Skip to comments.Pope Francis, Chagall And Asher Lev
Posted on 06/17/2014 4:23:28 PM PDT by Mrs. Don-o
Chaim Potok captured the strain of transition from religious traditionalism to artistic expression in his fictional character Asher Lev. As a young boy, Asher, a painter prodigy and the son of a chasidic luminary, is drawn to a Brooklyn museum where he surreptitiously views crucifixions and nudes. He subsequently paints such scenes.
Ashers mother tries to understand her sons artistic longings, yet says in exasperation, Your painting. Its taken us to Jesus. And to the way they paint women. Painting is for goyim, Asher. Jews dont draw and paint. Asher responds, Chagall is a Jew, but his mother cuts him off, Religious Jews, Asher. Torah Jews. Such Jews dont draw and paint. Returning from a trip to Europe, Ashers father sees the crucifixion drawings, and rages, Did I know how much Jewish blood had been spilled because of that man?
Forty years after first reading My Name Is Asher Lev, the protagonists personal and familial struggles resurfaced for me. Why? New Yorks Jewish Museum courageously showcased a critically acclaimed exhibit, Chagall: Love, War and Exile, earlier this year. Front and center were some Jewish Jesuses painted by Chagall during the 1930s and 1940s, as a distraught expression and call to the world about the horrific fate of Jews in Europe.
One painting of this genre, White Crucifixion, it turns out, is the Chagall work that Pope Francis admires most. Jesus is on the cross, but his loincloth is a tallit and he is encircled by scenes of endangered Jews. Chagall painted White Crucifixion in response to Kristallnacht. He may have been simultaneously communicating that the Jew was once again being martyred, and that it was the Churchs persecution of Jews in the name of Christ that had enabled the Nazi crimes.
How should Jews relate to Pope Francis attachment to White Crucifixion? There is certainly an element of syncretism in the work, melding Christian and Jewish beliefs. Jesus was, of course, Jewish, but for a pope to identify with a crucified Jesus albeit by a Jewish artist as a symbol of 20th-century Jewish suffering may be controversial. As Pope Francis recent visit to Israel clearly reaffirmed, his every gesture is analyzed for its deeper meaning.
On the other hand, Francis is the first pope to rise within a Catholic Church transformed through the revolutionary 1965 Nostra Aetate and subsequent teachings, which have moved to right two millennia of Catholic enmity towards Jews and Judaism. Pope Francis, a friend of the Jewish people who has reflected on the horrors of the Holocaust and Christian complicity, would not knowingly be callous toward Jewish sensitivities. Rather than expressing syncretism, he is simply moved by the most instinctual Christian image of suffering Jesus on the cross as a means to identify with Jewish suffering. And he is not afraid to express that in a post-Nostra Aetate era.
Until Pope Francis says more about his understanding of White Crucifixion we are still in the realm of art, not religion or theology. When an AJC delegation met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in February, we presented him with a copy of the Jewish Museum exhibit book inside an artistic and inscribed clam-shell box. We showed him page 105 of the exquisite volume, where a print of White Crucifixion is included because of its relevance to the exhibit.
Pope Francis was moved by our recognition of his emotional connection to the painting, and responded with a joyous smile.
The interaction was another moment in the remarkable journey of Catholic-Jewish relations, which has reached new heights with Pope Francis, notwithstanding the disproportionate media focus on Israeli-Palestinian conflict issues during his recent visit to Israel. His appreciation for symbolism as message was displayed recently when he hosted Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a Vatican garden, as they prayed together for peace.
Pope Francis embrace of Chagalls White Crucifixion is one of those symbolic messages summoning our respective interpretations of a pope whose layered positive relationship with the Jewish people will continue to unfold.
Rabbi Noam E. Marans is the American Jewish Committees director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations (www.ajc.org)
I posted this because "My Name is Asher Lev" was one of the few book I read when in was in my early 20's the really stuck with me. I think it helped me, a Catholic, gain a much deeper insight into the Jewish experience.
I'm fascinated that Chaim Potok, the Asher Lev book, Marc Chagall and "The White Crucifixion" have a special resonance for Pope Francis.
I haven’t read the book - I’ll have to check my library catalog.
... and ...
Requested. Chaim Potok’s original name was Herman Harold Potok.
There was an article about Pope Francis and Chagall in “First Things” not too long ago.
Thank you for posting this. I’ll be attending a three day seminar on sacred art. I’ll ask about this painting.
There is this book as well.
The Gift of Asher Lev
There is this book as well.
The Gift of Asher Lev
I saw that in the library catalog, as well. If I like the first one, I can check out others of the author’s books.
You might also like to read some of the writings of Franz Werfel. Very literary, very spritual, and giving an unusual but profound view of Christianity from a Jewish perspective. He was also of that interwar generation.
You might enjoy some other books by Chaim Potok; I did.
Thanks for posting this. I had a similar experience with “My Name is Asher Lev”. Recommend it to all.
“The Promise” also.
His History of the Jews is excellent too.
The way the author developed the theme of crucifixion and its impact for the Jewish culture is very powerful. The artist could find no other visual idiom to express the concept not simply of anguished suffering, but of suffering and self-sacrifice for others. It's not just crucifixion itself - the Romans crucified scads of people, including many Jews. It's the crucifixion of Jesus particularly that was the required type for the artist's purpose.
I'll have to try Cather's "The song of the Lark." I read "My Antonía" last year, and liked it very much.
“My Antonia” was mentioned on a FR thread years ago, and I checked out the audio book. I had refused to read it in high school and faked my way through the test based on information from class discussions. I ended up really liking it and went on to read most of Willa Cather’s other books.