The Jesus Movie Gibson Should Make

Jewish leaders continue to decry Mel Gibson’s forthcoming Jesus movie for supposedly threatening to whip up anti-Semitism. Due out next April, “The Passion” identifies Jewish priests as instigators of the crucifixion. Maimonides, too, in his Mishnah Torah, affirms Jewish involvement in Jesus’ execution — which must make the greatest of medieval Jewish sages an anti-Semite, too.

But the film I’d like to see produced that would really make some Jews nervous, while teaching a healthy lesson: an honest depiction not of Jesus’ death, but of his preaching. The Christian Bible makes clear what was probably the main theme of his sermons. It is a theme that many liberal rabbis, to their discomfort, would feel obliged to endorse.

Today’s secular historians generally assert that Jesus was a loyal adherent of Pharisaic (rabbinic) Judaism. They argue against the conventional Christian understanding that Jesus radically critiqued Judaism. On this, the Christians are right.

True, Jesus is repeatedly quoted in the gospels as embracing Torah observance (e.g., Matthew 5:17-18). He must have accepted certain broadly defined mitzvot like the Sabbath and Temple sacrifice, because his followers were still practicing these commandments just after his death.

What Jesus rejected was the oral Torah that explains the written Torah. Essential to rabbinic Judaism, this notion of an oral Torah recognizes the Pentateuch as a cryptic document, a coded text. It posits that the Bible’s first five books were revealed to Moses along with a key to unlock the code — for a lock is never made without a key.

This oral tradition was passed from Moses to the prophets to the rabbis, later to be written down in the Mishnah and Talmud. At least that’s the theory presented in the first chapter of the Mishnah’s tractate Pirke Avot, a theory that still animates traditional Judaism.

On point after point, Jesus derides not the written Torah but its orally transmitted interpretations. He does so on matters like the details of Sabbath observance (no carrying objects in a public space, no harvesting produce or use of healing salves except to save a life), donating a yearly half shekel to the Temple, refraining from bathing and anointing on fast days like Yom Kippur, hand washing before eating bread and praying with a quorum.

Stated this way, laundry-list fashion, such commandments from the oral tradition might seem like trivialities, as they did to Jesus. But from the constellation of such discrete teachings there emerges the gorgeous pointillist masterpiece of Torah — not merely “the Torah,” the finite text of the Pentateuch that the Christian founder accepted, but the infinite tradition of Judaism as a whole, reflecting God’s mind as applied to human affairs.

For Jesus, oral Torah was a manmade accretion without transcendent authority. He tells a group of Pharisees, “So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God,” citing Isaiah. “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:7-9).

Elsewhere, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load men with burdens hard to bear” (Luke 12:46).

From this position, it was a logical next step to that of the apostle Paul, who abrogated the Torah altogether, oral and written. Abandon the former and you’ll soon abandon the latter.

A phenomenally charismatic person, Jesus mocked the Jewish establishment of his day and was adulated by a following from Galilee, the region where he conducted his brief ministry, famous in this period (as professor Geza Vermes shows) for the ignorance of the local populace. Knowing no better, loathing Pharisees as their own teacher did, they thought Jesus uniquely had Judaism all figured out.

Sound familiar? Reform ideology has always viewed oral tradition as being pretty much nothing more than the “precepts of men,” while the Conservative movement increasingly understands it as a human creation, “hard to bear.” Having grown up in a Los Angeles-area Reform community, I can testify that most Reform and Conservative temples impart a level of lay education that is approximately Galilean. As radio commentator Michael Medved has memorably said, the majority of Jews in our country know little about Judaism other than that it rejects Jesus.

Yet when it comes to the oral Torah, most American Jews follow Jesus without know it.

Mr. Gibson, please consider making another movie, a prequel about his career before the crucifixion showing how much Christianity we have unwittingly absorbed.

Torah indeed necessitates rejecting Christianity, but that means rejecting also the Christian view on the most fundamental of concepts in all Judaism: oral Torah. A Jesus movie about his life as a preacher would be a good dose of reality, if unpopular with our beloved Jewish leaders — not, come to think of it, unlike the film that Gibson will give us next year.

David Klinghoffer’s new book is “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” (Doubleday, 2003).