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Thoughts Before Seeing The Passion of the Christ

On Ash Wednesday, February 25, The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's controversial film graphically depicting the last twelve hours of Jesus' life, will open at theaters nationwide. Like many previous attempts to bring the story of the life and death of Jesus to the big screen, The Passion has generated significant controversy, particularly among Jewish leaders. But Jews and Christians alike should be concerned about this film.

One significant concern expressed by many Jewish leaders is that the film will engender anti-Semitism. While it is unlikely to prompt pogroms or physical attacks on Jews as Passion plays and Good Friday sermons often did historically, it will likely validate a variety of negative stereotypes of Jews.

The Roman Catholic Church, in its effort to combat anti-Semitism, has played a key role in the revision of Passion plays such as those performed at Oberamergau, in Germany. Jewish leaders expected that the Catholic Church would comment on Gibson's film. In fact, Jewish, Catholic and Protestant scholars assembled by the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and by the Anti-Defamation League unanimously agreed that the screenplay they reviewed contained numerous objectionable elements and would promote anti-Semitism.

Among the concerns were that the film portrayed Jewish authorities and the Jews in general--as opposed to the Romans--as being responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus and that the film portrayed Jews with medieval anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as being money-hungry and bloodthirsty. Jewish leaders who have seen the version of the film being screened recently have confirmed that these depictions remain in the film.

Many Christian clergy who have seen the film deny that it is anti-Semitic. Gibson, too, denies that the film is anti-Semitic.

One of the areas of controversy concerns Gibson's claim that he wanted to offer a historically accurate portrait of the Passion (This is the reason he had the Jews in the film speak Aramaic and the Romans speak Latin--though many scholars doubt the Romans would have spoken Latin in first century Palestine). Each of the four gospels, however, presents a different account of the life and death of Jesus, making it difficult, if not impossible, to know what actually happened.

The gospels were not written by objective historians, but by devoted believers, each of whom was trying to tell the story of the life and death of Jesus for a particular audience. The gospel narratives often reflect more the historical reality at the end of the first century, when there were sharp conflicts between Judaism and the nascent Christian community, than they do the early first century when Jesus lived. The earliest account, Mark, was written around the year 70 C.E., about 35 years after the death of Jesus. Other accounts were written over the next 30-50 years.

And while biblical scholars have developed criteria to determine which details are likely to be accurate and which are likely to be interpolations, added to the text by writers to protect Christians from Roman persecution for example, Gibson has ignored such scholarly material. Furthermore, he has based his story, in part, upon visions of a nineteenth century nun, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, whose book The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, contains blatant anti-Semitism. For example, the Jewish guards who bring Jesus to the High Priest brutally beat him and at one point throw him over a bridge, neither of which is found in the gospel accounts, but which comes from Sister Anne's work.

An equally important concern of many Jews and Christians is that the film and its controversy will undermine decades of progress in Jewish-Christian (particularly Jewish-Catholic) relations. Jews were hopeful that the Catholic Church, which has condemned all forms of anti-Semitism, would play an active role in raising concerns about the movie. Gibson, after all, is a renegade Catholic; he is part of so-called Traditionalist Catholics, who reject the historic reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s. Among those reforms was the historic document Nostra Aetate, In Our Time, which set the groundwork for improved Jewish-Christian relations during the rest of the twentieth century. But the Catholic Church has not taken a stand or issued a statement on the film, not even supporting the concerns of its own respected scholars. (Reports that the pope had endorsed the film after seeing it have, however, been retracted.)

Another serious concern among Jewish leaders is that the film is being used, particularly by evangelical Christian churches, to spread the gospel of Jesus and to proselytize. Slick promotional materials have been prepared so that churches can take advantage of the film to promote their programs and services during the Easter season. Many Jews will be among those targeted by direct marketing campaigns and other efforts to utilize the film to spread the message of Christianity. In a brochure providing promotional materials to churches, one minister is quoted as saying, "I have not doubt that the movie will be one of the greatest evangelistic tools in modern-day history." Such statements do not reflect the respect and tolerance that we should have for the religious beliefs and practices of others.

Finally, there is also concern about the brutal violence of the film and the fact that it ends with the crucifixion of Jesus, totally ignoring the vitally important continuation of the story when, according to Christian theology, Jesus was resurrected. These issues are related. British writer Michael Northcott, quoted in Christian Century, observes "If the central event of the Christian story of divine salvation is about violent death, then it would be unsurprising if over their history Christians had not begun to copy, to account out the violent death, in their relations with people of other faiths...." Northcutt goes on to argue that Christians should make the center of their faith not the crucifixion, but the resurrection.

While this matter has been debated among Christian theologians, Northcutt's comment would seem to question whether it is appropriate, if not dangerous, to focus exclusively on the crucifixion, as the film does. For Jews, it would be similar to telling the story of the Passover at our seder meal, only covering the enslavement of the Jews and ending with the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea, rather than completing the story with the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Despite these significant concerns, this film provides Christians and Jews with the opportunity to learn about each other and from each other. Like many rabbis, I will be educating my congregation by speaking about the film and the issues it raises at a Shabbat, Sabbath, service. I will also share the concerns raised by Jewish and Christian scholars with our ministerial association, in hopes that some of the ministers will share these matters with the members of their communities who are likely to see the film.

Jews can learn from Christians the important role the story of the Passion plays in Christianity and the deep meaning it has for many Christians. In certain ways, the Passion plays a similar role in Christianity as the story of the enslavement in Egypt does in Judaism. For Christians understanding the suffering and death of Jesus is crucial to understanding what it means to be a Christian.

Christians can learn from Jews the role that this story and its artistic representation have played in promoting anti-Semitism. Christians can learn to recognize the anti-Judaism found in many of the texts of the Christian scriptures and the sensitivity that is required to utilize these texts without promoting anti-Semitism. And Christians can also learn to appreciate the significant concerns about renewed attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions throughout the world.

By learning from each other, this film, despite its problematic content, can help bring healing and understanding to Jews and Christians.

The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Rabbi Bruce Kadden
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