Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 936

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During the four decades between his first ventures into short fiction and the publication of his novel Der Man fun Notseres(1943; The Nazarene, 1939), Sholem Asch established himself as the most important Yiddish writer of his time, as well as a spokesperson and a crusader for his people. Although The Nazarene was a best seller, it roused a storm of protest among Jews. Certainly, Asch’s timing was unfortunate. Asch’s story of the life of Christ appeared when Jews were facing the most widescale persecutions in their history. It is hardly surprising that many embattled Jews viewed the book as evidence that Asch had left the faith and was urging others to follow his example or, alternatively, that he was an unprincipled opportunist, aiming at high sales among Christian readers or, perhaps, a Nobel Prize.

Asch was stunned by such accusations. His dedication to Judaism was as strong as ever. Moreover, the subject of The Nazarene did not mark a new departure in Asch’s interests. As early as 1906, he had planned to write a book about Jesus, whom he regarded as one of the outstanding Jews in history. With this goal in mind, he had been collecting materials on primitive Christianity for some thirty years; during his numerous trips to the Holy Land, the subject had never been far from his mind. Asch’s purpose in writing The Nazarene, The Apostle, and Mary (1949), the story of Jesus’s mother, was not to glorify Christianity at the expense of Judaism, but to show his readers how deeply Christianity was rooted in Judaism and to remind them that adherents of the two faiths share the same ethical systems and worship the same God. In this way, he hoped, he could bring about a reconciliation between Christians and Jews.

Although most of his Jewish critics did not see it at the time, thematically, Asch’s Christological novels are no different from his earlier works. Asch had always emphasized spiritual values. His heroes had always been Jewish leaders, often rabbis, who devoted themselves to God. Asch often revealed his impatience with legalistic technicalities, especially when they served to separate human beings from their God, and he deplored factionalism, which so often sprang from an emphasis on the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law. Because of convictions like these, as well as his profound knowledge of those distant times, Asch respected the founders of the Christian church, including Jesus; Paul and the other apostles; and Mary, the mother of Jesus. As a deeply religious Jew, he understood these other devout Jews, even though he himself had no interest in adopting their faith.

In The Apostle, Saul is introduced as a person with just one aim in life: to serve his God. By nature, he is a fanatic. He cannot admit anything in his life that might distract him from his purpose. Therefore, he rejects the useful, respectable life his parents had intended for him, as a learned rabbi with a wife and a family. In order to avoid the sins of the flesh, he not only avoids women, but, from time to time, he even embraces the ascetic rules of the Nazarites; to avoid the sins of the intellect, Saul continually scrutinizes his ideas and those of others for any taint of heresy.

Ironically, Saul does not experience any uncertainties about his spiritual well-being until after he has become a Christian. From that time on, he is in constant conflict with himself. On one hand, he is as strong-willed as ever. On the other hand, he is mindful of Jesus’s insistence on submitting to suffering rather than inflicting suffering upon others.

When Saul, or Paul, is sent to spread the gospel among the Gentiles, he does not feel threatened by paganism. It is clear that the pagan gods are dead. They serve merely to prop up the authority of the state or provide occasions for dissolute behavior. The Gentile world is more than ready for a faith that has some substance and offers some hope. What disturbs Paul is that the Gentiles who accept his news with such joy face rejection from his own people, the Jewish leaders of the new church, who insist that the only way into Christianity is through Judaism. For male Gentiles, that means circumcision. Paul understands that to Greeks, imbued with the ideal of physical beauty, circumcision is abhorrent. Because Christ always stressed the spirit, not the law, Paul is infuriated by the legalistic quibbling of the men in Jerusalem, who are making it difficult for him to fulfill his mission.

Unfortunately, Paul’s increasing hostility toward the Jewish Christians has been misinterpreted as a reflection of Asch’s own views, perhaps of some antipathy toward Judaism. In reality, although epic in scope and crowded with characters, The Apostle is primarily a character study. In Paul, Asch sees a great man, whose single-minded passion for God gives him the strength to do great deeds, while his inability to compromise produces conflicts with others and within himself. Paul’s life illustrates how intolerance can damage an individual, while the history of the infant church shows how inflexibility can threaten an institution.

Both Christianity and Judaism continue to be troubled by factionalism. In Asch’s novel, however, Paul finally learns to subdue his will and, in submission, he becomes whole. By thus identifying Paul’s most important achievement as a spiritual one, Asch offers further proof of the kinship between Judaism and Christianity. As The Apostle shows, both great faiths are based on the assumption that human life is, above all, a spiritual matter.