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Mel Gibson?s The Passion of the Christ: One Cantor?s Perspective

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ : One Cantor's Perspective

By Emily Blank

A friend of mine asked me, "Are you going to see The Passion of the Christ ?"" No," I said. "Why not?" asked my friend. I was taken aback. She knows that I am not only Jewish, but that I serve as a part-time cantor.

"I've heard it's kind of violent," I said. "Well, the movie tells it like it happened" she replied. "Hoodlums have come to church as a result of seeing that movie." "Um, uh," I temporized, "I have my own beliefs. Isn't it great to live in a country where we can each believe what we want?" Fortunately, this ended the discussion, but it brought into relief the different ways Jews and Christians perceive the movie. As it turned out, I eventually went to see the movie anyway, because I was given the opportunity to write this review.

Gibson has produced an emotionally powerful drama. While I cannot speak to the Christian perspective, this movie portrays movingly (and graphically) the torture Jesus suffered according to Christian tradition, as well as the grief of his friends and mother. I can only imagine what an intense spiritual experience this movie must be for many Christians, particularly since Jesus is part of the Godhead according to the Gospels, and died for the sins of humanity according to the New Testament.

From my own particular Jewish perspective, the main concern is whether the film is anti-Semitic. Will it incite or increase anti-Semitism? American Jews are blessed to live in a time and place where anti-Semitism is probably less overt and less hurtful than any time and place in history. However, we Jews, as a people, have been grossly persecuted for thousands of years. Even the name The Passion of the Christ is reminiscent of the Passion play produced in Oberamergau, Germany, that provoked horrible pogroms against Jews during the Middle Ages. Only a little more than fifty years ago, which is a short period in the scheme of Jewish history, the Holocaust, fed by the mistrust of Jews expressed in Passion plays, threatened our very existence as a people. Only after the horrors of the Holocaust became known, did prejudice against Jews become unfashionable. It is easy to believe that hatred of Jews lurks just below the surface for many Americans. This hopefully is not a realistic fear, but it is a real one. Whatever one's feeling about the Palestinian-Israeli problem, the whole mess has led to anti-Israeli feeling worldwide, and possibly anti-Jewish feeling. Therefore, we Jews are very sensitive to any phenomena that might exacerbate this tendency.

So is this film anti-Semitic? The answer is not obvious to me. Most of the characters who treat Jesus with real sadism seem to be Romans. While Caiaphas (and seemingly the Jewish crowd) want Jesus killed, does he (and the crowd) want Jesus to be tortured? The motivation of the Sanhedrin for killing Jesus seems to be that they are afraid of his influence, but what is the motivation of the masses? Do they want to avoid trouble with Pilate's Roman masters? Is Jesus a threat to the established order? Are they offended by what, to Jewish sensibilities, might be considered Jesus' blasphemy? (To a Jew of that era, the statement that "no one comes to the Father but by me" would have been arrogance of the highest order, if not idolatry. Idolatry was, technically, punishable by death.)

Or is there something more sinister going on? Will the audience see the mere lack of belief that Jesus is the Messiah as a mark of villainy? When Jesus is first beaten, some (presumably Jewish) boys seem initially sympathetic, but then appear to be demonically possessed and start taunting him. At other times, a demonic figure (who turns out to be female) moves through the crowd. Does this demonic figure represent the dark side of humanity or a devilish element in Judaism? I have no idea what this really represents or how it will be interpreted by movie viewers.

The demonic figure gives this movie a supernatural quality that I find personally unappealing. It emits a whiff of a horror movie that detracts, I think, from the general message of the movie. Most of the other characters, whether sadistic or caring, seem real, and some of the Jewish characters seem very human, including Jesus' mother, Mary Magdalene, Jesus' brother James, the man who helps (if grudgingly) Jesus to carry the cross, and even Judas. The scenes of Jesus' spiritual torment before he is arrested and of Judas' spiritual torment when he gives back the thirty pieces of silver are especially moving. Some of the female characters come off as positively saintly in this movie, including Pilate's wife Claudia, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus' mother. The dress of the latter two is reminiscent of that of modern day nuns' habits.

In sum, I personally did not find this movie to be a spiritually uplifting experience, but I did find it a thought-provoking one. Some Christians may find the excellent acting and directing make the spiritual experience of viewing this film worth the excruciating violence. I just hope they can remember that the brutality suffered by Jesus (according to this movie) has also been undeservedly suffered by many mere mortals, Jews and others among them.

A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.)
Emily Blank

Emily Blank teaches Economics at Howard University and serves as cantoral soloist. She lives in Maryland with her husband John Dillon and their three cats.

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