One Destiny: An Epistle to the Christians

views updated


Essay by Sholem Asch, 1945

An eloquent essay in favour of Jewish-Christian reconciliation, One Destiny (1945) nevertheless also expresses a critical approach to Christianity absent from most of Sholem Asch's novels. One Destiny begins with a statement of his faith in the interdependence of Jews and Christians and then seeks to confront Christians with the Holocaust's implications for Christianity. Critics have long suggested Asch's naïve, idiosyncratic faith had little to do with traditional Christianity or Judaism. The characterization of the Holocaust in One Destiny highlights the features of Asch's approach to contemporary and historical Jewish-Christian relations that, on the contrary, made his perspective both sensitive and realistic.

Asch's declaration of faith in One Destiny was designed to elicit a contrite attitude toward the suffering of the Jews from his Christian "brothers-in-faith," not to engage with the critics of his Jewish-Christian vision within the Jewish community. Written in English, not Yiddish, its language was carefully selected to affirm as much of Christian belief as possible by means of imaginative interpretations of Jewish teaching. Asch sidesteps the distinctive aspects of Christian theology, not because he denies them but rather in pursuit of a rapport with the Christian reader. Creating a single community of Jews and Christians did not follow from the argument in One Destiny , and Asch did not argue that Christianity was simply a form of Judaism. He did, however, reaffirm his often-stated belief that at the core of both traditions lay a common "messianic" belief, and Adolf Hitler's Holocaust was but the latest attempt by "Satan" and his "pagan" allies to obliterate both (a conclusion reiterated in later essays such as "The Guilty Ones").

According to One Destiny , the Holocaust reconfirmed the eternal and interdependent Jewish and Christian missions. Prompted by the anti-Semitic legacy of two millennia of false Christian teaching, Christendom had nevertheless stood by while the Nazis killed millions of their Jewish "brothers." Worse still, the persecutors of the Jews—Jesus's people—"called themselves Christian." For that, the German people would always bear "the mark of Cain," but Christianity as a whole had contributed to this situation by de-Judaizing their faith and in the process transferring the anti-Christian hatred of the pagan world onto the Jews. Throughout Christian history, the Church had persecuted the Jews, Asch argued. The memory of Jesus, by contrast, had always stood with his people. Although One Destiny is similar to other contemporary American works written to forestall the development of Christian anti-Semitism in the United States, Asch also drew on scholarly works on the Jewishness of Jesus and the common bonds between Jewish and Christian ethics that originated in Europe. Like Franz Rosenzweig (The Star of Redemption , 1921), for instance, Asch saw the messianic or prophetic ideal as the distinctive basis for Jewish and Christian faith, marking them off from Islam and other false religions.

The destruction of Polish Jewry lies at the core of Asch's perspective on the Holocaust in One Destiny. Evoking the efficient inhumanity of the perpetrators through a description of Heinrich Himmler's visit to the Warsaw Ghetto, he suggests that the underlying polarity revealed in the Holocaust was the conflict between pagan modernity and the faith expressed first by the Jews, and then by Christians. Asch, trying to express in Christian terms the faith of what he claimed were the vast majority of victims, the religious Jews of rural Poland, suggests that most would have "seen their messiah" as they were killed. Even the assimilated Jews of Western Europe, as much as they had wished to escape their Jewishness, were "taught" about their Judaism by Hitler. Whereas the Judaism of the Eastern European working masses was affirmed by the Holocaust, according to Asch, the rationalism of Western European Jewry was discredited by Hitler, not least because it lacked the "messianic" essence of Jewish faith.

Asch's hope was pinned on his American Christian readers, for "only they" recognized the Jewish gift to civilization. At a time when the British and the Arabs were jointly obstructing Jewish immigration into Palestine, only the United States, he concluded, provided an adequate haven for the remnant of the Jewish people. Published in the midst of the public furor over Asch's Christological works, One Destiny was widely classed as part of a syncretistic attempt to marry the two faiths together not simply in "one destiny" but as "one faith." This would be to misjudge it. One Destiny was a skillfully crafted appeal for a change in Christian attitudes to Jews and Judaism after the Holocaust. Asch made clear he believed the Holocaust con-firmed the distinctive historical "roles" of the two faith communities. He did not need more specific theological polemics to serve his purpose.

—George R. Wilkes