Pangs of an Apostle: Israeli author looks back at a divisive figure / by R. Sheth

November 15, 2013
By Pauline Dubkin Yearwood

Israeli playwright Motti Lerner has never shied away from controversial subjects (right-wing settlers, Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, Jonathan Pollard), but his new play, “Paulus,” is different. It’s about a historical character whose life and work have barely figured into Jewish thought, although Lerner believes they should have.

That’s Paul, otherwise known as St. Paul, Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul, Paulus.

Silk Road Rising, the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Chicago company that produced Lerner’s “Pangs of the Messiah” in 2009 is presenting the world premiere of “Paulus” through Dec. 15. Silk Road commissioned the play’s translation from Hebrew into English and presented it in several staged readings in 2012.

So what’s a 21st-century Israeli Jew doing writing about a first century Roman Jew like Paul?

Actually, the play grew out of his interest in another historical Jew – Jesus, Lerner, a distinguished playwright, screenwriter and professor in Israel said during a recent phone conversation from his Chicago hotel. (He’s in town for the play’s opening and has worked closely with Silk Road Rising throughout, he says.)

“The more I learned the more I realized that Paul is more interesting for me.”

One of the directors at Israel’s Habima National Theatre, where Lerner often works, suggested a production about Jesus. He began to research the subject and, he says, “the more I learned the more I realized that Paul is more interesting for me. I realized that there was a whole world, the world of early Christianity, that being an Israeli I wasn’t aware of.”

He was particularly fascinated by how early Christianity separated from Judaism. “It raises interesting questions,” he says. “And looking at Paulus – the Greek name he used – the more I read about him the more I felt he was a very radical modern man who probably started his mission 2000 years earlier than he should have.”

That mission: “Preaching for globalization, monotheism, universalism,” Lerner says. “He didn’t really accept the idea of ethnicity – that the world should be divided into ethnic groups. He said, there is no difference between man and woman, slave and master, Greek, Roman, Egyptian. He wondered why the Jewish community in Jerusalem in the first century wasn’t ready to accept those ideas.”

What was most fascinating to him, Lerner says, was “the struggle (Paul) led, the opposition to his ideas. The High Priest was his major opponent. He was afraid that universalizing monotheism would be the end of the Jewish identity. Then what would be so special about the Jews?”

In the play, an aging Jesus and an egomaniacal emperor Nero torment Paul as he struggles to universalize monotheism while facing opposition from a Jewish establishment that fears his ideas. (In reality Paul and Jesus were of different generations and never met; the play uses allegorical elements.) Lerner says the struggle has parallels in modern-day Israel.

“Paul said, if you want to globalize monotheism it must be without the commandments. The High Priest couldn’t accept the idea that the commandments are unnecessary,” he says.

“I am a secular Jew, I do not follow the commandments, but I think I’m a very good Jew anyway,” Lerner, who defines himself as an atheist, says. “We have the same conflict in Israel today between those who follow the commandments and those who say I can lead my life without them.”

When Paul was sent to preach in other countries, Lerner says, “he saw that Gentiles were also human beings and also deserved to be redeemed, to have the knowledge of G-d.” When he returned to Judea, his ideas were rejected and he went on trial in front of the Sanhedrin, who found him not guilty. He was later tried by the Emperor Nero and executed.

“It was all an internal Jewish matter. The split was among ourselves.”

“The most fascinating thing of all is that we all know that Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew,” Lerner says. “And Paulus was born and died a Jew. It was all an internal Jewish matter. The split was among ourselves.”

Most Israelis don’t know about the fascinating history of early Christianity, Lerner says, and “because of Christian anti-Semitism of the last 2000 years we didn’t want to know. I think at the moment we are able to be more courageous. I don’t feel I’m threatened by anti-Semitism; maybe that’s why I am more open to knowing what happened.”

In “Paulus,” which Lerner says is “a very complicated play” that required much research, “the Paulus character is a very modern man, very conflicted in himself about faith, about losing his faith, about redemption – what does it mean, how do we struggle for redemption? I don’t really believe in redemption in the religious sense but we have to struggle for a better civilization – that is redemption to me.”

Lerner stresses that the Paulus of the play is not necessarily the historical Paul in all details, but is a psychological portrait of the man, just as the Jesus of the play is “the spirit of Jesus, not Jesus the man. He is an old man looking back and realizing that his own revolution hasn’t succeeded.”

“Paulus” has not yet been produced in Israel, though Lerner hopes it will be, especially since Israelis don’t have much interest in early Christianity, he says, and he would like to change that. “I’m an Israeli writing for Israelis, and I want to contribute to the Israeli discourse,” he says.

“I hope people won’t feel threatened by it,” he adds. “I am certainly not a missionary, but I am interested in learning about my own identity. Of course some people will feel threatened. In Israeli religious circles you don’t even mention the name Jesus, don’t even pronounce the word. But I think for other Jews it could be an interesting opening to finding out more about one’s own identity.”