Danger in Not Knowing Our Story
Claire Luce Booth, the wife of the owner of Luce Publications, reported a frank conversation with a Jewish friend. Booth said, “I must admit being positively bored by all this talk of the Holocaust and its constant repetition of Jewish suffering.” The Jewish friend replied, “I know just how you feel. I feel exactly the same way about the Crucifixion.”
Each would like to see the other's story go away. But neither will go away. Golgotha and Auschwitz, the Crucifixion and the Holocaust, remain the dybbuk of our culture. They must both be confronted and understood.
I saw Gibson's Passion movie because I had to. When in conversation with Christians or Jews, they ask me, “Did you see the movie?”, and I reply, “No,” the conversation is broken.
The conversation must not be broken. The dialogue must continue. I cannot and ought not hide my eyes from this crucial and excruciating story seen by millions throughout the world. Both terms “crucial” and “excruciating” are more than etymologically related to the Latin “crux“, “cross”, Latin for “excruciare“, “to crucify”. I saw the movie at a public screening and behind me sat a woman who sobbed and gasped throughout the movie. I understood her tears. She saw in this tortured, relentlessly violated figure on the cross a martyrdom, which in Greek means “witness” and “agape“, an altruism which is the highest form of love, to sacrifice oneself for another. The god-man on the cross died to save her soul.
She cried, and I cried. I saw, on that Roman cross, the crucifixion of my people. For two thousand years my people have been hounded by the unspeakable accusation of deicide, the murder of God. Blood libel, pogrom, inquisitions, expulsion, are bound with fearsome chains to the Passion story. On the cross, I saw 1.5 million Jewish children hanged, 90% of Eastern European Jews decimated, eight out of ten rabbis in Europe slaughtered. Who can reasonably expect that I can see this picture of priests and crowds, draped with prayer shawls, hovered over by a she-devil, without a measure of paranoia? Who can expect a traumatized people to review this film with dispassion? I remembered my zayde's fear when he crossed the street before a church, not out of disrespect, but out of fear. The Crucifixion may be a symbol of self-sacrificial love, but to a black man, a fiery cross set on his lawn by the K.K.K. is no act of compassion.
We both cried, she because she saw in the Crucifixion the saving of her soul, and I because I saw in it the cremation of millions of innocent lives. In the movie, I was not troubled by the discrepancy between the New Testament and Gibson's version, nor the logic which condemns Judas for doing that which he was fated to do by the design of the Father who willingly sacrificed His son to wipe out the sins of mankind. Faith is not logic. Against all arguments, the Church father Tertullian declared, “Credo quia absurdam est” — “I believe because it is absurd.” Beyond logic or the intentional or unintentional anti-Semitism of the movie, I became troubled by something else. That became clearer to me on one particular occasion, when seated at a dinner alongside an intelligent Jewish man, who initiated a conversation about the movie he had just seen. The intensity of his discomfort and nervousness was evident. He touched my hand and asked me with earnestness, “Rabbi, how do we answer it? Did the Jews kill their god? Why do we Jews reject Jesus? Why did we not appreciate his suffering?” The depth of his questioning revealed that something more than anti-Semitism was at stake. His question recalled my earlier years in the rabbinate when parents would come to ask me, “What do I say to my child who wants to know 'Why can't we have a Christmas tree?'” It soon became evident to me that the parents were not concerned about the tree, but with the root of the question. Not, “Why can't we have a Christmas tree?” but, “Why can't we be Christians?” In other conversations about the movie with some Jews, I heard similar undertones of doubt and came to realize that Jewish ignorance is lethal, that it eats away at our morale and our self-understanding. It made me more aware of how dangerous the lack of philosophic and theological grasp of our tradition is.
We have to understand their sacred story but assuredly, we must understand our own sacred story. Every religion has its root story which expresses the purpose and meaning of life — who we are, what we hope our children will become, how we regard those who may not accept our story. Every religion has its own unique story. Mine is not superior to yours, nor yours to mine. Without understanding what Judaism affirms, we are left only with what others consider our rejection. Out of ignorance of our own story, we tend to see ourselves through the eyes of those who view us as apostates.
My friend echoes their question, whether or why we killed the son of God. I don't understand the question. The question derives from their story, their premises and presuppositions. What does it mean to torture and murder God? In my story, the question makes no sense. In my story, God is not a person, not incarnate, not made of flesh and blood. In my story, God is not visible, not mortal, not victim, not capable of being killed. God is not a sacrifice. In my story, we bring sacrifices in the name of God, but God is not our sacrificial lamb. Abraham's sacrificial ram is not Isaac, the son of Abraham, nor the son of God. In our story, when Abraham believes that God would have him sacrifice his son Isaac, the angel of God in the Bible contravenes: “Do not raise your hand against this child or do anything to him.”
The accusation “Why did Jews kill God?” begs the question. It makes sense only if you accept the theological premises and presuppositions of another story. I feel trapped, much in the same way that the defendant is tricked by the lawyer's question “And when did you stop beating your wife?” It wrongly assumes that which is to be proven. In my story God is not to be made into any image: “You shall not make me into any image or any likeness that is in the heavens above or in the earth beneath.” We sing it in our liturgy: “God is not a body, nor the semblance of a body.”
We must respect the uniqueness of each other's story, but we cannot impose our story upon the other. Am I to respond to your question “Why did you reject Jesus as the son of God?” with “Why did you reject the tradition of Moses? Why did you reject the mother faith?”
If you understand the affirmation of our faith, you will understand that the rejection does not single out Jesus for rejection. In our story, no one, neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob nor Moses nor David is accepted as divine, perfect or infallible. There is no rejection of any priest or prophet, only an affirmation expressed in the book of Ecclesiastes: “There is no person who has walked the face of the earth and has done good and who has not sinned.” In our story, no one who walks the face of the earth is divine. In our story, the struggle is against apotheosis, making of anyone a god. No priest, patriarch, rabbi is worshipped. We have no saints; we have no beatification or canonization of any patriarch, priest or prophet. In our story, we do not even know where Moses was buried lest his burial place become a shrine. In our Passover story, the name of Moses is not to be found in the Haggadah, lest we deify a human being. This is our affirmation, not our rejection. Our affirmation of the One-ness of God is prior to the claim of the Trinity of God.
We are asked why we do not accept a savior to save our souls from the burning coals of hell and perdition. Here again the question is loaded: The question makes sense from the point of view of their story that is based upon the belief that every human embryo is stigmatized by an original sin, not a consequences of free choices, but, like DNA, an involuntary sin inherited from conception. In that story, sin is supernatural and therefore cannot be overcome, erased or expiated by human deeds or human efforts. In that story, vicarious atonement, the death of God's son, can wipe out my sins. But that never was our story. In our story, no sin is original, no sin is supernatural. My sins are not inherited, they are chosen by me and I am responsible to expiate for my transgressions. There is something I can do to apologize, forgive and repair for the hurt.
In my story, neither God, nor priest nor rabbi can stand in my place. In my story, there is no vicarious atonement, no surrogate for my doing teshuvah. If I sin, it is I who must pay, I who must appease. No one else, neither father, nor mother, nor saint can suffer for the hurt I have inflicted on others. It is I who must bind the wounds, set aright the broken bones. In our story, no one can fast for us, no one can pray for us, no one can beg forgiveness for us.
When you speak of saving our souls from hell and perdition, you impose another story upon ours. In our story, hell is not “down there.” Hell is not an eternal torture for people who don't believe in our story. In our story, hell is here on earth — starvation is hell, slavery is hell, genocide is hell, terror is hell, prejudice is hell, hatred is hell. In our story, in the Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Jacob it is taught that “One hour of repentance and the practice of good deeds are better than the entire world to come.”
You cannot read your story into mine and then question my fidelity. Out of your story comes the belief that souls must be saved, that “extra ecclesia nulla salus“, “outside of the Church nobody is saved.” That story is not ours. In our story, no one who does well, no one who lives a good and decent life, is excluded from the world to come. In our story, the sages declare: “I call as witnesses heaven and earth that be it an Israelite or Gentile, a man or a woman, only according to the deed does the Holy Spirit rest upon him.” In your story, souls are saved. In our story lives not souls, are to be saved.
It is true that we own different stories, but it is equally true that those stories can change, and that stories have changed. It is a desecration of the nobility and power of the Church's moral capacity to change, as it is a blasphemy to Islam or Judaism when the wisdom and compassion to change is denied. Experience, history, compassion and moral sensibility correct our stories and add to them new wisdom and new love. What concerns serious critics about the movie is it's assault upon the post-Vatican II Church which has proven to be sensitive to the misuse of the Christian story.
Something revolutionary occurred forty years ago when the Second Vatican Council opened its doors to 2,540 bishops gathered in Saint Peter's Basilica. One of the most unforgettable figures in contemporary history, Pope John XXIII, introduced two concepts that revolutionized religious thinking in the twentieth century and into our century. One concept, “aggiornamento”, called for the “updating of the tradition;” and the other, a French term, “ressourcement“, urged “the recovery of ancient sources,” especially the sources from Judaism, the mother tradition which nurtured and gave birth to Christianity and to Islam. After thousands of years of persecution, Inquisition, Crusades, Pope John XXIII courageously opened up the windows of the Church.
In 1960, Pope John XXIII with a notable Jewish historian, Jules Isaac, and began an intense discussion with him. Jules Isaac presented the Pope with a book entitled Contempt of the Jews, in which he appealed to the Pope to remove the anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic elements in Catholic liturgy. Pope John XXIII kept Jules Isaac in the Vatican for three days, and when they emerged from their deep conversation, Jules Isaac said to the Pope, “Can I leave with hope?” And the Pope responded, “You are entitled to more than hope.” Thus began the greatest blessing of the Church and honor to the memory of its savior.
Lest we allow the movie to eclipse the moral heroism of the Church, let us recall the changes within the Church. Only yesterday, at the turn of our century, Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, called upon Pope Pious X to support the cause of Zionism and the return of the homeless people to Zion, Pope Pious X responded with a classic position from the old Church theology: “We are unfavorable to the movement. We cannot prevent Jews from going to Jerusalem, but we can never sanction it. The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. Should the Jews manage to set foot on the once promised old-new land, the missionaries of the Church stand prepared to baptize them.” This was the stigma of Cain, placed upon the wandering Jew, who would have no rest until the second coming of Christ.
But this present pope, John Paul II, on December 30th, 1993, and against the internal opposition from right-wing Catholics and Arab states, and even over the objection of his Secretary of State, established full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, exchanged ambassadors and put an end to the Church's condemnation of the Jewish people as the eternally uprooted, wandering Jew. That event was celebrated here at Valley Beth Shalom at a Service on a Friday night in the presence of Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles and bishops and priests and nuns from the Catholic community.
It is important that men and women of good will, from churches and synagogues, not allow high jacking of Vatican II post-Holocaust Church. Mel Gibson does not hide his opposition to the Pope, nor to the papacy, since John XXIII.
Jews and Catholics alike honor this pope, under whose auspices a “Mea Culpa“, a plea for repentance, was proclaimed. This pope, in our time, urged the Church to remember in the words of the Pontifical Commission wrote: “The Second Millennium draws to a close. It is imperative that the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recording all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his counsel.” This Pope, in our time, called on the sons and daughters of the Church “to purify their hearts in repentance of past errors and infidelities so as to help cure the wounds of past injustice.” In this synagogue, at Valley Beth Shalom, in the presence of the Cardinal and Catholic theologians, we discussed with amity and love the need for repentance, the acknowledgment of responsibility of the Church and the importance of excising from Catholic liturgy, Catholic prayer, those sections that were plainly anti- Jewish and anti-Judaic.
We must not allow this retrograde movie to dismiss the remarkable progress of the Church when Father John Pawlokowski, among others, searched through the Catholic textbooks taught in parochial schools to eliminate those passages inimical to Jewish life and to Jewish thought. The prayer on Good Friday that condemned “Jewish perfidy”, the alleged betrayal and treason of Jews, was excised. In January 1965, the prayer written by Pope John XXIII to be read in all Catholic churches, was printed in Commentary Magazine. It must be read over and over again: “We are conscious today that many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people. We realize that the Mark of Cain stands on our forehead across the centuries that our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew. And we shed tears that we caused, forgetting Thy love. Forgive us for crucifying a second time in their flesh, for we knew not what we did.” It would be a betrayal of hope and of goodness to let a hate-filled film become the definitive statement of Christianity. It would be a blasphemy to raise Gibson's perverted notion of the New Testament based upon the writings of two Medieval, anti-Semitic nuns as the Catholic position.
What are we to do? We must recognize the struggle, after 2,000 years of anti-Judaic venom, to detoxify the poisons of contempt. We must engage our Christian brothers in a continual dialogue to educate, to understand the sanctity of our respective stories.
But first, Jews must understand their own story, their own theology — what it is that we believe, and why it is that we believe, else they will be confused and defensive.
We must take advantage of the new interest in religion, amongst Christians and Jews and unbelievers, and turn the sorry state of events into the great opportunity to penetrate darkness with light, sickness with health and contempt with compassion.
May not be reproduced (except for personal use) or published without written permission of the author. For permission, contact Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis at Valley Beth Shalom, 818-530-4007 or firstname.lastname@example.org