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.
Asher’s mother tries to understand her son’s artistic longings, yet says in exasperation, “Your painting. It’s taken us to Jesus. And to the way they paint women. Painting is for goyim, Asher. Jews don’t draw and paint.” Asher responds, “Chagall is a Jew,” but his mother cuts him off, “Religious Jews, Asher. Torah Jews. Such Jews don’t draw and paint.” Returning from a trip to Europe, Asher’s 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 protagonist’s personal and familial struggles resurfaced for me. Why? New York’s 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 Church’s 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 Chagall’s “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 Committee’s director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations (www.ajc.org)