As I write these words, a somewhat controversial exhibition is underway at the London Jewish Museum of Art’s Ben Uri Gallery. The exhibition is entitled “Cross Purposes: Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion” and, running through September 19, includes works by both Jewish and non-Jewish painters. One critic, Benjamin Perl, complained that they should just call it a Christian museum. “From all the subjects from our heritage, why choose this?” he said in an interview. However, the Jewish Chronicle took on online poll, finding more supporters than naysayers. Co-chair of the gallery, David Glasser, remarked that “what was considered as the most sacred and holy of images—the Crucifixion—has evolved into a universal and generic motif.”

But why indeed? And why in a Jewish museum?

Matthew Hoffman—assistant professor of Judaic Studies and History at Franklin & Marshall College—focuses specifically on the Jewish use of images of the crucified Jesus in his recent book From Rebel to Rabbi: Reclaiming Jesus and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture. (The exhibition in London, on the other hand, includes works by non-Jews).

Though the first chapter deals with the rather well-known story of  the Jewish “reclamation” of Jesus as a Jew in Western Europe and America, it was the rest of the book that engaged me the most. There, Hoffman focuses on modernist Yiddish literature of Eastern Europe, much of which is inaccessible to the non-Yiddish-reader but some of which is translated in this volume. 

It indeed takes a book to describe the currents of Jewish life about which Hoffman writes. Especially in Eastern Europe, Jews embraced Jesus as a fellow-Jew, not in any Christian sense, but as a way to re-appropriate him from what Jews understood to be a Christian misinterpretation. Not a god, but a martyr. “Jesus,” stated Chaim Zhitlovsky, founder of the early 20th-century Yiddish socialist magazine Dos naye leben (The New Life), “was martyred as the first Jewish socialist revolutionary.”

On the other hand, embracing the Jewish Jesus was at the same time a way to share in the wider non-Jewish world, for adding Jesus to the “canon” of Jewish personalities meant sharing in some aspect of European/Christian culture. Hoffman captures the dual nature of what was taking place: “Did establishing Jesus as a figure within the modernist Yiddish literary canon serve as a way for modern Jewish writers to subvert Christian cultural claims on the figure of Jesus? Or was it merely a way to share in these claims as part of a broader cosmopolitan culture?” (p. 119; emphasis mine).

Either way, “for almost all modern Jewish writers Jesus? death is understood more within the Jewish tradition of martyrdom than the Christian tradition of vicarious atonement and sacrifice” (p. 125). He is “not … a redeemer, but … the archetypal victim of the world’s cruelty” (p. 152). And particularly of the world’s cruelty toward the Jewish people.

This kind of “re-appropriation” of Jesus was, as Hoffman points out, often polemical: You Christians are the persecutors, and you use Jesus to justify your persecutions. But we Jews know Jesus was a Jew like us, and we know he was not Messiah or Son of God but Martyr, Sufferer, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, suffering as we did. We take him back as he really is, and tell the true story!

What then is a martyr? Someone who dies for a cause, the cause of their beliefs? Or perhaps someone who dies simply for being who they are, because the world cannot stand who they are.  Messianic Jewish people, and the Church at large, believe Jesus to be Messiah, Atoner, Suffering Servant, Son of Man, Son of God. “Martyr” is typically considered the mislabeling of others who see him as a victim who did not outlast his political moment.

But is there a connection to the Yiddish writers Hoffman speaks of? Jesus was, of course Jewish. He died for a cause, and his cause was that of bringing atoning healing to the world. He died too, because the world could not stand him just as for much of its history it could not stand the Jewish people. Moreover, Jesus is part and parcel of his people, the Jews. When people suffer, does not God suffer too? When Jewish people have suffered, has not the Jewish Jesus suffered too? Jesus was Martyr, but he was not Victim. The modernist Yiddish writers may have been, in some ways, closer to the truth than they knew.