Three Influential Jews of the Past and Some Lessons for Today
Samuel Gompers – Pursuing Social Justice
Samuel Gompers was born January 27, 1850, into a traditional working-class family in London. The family was previously from Amsterdam and involved in the cigar-making trade. His parents (Sarah and Solomon Gumpertz) seem to have come from a traditional Jewish perspective and saw to it early on that Samuel would receive Jewish training. Therefore, at age six he was enrolled in the Jewish Free School, where he received a basic secular and religious education. Things drastically changed, however, when at age ten Samuel was forced to quit school to financially assist his struggling family. He soon was sent to work as an apprentice cigar maker and managed to continue some night studies in Hebrew language and Talmud. It was ultimately because of this dire situation that the family decided to immigrate to America in 1863, settling in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan alongside multitudes of their Jewish landsmen. At age 14, Samuel joined the Cigar Makers Local Union No.15 and it was during these early days that he noted many of the challenges of his fellow laborers:
Any kind of an old loft served as a cigar shop. If there were enough windows, we had sufficient light for our work; if not, it was apparently no concern of the management. . . . Cigar shops were always dusty from the tobacco stems and powdered leaves. Benches and worktables were not designed to enable the workmen to adjust bodies and arms comfortably to [the] work surface. Each workman supplied his own cutting board of lignum vitae and knife blade. . . . (This trade) a good cigarmaker learned to do more or less mechanically, which left us free to think, talk, listen, or sing. I loved the freedom of that work, for I had earned the mind-freedom that accompanied skill as a craftsman. I was eager to learn from discussion and reading or to pour out my feelings in song.1
The young Gompers continued to advance in this trade and was greatly influenced by his eclectic variety of co-workers and managers, from socialists to the growing trade unionists of the day. But the largest event to influence his thinking came with the financial collapse of 1877. Suddenly workers were in desperate straits with no health coverage or unemployment benefits, while the “capitalist” management keep infringing upon any gains made by the earlier unions. Gompers remained fully committed to the Cigar Makers Union, but he began to realize that the real need was for a larger coalition of unions that could uphold workers’ protections. This led to the founding of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886 with Samuel as its president, where he served until his death in 1924.
With such a high profile, Gompers was a man not immune to controversy. He was nearly jailed in 1911 for co-publishing a boycott list of uncooperative companies. This case went all the way to the Supreme Court where his cause was exonerated (Gompers v. Buck Stove and Range Co). It may surprise some of us today, but like most labor leaders of his time, Samuel opposed open immigration as he saw this as a threat to the established American worker. The AFL often supported early legislation such as the 1921 Emergency Quota Act which, at that time, made a strong connection with the Democratic Party as the representative body of most of the working class. This also explains some of the context even today of the long relationship between the labor union movement, the Democratic Party, and the great majority of the American Jewish community.
Gompers would actually evolve into a supporter of the conservative branch of the broader labor movement, as he often renounced socialism and endorsed a brand of more compassionate capitalism. Labor Historian Melvyn Dubofsky has written,
By 1896 Gompers and the AFL were moving to make their peace with Capitalism and the American system. . . . Although the AFL had once preached the inevitability of class conflict and the need to abolish ‘wage slavery’, it slowly and almost imperceptibly began to proclaim the virtues of class harmony and the possibilities of a more benevolent Capitalism.2
In short, Gompers simply desired economic justice that included higher wages, shorter hours, and improved working conditions for the working, lower class. He is credited with setting the foundation for the tools of collective bargaining and contracts between labor and management that are still implemented today in entities from teachers’ unions to Major League Baseball. Likewise, there are numerous monuments to this important Jewish leader in major US cities and his name graces many institutions from schools, a US Navy ship, and a public housing project in his beloved Lower Eastside of New York.
So what are some lessons for us today? Samuel Gompers was clearly a man of conviction for the concerns of the lower class. Of course, he was human and had his imperfections, yet we can glean some important lessons for our current society, and even reflect on some of the biblical values he promoted. First and foremost, his work and goals remind us of a central verse of the Torah: “Tzekek, tzekek tirdof, Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut 16:20). For Gompers this translated into fairness and equity for the oppressed lower-class workers of his generation. The values of economic justice and, more broadly, social justice continue to be hot-button issues in our current generation.
As I write this essay, American society is in the midst of two monumental challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic and the ugly manifestation of inequality especially in regard to the Black community. Of course, many can testify that the current awareness of racism in America is not something new, but it has certainly reached a boiling point with the high-profile death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Many are realizing that these are not just isolated events but that there are some longstanding systemic issues that still need to be addressed. This is not to legitimize acts of violence or extremism from any side. Nor does this exempt us from taking an honest look at some of the problems that still plague American society. Actually, the COVID-19 pandemic, while seemingly unrelated, has served to shine a light on the connection between social justice and economic justice. It has become abundantly clear that those who start at an economic disadvantage (as too often the Black community) are forced to struggle with the challenges of inadequate health care, affordable housing, and inferior educational opportunities.
Samuel Gompers was not the only voice in these challenges, but he certainly exemplified the values of tzedakah and put these values into concrete action. A multitude of biblical verses remind Israel of the ongoing need to help the less fortunate, from leaving the corner of your field for the hungry to showing concern for those still enslaved in the mire of injustice (cf. Lev 19:9– 10; Exod 23:9; Isa 10:1–4). It is not only the values of the Torah but also the personal experience of the Jewish people that should keep these points in laser focus. We help the downtrodden because we have been there many times; whether the slavery of Egypt or the pogroms of modern Europe. It seems that Samuel Gompers, even as a non-religious Jew, was influenced by these innate Torah values and could see the need for correction within his own world. For us Messianic Jews and those affiliated with us, the Torah and the Prophets continue to be our moral conscience in these tumultuous days. In addition, we have the extra benefit of the New Covenant wisdom regarding social justice issues. With the revelation of Yeshua as Messiah, we have not only a teaching from God but a living example of social justice. In the famous Shabbat service at his home synagogue, Yeshua read from the Haftarah passage to highlight his own ministry to Israel:
The Spirit of Adonai is upon me;
therefore he has anointed me
to announce Good News to the poor;
he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the imprisoned
and renewed sight for the blind,
to release those who have been crushed,
to proclaim a year of the favor of Adonai. (Luke 4:18–19 CJB, quoting Isa 61:1–2)
In this proclamation, we have the perfect balance of social activism and spiritual life. Most of the secular world knows we have a broken society but is frustrated trying to find a lasting repair. This is where the Good News of Mashiach can take us the extra mile by giving us that new heart to transform our lives, with the overflow to our world. Much of the American labor movement was established with Jewish biblical values in mind. Many of us today are stressed and worried as we consider the tumult in our communities and among our friends. Unfortunately, many turn such issues into a strictly political debate and even invoke pejorative tags on those they disagree with. Concern for the less fortunate should not be simply a political issue but a non-partisan moral imperative from our God. It may seem overwhelming, yet all believers should pray carefully about how we might bring extra light and justice to those around us. We can start by being educated students of history, both American and Jewish. It seems like an opportune time to take a step of faith outside your own synagogue community to get involved in a social justice cause that speaks to your heart and can be a stepping stone to share the heart of Yeshua.
May we learn from the example of this one Jewish man, Samuel Gompers, who took important steps towards social justice in his own day. Tzedek, tzekek tirdof!
Emma Lazarus – Advocating for a Welcoming Society
A second influential Jewish person of the recent past also shines a light on a current controversy. Emma Lazarus was born in New York City, July 22, 1849, into a large Sephardic Jewish family. She was the fourth of seven children of Moses Lazarus, a wealthy sugar merchant, and Esther Nathan. One of her great-grandfathers on the Lazarus side was from Germany; the rest of her Lazarus and Nathan ancestors were originally from Portugal and took up residence in New York long before the American Revolution. The family was in fact part of the original twenty-three Portuguese Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam fleeing the Inquisition from their settlement of Recife, Brazil.3 Lazarus’ great-great-grandmother on her mother’s side, Grace Seixas Nathan (born in New York in 1752) was also a poet. Lazarus was also related through her mother to Benjamin N. Cardozo, only the second Jewish justice appointed to the Supreme Court (after Louis Brandeis). Although Emma comes from impressive “yichus” (ancestry), her immediate family was not known for their personal involvement in the Jewish community. The Lazarus family was unaffiliated with any synagogue and young Emma seemed uninterested in her Jewish heritage until mid-life. Privately educated by tutors from an early age, she studied American and British literature as well as several languages, including German, French, and Italian. She was attracted in youth to poetry, writing her first lyrics at age eleven.
Emma Lazarus wrote in a rather conventional style for her times but nonetheless started receiving attention in her teens. One high-profile endorser was Ralph Waldo Emerson, with whom she exchanged correspondence and to whom she even dedicated one of her poetry books, Admetus and Other Poems, in 1871. Her early scholarly life focused on European and American poetry and cultural studies but that began to change as Lazarus took notice of the Jewish plight in her day. She was particularly captivated by the masses of Jewish immigrants arriving in the new wave of those fleeing the pogroms of Russia in 1881-1882. Still focusing on her passion for poetry, the topics of her prose began to evolve with a renewed interest in her Jewish heritage. Lazarus translated some of the Sephardic works from Yehudah Halevi and wrote several contemporary articles supporting the new Jewish “foreigners” in such publications as Century Magazine in 1882. At this critical time, Lazarus was digging more deeply into the Jewish experience as she published such works as The Dance to Death (about the burning of Jews during the Black Plague), The Banner of the Jew (reflections of nascent Zionism), and even An Epistle to the Hebrews (maybe she read some New Covenant?), which encouraged the growth of Jewish national life in both the USA and the Holy Land. After a trip to Europe, Emma became ill and died in November, 1887, at the age of 38, and is buried at Beth Olam Cemetery in Queens.
For sure, Emma Lazarus’s most lasting contribution came as she penned the sonnet “The New Colossus” in honor the Statue of Liberty, which was a recent gift from France to the USA. Lines from her sonnet appear on a bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, which was placed in 1903. The sonnet was actually written in 1883 and donated to an auction conducted by the “Art Loan Fund Exhibition in Aid of the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund for the Statue of Liberty” to raise funds to build the pedestal. Some of the phrases are well known but one must read the entire sonnet to recapture its heart:
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Some commentary is helpful at this point. The title of the poem and the first two lines reference the Greek Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. This was a famously gigantic sculpture of Helios (the Greek sun god) that stood beside the entrance to the harbor of the island of Rhodes in the 3rd century bce. In the poem, Lazarus contrasts that ancient symbol of grandeur and empire (“the brazen giant of Greek fame”) with a “New” Colossus – the Statue of Liberty, a female embodiment of commanding maternal strength (“Mother of Exiles”).
The “sea-washed, sunset gates” are the mouths of the Hudson and East Rivers, to the west of Brooklyn. The “imprisoned lightning” refers to the electric light in the torch, then a novelty. The “air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame” refers to New York Harbor
New York Harbor with the Hudson River (far left), the East River (right) and the
Statue of Liberty (foreground). This is contrasted with the depiction of the Great Colossus.
between New York City and Brooklyn, which were separate cities at the time the poem was written, before being consolidated as boroughs of the City of Greater New York in 1898. The “huddled masses” refers to the large numbers of immigrants arriving in the United States in the 1880s, particularly through the port of New York via Ellis Island. Lazarus was an activist and advocate for Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia. The main point of the Statue of Liberty and Lazarus’s poem is that they are compelling reminders that America was serving as a welcoming society to this wave of international immigrants.4
There are many connecting lines that go back even further than the massive immigration of the late 19th century. The 4000-year Jewish experience is replete with societal lessons as seen in the Torah, the Prophets, and the New Covenant writings. From our first father Abraham, to those delivered at the first Passover, our people have easily empathized with those who are the “other.” The Torah makes this early declaration: “You must not exploit or oppress an outsider, for you were outsiders in the land of Egypt. You must not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you mistreat them in any way, and they cry out to Me, I will surely hear their cry” (Exod 22:20–22, TLV).
In a famous midrash we are told that Abraham never had a permanent home but dwelt in tents as a sojourner. On top of this, all the doors of his tent were always open to the stranger who might be passing by, with the invitation to “stay the night and bless God” (Genesis Rabbah 54.6).
Numerous other passages of Torah emphasize the high priority for the Jewish people to never forget our immigrant experience. One of the Ten Commandments exhorts us to include the outsider who is within our gates in observing Shabbat (Exod 20:10). Scholar Abraham Heschel notes that the Prophets of Israel went beyond “mere feeling,” noting that it is “action that will mitigate the world’s misery, society’s injustice, or the people’s alienation from God. Only action will relieve the tension between God and man.”5 It is informative that the Tanakh and Talmud differentiate between the nochri and the ger; the former being from another people not even interested in connecting with Israel while the latter speaks of a non-Jew who desires to participate in the religious life of Israel. Unlike the nochri, the ger is bound by many of the laws of Torah, such as holy days, and receives the same treatment under the law as a native Jew. In this way, “human liberty is immeasurably enhanced . . . and the cause of social justice is promoted by legislating the inalienable right of every human being, irrespective of social class, to 24 hours of complete rest every seven days.”6
This perspective is not to be confused with the aberrant contemporary teaching of some that there is “One Law” for both Jews and all gentiles (meaning “Christians” today). A careful study of the Torah and New Testament clarifies the distinctions between Jews and various groups of non-Jews even today. Rabbi Sha’ul makes this clear as he teaches the believers of Ephesus. The gentile followers of Messiah are reminded that they were in the category of nochri in their earlier life; that is, strangers to the covenants and things of the true God. But now they are no longer strangers and have been brought near (but not made Jews) by the work of Yeshua (Eph 2:11–13). Yeshua likewise exhorted his followers to be mindful to assist the hungry, the thirsty, and the stranger, as they may be unknowingly assisting even him (Matt 25:31–46).
All this reminds us that the stranger or immigrant is close to God’s heart. The Jewish people are to never forget this reality and now grafted-in Christians likewise have a similar spiritual experience. Which brings us back to Emma Lazarus and the sentiment of her poem that graces the Statue of Liberty. We happen to live in very polarizing times where the status of the stranger is hotly debated. The politicians and the secular world will continue to espouse their convictions. Believers in the Torah and New Covenant must also pay close attention to the values of our tradition. It is interesting that the ger was to be subject to the legal structure of Israel. It was not exactly an “open border.” But America was actually built by immigrants and virtually all of us descend from those who fled to this “goldene medina/golden land” from very difficult places. No wonder that these values have been part of the Jewish DNA from the days of Abraham right down to present day. A classic example is found in the over 2000 rabbis (of all denominations including Messianic) who recently signed a petition which states: “As Rabbis, we take seriously the biblical mandate to ‘welcome the stranger.’ We call on our elected officials to uphold the great legacy of a country that welcomes refugees.”7
We pray that there will soon be a new consensus on how to update our immigration policies to better reflect a spirit of welcome to those in need. To me this is not about any current political positions or party affiliation but ultimately about the higher authority of spiritual values. In the Scriptures we see a spirit of welcome and protection of the stranger and asylum seekers. With the biblical foundations of the USA, it seems we would do well to meditate on the beautiful reminder that Emma Lazarus left for us attached to the Statue of Liberty.
Sholem Asch – Intrigued by the Jewish Jesus
This brings us to an amazing and controversial Jewish figure of the recent past. Sholem Asch (Szalom Asz) was born in Kutno, Poland, on November 1, 1880, to Moszek Asz (1825–1905), a cattle-dealer and innkeeper, and Frajda Malka (born 1850). Frajda was Moszek’s second wife; his first wife, Rude Shmit, died in 1873, leaving him with either six or seven children (the exact number is unknown).
Sholem was the fourth of the ten children that Moszek and Frajda Malka had together. As the family was Hasidic, young Sholem received a traditional Jewish education. He was considered the designated scholar of his siblings, and his parents dreamed of him becoming a rabbi and sent him to the town’s best religious school (cheder), where the wealthy families sent their children. There, he spent most of his childhood studying the Talmud, and would later study the Bible on his own time.8 Asch grew up in a majority-Jewish town, so he grew up believing Jews were the majority in the rest of the world as well. In Kutno, Jews and gentiles mostly got along, barring some tension around religious holidays. He had to sneak through a majority-gentile area to get to a lake where he loved to swim. There he was once cornered by boys wielding sticks and dogs, who demanded he admit to “killing Christ.” Out of fear, he admitted to killing Jesus and they promptly beat him. Sholem never lost his fear of dogs from that incident and it makes one wonder how the incident affected his view of the New Testament faith.
In his adolescence, Sholem became aware of major social changes in popular Jewish thinking. New ideas and the Enlightenment (Haskalah) were asserting themselves in the Jewish world. At a friend’s house, Sholem would explore these new ideas by secretly reading many secular books, which led him to believe himself too worldly to become a rabbi. At age 17, his parents found out about this “profane” literature and sent him to live with relatives in a nearby village, where he became a Hebrew teacher. After a few months there, he received a more liberal education at Wloclawek, where he supported himself as a letter-writer for the illiterate townspeople. It is in Wloclawek that he became enamored with the work of prominent Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz. It is also where he began writing. Sholem attempted to master the short story and wrote in Hebrew. What he wrote there would later be revised, translated into Yiddish, and ultimately, launch his career.
In 1899, Sholem moved to Warsaw and initially wrote in Hebrew, but his enlightened friends convinced him to switch to Yiddish. Asch’s reputation was established in 1902 with his first book of stories, In a Shlekhter Tsayt (In a Bad Time). In 1903, he married Mathilde Shapiro, the daughter of the Polish-Jewish teacher and poet Menahem Mendel Shapiro.
In 1904, Asch released one of his most well-known works, A Shtetl, a romanticized portrait of traditional Polish-Jewish life. In January 1905, he released the first play of his highly successful play-writing career, Tsurikgekumen (Coming Back). Sholem created no small controversy, however, when he wrote the drama Got Fun Nekome (God of Vengeance) in the winter of 1906 in Cologne, Germany. It is about a Jewish brothel owner who attempts to become respectable by commissioning a Torah scroll and marrying off his daughter to a yeshiva student. Pushing beyond the Jewish boundaries, the play likewise included a lesbian relationship. It also made it to New York theater in 1907 with the Haskalah crowd cheering it as “artistic and beautiful” while the religious crowd vilified it as “filthy and immoral.” Nothing like a good controversy to launch a career!
Asch subsequently traveled to Palestine in 1908 and the United States in 1910, a place about which he felt deeply ambivalent. In the pursuit of a safe haven from the violence in Europe, he and his family moved to the United States in 1914, moving around New York City for a while before settling in Staten Island. In New York, he began to write for The Forward, the mass-circulation Yiddish daily that had also covered his plays and provided both income and an intellectual circle.
Asch became increasingly active in public life and played a prominent role in American Jewry’s relief efforts in Europe for Jewish war victims. He was a founding member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. His Kiddush ha-Shem (1919), chronicling the anti-Jewish and anti-Polish Chmielnicki uprising in mid-17th century Ukraine and Poland, is one of the earliest historical novels in modern Yiddish literature. In 1920, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Asch returned to Poland in 1923 but continued many international travels. He cultivated friendships with some fascinating contemporaries such as Rabbi Isaac Lichtenstein (who endorsed Yeshua as Messiah) and artist Marc Chagall (who likewise painted Yeshua in messianic themes). Perhaps some of these pioneers influenced Sholem to dig into the history revolving around the Jewish Yeshua (a name he consistently used in the 1930’s). He offended Jewish sensibilities with his 1939–1949 trilogy, The Nazarene, The Apostle, and Mary, which dealt with New Testament subjects. Despite accusations of conversion, Asch remained proudly Jewish and insisted that he had written the trilogy not as a promotion of Christianity but as an attempt to bridge the gap between Jews and Christians, especially in a post-Holocaust world. He seemed to be intrigued with the idea that the religions are closer than they think and the key to it all is looking at the New Testament with a Jewish cultural lens. Much of his readership and the Jewish literary community, however, did not see it that way. His long-standing employer (Yiddish newspaper Forward) not only dropped him as a writer but also openly attacked him for promoting Christianity (sound familiar to some of us today?).
Although he was accused of converting to receive Christian acceptance, Asch clearly paid a dear price by losing the accolades of his beloved Jewish community.9 Yet, despite unceasing negative opposition, he never wavered in his idealistic vision for both Jews and Christians to fully appreciate the Jewish Yeshua and to fulfill our common calling. In his own response to some of the Jewish controversy, Asch defined his vision in the dark year of 1945:
I can see no hope for our unhappy world save that which lies in the renewal of the moral and spiritual estates which our common ideal of faith has created—in our strengthening hold upon those possessions and in our turning to them with hearts full of faith, in fear of God, in love for him and in love for his creation—Man. . . . We must all together (Jews and Christians) help each other in finding the way back to God. It is upon America, young and strong in her faith, that the mission has been placed of renewing the Jewish-Christian ideal as the only means of salvation for a world in flames.10
Asch and his wife left the USA in 1953, subsequently splitting their time between London (where their daughter lived), continental Europe, and Israel. Asch spent most of his last two years in Bat Yam near Tel Aviv, in a house that the mayor had invited him to build, but he died in London at his desk writing on July 10, 1957. Had he died two or three decades earlier, his funeral would have drawn massive crowds, but due to his controversies it was instead a small funeral in London. His house in Bat Yam is now the Sholem Asch Museum and part of the MoBY-Museums of Bat Yam complex of three museums. The bulk of his library, containing rare Yiddish books and manuscripts, as well as the manuscripts of some of his own works, is held at Yale University. Although many of his works are no longer read today, his best works have proven to be standards of Jewish and Yiddish literature.
With all of Asch’s amazing contributions in the field of literature, we modern Messianic Jews are especially drawn to his apparent fascination with Yeshua and the Jewish context of the New Testament. According to the Scriptures, there has always been a remnant of Jews who, in every age, have been faithful to the full revelation of God (Rom 11:1–5). Although this remnant has been a distinct minority within the Jewish community, there are always those in more modern times who have been intrigued with the Jewish context of the New Testament account. In some stretches of Jewish history, this has been a rather large remnant as in the first century expansion of the Yeshua movement (Acts 2:41–47). It must be noted that, when properly understood, this first century expansion was not the start of a new religion, but of a new understanding of our ancient faith. What is often portrayed as the birth of the “Christian church” is, in reality, a movement within the Jewish community to add this messianic perspective of Yeshua as that promised One. The Jewish context of this early movement is clear from the fact that the Jewish Yeshua-believers continued in a Torah-observant lifestyle and spoke frequently of the inherent consistency between their Jewish faith and faith in Yeshua (Acts 21:20; Rom 11:29; Jas 2:1–2).
There seems little doubt that Sholem Asch was one of those Jews who was intrigued by the original Jewish background of the Yeshua faith. Asch was not the only educated Jew who was drawn to Yeshua but he was certainly a pioneer in his own day. In the early 20th century there were numerous Jewish converts in the Church, but Sholem stands out as different. Although accused by many of converting, he consistently affirmed that he would always be a Jew. He is a bit of an enigma as we are not clear concerning Sholem’s heartfelt faith. Was he, as he often claimed, simply trying to build a bridge of understanding between Jews and Christians? One wonders how he could pen three comprehensive novels on New Testament themes without having a degree of faith in the message.
For those of us in modern Messianic Judaism, there are important lessons to be gleaned from this fascinating landsman. First, we are blessed to live in a day of heightened interest in the Jewish context of Yeshua and the New Testament. This was not always the case even a few decades ago, but now it is a common assumption. It seems to be prophetic that Time magazine predicted one of the top ten upcoming trends for the year 2008 would be “Re-Judaizing Jesus.”11 This has certainly helped many of us from various Jewish backgrounds to consider including Yeshua in our Jewish faith expression. Second, although the Jewishness of Yeshua is now more commonly appreciated, we Messianic Jews often experience rejection because of our personal faith as it is co-mingled with our Jewish identity. Although it may be debated about the exact faith of Sholem Asch, he experienced unceasing rejection from the larger Jewish community along with accusations of conversion to another religion. Contemporary Messianic Judaism often finds itself in the same line of fire despite our strong assertions that we are not converts. Why else do we have messianic synagogues and live a Torah-observant lifestyle, as opposed to a Christian lifestyle?
Sholem Asch was a lone voice in the wilderness of his day. It makes one wonder how much he would have appreciated connecting to the contemporary Messianic Jewish community and synagogue. Finally, the intrigue that Asch shows towards the Jewish Yeshua reminds us that there is a growing number of Jews today who have the same curiosity and questions. It is true that many (especially the gatekeepers) will continue to oppose or simply try to ignore this possibility of Yeshua. But it is obvious that within the Jewish grassroots, there are many captivated by the same intrigue that Sholem Asch reflected in regard to the most influential Jew in world history. This bodes well for the continued growth and influence of modern Messianic Judaism. If the Scriptures are true, then this Jewish curiosity will ultimately culminate in the national embrace of Yeshua as our Redeemer and King, as all Israel calls out “Baruch haba b’shem Adonai/Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!” (Psa 118:26; Matt 23:37–39).
Thus, we see three influential Jews of the recent past: Samuel Gompers, Emma Lazarus, and Sholem Asch. All three had an immense impact on their generation with residual lessons for our day. Their respective focus on social justice, a welcoming society, and the Jewish Yeshua can give us inspiration and encouragement as we do our part to repair the world through the redemptive power of the risen Messiah.
Barney Kasdan is rabbi of Kehilat Ariel Messianic Synagogue in San Diego. He became a follower of Yeshua in 1971 and holds degrees from Biola University (B.A. History) and Talbot School of Theology (M.Div.). He also completed a year of post-graduate study at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Rabbi Kasdan is author of several popular books including his most recent commentary on Ephesians (Messianic Jewish Publishers). Rabbi Barney has also served for 11 years as a chaplain for the San Diego Police Department. He and his wife Liz reside in San Diego and have four grown children and three granddaughters. Barney adds: “We are blessed that Elliot and Joyce moved from Columbus, Ohio, to San Diego in 2011 and have been a vital part of our messianic community at Kehilat Ariel. It is a joy to walk together as we serve Messiah!”
1 Samuel Gompers, Seventy Years of Life and Labor (Ithaca, NY: ILR, 1984), vol. 1, 44–45.
2 Melvyn Dubofsky, ‘Big Bill’ Haywood (Manchester, U.K.: University of Manchester Press, 1987), 17. As cited in Wikipedia.org.
3 “Four Founders: Emma Lazarus.” jewishvirtuallibrary.org.
4 Much of this historical information is from various sources in the wikipedia.org articles on “Lazarus” and “The New Colossus.”
5 Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 396.
6 Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, ed. David Lieber, et al. (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), 446.
7 See the full text by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society at hias.org.
8 Much of this biographical information is culled from various sources on Wikipedia.org and myjewishlearning.com.
9 Hayim Lieberman, The Christianity of Sholem Asch (New York: Philosophical Library, 1953), 1.
10 Sholem Asch, One Destiny (New York: Putnam, 1945), 87–88.
11 A recent book reflecting this growing interest is by scholar Paula Fredriksen. The title says it all: When Christians were Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).
New York Harbor with the Hudson River (far left), the East River (right) and the Statue of Liberty (foreground). This is contrasted with the depiction of the Great Colossus.