Young Jews, Catholics to debate Passion Play


For the first time, young American Jews and German Catholics will formally debate the meaning of Germany’s controversial Passion Play at Oberammergau.

The traditional, notoriously anti-Semitic play about Jesus’ last days has undergone serious revisions since Catholic and Jewish leaders first discussed the matter some 40 years ago. The young people will analyze how the play has changed and assess the current performance.

The Americans’ trip May 6-16 is being co-sponsored by the New York-based American Jewish Committee and Germany Close Up, a Berlin-based program designed to introduce American Jews to modern Germany.

Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC associate director of interreligious and intergroup relations, said in a statement that the planned conference would help ensure “that the significant advances in Christian-Jewish understanding and cooperation are sustained and furthered.”

The Oberammergau Passion Play is repeated every 10 years with a new cast, director and stage designer. It has been a source of friction and unusual cooperation between Jewish and Catholic leaders, particularly since the liberalizing Vatican Council II (1962-65), when the Church officially warned against blaming Jews in eternity for the death of Jesus.

Over the decades, Church representatives have worked closely with American Jewish leaders to reshape the traditional text of the play to reflect modern sensibilities, with AJC’s former head of interreligious affairs, Rabbi James Rudin, at the forefront.

It is no mere intellectual exercise, Marans said in his statement.

“Passion plays, especially Oberammergau, the most influential of its genre in the world, can be troubling vehicles for anti-Judaism and, tragically, have inspired violence against Jews,” he said.

All the news that’s fit to neuter


When the obituary for American journalism is eventually written, a milestone in the journey to its death rattle will surely be the column that The New York Times’ ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, wrote on Sunday.

Hoyt’s job is to hold the feet of The Times to the flames of journalism’s highest standards. What bothered him on Sunday was that Times business staffers like Andrew Ross Sorkin, Gretchen Morgenson and Floyd Norris not only report economic news under their bylines, but that they also, on some days, write opinion columns.

One example that ticked Hoyt off was Gretchen Morgenson’s coverage of a House oversight hearing on credit-rating agencies like Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, coupled with her column three days later on the same topic. Why, Hoyt asked, is it OK for Morgenson “to write a straight news article about the hearings and then give her personal opinion about them in a column”?

In case you’ve forgotten, it was those hearings that established how deeply the ratings agencies were in the tank with Wall Street’s malefactors. Instead of assigning credible independent grades to securities that we now know to be toxic assets, the agencies were hopelessly compromised by the fees that the securities issuers paid them to issue ratings. Here’s an e-mail exchange between two analysts at S & P about a deal they were examining:

“Btw — that deal is ridiculous. We should not be rating it.”

“We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.”

The reaction by Standard & Poor’s president to having his company caught red-handed?

“The unfortunate and inappropriate language used in these e-mails does not reflect the core culture of the organization I am committed to leading.”

It’s ombudsman Clark Hoyt’s distinction between “straight news” and “personal opinion” that I think captures the reason that journalism is on the skids. “Straight news” is a dinosaur — not because Fox or MSNBC has discovered that there’s a market for personal opinion, but because the “straight” ideal turns out to be so misguided and dangerous.

Straight news puts the defensive blather from top executives of Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s on the same footing as testimony about conflict-of-interest by former officials of those firms at the hearings. Each piece of damning evidence is juxtaposed with a flack’s denial. Each incriminating e-mail demonstrating the corruption of the ratings process is laid against the executives’ contrary assurances of integrity and high standards. Straight news is stenography: These guys say “day;” these other guys say “night.” It’s up to you, dear reader, to decide whom to believe.

The trouble with this conception of journalism is that it inherently tilts the playing field in favor of liars, who are expert at gaming this system. It muzzles reporters, forbidding them from crying foul and requiring them to treat deception with the same respect they give to truth. It equates fairness with evenhandedness, as though journalism were incompatible with judgment. “Straight news” isn’t neutral. It’s neutered — devoid of assessment, divorced from accountability, floating in a netherworld of pseudo-scientific objectivity that serves no one except the rascals it legitimizes.

In her opinion column about the oversight hearing, Morgenson was free to characterize the ratings agency executives’ testimony with the words it deserved: hypocrisy, malarkey, smoke-and-mirrors, hogwash. Yet her newspaper’s ombudsman is worried about having the same person both report the news and — in a different piece, on a different day — analyze it; he fears that it risks giving readers the impression that the paper is biased.

But what’s the virtue of reporting, if it stops short of calling a blackguard a blackguard? I know the knock on analysis: It privileges one person’s opinion, one set of values, in a world of many competing opinions and values. But it’s ridiculous to deprive readers of reporters’ critical thinking. It may be true that different people may see the same evidence differently, but that’s no reason to require journalists to take stupid pills. If I don’t like the way your reporters come to their conclusions, I won’t read your paper or watch your network; instead, I’ll find outlets whose employees’ judgments strike me as warranted.

I’d rather there be many competing ways of framing and analyzing and coming to conclusions about what’s happening in the world, than pretend that there’s some platonic ideal of fairness that high-end organs like The New York Times are obliged to pursue. The problem with quality journalism isn’t that the line between news and opinion is too porous; the problem is that the news lacks the courage of its reporters’ and editors’ convictions.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

It’s Time to Return to Our Mission


 

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was the most important American religious event of the past year. For Christians, its effects were quite positive, as viewers already committed to belief in Jesus were roused to renew their faith through the heartrending story of the Crucifixion.

For America’s Jewish community, the effects of the film can also be positive, if we draw the right retrospective lessons not from the movie itself but from the controversy that still surrounds it.

This time a year ago, more than a month before its release, “The Passion” was drawing tremendous hostility from Jewish leaders. Though Anti-Defamation League (ADL) national director Abraham Foxman has denied that his group predicted pogroms, in fact, the ADL harped on supposed parallels between Gibson’s movie and medieval Passion plays. The latter led to mass violence against Jews, so the obvious implication was that the former could also.

In an article in The New Republic — Jewish-owned and edited — a Jewish professor of religious studies, Paula Fredriksen, in all earnestness stated not as speculation but as a certainty that when the film appeared in countries like Poland, Spain, France and Russia, savagery would erupt: “When violence breaks out, Mel Gibson will have a much higher authority than professors and bishops to answer to.”

Of course none of this happened — despite the fact that, thanks to the widely publicized attacks spearheaded by the ADL, many more people saw Gibson’s “Passion” than would otherwise have done so.

What was expected to bring on this tsunami of Jew-hatred, not least from the same evangelical Christians who are among the State of Israel’s most ardent supporters?

As the Christian Bible tells the story and as Gibson does, the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ time handed him over to the Romans for crucifixion. This happens to be approximately the version of history given in the Talmud and by the past millennium’s greatest Jewish sage, Maimonides. I say “approximately” because, in truth, Jewish tradition ascribes full responsibility for Jesus’ death to certain Jews of the time. If Gibson is an anti-Semite, so is Maimonides.

Apart from exonerating Gibson, the lessons to be drawn from the “Passion” imbroglio have to do with the tactics our community has come to favor in fighting supposed anti-Semitism. There is indeed anti-Semitism out there to be fought, almost exclusively in the Arab world. But sadly, our Jewish culture places tremendous emphasis on sniffing out hostility to us where it barely exists, namely among Christians, and spends a fortune doing so.

If you doubt the prestige and authority we assign to groups like the Anti-Defamation League and its West Coast equivalent, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, just ask yourself who, on moral questions, is the American Jewish voice that gets more attention, that is treated with more grave, earnest seriousness than any other?

It belongs not to a rabbi or any other spiritual exemplar but to the ADL’s Foxman.

Don’t blame him. This well-meaning man is just doing his job, which is to raise the approximately $40 million budget that Jews yearly pour into the ADL. Anti-defamation groups stay in business by motivating us to donate. That requires continually proving the urgent relevance of what they do.

There is an automatic, built-in institutional motivation to sound the alarm at the slightest hint of anti-Semitism, and to keep the alarm screaming in newspapers and TV as long and as loud as possible.

The non-Jewish media are complicit in this. But so are we. By elevating anti-Semitism over virtually any other community concern — like education or spirituality, for example — we do ourselves more harm than good.

The risk of alienating Christian allies is not the most serious issue. Religious Christians love the Jewish state for much the same reason that religious Jews do. Both see Israel as occupying a special place in God’s regard, and both see it as playing an important future role in the world’s history.

Christian affection for Israel, and for Jews, is not going to go away anytime soon.

I worry more about the function God assigned to the Jewish people 3,000 years ago at Mount Sinai. There, He called us to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), and many passages in the Hebrew prophets make clear what this should mean. We are called to function as ministers to the world, which is meant to be our congregation, teaching other peoples about God.

It is a pity that, in the eyes of our congregation, the most serious moral message we have to impart has nothing to do with the Torah or with God. It’s about a generalized paranoia, an ingrained habit of issuing mistaken alarms about phantom anti-Semitism, and then to deny we ever made a mistake.

The time has come to acknowledge our mistake, even to apologize — not to Gibson, but to God. Jews have a job in the world, which He gave us. We’re not doing it now, but if we opted to reconsider where our community spends its money, how we assign our priorities, we could get down to business.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post. The author’s new book, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History,” will be published in March.

 

Educator CombinesTwo Passions in Life


Metuka Benjamin was sitting in a taxicab in a Tel Aviv traffic jam when the Israeli prime minister’s limousine happened to pull up next to her. The driver recognized Benjamin and told her to ditch her cab and he would take her where she wanted to go — and she did.

While the Jewish education pioneer said she doesn’t recall the incident, it’s one of Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin’s favorite stories about his colleague of 39 years. “I’m sure if Metuka lived in Israel, she’d be up in the government there, because she knows everybody,” said Zeldin of Stephen S. Wise Temple.

In the Southland, everybody remotely associated with Jewish education in Los Angeles knows Benjamin. As director of education and co-founder of the six Stephen S. Wise schools along with Zeldin, Benjamin is among the most respected Jewish leaders in the city.

Benjamin, whose first name means “sweet,” has a passion for Jewish education that has earned her a reputation as a leader. She is also a mother figure to whom former students often turn for approval before marrying their prospective mates.

At a time when many other local Jewish educators are retiring or being replaced by younger members in the field, Benjamin’s legendary leadership continues to thrive.

Born in Tel Aviv to a Lithuanian businessman and an American-born mother, Benjamin moved to New York with her parents and brother when she was 15. She attended Columbia University’s Jewish Theological Seminary, where she received a master’s degree in education.

“I missed Israel terribly,” the administrator said. “But I felt I could contribute to what is needed here [in the United States], which is the passion for Jewish education and the passion for Israel.”

Benjamin’s ambition led her to Los Angeles, where she became a Hebrew school teacher at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. There she found Zeldin, someone who shared her passion and educational vision. In 1964, Benjamin and Zeldin teamed up to establish a new school, which later developed into Stephen S. Wise Temple.

“We can pray anywhere,” Benjamin said about creating the school before the shul, “but youngsters need a place for education.”

The efforts of Benjamin and Zeldin resulted in the creation of the largest Jewish educational system in the United States, which includes an early childhood education center, elementary school, middle school, high school, religious school and adult education program.

As Benjamin’s professional life flourished, so did her personal life. In 1979, she married Ray Benjamin, a shipping company owner. They have one son.

Today, Jewish education experts credit Benjamin and Zeldin as being instrumental in legitimizing the concept of Reform Jewish day schools.

“[Stephen S. Wise] has been a trailblazing institution in the larger Reform movement,” said Dr. Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE). Benjamin was among the first educators in Los Angeles in to win the BJE’s prestigious Milken Family Foundation Jewish Educator Award in 1990.

In addition to her role as an administrator, Benjamin has been the international president of the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center near Tel Aviv for the last 10 years. Assaf Harofeh is one of the largest hospitals in Israel and serves some of the poorest areas.

Benjamin became involved with the center while spending time with a friend during one of her visits to Israel, a trip she has made several times a year since she was 18. Although she originally had no vested interest in the medical field, she quickly changed her mind.

“When I saw the hospital and the need,” she said, “I decided to work for them as a volunteer.” Similar to her other endeavors, Benjamin quickly emerged as a leader.

Benjamin’s lifelong connection to Israel has merged with the educational mission of the schools. Stephen S. Wise schools have a relationship with two sister schools in Israel. One of Benjamin’s goals is to ensure that all of her high school and middle school students have the opportunity to visit Israel.

In Israel, Benjamin received the Constantiner Award from Tel Aviv University for exceptional contributions to Jewish education on an international level at a ceremony May 21.

“There is nothing which is too daunting for her,” said Graff, recalling the time Benjamin stepped in to coordinate the school’s former transportation system one morning years ago.

After nearly four decades with Stephen S. Wise, Benjamin does not see her work ending any time soon.

“For me, it’s not a job, it’s a mission.” she said, adding that retirement isn’t in the near future. “I have a lot of work to do yet.”