Misguided Passion About Gibson’s Film
The great 20th century philosopher, Martin Buber, had an uncanny ability to speak to ecumenical gatherings. He would often begin his lectures highlighting the many theological tenets shared by Jews and Christians.
“Jews,” he said, “believe the Messiah has yet to come.” To which he added, “Christians believe the messiah has come, and they are waiting for his — Jesus’ — return.”
Concluding his introduction he quipped, “Let us pray and work together for the Messiah’s arrival, and when he gets here, we’ll ask if he’s been here before!”
In anticipation of Easter, a slightly modified version of “The Passion of the Christ,” the film by actor and director Mel Gibson, and screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald, has been re-released. The second coming if you will. This re-cut version is widely available in a DVD gift format.
In light of the film’s reappearance, it is worth recalling what happened before the movie’s initial debut back on Good Friday of 2004. At the time, much of the Jewish community was in shock — panic struck — worried the film would stir-up anti-Semitic feelings. The Anti-Defamation League, under the direction of Abe Foxman, led the charge.
Newspapers and magazines were filled with articles largely condemning the work. Opinions were cast like stones, often expressed by those who had not even seen the movie. From Jerusalem, Rome, New York and Los Angeles, and all points in between and beyond, comments flew every which way. Even ailing Pope John Paul II at the time allegedly uttered an opinion on the film that sounded more like a papal edict. “It is as it was.”
After people started seeing the film in huge numbers, another shock was in store for many Jews, who continue to hold a medieval understanding of Jewish-Christian relations: Anti-Semitism did not re-surface or intensify as a result of the film’s release.
In fairness to those who continue to hold anachronistic points of view, such fears about Christianity were not always unjustified. Throughout history, mainly European history, the passion plays’ depiction of deicide generated horrific hatred against Jews. Such performances were banned in Rome in 1539, because they led to murderous rampages on the Jewish ghetto. Much later, in 1934, Hitler himself referred to the plays as: “precious tools.”
Now, with a perspective on Gibson’s film that comes with experience, hardly a sound can be heard from Jewish leaders: no outcries; no expressed, projected worries of accelerated anti-Semitism. But there also have been no apologetic retractions of the earlier aspersions. Given all the negative reactions and expressed fear prior to the film’s original release, an open re-evaluation by Jews is in order.
All along, “The Passion of the Christ” ought to have been seen as a t?te-?-t?te opportunity, a chance to inaugurate a dialogue to elucidate and clarify the similarities and differences of these two great, monotheistic religions. The movie understandably targets a largely Christian viewing audience, but its platform is derived from Judaism. Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and, yes, died a Jew. Over time, like Judaism, Christianity evolved. For any number of reasons, it parted with conventional Jewish thought and theology.
Consider the following three examples from “The Passion of the Christ” and the theology it embodies.
1 — Original Sin.
Derived from the Bible’s Garden of Eden narrative, most Christian interpretation holds human beings inherently sinful because of Adam’s (and Eve’s) initial disobedience of God. Unlike Christianity, Judaism holds the human soul is born pure and unadulterated. The Jewish perspective grows out of the ideal that holds individuals accountable for their actions — not their ancestors, biblical or otherwise.
2 — Faith vs. Law.
The apostle Paul — also a Jew by birth — had an all-or-nothing perception of Jewish law: If you have not fulfilled all of the Bible’s laws perfectly, then you are a sinner. But think about it: It would be a virtual indictment of God to suggest that God would create less-than-perfect human beings and then condemn them for being imperfect.
3 — The Messiah.
This subject is, of course, the thematic crux of the blockbuster film. The substantive difference between Jew and Christian on this issue revolves around the divinity of Jesus. “The Passion” has generated so much passion because it tells not merely of the death of Jesus the man, or even Jesus the messiah. Far more significant for Jews is the indictment in the film — drawn from the New Testament — that some Jews collaborated in the death of God. Call it what it was: an unadulterated deicide.
As a Jew, what is baffling to me is how anyone thinks you can actually kill God. Ignore God — yes; disbelieve in God — of course that happens. But if there is one area where Jews and Christians ought to agree, it is this: God is infinite, omnipotent and transcendent. Further, all human beings are created by God and in God’s image — no matter one’s faith.
These are just three important points of discussion the film raises. Their consideration can and should lead to honest, inspiring, open, soul-searching questions. Maybe that is why so many Jews feel threatened by the devout Christians who championed this movie, as well as by the film’s several incarnations. Some Jews remain suspicious of Christian friendship; they suspect that Christians’ love for Israel and the Jewish people is for another motive: to convert unknowing Jews away from their faith.
But Jews have no one to blame but themselves if they are so increasingly unaware of and despondent regarding their great, age-old religious tradition that they cannot even debate and discuss these theological divides. In the meantime, movies like “The Passion” will continue to generate wonderful opportunities for Jews and Christians who are eager to engage in an ongoing spiritual dialogue. Perhaps this exchange will bring the Messiah sooner to the world if, for nothing else, to set us straight on whether he’s been here before.
Michael Gotlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav Synagogue in Santa Monica.