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COMMENTARY: Pope Francis, Marc Chagall and the Jews

Marc Chagall with Solitude, 1933. Private collection. © Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris. Photo courtesy of The Jewish Museum

NEW YORK (RNS) Novelist Chaim Potok captured the strain of transition from religious traditionalism to artistic expression in the fictional character Asher Lev. Asher, a young painter prodigy and son of a Hasidic luminary, is drawn to a Brooklyn museum where he surreptitiously views crucifixions and nudes. He then goes on to paint 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.

Marc Chagall with Solitude, 1933.  Private collection.  © Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris. Photo courtesy of The Jewish Museum

Marc Chagall with Solitude, 1933. Private collection. © Archives Marc et Ida Chagall, Paris. Photo courtesy of The Jewish Museum

“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. In a rage, he asks his son if he knows “how much Jewish blood had been spilled because of that man?”

Forty years after first reading “My Name Is Asher Lev,” I have been thinking a lot about the protagonist’s personal and familial struggles. New York’s Jewish Museum recently showcased a critically acclaimed exhibit entitled, “Chagall: Love, War, and Exile.” During the 1930s and 1940s (first in France and then in New York, where he came after being rescued from German-occupied France), Marc Chagall painted Jewish Jesuses as a distraught expression and alarm to the world about the horrific fate of Jews in Europe.

The most popular person on the planet, Pope Francis, is a devoted fan of Chagall, and his favorite is the artist’s “White Crucifixion,” a 1938 painting on display at the Art Institute of Chicago that was not part of the Jewish Museum exhibit.

Chagall painted “White Crucifixion” in France, in response to Kristallnacht. Jesus is on the cross, but his loincloth is a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, and he is encircled by scenes of endangered Jews. Chagall may have been simultaneously communicating that the Jew was once again being martyred, and the church’s persecution of Jews in the name of Christ had enabled the Nazi crimes.

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, Sept. 11. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sept. 11, 2013. Photo by Paul Haring/Catholic News Service

How should we feel about Pope Francis’ embrace of “White Crucifixion?” There is certainly an element of syncretism here, melding Christian and Jewish beliefs.  Jesus was, of course, Jewish. And a pope identifying with a crucified Jesus (albeit by a Jewish artist) as a symbol of 20th-century Jewish suffering may be controversial. Also, some Jews might be offended by a Jewish museum exhibiting a collection of Chagall’s Jewish Jesuses. The Jewish Museum demonstrated institutional courage with its Chagall exhibit as well as prescience, unknowingly anticipating a papal connection.

On the other hand, Francis is the first pope to come of age within a Catholic Church transformed through “Nostra Aetate,” the revolutionary 1965 document that moved to end 2,000 years of Catholic enmity toward Jews and Judaism. Francis, a friend of the Jewish people, has reflected on the horrors of the Holocaust and Christian complicity and he would never 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.

Rabbi Noam E. Marans is the director of Interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee. RNS photo courtesy Rabbi Noam E. Marans

Rabbi Noam E. Marans is the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. Before joining AJC in 2001, he served for 16 years as rabbi of Temple Israel in Ridgewood, N.J. RNS photo courtesy Rabbi Noam E. Marans

Until Francis says more about his understanding of “White Crucifixion” we are still in the realm of art, not religion or theology. When representatives of the American Jewish Committee met recently with Pope Francis at the Vatican, we presented him a copy of the Jewish Museum exhibit book inside an artistic and inscribed box. We showed him page 105, where a print of “White Crucifixion” is included because of its relevance to the exhibit.

The pope was moved by our recognition of his emotional connection to the painting, and responded with a joyous smile. We, in turn, had the “nachas” (joy) of knowing that we had created a memorable and personal gift for a man who receives thousands of mementos, with an expression of gratitude for the pope’s affection for the Jewish people.

The gesture was another moment in the remarkable journey of Catholic-Jewish relations, which has reached new heights under Pope Francis. He asked us to pray for him as he prepares to visit Jerusalem in May, “so that this pilgrimage may bring forth the fruits of communion, hope and peace. Shalom!”

(Rabbi Noam E. Marans is the director of interreligious and intergroup relations for the American Jewish Committee.)


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Noam E. Marans


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  • A beautiful account of the good turn Jewish-Catholic relations are taking.
    One point–Two evil streams met to help make the Holocaust happen. The first, and oldest was the anti-Semitism that infected many quarters of the Church and European culture.
    But a second stream–virtually ignored today– helped create and added to the horror: The Master Race Theory that infected huge quarters of the academic and medical world-even in America according to some historians. The problem is that today some of the same ideas that led to the Master Race Theory are bubbling around as our culture charges forward to create things like “designer babies” through eugenics. Making the danger even more possible is the attitude of many scientists and researchers that no one should ever sit in moral judgment on whatever scheme or project they want to do. One can only wonder where the search for the perfect human baby might end. Will there someday be government death panels to figure out which conceived babies of which racial or ethnic groups shall be allowed to live???

  • You missed the obvious 3rd stream. The one which allowed the Nazis to recruit collaborators as both cannon fodder and mass murderers. The embarrassing one to Christians in general (your omission is telling here).Longstanding prejudices inflamed by Christian churches over the centuries.

    Many collaborated with the Nazis because they felt a religious duty to violently oppose Communism (and by association the Jews). The Catholic Church in Croatia worked hand in hand with the mass murdering Ustasha and even condoned mass forced conversion. Belgian Rexists, the Romanian Iron Cross, and every non-German/Austrian SS unit was recruited on the basis of religious appeals. Fighting for Christianity against the Jews and Soviets. [Finland being the exception].

    Christian based resistance to the Nazis and the Holocaust were few and far between. The only one openly sanctioned by a religious entity under occupation, was the Danish Lutheran Church. They worked to evacuate the majority of their Jewish population to Sweden. For their efforts, the Danes are the only nation named in their entirety as “Righteous Gentiles” at Yad Vashem [Israel’s Holocaust Museum] and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

    Religious animosities were so great that in Poland there were two resistance movements. The Catholic one and Jewish one. They usually worked against each other.

  • Larry, you should read more carefully. Who do you think I was referring to in my comment when I wrote: “the first and oldest anti-Semitism that infected many quarters of the Church and European culture?” Asian Hindus???.
    However saying “oldest” may not be correct. Some historians have concluded –based on old pagan writings that there was plenty of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere before the Church arrived on the scene.
    Sometime you should read: “Priestblock 25487-A memoir of Dachau” by Father Jean Bernard. His barracks alone in that hell-hole held 3,000 clergymen, the vast majority Roman Catholic priests.

  • You devoted one sentence to religious animosity and go on a tear about scientism and “eugenics”. As if the whole racial purity thing is just overlooked by historians. The whole Master Race thing is at best a footnote which makes documentaries sound interesting but was largely just rhetoric to make Nazi sadism sound better in public.

    Christian dogma, especially longstanding animosity to the Jews and anti-communism was very very useful in recruiting collaborators among those the Nazis would never have considered part of “the master race”. You should read about how the Catholic church’s involvement in the rise of Spanish Fascism and their involvement with Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia. Although many Catholic clergy resisted the Nazis, their leadership for the most part was either silent or collaborated openly with them.
    [One bright spot was Cardinal Montini, future Pope Paul VI who used Vatican assets to create sanctuaries from the war/persecutions]

  • One might also mention Karol Wojtyla who became Pope John Paul II. One of Karol’s closest friends while growing up was a Jewish kid, Jerzy Kluger, and they stayed in close contact and friendship through the decades. A beautiful book about their tight relationship is titled “The Hidden Pope” (by Darcy O’Brien). Also, Karol was almost killed for his anti-Nazi underground activities –activities which were supported by the Cardinal under which he was studying for the priesthood. Then there was the Cardinal who became John XXIII who had worked mightily to save Jewish lives when he was a Vatican diplomat in the Balkans and Turkey.

  • I would be cautious about any reference to “Spanish Fascism.”
    General Francisco Franco is credited with saving no fewer than 40 thousand
    and no more than 75 thousand Jews from Vichy France, Germany,
    Poland and Hungary. See “Hitler Stopped by Franco” by Jane and Burt Boyar
    (2001). Franco may have been medieval, but he was a friend of the Jews. On page 104 of the Boyar book we read, “In 1927, as a Colonel in Morocco, observing the Arabs persecuting the descendants of those Jews who had immigrated there four centuries earlier, Franco had written to the dictator of Spain, General Primo de Rivera, seeking and receiving permission to protect them with Spanish troops. Nine years later, in 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, the Moroccan Jewish community demonstrated its gratitude by coming to Franco’s aid with strong financial backing.”

  • , which is fully in the spirit of one of the down sides of sides of Ayn Rand, nalmey the temptation to do history a priori. This shows up in the claim that: The Israelis are like us, the Palestinians are not, therefore the Israelis must be right and the Palestinians wrong. This is sheer nonsense and intellectually inadmissible. When one group, which claims to speak and act in behalf of The Jewish People worldwide, engages in massive land theft and other atrocities, you can hardly be surprised when some members of the victimized group blame The Jewish People itself for the crime. Assigning collective guilt is wrong, but the Zionist movement invites it by asserting that it is represents The Jewish People. (Israelis routinely assign collective guilt to the Palestinians, punishing others besides the perpetrators of crimes.)The fact is that from the start, most Jews opposed political Zionism precisely because it would necessarily violate the Palestinians’ rights and because they abhorred the politicization of their religion, which they correctly predicted would corrupt the faith. (Today being a good Jew means little more than being unquestioningly loyal to Israel.)I close by again recommending Jeremy Hammmond’s carefully documented . This is an accurate telling of the ugly founding of the state of Israel. Anyone who knows me or my work knows that approach issues in good faith and with care. I was once a supporter of Israel. I grew up in a home that was devoted to the state, but a dispassionate investigation of the history caused me to change my mind. The Palestinians are the victims–and one need not approve of their corrupt “leadership” to see this. I heartily recommend Hammond’s work. There is much else that one can read after it, but it would make a fine start.”We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?” –David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister.