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To See Or Not To See The Passion? Some Bold-Faced Names Weigh In on the Question of the Week

March 2004

This article is reprinted with permission of The New York Jewish Week.

NEW YORK, Feb. 25 -- With Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ opening this week, Jews were faced with a dilemma: to see or not to see the blood-drenched biblical epic that essentially blames the Jews for the killing of Jesus.

We asked a few of our favorite New York City residents if they were rushing out to see the film or trying to avoid it.

Writer and political activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin: "I'm expecting to see it this week. I really hate to put my money down for this, but I'm going to see it in a small town in Connecticut with my daughter, and we're very eager to see what a non-New York City response is. I've been so opposed to the enormity of the Jewish reaction to it, which I think was strategically wrong, but I am curious. I don't want to be offering my opinion on something I haven't seen."

Orthodox Rabbi Meir Fund of The Flatbush Minyan: "Unequivocally no, I am not going to see the movie. A Jew is not permitted to go to Mass, not permitted to worship in a Hindu temple and by the same token not permitted to have any kind of relationship with the Christian version of idolatry. There is a major discussion among halachic, Jewish legal, authorities whether Christianity is defined as idolatry for Christians, but everyone unanimously agrees that it is idolatry for Jews."

Comedian and actress Susie Essman, who plays Susie Green on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm": "I definitely won't see it. I don't want to give it the energy. I don't want it in my brain. I don't want Mel Gibson's perceptions to have any kind of effect on my perceptions, so I'd rather not see it. I don't want to give it the money either, but my 10 bucks isn't going to make much of a difference either way."

Judith Helfand, independent filmmaker, co-director with Daniel Gold of Blue Vinyl: A Toxic Comedy, currently playing on HBO: "This morning I was waiting for a taxi outside Penn Station and a guy came up and said, 'Jesus Loves You, and Jesus Loves You,' and he wouldn't go away. I just feel like that's in response to that movie. I wanted to tell him 'Oy, you and Mel Gibson are making me crazy.' Last week, waiting for the train inside Penn Station I saw on TV that QVC is selling replicas of nails used to nail Jesus to the cross. They can't keep them on the shelf; people are going to wear these like they wear crosses. On leather thongs. My mother would have seven words for this: 'This Is Not Good For The Jews.' This makes me really uncomfortable. But I will go to see the movie because I feel like I need to understand popular culture."

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism: "I'm seeing it Wednesday afternoon at a nearby theater. We have a movement conference call on Thursday morning about it, which I'm moderating. So far we have 280 people participating, rabbis and temple presidents, which is a lot, even for us. We'll have a number of experts speaking on it. We want to give them information they'll need to handle it locally. This has become, for better or worse, a defining moment in Jewish-Christian relations. What happens now is going to tell us a lot about how Christians and Jews are going to work together and relate together in the years ahead. This has become a test case, something that could be a major flashpoint. Will the relationships we've built, the friendships we've made, stand this test?"

Nat Hentoff, Village Voice columnist: "I'm going to see the film because though I'm predisposed to say it's anti-Semitic, I have to judge it for myself. At least what's going on has made me and other people learn something about the Gospels, that there are four different ones written different times after Christ died, and Gibson is choosing only the one he wants to show."

Rabbi Joanna Samuels, Conservative-affiliated Congregation Habonim, near Lincoln Center: "I am not going to see it. I feel like Mel Gibson is not who dictates the agenda of the Jewish world. There are so many really pressing problems in the world and among the Jewish people, I don't feel like a film will impact that and I'd much rather spend my time and effort on things that we can have a positive impact on. The movie will blow over and we would be better off engaged in the questions of who we are and what our role in the world is."

Basya Schechter, founder and lead singer of Pharaoh's Daughter: "I would love to see it for myself and make my own judgment as to whether it's anti-Semitic or not, but I have a condition where I pass out if I see gory things. I passed out twice during The Piano when the girl gets her finger lopped off. I don't enjoy fainting, so I physically can't see this movie, but I'm curious about it."

Rabbi Michael Paley, director of UJA-Federation of New York's Jewish Resource Center: "I wasn't going to go see it, but my class last night yelled at me for that. I was teaching them New Testament Christology to put the movie in context. So I guess I have to go see it now. I'm a little interested to hear Aramaic since I listen to it every day teaching the Talmud. Hearing it might be fun. I'd rather hang out with my kids than see the movie, but I guess I have to go see the movie. I don't want to, but I have to.'"



Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew for "count," it refers to the quorum of ten Jewish adults (in some communities only men are counted; in others both men and women) required to hold a Torah service, recite some communal prayers, and the home-based recitation of the Kaddish. Minyan may also now refer to group that meets for prayer service, similar to a synagogue's congregation or a havurah. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for the New York Jewish Week.

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