitarian, seeking to redress the injustice of exile, and, especially in the late nineteenth century, to come to the aid of Jewish victims of persecution throughout Europe. Amitai specifically discusses the influence of the German-speaking Anglican priest William Hechler, a close associate of Theodor Herzl from 1896 until latter’s death in 1904. Hechler traveled with Herzl to Palestine in 1898 and was one of the last to visit him on his deathbed. Hechler wrote that “the duty of every Christian is to pray earnestly and long for the restoration of God’s chosen race, and to love the Jews; for they are still beloved for their father’s sake” (24). Amitai observes:
Nevertheless, most Zionist historiography has tended to ignore the Christian contribution to Zionism, including Anglican advocacy in favor of the Balfour Declaration, and the classic sourcebooks make no mention of it. To this day, Christian support of Zionism is complex, controversial, and politically charged, at times producing an interesting alliance between left-wing elements and some rabbis on the West Bank who oppose Evangelical influence and support of Israel. (24)
Amitai recognizes that “Christians became active partners in the Zionist enterprise. . . . [J]ust as Zionism benefited from Christian collaborators in the diplomatic and political arena, the Zionist art that developed during the same period adopted Christian iconography and used it for its own ends” (25).
In the early twentieth century, the relationship between the Jewish people and Jesus became a popular subject. Amitai points out that Claude Montefiore, author of the Synoptic Gospels (1909), thought that if Jews accepted Jesus as an outstanding moral figure, Christian hostility towards Judaism would disappear and that there would be no need for a Jewish state. In contrast, Amitai emphasizes Ahad Ha’am’s reaction: the founder of Cultural Zionism believed that creating a continuum between Judaism and Christianity would have “disastrous consequences” for the Jewish people (25). However, in 1911, Zionist author and artist Yosef Hayim Brenner observed that the New Testament was just as Jewish as the Tanakh and that Jewish conversion to Christianity was “not a problem compared to Jews’ . . . lack of a complete Hebrew language, the lack of a Hebrew homeland and the lack of a Hebrew culture.” Amitai quotes this charismatic hero of the Second Aliyah, who wrote that “The New Testament is also a part of our library. It is our own flesh and blood.” An atheist, Brenner was not motivated by the impulse of European Jews to be accepted in Christian Europe. Instead, he believed that all religions were harmful and for that reason all were the same. He wrote: “I . . . detest both the kingdom of priests and the kingdom of heaven . . . and yet I would not drive out of the Jewish community those who are moved by the Sermon on the Mount” (25).
These statements led to what is known as “The Brenner Affair”—a controversy that laid out the religious boundaries of what would become Israeli citizenship. For Brenner, Jewish identity could be determined paradoxically by asking if it were possible “for a Jew to affirm that Jesus was a Jew.” This same question was taken up a decade later by a young professor of medieval Jewish philosophy at Harvard University. Harry Austryn Wolfson (1887–1974), who over the course of his storied career became a doyen of Jewish historians, published the controversial essay in 1925 entitled, “How the Jews Will Reclaim Jesus.” The essay was published as an introduction to the new edition of Joseph Jacobs’ 1895 historical novel, Jesus as Others Saw Him, and reprinted with some revisions almost four decades later in the Menorah Journal, years after the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. Wolfson argued in the essay that the Jews will reclaim Jesus as part of their modern project of restoring their “lost literary treasures.” In Wolfson’s words, “[t]he Jewish reclamation of Jesus . . . will come about as a result of a wider and more comprehensive conception of the scope of Jewish learning and Jewish literature and of a general restoration of our lost literary treasures.” Jesus, he explained, will not be reclaimed as a God, nor as a son of God, a Messiah, or a prophet, but as a Galilean preacher.
Amitai traces these ideas as they appeared in Jewish and Israeli literature and art throughout the twentieth century. In so doing, he opens a window into the Jewish experience of Christ as our brother, who ironically came to symbolize agony, grief, sorrow, exile, persecution, hope, compassion, and redemption in Israeli art.
Amitai writes in the preface to the catalog that his journey to the “Israeli Jesus” began as he worked in the storerooms of the Israel Museum and encountered the work of Reuven Rubin. He discovered a self-portrait of the Romanian-born artist displaying his pierced hands to the viewer. This shocking encounter with an archetypal Catholic symbol—the stigmata—led Amitai to search for more examples of Jewish and Israeli art with Christian iconography. He found countless “overt references and indirect allusions in the work of leading Jewish artists in nineteenth-century Europe through to the creative output of contemporary Israeli artists.” As he studied these works, he observed that “these artists were drawn like moths to a flame to the figure of Jesus, which was charged with threatening associations, even as it signified the intimacy of human, personal pain and self-sacrifice.” He discovered that “through this highly complex figure, subject to a vast array of ideological interpretations and stylistic treatments, it was possible to perceive the overall development of Israeli art.” The shifts in Jewish thought over the course of a century were all present in these works—“the dialogue with European culture, evolving social and political issues; attitudes towards the body; and preoccupation with the artist’s own psyche” (11).
In his sweeping review of Jewish interactions with Jesus, Amitai begins with the Christian charge of deicide against the Jewish people that supposedly brought them under a curse for all time, causing Jews to relate to Christ “with derision, hatred, and fear,” an attitude leading “Israeli Jewish society to regard Christianity as something alien and potentially harmful.” He notes that while “physical threats to Israel may be seen as coming from Islam (which does not make the charge of deicide against the Jewish people) the fact that Christianity is an evangelizing religion makes it seem dangerous in a different way” (15). Israeli schools do not cover the New Testament and most Israelis are unfamiliar with Christian history and doctrines, with most Jews associating Christianity with idolatry, making these topics at once taboo and unavoidable. Amitai himself was confronted by the scandal of the Cross and the hiddenness of Christ in Jewish culture, but his studies and this exhibition are framed by a secular Israeli Jewish perspective on Jesus.
The exhibit grouped one hundred and fifty works into ten sections. In what follows I will discuss the paradigmatic works that I found most helpful in understanding the six themes I’ve described above, following the organization of the exhibit and the catalog, which, however, are not exactly in the same order. The Israel Museum has an online, abbreviated collection taken from the exhibit, to be found following this link: . Unfortunately not all of the artists included in the original exhibit are included in the online version. If a work discussed below appears online, an asterisk with a number will follow the title of the work, and the reader can view the piece while reading this article. For example, the first image is of Adi Nes’ Untitled Photograph, popularly known as The Last Supper with Soldiers, *1, *43. The second and third photos, *2, *3, are views of the first and second rooms of the Gallery. Since the numbers here are not found in the captions accompanying the exhibit, a numbered list of the online photographs is provided here.
List of works in the Israel Museum Online Exhibition
1. No caption, (The Last Supper)— Adi Ness
2. View of the Gallery
3. View of the Gallery
4. Christ Teaching in Capernaum (1878–9)—Maurycy Gottleib (Mislabelled as Christ Before His Judges)
5. The Wandering Jew—Samuel Hirszenberg
6. The Crucifixion in Yellow—Marc Chagall
7. Christ Before the People’s Court—Mark Antokolsky
8. Pesah—Ephraim Moses Lilien
9. The Sabbath Queen—Ephraim Moses Lilien
10. Dedicated to the Martyrs of Kishinev—Ephraim Moses Lilien
11. View of the Gallery
12. Temptation in the Desert—Reuven Reuben
13. The Encounter—Reuven Reuben
14. Self-Portrait with Flower—Reuven Reuben
15. The Madonna of the Vagabonds—Reuven Reuben
16. View of the Gallery (Castel)
17. Untitled (The Crucified)—Moshe Castel
18. Jesus/Tree—Leopold Krakauer
19. In the Courtyard of the Third Temple—Naftali Bezem
20. Genocide—Marcel Janco
21. Untitled, from the 6,000,001 Series—Moshe Hoffman
22. Photograph of Exhibit Cabinet with The Blood of My Heart Installation—Moshe Gershuni
23. Photograph of Objects from The Blood of My Heart Installation—Moshe Gershuni
24. There/Name—Moshe Gershuni
25. From the Hai Cyclamens Series—Moshe Gershuni,
26. Photograph of Gallery—Igael Tumarkin
27. Mita Meshuna— Igael Tumarkin
28. Bedouin Crucifixion—Igael Tumarkin
29. Photograph of Gallery—Motti Mizrachi
30. Via Dolorosa, Motti Mizrachi
31. Valve, Exposure Installation—Gideon Gechtman
32. Pain (Bed)—David Ginton
33. Untitled—Manashe Kadishman
34. Tel Hai and Sleeping Guard—Tamar Getter
35. The Gospel According to the Bird—Michal Na’aman,
36. Simulating the Stigmata—Michal Na’aman
37. Photograph of the Gallery
38. Golgotha—Efrat Natan
39. Vera Icon Cycle Annunciation, Contrubatio, Cogitatio, Interrogatio, Humiliatio, Meritatio—Joshua Borkovsky
40. Gallery Photo
41. Aisha el-Kord—Micha Kirshner
42. Self-Portrait with my Family, Pieta with Notre Dame—Boaz Tal
43. Untitled Video—Erez Israeli
44. Untitled, (Last Supper with Soldiers)—Adi Nes
45. Standing with a Watermelon in the Dead Sea—Sigalit Landau
46. Photograph of Gallery
The work chosen for the cover of the catalog is ironic: a crucifix constructed of found objects by Igael Tumarkin, entitled Beduoin Crucifixion (1982) *28. Here a contemporary Jewish artist deploys a Christian symbol to depict the suffering of a group of Muslims in modern Israel. The catalog thus sets a different tone than the exhibit: rather than Yeshua’s relationship with his people, the focus in the catalog is on political and social issues confronting Israelis in their relationships with non-Jews in Israel today. The catalog thus confronts the reader with the political in a way that the exhibit did not. The following numbered list reflects the ten sections of the exhibit itself.
1. In the Shadow of the Cross
Mark Antokolsky’s Christ Before the People’s Court *2, *7, 1876, is a breathtakingly beautiful marble statue of a downcast Christ standing before his Jewish accusers, bound and wearing a kippah and sandals; this Christ is the logical work with which to begin the exhibit. Christ is here the stumbling stone, the Jewish messiah rejected by his people, an archetype that the rest of the exhibit then begins to deconstruct. The horrifying painting The Wandering Jew (The Eternal Jew) *5 (along with two other paintings that appear in *3) opens the first section of the exhibit. Samuel Hirszenberg painted this in 1899, at the height of the antisemitic pogroms in Russia. This section of the exhibit emphasizes the Christian persecution of the Jewish people, showing how Jewish artists used irony to turn the tables on Christians by making Jesus a symbol of Jewish suffering. In the catalog, this theme is directly connected to the next section with a photograph of the sculpture in the foreground with the next work to be discussed, Christ Teaching in Capernaum.
2. The Jewish Jesus
Maurycy Gottlieb’s Christ Teaching in Capernaum (1878–79) *4 (mislabeled online as Christ Before His Judges) beautifully represents the Jewish Jesus in his element, teaching his people about himself from the Scriptures in the most famous synagogue in the Galilee. This work forces the spectator to consider Christ as a Jew, as a rabbi, reflecting the new view of the Jewish Jesus that had emerged in the nineteenth century. The idea of Jesus as Jewish was deeply disturbing to German Christians, and helped to fuel the racial antisemitism that ruptured the fabric of Protestantism, a fact that evangelical historians have failed to take into account in their surveys of the history of Christianity.
3. Between Judaism, Zionism, and Christianity
One of my favorite sections of the exhibit focused on the art of the book, with its deep roots in the Italian Renaissance, at the turn of the twentieth century. Amitai identifies Ephraim Moses Lilien as the first Zionist artist.
Lilen’s magnificent The Sabbath Queen crowned the exhibit, in my opinion. The work is an illustration from the book of poems on biblical themes entitled Juda, written by Borries von Munchausen and published in 1910. This “audacious corpus of drawings that wedded eroticism, romanticisim, and orientalism to the Bible and Jewish national sentiment,” writes Amitai, “made Lilien a Zionist star almost overnight” (64). The Sabbath Queen *9 is depicted as a beautiful Jewish woman, seated on a throne and wearing a crown, upon which rests a dove, symbolizing peace, or perhaps, the Holy Spirit. Her crown bears a Star of David, and her throne, too, is decorated with a Magen David.
Tel Dan Inscription with
House of David Highlighted. Note the two deltas—triangles
In ancient Hebrew script, the name of David is spelled with two “deltas” or triangles. Superimposed one upon the other, this symbol became increasingly important in modern Jewish history as a symbol of Jewish sovereignty. On either side of the Sabbath Queen’s throne, above the arm rests, are “wings” representing the “corners” or “wings” of the prayer shawl. Behind the throne is a scene in silhouette with iconic trees of the land, cypress, cedar, poplar, and sycamore, and in the front of the scene are two trees, one with etrogim and the other with heart-shaped fruit, perhaps an allusion to trees that will bear leaves of healing in the Messianic Age. The Sabbath Queen herself is adorned with pearls braided into her long, dark twisted tresses, cascading over her shoulder. On her lap, covering her feet and draping to the floor, is a beautiful blanket emblazoned with Hebrew letters, fitted with two tassels that rest on the second step of the throne. She proudly holds in her arms a small Torah scroll. She smiles slightly, proudly, confidently, her gaze upon the spectator. In this magnificent drawing, Lilien depicts the calm faith that the Sabbath Queen instills in her people. No matter the suffering of this Age: she, the Bride, like God, is mysteriously seated on the throne, eternally present. This beautiful image stayed with me throughout the time that I walked through the exhibit and long after.
Lilien’s Dedicated to the Martyrs of Kishinev (1904) *10 exemplifies the fusion of etchings and dry point in the new Zionist style—a style shaped by European fascination with ancient civilizations, Orientalism, Jewish and Christian motifs, and the inexorable Jewish return to the Land, then viewed by many Jews—and Christians— as the rightful restoration of Jewish sovereignty and a precursor to the coming—or the return—of the Messiah, at a time when Jewish suffering under the modern political ideologies had begun to scatter the Jewish people once again.
4. Man of Sorrows and Zionist Messiah
Reuven Rubin is perhaps the most important artist who shaped the Zionist perspective of the European Jewish return to the sacred topography of the Land of Israel. He first visited Palestine in 1912, where he began to think about the themes that he would paint as a pioneering artist. He was one of the earliest and most significant of the Israeli artists who depicted Jesus. The torment of the despised and misunderstood Jesus became for Rubin an emblem of the suffering and exile that the Jews left behind in the wake of the rebirth of Zion. Amitai asserts that Rubin early on associated himself with the Jesus who disrupted authority, the One who cleansed the Temple. Rubin saw himself as the bearer of a new message, “as the prophet—even the Messiah—of the art world, who will banish all that is old and rotten from the temple of art” (113).
Through his palette of colors, Rubin portrayed human beings grounded in the Land; they become a part of the landscape that he painted of Eretz-Israel, the Earthly Zion. Already trained as an artist in Paris, Rome, and Switzerland, Rubin arrived in Palestine in April, 1923, to study at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts. Amitai’s discussion of Rubin’s painting Temptation in the Desert *12 ties it to the gospel account of Jesus’s suffering in the garden of Gethsemane. Amitai shows us that Rubin’s painting is deeply connected to his own suffering and loss in the context of the horrors of the First World War, an indictment of humanity for its brutality and evil. Rubin depicted himself as the man of sorrows, embodying Christ, with whom he shared a deep sympathy, nurtured in the culture of his birthplace, where Yiddish poetry shaped the zeitgeist of modern Jewish culture.
Rubin’s The Encounter *13 and the Madonna of the Vagabonds (1922) *15, painted before he arrived in Palestine, express his exploration of the Jewish exile in relationship to Yeshua and to Mary, his mother. Once he had made aliyah, Rubin painted Self-portrait with a Flower (1923) *14 as the artist-pioneer, holding a resurrection lily, pointing to the rebirth of our people, and his brushes, the instruments of torture that made Rubin feel that he was sacrificing himself for his nation. The landscape behind the artist features tents in the hills, houses rising from the sands of Tel Aviv, and a ship bearing the olim, a landscape that encompasses the artist, making him a feature of the Land.
5. From Personal Experience to National Identity
Moshe Castel (1900–91) was born in Ottoman Jerusalem, but he lived and worked in Paris from 1927 to 1940. Untitled (The Crucified), ca. 1948 *17, a dark painting, in Amitai’s words, is “filled with a power and emotion rarely encountered either in his own work or in Israeli art generally” (121). Castel had lost his first wife in childbirth, and the child died three years later. After this tragedy, Castel withdrew to a monastery on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, producing this work, depicting himself as the Crucified against the background of a stormy night in the mountains. The Hebrew inscription above his head reads, “Castel the Jew.” In two preparatory sketches from that same period, Castel wrote the Hebrew words “Jesus” and “Jesus the Nazarene.” Here he used the proper name for Jesus in Hebrew: “Yeshu’a,” the only time in the exhibit that it is referenced. In Hebrew, Notzri, the Nazarene, gives the plural Notzrim, or “Christians” in modern Israel. It was only by painting these works that Castel could express his personal agony. The description accompanying these works in the description explains that “the artist’s intense outpouring of pain culminates in total identification with the suffering of the crucified Christ.” In the catalog, Amitai does a masterful job weaving Castel’s experiences in with the Jewish School of Paris, where he encountered the works of Chagall depicting a Jewish Jesus on the Cross, as in The Crucifixion in Yellow 1943 *6.
These influences are found in a second painting by Castel, entitled The Crucifixion, painted during the years 1940–45. This painting is not included in the online exhibit, but it is so important that I am including it here nevertheless. It depicts the Crucifixion, with Jesus’ head surrounded by a halo and a cloth suggesting a tallit around his loins, in the manner of Chagall. Two Jews wearing kippot, one with his back turned to the viewer, stand at the foot of the Cross, and a woman, head covered, looks down at her hand. Two angels hover beneath the Jesus’ outstretched arms as blood pours from his hands, feet, and sides.
Amitai notes that Jesus never reappeared in Castel’s art. He explains that because Castel was the son of a respected rabbi, he remained intimately involved in Jewish tradition, focusing on the Hebrew Bible, mysticism, and other Jewish themes. Yet it is sobering to think that the artist expressed his pain and perhaps, as Amitai suggests, his bitter anger against God, by painting these crucifixions. Castel kept his self-portrait hidden in a locked cupboard, an act painfully revealing the artist’s own ambivalence about identifying himself with Christ when his community abhorred images such as these as idolatrous. Yet for all that, Amitai concludes that Castel choosing to use the name Yeshu’a “may indicate his rejection of this traditional revulsion and his own positive perception of Jesus.”
The exhibition placard for Untitled (The Crucified) is in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. It is cited here to show how the museum explained the remarkable use of the name “Yeshu’a” to its wide and diverse audience.
The story behind this dark crucifixion by Moshe Castel, a painter known for his depictions of Jewish religious and national subjects, must be sought in Castel’s personal history. The work was created when the artist secluded himself in a monastery near the Sea of Galilee in order to recover from the loss of his first wife, who died in childbirth, and the death of their daughter three years later. Discovered in a locked cupboard in Castel’s house in 1992, the painting—which is highly unusual in the context of his work and that of his Israeli contemporaries—is now displayed to the public for the first time.
In an expressive style influenced by Chaim Soutine, and inspired by Marc Chagall’s crucifixions, Castel put himself on the cross. The face is a self-portrait, while above the figure a Hebrew inscription says “Castel the Jew,” so that the artist’s intense outpouring of pain culminates in total identification with the suffering of the crucified Christ.
In two sketches from the same period, the Hebrew inscriptions above the figure read “Jesus” and “Jesus of Nazareth.” They give the full name Yeshu’a rather than the more common Yeshu, which was often read derisively by Jews as an acronym for a Hebrew phrase meaning “may his name be obliterated.” The painter’s choice of name may indicate his rejection of this traditional revulsion and his own positive perception of Jesus.
The same section, “From Personal Experience to National Identity,” shows works relating to the Shoah, a topic that most Christian historians have treated as an anomaly, an aberration in the supposedly progressive development of human society since the Enlightenment. In this exhibition, the Holocaust stands as the pivotal point in Christian history. Amitai develops this section of the exhibit chronologically, with Mordecai Ardon’s The House of Cards and the triptych For the Fallen dating from 1956–57. Unfortunately Ardon is not represented in the online exhibit. Nevertheless, his work is important for this survey. Ardon painted this complex work during Israel’s reprisal raids that culminated in the 1956 Sinai campaign. He wrote that he painted this to express “the sensation of the futility of sacrifice and war” (136). A Christian image appears in the bottom right hand corner: in this case a piece of wood—a titulus—with the letters INRI (Jesus the Nazarene: King of the Jews) inscribed in red, the color of blood. Amitai writes that “the wood of the Cross corresponds to the theme of human impotence in a tragic, apocalyptic world” (136).
These works led up to Ardon’s most important work: Missa Dura: The Knight, Crystal Night (Night (a reference to Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass, November 9-10 1938), House No. 5 (1958–60). This triptych, according to Amitai, “is an early and seminal Israeli artistic response to the Holocaust” (138). Missa Dura can be translated either as “Hard Mass” or “Black Mass.” The reference is to the ceremonial partaking of bread (the body of Christ) and wine at communion, a sacrament in the Christian faith, understood literally or figuratively by Christians today. Christianity’s connection to European culture, Nazism, and the Holocaust is the artist’s definitive statement about the evil perpetrated against his people. Ardon depicts Hitler as the Aryan Messiah, the Teutonic knight, surrounded by crosses, including the twisted cross, the swastika, atop a church. Crystal Night, the central panel of the triptych, evokes the medieval works that depicted the Day of Judgment. Covered with Hebrew images, including a supplication for mercy from the Book of Psalms 69:1–22, this central panel includes six dots, representing the Six Million who perished. To the left, the hands of God and of Adam, modeled on Michaelangelo’s depiction in the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel, are strung on strings like puppets with no agency of their own, but pulled by an invisible force, creating a sense of doom. The third panel, House No. 5, represents a concentration camp, housing a figure with a number on its arm, looking out the window. Next to the house is a tree in the form of the kabbalistic Tree of Life with its fruits, the sefirot, the ineffable emanations of God.
Ardon wrote a little poem to accompany this work: “In the beginning was knight, newspaper, and decree. . . . Thus He blessed her [referring to a tiny mouse in the corner of the panel] and the spring of thirty-three. . . . . And He saw that it was good and it was evening and it was morning” (138). The ditty mocks not only the biblical account of creation in Genesis, but also the account given in the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word . . .” (1:1). Yet Amitai believes that Ardon’s use of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life signifies “the redemption of the Jewish people, resurrected after the Holocaust, and the revival of Judaism’s ancient heritage. This esoteric Jewish symbol for the hidden God is,” Amitai acknowledges, “admittedly, less straightforward than the cross . . . and yet it seems to serve Ardon as a substitute for Christianity’s foremost symbol” (141), a symbol denoting not death, but life: the promise of resurrection and salvation.
Moshe Hoffman also used the figure of Jesus as a symbol of Jewish suffering and death during the Holocaust. In 1967 he developed ten woodcuts entitled 6,000,001 *20. In this series, which features Christian iconography to express the idea that Jesus was present with his people, unseen, suffering with them, Hoffman explained that the “One” in the title refers to “the death of divinity and the demise of faith in man, Jewish and Christian alike” (152). These stark works, according to Amitai, constitute “one of the most forceful responses to the Holocaust ever produced by an Israeli artist” (157). These are the last works in the exhibit relating to the Holocaust. They stylistically depict the brutality of the Nazi killing machine. Horror is conveyed in various scenes: one depicting Jesus being taken down from the cross to join a line of Jews on their way to a death camp, the shape of a cross formed by three columns of Jews standing in line for selection, broken. Crosses leaning against a concentration camp fence where a small figure hangs crucified on the wire, Muselmänner (those prisoners too exhausted and starved to have a will of their own, the walking dead, called Muslims because of the-then popular European belief that Muslims believe only in fate, not will or freedom) with numbers tattooed on their arms and crowns of thorns on their heads.
This (fifth) section of the exhibit also included works by Naftali Bezem, Marcel Janco, Avshalom Okashi, and Zvi Mairovich, all members of the New Horizons group that emerged in 1948 following the establishment of Israel as an independent state. Barely had the horrors of the death camps registered in the Jewish mind when Zionist artists had to fight against intractable enemies. Bezem’s remarkable painting In the Courtyard of the Third Temple *19 expresses his horrified response to the 1956 massacre of innocent villagers at Kafr Kassem. This work marks a new horror: atrocities committed by Jews against Arabs in the Land.
6. Violence and Compassion
In this section, the theme of suffering and violence returns with a vengeance in the works of two artists who dealt directly with the effects of growing up during the Holocaust, World War II, and the Israel’s War of Independence, Moshe Gershuni and Igael Tumarkin. These artists “represent different directions in the art that developed in Israel” in the 1960s–80s (155).
Moshe Gershuni (1936–2017) expressed suffering in an entirely new way by focusing upon the idea of human suffering and the “spark of the divine” in his own life *21–26. The inherent tension between Jesus’ divine, universal aspect and his physical and personal one, between spirit and flesh, the spiritual and the material is the substance which Gershuni worked to create his art in order to tell the story of his own physicality that he believed embraced “that which is exalted and sublime” (179). Gershuni began to use red paint to symbolize blood and the passion of Jesus. Early on, this focus empowered passionate works relating to “Palestinian suffering and core questions about Zionism” (183). Yet Gershuni had a secret: he was gay and he scandalously related to Jesus as the Other, a rebel “who defied convention and forged a new path” (179). He came out of the closet and divorced his wife in the 1980s; while undergoing psychotherapy he began to paint “with his hands while crouching on all fours.” It was during this period that he began to explicitly deal with Christian themes. As with the other artists, the distinction between Israel, the “here” and Europe, the “there,” created artistic tensions that revealed the borderline between life and art. This tension became particularly powerful as Gershuni transgressed powerful taboos concerning blood in religious Judaism. Blood is equated with life itself in Judaism; and, as in ancient Judaism, Christianity sees it as the vehicle for atoning sin. In this section of the catalog, Amitai discusses the symbolism of the Eucharist, and relates it specifically to the “groundless accusation—the blood libel—that Jews used the blood of Christian children in the preparation of unleavened bread for Passover, and hence a connection to anti-Semitism” (186).
Gershuni’s focus on bodily fluids led one critic to describe Gershuni as “a wounded, enraged animal or a man whose soul is embattled by lust and guilt” (186). Amitai links Gershuni’s works with Chagall, whose “renditions of shtetl life . . . were fragmented and laden with tragedy” (193). Like Chagall, Gershuni used Christian symbolism to bring together the disparate worlds that shaped his art. In discussing “Through a Glass, Darkly,” Amitai focuses on Paul, whom he says “founded Christianity as we know it and who, although born a Jew, was known for his anti-Jewish sentiments,” reflecting the attitude of Abraham Geiger that has permeated the modern Jewish apprehension of the “apostle to the nations,” an apprehension that is no longer attested to in recent Pauline scholarship. In the final section on Gershuni, Amitai guides us through the artist’s “singular artistic lexicon” which increasingly involved works inscribed by words. His “invocation of the words introduces a pointed contrast between presence and absence, the absence of God in the ‘there’ that was Europe in the Holocaust” (194).
Tumarkin’s Bedouin Crucifixion *28 appears on the cover of the catalog, as noted above. Tumarkin shocked and scandalized the Israeli public with his troubling images by interacting with the masterpieces of medieval and modern European art in order “to challenge the Israeli establishment, especially the army. The fact that he used Christian motifs in his art was itself an act of defiance, given that the establishment in Israel regarded (and, in many ways, still regards) Christianity as something alien and threatening.” Born in Germany of a Jewish mother and a Christian father, he identified personally with the sufferings of Christ, in whom he found a deep source for critiquing the brutality and horror of modern life on a universal scale. His lamentation over the death of Israeli soldiers during the First Lebanon War was a bitter attack on the government for its “criminally irresponsible behavior.” The dead were the victims “of a callous establishment” which Tumarkin equates “with the intransigent Sanhedrin and the Roman authorities” (172–73). His works used found objects in dramatic ways, making these works realistic and familiar, expressing the raw Israeli experience through the well-established motifs of the realistic works of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–16) and the works of modern artist Francis Bacon.
Both Gershuni and Tumarkin transformed “crude, soiled objects” in reference to Europe’s “loftiest symbolism”; Gershuni “indicts European anti-Semitism” while Tumarkin “denounces” the Israeli establishment. Both artists “share a preoccupation with Christianity and the figure of Jesus” in order to express their personal anguish over European history—there—and Zionist history—here.
7. Pain and Redemption
The next artists are Motti Mizrachi (1946– ) and Gideon Gechtman (1942–2008) who emerged in the 1970s as “conceptual and body artists” (199). Both suffered physically, and “viewed Jesus as a figure of symbolic and emotional import.” Mizrachi, who became disabled when he was twelve as a result of severe arthritis, explored the connections between “art and ritual,” and “the personal physical realm, societal issues, and universal questions.” Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man, appears for the first time in Israeli art as both human and divine. He not only suffers and dies, “the man who embodied and defended the outsider, the Other, the weak, the infirm” but also the “miracle-worker and healer” who, like the artist, “addresses ailments and elevates the spirit above physical pain” (199). Mizrachi studied at Bezalel under Gershuni. The trauma of the 1973 War of Atonement stimulated Mizrachi’s “ritualistic” and “highly personal displays of vulnerability” focusing upon his own body. Amitai writes about “Binding,” which was a “documented art action performed during the Yom Kippur War.”
The artist went out into the Judean desert and bound himself in a kind of sacrificial or theurgic act aimed at influencing the outcome of the war. Tied to straps that pointed north, south, east, and west, he lay naked on the ground with his feet together and his arms stretched out to his sides—a position that suggests the Christian interpretation of the binding of Isaac as a prefiguration of the crucifixion. (200)
Amitai continues his discussion of the works that express Mizrachi’s sense of isolation—”the isolation the Other, the outcast, the handicapped, or of the prophet whose warnings are ignored.” His Via Dolorosa *30 is, according to Amitai, “a milestone in Israeli art.”
On his crutches, Mizrachi followed the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem with a large placard on his back, a photographed portrait of the artist with a beard and long hair and only one side of his face illuminated. A photographer walked with him and documented the performance to the end. (202)
This work can be understood as a coming-to-terms with the artist’s handicap through art, the ethnic tensions in Israel that make up its socio-political context, and the “fundamental questions regarding the power of representation” (202). “Pain,” the artist explained, “interests me as a tool with which to extract something much greater and more cosmic” (203). Amitai uses this idea to explain the central role of suffering in the Christian faith, starting with the depictions of Jesus’s painful march through Jerusalem, bearing his Cross on the Way of Sorrows, a scene that is very familiar in Christian art, which often depicted “the ugliness of his tormentors and those who accompanied him without offering him relief. At times, the features of these Jews were rendered in a classically anti-Semitic way; thus, for example, in Bosch’s painting Christ Carrying the Cross (1510–16)” (202).
In his arduous walk along the narrow streets of the Old City, Mizrachi was emulating both Jesus and the men that Jesus miraculously brought to their feet. The performance was a kind of physical and spiritual self-healing; walking in the path of Jesus in the hope that it would end in a miracle, but also an attempt to transform himself from “patient” to “doctor.” (205)
Amitai turns to write about The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471), which encouraged his readers to embrace Christ’s suffering in order to persevere through their own. Amitai then returns to the Apostle Paul, who taught that “Jesus’ weakness and pain as a source of strength and something worthy of emulation” in 1 Corinthians 1:27, setting “down the principle that infirmity had spiritual value” (203). From this Amitai moves to discuss Jesus’ power to heal the sick and lame. In this connection, he writes about the influence of the artist Joseph Beuys, whose work on injury and illness aimed to “bring spiritual redemption to a diseased society (post-World War II Germany)” (204). Beuys, who sought to cure his nation, “compared his acts of healing to those of Christ, whom he saw as a source of inspiration and a spiritual role model.” Beuys had “a significant influence on Israeli art,” but, although he admitted knowing of his work, Mizrachi denied the connection. His work, unlike Beuys’, was ironic, not earnest. In a 1978 interview, Mizrachi explained that this is
the story of a man in Eretz Israel, who paid for people’s reaction to what he had said. This also implies a protest, but I cared for Jesus as if he were a friend of mine. I treated him as a Jew and not as a Christian. He occurred to me naturally, since we were both in Jerusalem. I identified myself with Jesus in his sufferings; they are mine. What I have to say about this can only be said in warm words which cannot be said in a large forum. Pride, nobility, beauty. (205)
Amitai cites art historian Jaroslav Pelikan, who characterized Jesus as “Liberator” in order to explain his influence on the modern social justice movements. But Amitai explains that for Mizrachi, “taking Jesus in a political direction was not his primary purpose . . .” despite the fact that his family was Iraqi, and that he was therefore a member of an ethnic minority in Israel (206). Instead, the pop art of Andy Warhol may have influenced his awareness of the “enormous power wielded by sacred images,” which in themselves recall “age-old theological questions about representation” by Jews and Christians. On page 79, Amitai included the famed sixth-century icon Christ Pantocrator found at the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. In his discussion of Mizrachi, Amitai, the art historian, writes:
The dual identity of Jesus, both human and divine, is fundamental to Christian doctrine, and the idea of perceiving him as totally divine was no less threatening than the possibility of seeing him as only human. Icons therefore sought to express both of these natures in a single “God-Man” (theanthropos) image, of which a very early example is . . . Christ Pantocrator. . . . Combining abstracted and naturalistic features, aloof timelessness and physical beauty, the painter of this icon was able to “convey pictorially the dogma of the two natures of Christ.” The gentle darkening on the right side of this portrayal, which may hint at this duality, recalls the play of light and shade in [Mizrachi’s photograph used in Via Dolorosa]. (207)
The subversive character of Jesus’ critique of both the Sadducees and the Roman Emperor enabled him to displace worldly power with his own divine power. Amitai turns to Hans Belting’s book Likeness and Presence to elucidate this shift, when
Roman soldiers were swearing allegiance to a painted portrayal of Jesus, and on the face of coins, Christ’s image displaced that of the emperor, who now only appeared as the “servant of Christ” holding the cross. The unity of the Christian empire was symbolized by the figure of Jesus, whose visual power derived not only from his divine omnipotence but also from his human weakness and vulnerability. (207)
Amitai finds in “precisely this combination” that Mizrachi proposes “a visual emblem of a spiritual figure whose power comes from his body, a disabled body following in Jesus’ footsteps” (208). “Unlike Jesus on his Via Dolorosa, weighed down by the cross upon which he was to die, Mizrachi carried an oversized image of himself, an icon that transformed the walk into a kind of procession honoring a saint. His icon moved the experience away from the immediate humanity of the historical, Jewish Jesus and closer to the realm of the divine, ineffable” and resurrected! Christ, enthroned in glory in heaven (208). Amitai concludes that unlike “artists who inflicted suffering on themselves,”
Mizrachi’s infirmity was authentic, and perhaps this is what led him to doubt that pain and self-sacrifice could change society. The work’s mixture of the iconic and the ironic, the personal and the collective, the human and the divine raises the following question: in a secular age, is the artist an ideological redeemer like Beuys or a cynical skeptic like Warhol? The complexity of Via Dolorosa, with its personal, social, and art-historical strata, makes Mizrachi’s engagement with the figure of Jesus among the most original in Israeli art. He identified with Jesus, especially with his suffering, and yet he challenged the use to which Christ’s iconic image—and, by extension, the image of the “artist-savior” has been put. (209)
Gideon Gechtman suffered from a heart defect that afflicted him throughout his life and led to his death. His sober interest in art was not consolation, but in learning about the capacity of art to transcend death: he called his work in its totality a mausoleum, an immortal monument that signals his victory over death. His stark self-portraits, photographs exposing his body and illness in a “deliberate, restrained, ironic, and skeptical” way, confront the viewer with death (210).
It is at this point in his narrative that Amitai explains the Christian doctrine of the “actual victory” of Christ over death, finding in Gechtman’s work a surprising and remarkable affirmation of the promise of eternal life and resurrection. “Gechtman the artist” understood that if art and life are separate, then art belongs to death, and that death is the result of disease. Gechtman’s art documents his medical history, including Exposure, 1975 *31. Following heart surgery, he collected ephemera from all of the procedures he’d undergone—his own hair as well as the medical supplies that he used. Amitai’s interpretation of Gechtman reflects his understanding of Christian art in terms of Catholicism. He writes that the “installation space looked like a blend of a clinic or hospital with a chapel housing the relics of a saint” (212). He explains that, “[u]nlike Judaism, which emphasizes the transience of the body and sees its dissolution into the earth as a natural and desirable process, Christianity attributes importance to bodily remains, at times sanctifying them and ascribing miraculous properties to them (213).” Indeed, Jewish Law sees death as a source of corruption and ritual uncleanness, while Christianity honors the dead body as the site of resurrection and redemption from death. The resurrected body will be returned to wholeness, it will experience life from the dead.
Our unease with this topic makes us uneasy with Gechtman’s work. It is too graphic; it hits us too close to our own unresolved fears and anxieties about our own health and mortality. The Christian artistic tradition, however, gives the artist unlimited material for his explorations of wounds, blood, bones, hair, skin—and even the heart, the sacred heart of Jesus, the source of eternal life. Gechtman’s artificial heart valve, manufactured through science, makes his art an exploration of science, a denial of the miraculous. Amitai explains:
Death and the question of what happens after death—which is in turn connected with the idea of reward and punishment—posed a theological question that became more complex as religion developed over time. In the Hebrew Bible, death would appear to be final (“For dust you are, and to dust you shall return”; Gen. 3:19); [and I write this on Ash Wednesday] there is no afterlife in paradise or in hell, the immortality of the soul is not discussed explicitly, and there is no religious role for those who have died (“The dead cannot praise the Lord” Psalms 115:17). Death is presented as an irreversible given, with no hope of a compensatory afterlife. The New Testament presents a different view altogether: the apostle Paul regarded death as a mighty foe that had to be overcome (“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death”; 1 Corinthians 15:26)—and could be overcome, through belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Victory over death was exemplified by the story of Jesus, whose resurrection held out a promise for humanity and became a cardinal principle in Christianity. (216)
As we know, New Testament teachings regarding death, resurrection, and the world to come are drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the Book of Job, Ezekiel, and Psalms. Amitai’s interpretation of Gechtman’s art opens up space for the Messianic Jewish community to articulate our understanding of the Jewish controversies over the concept of resurrection during the Second Temple Period, when the Sadducees rejected the idea of eternal life, and the Pharisees affirmed it. Gechtman believed that he “had to undergo a metaphoric death in order to attain eternal life. His expected physical death was vanquished by his artistic creation, and it may be no coincidence that he published his obituary announcements when he was thirty-three, the age of Jesus at the crucifixion” (216).
And then his son Yotam was diagnosed with a rare and fatal illness. The artist photographed the young child lying in his hospital bed “from an angle that brings to mind the early Renaissance masterpiece The Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna” included in the catalog on page 242. In this brilliant treatment of perspective, Mantegna depicted the foreshortened body of Jesus “as viewed by someone standing just at the bed’s end, close to the soles of his pierced feet” (218). Amitai writes that “[b]y photographing Yotam in this way, Gechtman paid homage to religious art” that affirmed faith in the resurrection. Despite the artist’s “confirmed skepticism and his rational approach to life and death . . . it is difficult not to detect a longing for a miraculous reprieve in this poignant photograph” (218).
Both Mizrachi and Gechtman related to Jesus personally and autobiographically. In the 1970s, body art was important internationally. These two artists used this method to express Israel’s changing social ethos. The Yom Kippur War marked a time of growing Israeli anxiety over its capacity to overcome its enemies; this vulnerability was expressed through a new Jesus—a simple human being, neither Jewish nor Christian, a man of sorrows who had experienced pain and who offered hope for healing and yes, even victory over death.
8. The Lamb and the Word
This section returns to more conventional work, beginning with Menashe Kadishman’s haunting image of a lamb *33, which Amitai juxtaposes with an anonymous work from the 14th century entitled The Mandylion—“The Holy Face” of Christ from the Armenian Church of St. Bartholomew in Genoa, Italy. The Mandylion represents the cloth that covered the face of Jesus in death and is a common motif in medieval art, but this work depicts Christ with his eyes open, his aspect sad and knowing. Kadishman’s lamb is really just an impression, as its whiteness melds into the whiteness of the rest of the canvas, with only one prominent eye looking calmly at the viewer, and the suggestion of the outline of the muzzle and ears in charcoal grays. It is a tranquil work that soothes the viewer after the graphic images from the previous chapters.
The lamb seems to be in the process of disappearing, connecting it to Amitai’s discussion of the next work, Kadishman’s sculpture “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” Standing at the entrance to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the sculpture is of “two biblical mothers . . . perhaps Sarah and Hagar” whom Amitai explains is the mother of Ishmael, based upon his mistaken belief that the Quran identifies the son that Abraham willingly offered as a sacrifice (221–27). The Quran actually does not identify the son, leaving the point ambiguous enough to generate considerable discussion among Muslim scholars. The point that Amitai is making, however, is that Abraham is missing from the sculpture, paralleling, in his view, the “absence of God (the Father in Christianity) in depictions of the Crucifixion.” Instead, in Christian iconography the focus is upon the women present at the Crucifixion: Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Mary, the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. Here, Kadishman is taking the traditional story of the binding of Isaac as a prefiguration of the Crucifixion. The sculpture was created in the early 1980s following the series of Israeli invasions that culminated in the occupation of southern Lebanon and the Sabra Shatila massacres. “Isaac’s face lays flat on the ground beneath an upright ram’s head and alongside two lamenting figures (221).” The composition resembles traditional representations of the Crucifixion and the Deposition—the placement of the body in the tomb—the horizontal horns of the ram suggesting the arms of the Cross.
In another work, a sketch from the Akedah translated “Sacrifice” series from 1989 shows Isaac lying dead, face upright, arms outspread as if crucified, with three birds suggesting crows or vultures descending upon him. These images depict a sacrificed Isaac; the lamb does not replace the murder victim. Kadishman’s work communicates “mourning and horror, not redemption or resurrection” (222). Sheep had always figured prominently in Israeli art, often used in landscapes, but Kadishman was the artist who focused the most attention on the Lamb as a symbol “bearing a distinct burden of victimhood, both local and universal” (224). He explained, “The image of the sheep came back to me as a sacrifice and as a human symbol of the death of young men in Israel’s wars” (224). In this section of the catalog, Amitai introduces his Jewish readers to all of the most significant biblical scriptures relating to the image of a lamb, including Isaiah 53. For many, this will be the first time that they encounter the Christian understanding of the Lamb of God. Amitai concludes his commentary on Kadishman by observing that “the sheep he painted, with their sad, gentle, and somehow empathetic gaze, have much in common with icons of Jesus and the saints. The Christian spirit of the preeminent symbol of Jesus, the Lamb of God, hovers over Kadishman’s Israeli icons” (227).
The remainder of this chapter of the catalog examines the work of Michael Sgan-Cohen, Tamar Getter, and Michal Na’aman (228–43). Sgan-Cohen “often used a format and image reminiscent of a Christian icon” (228) to portray himself as a biblical or secular character. Amitai chose the 1981 work entitled Coat of Many Colors, a stark composition, which while evoking the story of Joseph confronts the viewer with a self-portrait of the artist wearing the uniform of a concentration camp inmate. Sgan-Cohen also used texts in his work leading Amitai to observe the “tension between Judaism, which gives words pride of place, and Christianity, a religion of revelation in which image overshadows text.” He continues this observation, writing, “Texts integrated into his work are the spirit, images of the body are the flesh, and many times the texts themselves are the image. The spirit is present in them, while the flesh is present in the body and face of the artist” (230). This, Amitai concludes, ties in with Jewish mysticism, where letters are not only “the building blocks of language” (231) but also the means by which the world was created, referring the reader to the Gospel of John, where “the Word” created the world and was made flesh among us.
Sgan-Cohen also produced works that relate to the Crucifixion, particularly a sketch found in one of his diaries, in which he depicted himself embedded into a cross, arms held tightly against his body rather than outstretched. Above his head he wrote, “For Rebellion is the Sin of Witchcraft”—1 Samuel 15:23—which Amitai takes as a symbol of Sgan-Cohen’s rejection of Christianity, affirming Judaism as a religion of disputation. In the Leaning Crucifixion, he painted a self-portrait affixed to a narrow wooden plank, resembling a sign, enigmatically signaling the artist, himself, in unresolved tension with Jesus, the founder of “an ossified faith . . . fossilized in churches and in art” (232).
Tamar Getter attempts in her work to create a new iconography and visual lexicon by drawing upon Zionism’s cultural mythology. Her work uses the cultural associations with specific events, people, and places—“Tel Hai, Hulda, Nabi Yusha, and the Six Day War.” Her dialogue with Christian art enabled her to construct her own vocabulary, beginning with Tel Hai *34, the site of a 1920 battle in the northern Galilean outpost during which the Zionist hero Joseph Trumpeldor was killed. Getter found a sketch of the courtyard in a 1954 guide to the Galilee by Zev Vilnay, and made it into the focal part of the series, exhibited in 1978 at the Israel Museum. She based one of the images in the exhibit upon a portrait of a sleeping guard from Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection to “satirically” exchange the centrality of the Jesus in the Italian painting for the face of the sleeping guard which hovers above the courtyard, linking this image with the idea of the “shomer”—the guard, so important in Zionist history—who, like God, “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psa 121:4).
Whatever the complex reality of this episode was, in Zionist collective memory, the Battle of Tel Hai exemplified the bravery of the outnumbered few, a struggle in which the weak took on a mighty enemy. The spirit of Jesus, the sacrificial victim who inspired so much of Western culture, hovers above an out-of-the-way Jewish stockade at Tel Hai (242). This surprising awareness that the Jewish savior accompanies Israel in her battles is truly remarkable.
Michal Na’aman engaged Christianity through her use of Christian symbols and New Testament texts. Her work is also graphic; the surface of her paintings “resemble lacerated, bloody skin and relate to the centrality of Jesus’ body in Christianity.” The idea of the incarnation, the body and the word, dominate her explorations of “visibility and concealment” and “physicality and spirituality” (235).
The Israeli artists’ fascination with Jesus’s embodiment is a theme which we encountered before as we have gone through this exhibition; one is struck that this fascination is one that it earthly, corporeal, and fleshly, the exact qualities that the gnostics rejected in their rejection of the humanity of Christ. Amitai discusses Na’aman’s The Gospel According to the Bird *35 to make the point that “there is something disturbing about her unfamiliar pairing” of a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, and the fish, the symbol of both Israel and the early Christians. He writes, “The bird may be the bearer of the gospel, but now that it has been joined to a flightless fish, it cannot deliver its good tidings” (236). The conundrum of Israel’s witness cannot be made more clear: As Amitai explains: “The visual and verbal disruptions are interconnected; if the bird is the bearer of the gospel, then this gospel must be distorted, as it can be neither articulated nor broadcast”—it is neither fish nor fowl (236). Her later works return to explorations of the canvas as Jesus’s bleeding body: “the ‘bleeding’ layers of the work evoke miraculous secretions” (236–37), familiar in Christian paintings. Naaman subverts “the miraculous aspect of the painting by revealing its mechanism”; another example of the tension between realism and supernaturalism in Israeli art.
Amitai ends this section poignantly, concluding,
in Getter’s work, the death of Jesus, which resulted in eternal life for those who believed in him, as well as the death of Trumpeldor, who died to realize the Zionist dream, have lost the great meaning that was attributed to them. The risen Christ is replaced by a sleeping guard who did not see the resurrection, an allegory for those pagans (and Jews) [sic] who did not believe in it. The skeptical attitude towards Zionist and Christian myths communicated by this sleeping watchman leaves no room for hope or redemption. As religious and ideological representations collapse into one another, Jesus and his cultural legacy are simultaneously present and absent. (242)
Amitai’s brilliant exegesis of the hiddenness of God in Israeli art is nowhere more incisive than in these passages.
9. Signs of the Cross
Amitai explores the work of artists Efrat Natan and Joshua Borkovsky in this section, writing that “both engaged with a subject that is central to Christianity: the vera icon, the true image, by depicting the cross without a crucified figure,” or abstractions evoking figurative representation. Natan’s parents were founders of Kibbutz Ruppin, and her experiences there shape her body and installation art. She uses the image of the sleeveless undershirt so central to kibbutz life—symbolizing the “socialist pioneering ethos of physical labor and material austerity, values embraced by those who had turned their backs on what they saw as the decadence of European culture—not unlike the rebellion of Jesus and his lowly followers, who condemned the materialism of the Jewish leaders during the Second Temple period. The pioneer’s sleeveless undershirts again appear in this era, this time in photographs like Natan’s Roof Work: Golgotha *38 with its references to medieval German paintings depicting the Crucifixion and to 1970s “body work” (244–6). Her work includes installation, sculpture, photography, and performance. Borkovski *39, on the other hand, “restored painting to its central place in Israeli art” in the late 70s and early 80s. Natan’s work, and Borkovsky’s return to traditional painting, both tap into “archetypes from the history of Christian art—specifically, the representation of Jesus—and to inform their creative approaches to the question of the true image.
10. I, We, and the Other
In the final section of the exhibit, we encounter the iconic photograph (*50) of Israeli soldiers eating the Last Supper, modelled upon the famous painting by Leonardo DaVinci. Adi Nes portrays the soldiers as “they eat an ordinary evening meal at an army mess table, laid with red-colored army dishes (indicating that this was a meat meal…) and basic food (mostly bread)” (267). Nes created the work in 1999, four years after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and a year before the Second Intifada—the Palestinian Uprising. Nes chose to focus on the betrayal of Jesus to examine the “possibility that the soldiers, like Jesus’ disciples, are emissaries of a force more powerful than themselves, as well as victims of a national political situation over which they have no control” (269). It is the government that betrays these young men, “who may be eating their last supper before leaving for the war that their masters set in motion” (269–70).
In another photograph, entitled Aisha al-Kord, Khan Yunis Refugee Camp *47, Micha Kirshner depicts a Palestinian woman holding a child in her lap. The child is wearing a tunic suggestive of a tallit, and the woman, veiled, recalls Mary. They are posed in the classical shape of the pieta, which depicts Mary holding the broken body of Jesus. This powerful image portrays Palestinians as victims of Israeli violence. Similarly, Boaz Tal Self-Portrait with my Family, Pieta with Notre Dame *48 portrays an Israeli family in a typical Israeli home—his own—in the same pose. Other works in this section depict Israelis who have also lost loved ones, sacrificed for the nation.
The exhibition closes with a video made by Sigalit Landau—a video of herself, nude, standing on a watermelon in the Dead Sea, which required her to take a cruciform shape as she struggled to keep her balance. The image “recalls Immaculate Conception iconography in which Mary is shown standing on the moon.” Amitai explains that Standing on a Watermelon in the Dead Sea *51 combines the themes of the Virgin, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection—and Jesus’ miracle of walking on the water. The image also conveys the idea of the power of God over the Cosmos, a hopeful sign that despite all of the violence and sorrow of this world, God reigns.
One of the strengths of the exhibit is that Amitai presents Christian works that relate to Jewish art. This is important for Messianic Jews in our relationship to the Church. In his foreword to the exhibit catalog, James S. Snyder, the Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum, wrote that the exhibit “approaches the figure of Jesus and related Christian themes” by entering the complex realm of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity to examine for the first time the significance of the presence of Jesus among the Jewish people through European Jewish and Israeli art. The power of Christian symbols—to individual artists and to the Jewish people as a whole—represented in this collection created a public space to consider “the rapprochement that has developed between Christians and Jews” particularly in light of the unconditional evangelical support of Israel and Zionism. The Israel Museum, through this exhibit, hoped to foster “dialogue and discourse between Israeli Jews and Jerusalem’s many Christian denominations” (9–10). One way that the exhibit succeeded in creating a space for Israel’s diverse communities was to increase their awareness about one another, and to embrace those differences as a result of the public reception of this exhibit.
Missing from this exhibit is any recognition of the Jewish presence in the Church throughout its history, an explosive thread in the hidden history of the Jewish people. Another project would be to examine the artifacts of Eastern Christianity, especially the ancient Aramaic, Semitic churches of the Middle East. This would include the biblical links to Islam via Nestorian and Eastern Orthodoxy in the late Roman period, carrying over into the biblical roots of Islam which have attracted scholarly attention to hidden dimension of the cultural history of the Middle East and Asia since the nineteenth century.
Through this outstanding exhibit and its accompanying catalog, the Hidden Messiah of Judaism has been revealed as the emblem of the persecuted Jewish people and the symbol of a new Jewish civilization in the Land of Israel, as our countryman who suffers grief at being misunderstood by our own people, as dissenter from worldly power and the violence of the state, and as our brother who, like us, suffers pain, disease, and sorrow. This exhibit and catalog testify to the presence of Yeshua in Jewish history and Jewish thought. As Jewish believers reinterpret the rabbinical legacy in relation to Yeshua, we are seeing the fascinating phenomenon of young Yeshua followers returning to the Halacha as an important factor in our Jewish identity. Rather than ethnicity, these young men and women recognize that God has used the Torah and Halacha to preserve the Jewish people. In this way, in our generation, Yeshua is reinterpreting Halacha through a newly observant Messianic community.
Judith Mendelsohn Rood taught Jewish, Christian, and Islamic history over an academic career spanning the era between the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Tree of Life Massacre in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. Tree of Life was her family’s synagogue, where her grandmother and father were lifelong members. Rood’s education included a sophomore year at Hebrew University, studying Modern Hebrew and Arabic, Middle Eastern history, and international relations. After earning her BA at New College in 1980, she did an internship at the Egypt Desk at the United States State Department, and went on to study Arab and Islamic history at the University of Chicago. There Yeshua miraculously interrupted her life, resetting her course and blessing her beyond anything she had ever dreamed or imagined. Rood later received a fellowship at Hebrew University, where she researched the Arab history of Jerusalem during the early nineteenth century in the Islamic court archives, the first woman to do so. Her book, Sacred Law in the Holy City was republished in 2020 as a paperback.
Rood retired as Emeritus Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies at Biola University in 2018. She and her husband, Paul, live by the mighty Pacific Ocean and spend their days writing and walking and enjoying the blessings that Yeshua brings anew each day.
Rood’s work, except for Sacred Law in the Holy City, is archived on https://biola.academia.edu/JudithMendelsohnRood. To arrange a presentation of the works discussed in this paper, contact email@example.com.
1 The author thanks Michael Card for his permission to use the complete lyrics.
2 David Mevorah and Yael Israeli, Cradle of Christianity: Treasures from the Holy Land (Beachwood, OH: Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, 2006).
3 Phone Interview with Amitai Mendelsohn, conducted in two parts on January 25 and 27, 2019.
5 Numbers in parentheses throughout the article reference the page number of the exhibit catalog, Amitai Mendelsohn, Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art (Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 2017).
6 This name, as we’ve argued elsewhere, stems from the Messianic title “root of Jesse,” a name related to the term “Essenes”—(‘Isa’iin—Nabatean Aramaic/Arabic genitive plural from the Hebrew “Ishai”) referring to the sect which was expectantly awaiting the Messiah, described by Josephus and made famous by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This millenarian sect rejected the priestly authority of the Sadducees during the Hasmonean Period and took refuge in the Judean wilderness known variously in that period as Idumea, Nabatea, and Arabia, whence they eagerly awaited the coming of the Messiah. These, along with those awaiting the coming of the messiah in the north, known as the Notzrim, who supported the exiled Davidic family, became the core of the church following the Resurrection and Pentecost.
7 , Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
8 In another place, I argue that the idea of the Jewish Jesus and philo-Semitism in Germany led to idealization of the Aryan Christ by the Nazis. See: Judith Mendelsohn Rood, “Shoah/Nakbah: Offerings of Memory and History” in History (1933–1948): What We Choose to Remember, eds. Margaret Monahan Hogan, James M. Lies (Portland, OR: Garaventa Center/University of Portland, 2011), 411–48.
9 Judith Mendelsohn Rood and Paul W. Rood, “Is Christian Zionism Based on Bad Theology?” Cultural Encounters 7 (2011): 37–48.
10 Nurit Govrin, “‘Me’ora Brenner’: Ha-ma’avak ‘al hofesh ha-bituy” (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi, 1985), quoted in Anne Perez: “Apostasy of a Prince: Hans Herzl and the Boundaries of Jewish Nationalism,” Association of Jewish Studies Review 42:1 (April 2018): 89–110), 93.
11 Govrin, 93.
12 Harry Austryn Wolfson, “How the Jews Will Reclaim Jesus,” in Joseph Jacobs, Jesus as Others Saw Him, 2nd edition (New York: Arno, 1925). Reprinted in The Menorah Journal 49 (1962): 25–31; quoted in Warren Zev Harvey, “Harry Austryn Wolfson on the Jews’ Reclamation of Jesus,” in Jesus among the Jews: Representation and Thought, ed. Neta Stahl (New York: Routledge, 2012, 152–8), 152.
13 Tomer Persico, “How the New Israeli Judaism was Born,” Haaretz, February 23, 2019,
14 For example, see Mark Noll, Turning Points in Christianity, 4th edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2022).
15 “First Historical Evidence of King David from the Bible,” Biblical Archeology Society, June 14, 2022.
16 Mendelsohn, 121–23.
17 For example, see Noll, Turning Points.
18 For an excellent exegesis of this question, see “The Sacrifice of Abraham: Isaac or Ishmael(P)?” Islamic Awareness.