October 17, 2018

Singer-Songwriter merges Jewish and gospel influences

Karen Hart performs at The Mint in West Los Angeles. Photo via Karen Hart/Facebook.

Growing up in Norfolk, Va., in a Conservative Jewish home, singer-songwriter Karen Hart was intrigued by how the chants she heard in her synagogue resembled gospel music.

“I never felt connected to the God part,” she said. “What I loved most was listening to the cantor sing. To me, it sounded like the Black singers I was exposed to, the wailing, the sliding from one note to another.”

Hart and I were chatting on the front porch of a Santa Monica house after she had performed in the backyard for the annual music festival held there, “Jeffest.”

My friends Claudia Luther and Tom Trapnell had told me about Hart, who lives near them in the West Los Angeles neighborhood of Mar Vista with her husband, Bryan. I was intrigued by the first song on the CD Tom gave me, “Judah and His Maccabees: A Hanukkah Gospel Story.”

Growing up, I was unhappy about the shortage of winners in Jewish history as well as — admitting my youthful superficiality — on the sports and main news pages of the newspapers. I admired King David and overlooked the Bathsheba episode. I seized on  the story of Judas Maccabee, the Jewish priest who led the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire (167-160 B.C.E.) and restored Jewish prayer at the Temple in Jerusalem.

When Claudia and Tom told me about Hart, I said, “I love that story. I have to write about her for the Jewish Journal.”

At her performance on a hot Saturday afternoon, Hart, accompanied by her band, Jennifer Leitham and Randy Drake, demonstrated her lovely voice and a warm manner. It was as if she was inviting the receptive audience to join her at a party. She is reminiscent of her idol, Joni Mitchell, the Canadian singer-songwriter, and part of Hart’s repertoire is a  “Salute to Joni Mitchell.”

Hart told me she studied classical music at East Carolina University and then took off with her dog in a Volkswagen camper to sing and write songs.

“I hit the road and played in any club that would have me,” she said. She’d buy the local paper and look up the clubs. “I’d go into the club, talk to the manager and ask if I could play there,” she said. She made her way to Los Angeles. “If I was going to make it as a songwriter, L.A. was the place to be,” she said.

Then she got a break. Her best friend in B’nai B’rith Girls back in Virginia had a brother who was a movie producer. He was producing a 1985 comedy called “Lust in the Dust,” starring Tab Hunter, Divine and Lainie Kazan, and Hart composed the songs for it, as well as continuing to play clubs. She even ran into Joni Mitchell at a clothing rack in Bullock’s and gave her one of her CDs after a brief and pleasant chat.

A dispute with a manager interrupted her singing career.

“I put down my guitar and didn’t touch it for five years. So I had to make a living. I had heard of word processing,” she said. She said she memorized word processing manuals and eventually developed a business teaching computer skills in what was then a new field.

Eventually, she returned to singing, joining choirs. And she returned to songwriting and thought of her youth.

“I thought the Chanukah music was horrible,” she said. “So I am going to write something for Chanukah but in the Negro spiritual style.”

The result is a rousing piece that sounds great, especially when sung by a choir.

Others have commented on the confluence of the Jewish and African-American experiences as reflected in each group’s music.  In 2010, J. The Jewish News of Northern California wrote about the popularity of Cantor Stephen Saxon, who composed a number of gospel songs based on Friday night prayers.

Black gospel singer Josh Nelson discussed the relationship in an article in the Jewish Chronicle the same year.

Nelson said, “Gospel is closely connected to the African experience of slavery in America. It’s a bittersweet sound because without such hard experience we could never have the good music. That kind of hardship is so close to the Jewish experience. Jewish people have always been isolated within communities in Europe over centuries. The sounds are closely aligned, too — there is a deep similarity between the wailing of the cantors from the shtetls in Europe and the groaning of the African slaves.”

Like these artists, Hart is demonstrating the diversity of American life, performing “Judah and His Maccabees” around the country, showing how two cultures, so different in the popular mind, have much in common.

BILL BOYARSKY is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Messianic truth in advertising

The growth of the Jews for Jesus and messianic movements in Israel, especially during Israel’s 60th anniversary, is unprecedented and an outcome of unrestrained relationships with fundamentalist Christians.

There are more than 15,000 messianic Jews residing in Israel and more than 275,000 in the Diaspora. Jews for Jesus now has an office in Tel Aviv, with a staff of 10 that includes several Israeli-born messianic Jewish couples, and they have launched a five-year crusade to proselytize Israelis. Last month they spent over $500,000 for full-page ads in four Israeli papers and ads on buses and billboards. They have already handed out more than 75,000 missionary tracts and received contact information from 850 Israelis.

Furthermore, some Israeli politicians and prominent rabbis are associating with messianic Jews, inadvertently lending them credibility. Others rabbis were outraged about a messianic Jew in the International Bible Quiz for Jewish youth and called for a boycott. Of grave concern are the actions of messianic lawyer Calev Myers, who has been fighting in the Israeli Supreme Court for messianic rights, including initiating changes in the law of return that recently enabled a dozen messianic missionaries to become Israeli citizens.

Myers and the messianic movement are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the Israeli public. It is misleading for them to claim that the only difference between messianic Jews and other Jews is their belief that Jesus is the Messiah. This was highlighted by Myers’ recent quote in the Jerusalem Post comparing messianic Jews to messianic Chabadniks. In fact, messianic Jews intentionally avoid mentioning a fundamental difference. In addition to believing Jesus is the Messiah, they believe he is God in the flesh and part of a Trinity. All denominations of Judaism considered these beliefs to be idolatrous for Jews.

As early as 1980, Jews for Jesus founder Moshe Rosen in his book, “Sharing the New Life With a Jew,” advised messianic missionaries to avoid mentioning their belief in the deity of Jesus because it makes witnessing to Jews extremely difficult. Additionally, attempts by the messianic movement to prove their theology from biblical and rabbinic sources are based on misquotations and mistranslations.

Even before Christianity, Jews rejected these anti-Jewish nonmonotheistic beliefs. We also realize they were introduced into Christianity due to the influence of pagan cult gods like Osiris and Dionysus.

Obviously, there are other differences. Messianic Jews accept the Greek New Testament as divinely inspired scripture and they believe that all Jews who don’t believe in Jesus face eternal damnation in hell. However, historically it is their idolatrous beliefs that have ultimately placed “Jews who believe in Jesus” outside the pale of Judaism.

Christian friendship is appreciated; however, we must be cautious and call for truth in advertising by the messianic movement. We should also call on messianic Jews to reject these foreign beliefs and return to the pure monotheistic unity of God that defines our identity and personal relationship with God.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the founding director of Jews for Judaism International, which has offices in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Toronto, Jerusalem, Sydney and Johannesburg. He can be reached at RabbiKravitz@JewsForJudaism.org

What About Judas, Mary Magdalene?

Scholars who probe the history surrounding the Bible are mining to decipher a real Da Vinci Code. They seek clues from the past that suggest truths that underlie the narratives of tradition and faith. They seek to understand the origins of modern religion and how these faiths have evolved over time.

During last month’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, one panel discussed the roots of religion. All the panelists were as astute and captivating as advertised, but one scholar, in particular, professor Dennis R. MacDonald, spoke to the issue of reality vs. myth in the story of Jesus. And when it came to the myths, he didn’t stop at the work of “The Da Vinci Code” author Dan Brown. MacDonald took on mythmaking around the life of Jesus that is nearly 2,000 years old.

Here are excerpts from the comments of MacDonald, who is John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Claremont School of Theology and co-director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate University. He is also the author of “Christianizing Homer and the Legend and the Apostle.”

About “The Da Vinci Code”:

Dennis MacDonald: I enjoyed reading “The Da Vinci Code.” It is smart and entertaining and engrossing — and the historian in me gets sick when I read it.

Regarding the recently discovered Gospel of Judas:

DM: The Gospel of Judas is a magnificent discovery. It is extremely important for understanding a group of Christian Gnostics, about whom we knew, but had nothing from them themselves.

These are called the Cainites. And their claim to fame is favoring biblical losers, like the serpent in the Garden [of Eden] and Cain — which is where they get their name — and now Judas. And my attitude is you learn as much about the historical Judas from the Gospel of Judas as you do about the historical serpent in the Garden of Eden.

One early Christian tract has not yet been found, and it may never be. “Q” is considered a key source for the gospels that make up the New Testament. Through careful study, experts have deduced a lot of what “Q” must have contained. So how is “Q” like a real Da Vinci Code?

DM: “Q,” from the German word quelle [source] … is reconstructed by teasing out material painstakingly from the synoptic gospels themselves. [The synoptic gospels are the three broadly overlapping tellings of the story of Jesus that make up Mark, Matthew and Luke/Acts in the New
Testament.] This document is most obvious in places where Matthew and Luke share content with each other they could not have derived from Mark, their primary source. But it’s becoming clear that the author of Mark also knew “Q,” as well.

What is astonishing about “Q” is not only what it says, but what it does not say. And that what it says has such an interesting affinity to what we know about [early Christian evangelist] Paul and the early Christian traditions of Paul.


Kosher Gospel — a Joyful Noise at Shul

Joshua Nelson is resting his voice. That’s a tall order for Nelson, the 29-year-old African American Jewish singer who has blended black style and Jewish prayers and folksongs into a new, foot-stomping, synagogue-shaking praise music he has dubbed “kosher gospel.”

Though he’s been spreading his unique gospel for years, lately it’s been catching on like wildfire; an appearance on “Oprah” last fall solidified it as a hot commodity in crossover music, and Nelson as its inventor and chief spokesman. So Nelson has been speaking — and singing — a lot lately, which is why he is doing his best to do as little as possible of both between dates of his current tour (he and his band arrive at University Synagogue in Irvine on Jan. 22).

But once he gets started, once a certain spirit moves him and a passion for the subject matter takes hold, it’s hard for him to stop.

One subject he never seems to tire talking about is how he was moved to create kosher gospel, which for all its appeal strikes many people (Jewish and non-Jewish) as a contradiction of terms. Nelson is African American in the truest sense of the word: his Orthodox mother (his father is also Jewish) is from West Africa, and he grew up in South Orange, N.J. He is a third-generation Jew who grew up around predominantly black synagogues in Harlem and in his hometown. But his original inspiration for kosher gospel came from a traditional rabbi in Jersey who cornered him when he was a teenager honing his singing style. Rabbi Sky saw not only potential in Nelson as a performer, but also in his performance style–the potential to attract new generations of Jews.

“Rabbi Sky was strict, and I thought he was going to scorn me and the way I sang,” recalls Nelson. “But he didn’t. He said, ‘You should put that sound to Jewish music. You can encourage young people to come to temple!'”

Nelson has done that, and then some. His widening audience includes not just reinvigorated Jews, but non-Jews drawn to the undeniable spirit of the music, especially African Americans who were raised on this music in churches and who have always been steeped in it culturally. The fact that Nelson sings Jewish liturgy and prayer — often in Hebrew and not about Jesus — matters not to folks like Oprah, who respond primarily to Nelson’s soaring voice, his infectious rhythms and his conviction, all of which look and sound awfully familiar.

And the fact that Jewish and Christian themes and theology overlap, especially in the black church — the story of Moses and the divinely aided deliverance of his people from slavery comes to mind — makes Nelson resonate that much more. All of which is fine by him.

“Blacks have always put soul into something, wherever they are in the world,” he says.

A scholar of gospel, he stresses that despite the synonymity of the music with church, gospel originated in the fields where black slaves toiled for centuries in the American South.

“When slaves were introduced to Christianity, their moans and groans were wedded to hymns — that was syncopation. That was how gospel really came to be,” explains Nelson, who in addition to being a singer is a Hebrew teacher at his longtime temple, Shari-Tefilo Israel in South Orange. “Gospel wasn’t really accepted by churches, which thought it was too bluesy. Ultimately, it was too black.”

Nelson says his idol, gospel great Mahalia Jackson (whom he closely resembles in voice), encountered the same kind of disapproval early in her career in her adopted hometown of Chicago, which was populated by middle-class blacks seeking to distance themselves from black folk traditions and all things Southern. The power of gospel won out, of course, and Jackson went on to become a superstar and a catalyst for the music’s popularity.

Nelson says there’s a parallel between that dynamic and one unfolding today in Christianity: “You have a euphoric element in all denominations now.”

As for Judaism, he believes that gospel at temple is an idea whose time has come.

“In Jewish tradition, there were songs that [blacks) always sung with soul,” he muses. “We always did at our temple. It wasn’t exactly gospel, but it was different. We brought our traditions to it, like Jews all over the world brought their own traditions to the faith.”

It’s irresistible to speculate that kosher gospel is just the sort of entertaining, listener-friendly thing needed to help bridge the divide between blacks and Jews that developed after the 1960s and that conscientious folks in both camps have wrung their hands about ever since. Though he has no problem with multiculturalism or with coalition-building — his own Reform temple is notably diverse — Nelson cautions against equating race with religion, or implying it, in any discussions of blacks and Jews, or of Jews and any other ethnic group.

“Jewishness is not a race,” he says emphatically. “We tend to think in this country that all Jews are European or Ashkenazi. That’s how the immigration went. But that’s not the case.” Ironically, Nelson says that he encounters skepticism most frequently not from Jews or whites, but from blacks. “They’ve just never met a black Jew before,” he says, particularly one singing gospel. He adds, with a laugh: “They get a little confused.”

Joshua Nelson and his Kosher Gospel Singers will be in concert Jan. 22, 6:45 p.m., at University Synagogue, 3400 Michelson Drive, Irvine. For tickets, call (949) 553-3535.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.




Temple Shalom for the Arts has a little part of its soul in Los Angeles gospel, when the independent congregation will host the pre-Passover Shared Heritage of Freedom service at the Wilshire Theatre on April 15.

“There was a real need to get the Jewish and African American communities together,” said temple founder Rabbi David Baron, who will welcome Bishop Charles Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ and his church’s 70-voice choir for a joint Jewish/African American-themed Shabbat service, with both gospel and Hebrew tunes.

Baron’s art-focused congregation has hosted interfaith gospel choirs around the High Holidays for the past 13 years, where the emphasis is a common one.

“The shared heritage of freedom … being denied liberty. The early founders of the NAACP were Jews,” said Baron, referring to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise being a founder in 1909 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “There’s a lot more that unites than divides us, to experience one another’s tradition.”

Baron previously had annual black/Jewish Shabbat services with a choir from the Los Angeles Urban League, but several years ago began a friendship with Blake. “The best thing you can do to fight anti-Semitism is to invite a gentile to your Passover seder,” said Baron, a 53-year-old Conservative-trained rabbi who ran synagogues in New Jersey and Miami before joining the Verdugo Hills Jewish Center in Sunland-Tujunga.

That was Baron’s last denomination-based shul setting prior to creating the independent, 2,000-member Temple Shalom for the Arts, which has no building and holds services at Wilshire Theater. The congregation is known for innovations such as a televised Yom Kippur service on PAX TV and for a prayer book created around the paintings by Russian Jewish artist Marc Chagall. Nonetheless, one member of Baron’s artsy congregants, jazz musician Herb Alpert, expressed some concern about the gospel/Hebrew mix being so emotionally elastic, as gospel music is known to be.

Baron said he told Alpert, “To me that’s what the Chasidic movement did; it approached God through music, dance, prayer. We’ve tried to do that.”

The service will take place April 15 at 8 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills.

For more information, call (310) 444-7500 or visit


What Jews Need to Know About Jesus

Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” became controversial long before its release when learned critics, Christians as well as Jews, who had been invited to read a draft of the script objected that the film was, if not actually anti-Semitic, then all too apt for anti-Semitic exploitation. The initial response of the Gibson camp to these charges included a lawsuit charging the critics with a malicious attempt to sabotage the film.

From the sidelines, industry insiders speculated that the controversy was a publicity stunt engineered to pump up the audience for a film that had cost its producers more to make than any Jesus movie was likely to earn at the box office (for a review of “The Passion,” see page 25).

Be that as it may, here, for moviegoers who might not keep a Gospel (or a Torah) at bedside, is a crib sheet for — you should forgive the expression — the post-mortem.

Q. This movie is supposedly based on the New Testament. What is the New Testament anyway?

A. In literary terms, the New Testament is the Christian Bible’s epilogue to the Jewish Bible or Tanakh. Like the Tanakh, the New Testament is almost entirely the work of Jews1. Only one of its authors is definitely known to have been a non-Jew.

The term testament is itself something of a linguistic fossil. It is an English descendant of the Latin word testamentum, which in antiquity translated the Hebrew brith, meaning “covenant.” Inconveniently, testament no longer means “covenant” in English.

Imagine Covenant or Brith as the title of Judaism’s Bible. Christianity’s new brith — memorialized in its enlarged Bible — sought to extend Israel’s covenant with God to the entire human race. That is what was new about its “new covenant.” Mind you, the whole human race wasn’t exactly begging for inclusion. Who but Jews would ever have had the chutzpah to think up such a thing and declare it the salvation of the world? But chutzpah they had, those first-century Jewish dissidents, and the non-Jews went for it.

Besides letting everybody into the Jewish country club, here’s what else was new about the Christian New Covenant. In place of Jews sacrificing animals to God to atone for their sins or ransom their firstborn or otherwise set things right between the Creator and themselves, God now sacrificed himself — in the person of Jesus — to himself and thus set everything right for all time and for everybody in one fell swoop. Thereafter, animal sacrifice could be dispensed with. The animal-sacrifice equivalent for the children of this new covenant would be simply a memorial reenactment of God’s once-and-for-all self-immolation at the crucifixion. The core of traditional Christian worship, beginning with the Catholic Mass, consists of this ritualized reenactment.

As St. Peter, whom Christian tradition honors as the first pope, saw the matter, the human beings involved in the death of Jesus were all just a part of God’s eternal plan. Speaking as a Jew to his fellow Jews in the first big-time sermon of his career, he said:

“Now I know, brothers, that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing; but this was the way God carried out what he had foretold when he said through all his prophets that his Messiah would suffer” (Acts 3:17-18).

So, then, whatever the historical answer to the question “Who killed Jesus?” the overriding Christian theological answer is, in effect, “God killed him.”

Q. Why did the Jews reject Jesus?

A. Is it any surprise that not all Jews were charmed at the notion of obliterating the distinction between Jew and non-Jew? Was this not a distinction set up and sanctified by God himself? Though Jewish ethnicity survived as such under Christianity (Christian Jews were still Jews), it survived as no more than that. What had made being Jewish so special — a special relationship with God — was now transferred to a “New Israel” to which everybody and his brother was invited. Maimonides had reason to say that “Jesus of Nazareth … interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment.” In his own way, St. Paul had said the same thing.

And there was a deeper reason. Jewish intellectual accommodation could be made, if just barely, for an Incarnate Word of God2. But for a Messiah defeated as horribly as the Jews themselves were in the catastrophic, six-decade Roman-Jewish wars? That was too much to bear. You can easily imagine a Jew in Peter’s audience objecting: “Take another look at the Prophets, Pete. Our Messiah is supposed to be King David redux. He is supposed to rescue us, not suffer for us, much less substitute himself for our sacrificial animals. What a cockamamie notion! A lot of good that does us!”

On the other hand, beware of anybody who tells you that “the Jews” accept or reject anything. In the time of Jesus, there were many Jews who went to war against Rome believing that as God had done to Pharaoh, so he would do to Caesar. But not all shared this suicidal faith. Before fighting the Romans, the Jewish rebels had to fight those of their fellow Jews who correctly foresaw a holocaust and wanted no part of it. Meanwhile, there were a few Jews who had long since concluded that their God would never again come through for them on the battlefield and who had begun, daringly, to imagine him suffering alongside them instead: a crucified God for a crucified people. These were the Jews who founded Christianity.

As for the privilege of being Jewish, what exalted some Jews discomfited others just as it does today. This question seems to have been particularly pressing for the Jews of the Greco-Roman Diaspora precisely because like the Jews of America, they were thriving spectacularly in the international culture of their day. Significantly, the New Testament was not written in parochial Aramaic. It was written in the international Greek spoken by this relatively comfortable Diaspora and, at the start, mostly for this Diaspora as well. The Jews of the Mediterranean Diaspora were not less Jewish than the Jews of Palestine, but they were definitely different. Think of synagogue life in Israel and in the United States: neither is “more Jewish” than the other, but who can deny that they are different? It was through Diaspora synagogues that Christianity spread around the empire.

In sum, then, there were some strong and obvious Jewish reasons to reject Jesus as a divine, pacifist, crucified Messiah enlarging God’s covenant to include the whole world, but there were a few emotionally powerful reasons to accept him in this role as well. The latter reasons may have been particularly persuasive in the Jewish Diaspora.

Q. OK, but now what about that historical question that you hurried past a moment ago? What was Jesus’ life like before the crucifixion? What is the backstory here? Does anyone know?

A. Historically, the time of Jesus was a time of steadily mounting Jewish resistance to Roman rule in Judea. The Romans tried to rule through Romanized local proxies — above all, through the dynasty of Herod. But when its proxies couldn’t quite handle things, the Empire was fully prepared to move to direct rule, even to military occupation.

Jewish resistance to Roman rule went hand in hand with apocalyptic religious thinking, a kind of thinking unknown in the Jewish Diaspora. Apocalyptic scribes and preachers read the older Hebrew scriptures as a key to the future, and the future they saw was one in which God would inflict catastrophic punishment on his foes before restoring Israel to its ancient glory. Apocalypticism was only too suitable, then, as background music for militant, violent resistance to Roman rule.

And yet not every apocalyptic thinker was an armed rebel. Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher and wonder-worker who believed that he was destined to be the star player in God’s final, definitive intervention in human history. Yet Jesus renounced violence. The Galilean rabbi may well have thought he was Messiah. He probably did not think he was God incarnate. After his death, his followers saw and wrote things about him that went beyond his own words. But none of them ever remembered him as a warrior, though his Hebrew name — perhaps by a deliberate irony — was Joshua3.

Josephus — a sometime Jewish soldier writing in Greek about the Roman-Jewish wars of the first and second century — mentions various prominent religious leaders of his day, including Jesus. He has least to say about those whose methods vis-à-vis the Romans were peaceful, including the earliest sages of the rabbinic tradition; but the background historical information that the Gospels indirectly convey is quite consistent with the world that he describes. Jesus, just one rather obscure preacher in a crowded landscape, would be little more than a bit player in Josephus had Jesus’ followers not told his story to the entire known world.

There was a clear conceptual distinction, in any case, between Jesus and the kind of apocalyptic preacher who most worried Rome and the Jews collaborating with Rome. But there was also a dangerous rhetorical similarity between the two. When Jesus left provincial Galilee and began attracting large street audiences in Jerusalem with his special kind of apocalyptic preaching, the Romans’ Jewish collaborators were predictably alarmed at what the Roman reaction might be. To quote the Gospel of John:

What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish (John 11:47-50).

The irony of this key passage is that, ruthlessness aside, Caiaphas’ willingness to acquiesce in Roman rule was matched by Jesus’ own. Not only was Jesus not a militant, he was a radical pacifist, a Joshua who would not fight; and his position regarding Rome was the scandalously compliant: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Imagine Moses saying “Render to Pharaoh the things that are Pharaoh’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” and you have some sense of the change that Jesus and his Jewish followers were prepared to make.

In historical terms, then, Jesus can be regarded as the victim of either a tragic mistake or a cynical calculation. But in either case, it was not the Jews but some Jews who made the fateful first move against him. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem days before his death, he was greeted by an adoring Jewish throng, according to the Gospels. When he was condemned to death, he faced a bloodthirsty Jewish mob, according to the same Gospels. Same Jews, different day? Different Jews?

Who knows? Ancient Jewish as well as ancient Christian sources attest that Jesus had influential Jewish enemies. Strikingly, however, in view of early Christian fear of hostile Roman attention, the words of the most ancient summary of Christian belief blame the Roman governor if they blame anyone. The key words of the “Apostles’ Creed” state that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.”

Q. But what about the long history of Christian persecution of Jews as “Christ killers”? Haven’t even some Christian commentators proposed excising certain anti-Semitic lines from the Gospels? And if Gibson is true to Gospel anti-Semitism, then isn’t he just serving up a Hollywood version of the anti-Semitic Oberammergau Passion play?

A. The smoking-gun line for the claim that the Gospels are anti-Semitic — a line now reportedly4 deleted from Mel Gibson’s film — is Matthew 27:24-25:

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this righteous man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be upon us and upon our children!”

Most scholars recognize in the Gospel of Matthew the most Jewish of the four canonical Gospels. It was almost certainly written by a Christian Jew for other Jews like himself and against their Jewish opponents. Imagine, if you will, the anger of secular Israelis about the ultra-Orthodox Israelis who called for the execution of Yitzhak Rabin and who applauded Yigal Amir when he did the deed. Intense as it was, that anger was not an anti-Semitic anger, for all parties to the transaction were equally Jewish. So it may have been here as well — originally.

Alas, when a Gospel containing such anger migrates out of its initial all-Jewish context into other contexts where Jews are a minority, the notorious line takes on a fearsome new anti-Semitic potential. In my judgment, it retains that potential down to our own day. Theologically, the death of Jesus is not a wrong that could be set right if his murderers could somehow be brought to justice. Theologically, Jesus’ passage from death to life in his resurrection is a new Exodus, bringing the human race as a whole to the new promised land of immortality. Theologically, those who killed Jesus, even if they sinned, were tools in God’s hands; and God’s enemy was not his people Israel but Satan. Theologically, it was Satan and Satan alone who was defeated when Jesus rose from the dead: Paradise lost, paradise regained. But when have anti-Semites ever cared, really, about theology?

I hope that “The Passion” does not live up to the worst of its advance notices; but if it does, the result will be more a pity than a peril. Anti-Semitism is not best confronted by bowdlerizing “The Merchant of Venice,” censoring Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” expurgating the Gospel according to Matthew 5 or editing the latest Jesus movie to come down the pike. To think this way is to treat anti-Semitism as something like the genitals of human thought and of ourselves as a frail Victorian damsel who might faint dead away if her innocent gaze ever fell on the dread organs. We are stronger than that, I dare to think — strong enough, if you will, to stare the obscenity down. The anti-Semites among us only rejoice when we act otherwise.

Jack Miles, senior adviser to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, is the author of “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” (Vintage Books).


1 The Israelite authorship of a few books of the Tanakh — notably Job and Ecclesiastes — has long been in question.

2 Though it is commonly claimed that the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity is an “un-Jewish idea,” its nearest theological kin is actually ancient rabbinical memra or “Word” theology — a kind of religious speculation that arose from the Tanakh’s way of speaking of God’s Word (Aramaic memra) as endowed with something like a life of its own. Without a Jewish initiation, pagan Greeks would scarcely have known what to make of what the Gospel of John has to say about the divinity of Jesus.

3 Greek Isous, which yields Latin Iesus, translates Hebrew Yehoshua or Yeshua — alternate forms of the name Joshua. It has become common enough for New Testament scholars, Christian as well as Jewish, to refer to Jesus as Yeshua. Yeshua, however, though it has the merit of reinforcing Jesus’ Jewishness, otherwise says nothing. Joshua speaks volumes.

4 New York Times, Feb. 4, 2004. According to The Times, the film placed the now-deleted line in the mouth of the high priest, Caiaphas. The Gospel of Matthew, the only one of the four New Testament gospels to include the line, attributes it to Jewish demonstrators outside the palace of Pontius Pilate. Though the change is typical of the sort of liberty that screenwriters take in turning a book into a shooting script, it would have had the effect of making the assumption of responsibility for the execution more nearly official. In the Gospels, as noted, different Jewish crowds hold different views about Jesus and sometimes engage each other in public dispute.

5 It was reliably reported to me, some years ago, that a Christian professor in a prestigious Eastern liberal arts college was proposing in class that the Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Joshua be purged of their “anti-Semitic” portions, these being those portions in which God commands genocide against the Canaanites, and Israel obeys. One can imagine, of course, how Palestinians might quote these passages against Israelis. One can imagine, in other words, how in contemporary context the passages could be used to anti-Semitic effect. But the claim being made, apparently, was that the ancient authors of these works were writing to disgrace their Jewish contemporaries — in other words, that the authors were anti-Semitic. This I found, and find, quite incredible, but note well: The expurgatory genie, once out of the jug, may not stop where Aladdin would have him stop.

Hollywood Mitzvahs

When one person helps another person, it’s a mitzvah. When 1,500 people from 30 different organizations join together to help out in over 50 volunteering projects, it’s Temple Israel of Hollywood’s (TIOH) Mitzvah Day.

The April 29 event attracted volunteers of all ages from both religious and secular organizations. Other Reform synagogues included Congregation Kol Ami and Beth Shir Shalom, and Conservative Knesseth Israel of Hollywood and Orthodox Congregation Shaarei Tefila joined in. St. Brendan’s Catholic Church, Hollywood United Methodist, St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal, Hope Lutheran, Fifth Christian Science, New Life Four-Square Gospel, Oriental Mission Church and the Orange Grove Friends Meeting were among the diversity of churches that sent volunteers to join in the mitzvah-making. Secular groups helping out ranged from the Daughters of the American Revolution to the Mothers of East L.A.

Together, members of all these groups collected food, books and furniture for distribution and delivered flowers to nursing homes. They joined with the Achilles Club, a group of disabled runners who need assistance to keep running and collected clothes for A Place Called Home.

Event chair David Levinson remembered the temple’s first Mitzvah Day two years ago, a solely TIOH affair. "That was all great, but I thought, let’s do this alongside the rest of the city, let’s make this a community-building day as well."

Also changed from previous years were a few of the groups that volunteered — groups that previously had received help. Both Covenant House, which provides shelter and outreach services for homeless youth, and Beyond Shelter, which assists families in breaking the cycles of poverty and homelessness, sent volunteers to Mitzvah Day projects after last year’s projects helped them. "It’s so much more dignified this way," noted Levinson. "It’s not just rich people helping poor people."

Buoyed by sponsors including Toyota and Strouds, and fed by Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, and In ‘N Out Burger, the volunteers worked throughout the day. Many will return often to help before next year’s Mitzvah Day, and that, says Levinson, is the point. "We’d like to see this be a catalyst for activities throughout the year," he said.

A Traditional Shabbat

A half-hour before services were scheduled to begin, the lobby of Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch was packed with eager worshipers, with as many as 1,400 expected. The 30-plus member Unity Choir of First African Methodist Episcopal Church rehearsed inside, and CDs by the congregation’s music director sold briskly. A gospel choir, a large church, a packed house — nothing unusual, perhaps, except these congregants are Jews. It’s Friday night, and everyone is here for a Shabbat service.

Now in its 10th year, Valley Outreach Synagogue’s (VOS) Sabbath service with gospel music attracts a larger crowd every time, and this night not a seat was empty. Between traditional Shabbat prayers and compositions by renowned VOS musical director Jack Bielan, the First A.M.E. Unity Choir stood and sang its joyous music, starting with a rousing rendition of “The Lord Is My Shepherd.”

Candles were lit, the wine was blessed and Rabbi Jerry Fisher delivered a brief sermon. By the end of the evening, the innovative service had a packed house clapping, singing, and dancing in the aisles. Following a stirring gospel number called “Blessed,” Bielan stood smiling with First A.M.E. choir director Barbara Allen and said, “There’s nothing like the joy of a traditional Shabbat.”