Teaching Israeli students about Jesus Christ is a fascinating experience. I am not talking about Christian theology, but about his depiction in the Gospels, as a literary character.
Generations of Jews saw Christ as an adversary and a foe, the cause of their endless sufferings. Most didn’t even pronounce his name, referring to him as ‘that man’. In the modern age, Zionism has focused completely on the future of the Jewish people. The Christian world, a variety of perspectives and worldviews, was perceived only through Zionist spectacles: as a realm exterior to Jewish life, distorting it by its ruthlessness. Eventually, this shaped the Israeli education system. Even today, most high schools do not teach the foundations of Christianity, which are, of course, imperative for understanding Western civilization.
But art, as is often the case, heralded a change. From the early twentieth century, several Israeli writers attempted to examine Jesus from a fresh perspective – not as victims of Christianity, but as independent thinkers who are influenced by it. Since the foundation of the State of Israel, the common sentiment of a persecuted minority has been transformed into a notion of potency and stamina; this, in turn, created a new, open-minded attitude to the image of Christ.
Pinhas Sadeh (1929-1994), an Israeli novelist and poet, was one of the forbearers of this change. Born in Poland, he immigrated to Israel with his family at a young age. A colourful character, some would say even controversial, a poetic soul surrounded by young admirers. At the age of 27 he published Life as a Parable. The book is a collection of personal experiences, each one illustrating a certain theme. Several years after its publication, it became a cult book among young people.
Though all the events depicted in the book unfold in Israel, it is hardly apparent. They could have taken place anywhere. Sadeh neither accepts Zionism nor rejects it. He exists in a universal human sphere; an artist unchained by any ideology.
Life as a Parable is profoundly influenced by the image of Jesus and the New Testament: an acknowledgement of human suffering, forgiveness, spiritual love, and the enlightenment of religious life. The author examines his surroundings from a fundamentally Christian perspective.
In his portrayal of Christ, Sadeh completely ignores the complex historical questions regarding his life. Jesus is the emblem of universal good, the healer of the sick and the maker of miracles. Yet he is also tormented and lonely, betrayed by his disciples. Chapter twelve is a direct depiction of the passion of Christ. It begins with the author’s description of his own loneliness. On a cold, rainy night in Jerusalem, freezing in an attic, he is looking through the window and the world looks like a “single thick cloud – opaque, black, eternal”. In his desperation he turns to the Gospels, “I have read the story of his life (perhaps twenty times, perhaps fifty)”.
His point of departure for connecting with Christ is the notion of solitude; fundamental human loneliness, existential isolation. In his desperation he finds comfort in this ideal man, all generosity and kindness, who also experienced loneliness: “…lonely in the world, since his mother and brothers, it is told, felt he was dull-witted, and his disciples abandoned him in the hour of decision — so he lived the true and naked meaning of human life. He spoke of another life, another country, another time, of other rooms, faces, seasons and bodies, of another love…”.
He then portrays the miracles Christ performed out of mercy for the poor, the sick and the miserable, his love of the sinners, his aching heart witnessing human pain. Sadeh also refers to the poetical aspect of the New Testament. Describing the Sermon on the Mount he says, “…then (the scripture says) he left the desert and came to the Galilee. And there he went up the mountain and said the most beautiful words ever uttered by a poet. He spoke of the comfort that is contained, like a fruit in the seed, in mourning, of the fulfilment that is contained in thirst, of the Kingdom of Heaven that shrines with a dim but never-fading glory from out of the rags and tatters of human existence… “. The greatness of Christ is illustrated in both his acts and his words.
The students listen attentively; some look bewildered, encountering this perspective of Christianity for the first time. Here are some of their thoughts and questions:
– If Jesus was such an enlightened man, how come the Church was so cruel and ruthless, especially to us, the Jews?
– Why didn’t Sadeh convert to Christianity? Is it possible to believe in Christianity without being Christian?
– I am sure Sadeh read the Old Testament. How can he say that Christ’s words are ‘the most beautiful’?
– I never knew Jesus used so many parables. I feel it leaves more place for a personal religious experience than strict Jewish rules.
– Looking at Sadeh’s depiction of him, in what way is Jesus Christian, and not Jewish?