"The Passion" & the tar baby
by Jonathan Rosenblum
February 27, 2004
Jews concerned about Mel Gibson’s "The Passion" face a classic tar-baby situation: the harder they struggle the worse they make their situation. Though the battle may have helped a few Jewish defense organizations replenish their coffers, its principal achievement to date has been to ensure "The Passion" one of the largest first-week grosses in Hollywood history and to allow Gibson to skillfully portray himself as the Defender of the Gospels under siege. From whom? The Jews.
As Melanie Phillips astutely observes, the more Jews complain about anti-Semitism, the greater the anti-Semitism. Charges of anti-Semitism enrage real anti-Semites, who dismiss such charges as more Jewish whining, and dismay Christians who do not recognize any hatred of Jews in their hearts.
An even more fundamental problem confronts those worried about the effect of "The Passion." It is impossible for Jews to criticize Gibson’s film without being perceived as attacking the Christian Gospels upon which it is largely based. Given the relative number of Jews and Christians in the world that is a losing proposition.
That is not to say that Jewish concern is unfounded. Passion plays, even without the mesmerizing effect of the big screen and the Technicolor special effects available to Gibson, have a long and ignominious history of inciting pogroms.
As the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby points out, Gibson seems to have no interest in Jesus’ life as a Jew, or even in why he would have been of concern to either Roman or Jewish authorities. His almost exclusive focus is on his brutal death at the hands – primarily of the Jews.
Gibson belongs to a breakaway sect of Catholic "traditionalists" that rejects as illegitimate the reforms of Vatican II, including absolving the Jewish people of collective guilt for Jesus’ death. Gibson’s father, Hutton, dismisses Vatican II as a "conspiracy of Freemasons and Jews." (Last week Hutton Gibson insisted that the extermination camps were merely work camps.) About his father, Mel says, "That man never lied to me in his life."
Faced with the threat posed by Gibson’s film, Jews needed a good measure of the brains for which former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed Muhatir so "praised" us. The tragedy is that American Jewry today lacks a leader of the stature of the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer, long-time head of Agudath Israel of America, capable of activating an extensive network of Christian allies for common causes.
Had Jewish spokesmen been less eager to thrust themselves front and center, plenty of Christian allies could have been found to help blunt the impact of "The Passion. If Jews have no desire to be the victims of anti-Semitism, tens of millions of Christians of good will have no desire that Christians should again be the perpetrators of Jew hatred.
The Catholic Church, for one, cannot be terribly enthusiastic about a cinematic presentation of a theology that rejects current papal teaching on the Jews. Indeed a group of mostly Catholic New Testament scholars, affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, submitted a study pointing out the departures of Gibson’s original script from the Gospels and from papal teaching, as well as the "lurid details" imported from the ecstatic visions of an 18th century German nun.
Catholic scholars are aware of the numerous contradictions between the four Gospels. They acknowledge that the different human authors wrote in a particular historical context that made it necessary to deliberately downplay the Roman agenda for Jesus’ execution. Coming from Catholics such comments may have some positive impact without any of the inevitable negatives when Shmuley Boteach says the same thing.
While evangelical Protestants will have little truck with such historical analysis of New Testament texts, they tend to overwhelmingly to be philo-Semites and, unlike the Catholic Church, continue to view Jews as the Chosen People. With them the proper approach is that adopted by the Simon Wiesenthal Center: an open appeal to Christians of good will to do for Jews what we cannot do for ourselves – i.e. work to ensure that "The Passion" not become a vehicle for arousing anti-Semitic furies.
The Wiesenthal Center’s "Appeal to People of Faith" expressly eschews any request that Christians renounce or censor their most holy texts. It places the focus on actions not beliefs. And that is as it should be.
Believing Jews have no interest in dictating others’ theology or demanding that they reject their most sacred texts. (One more reason for religious Jews to avoid a frontal confrontation with Mel Gibson.) All religion suffers when any religion is subjected to the strictures of modern day political correctness. Already on many university campuses, it is a "hate crime," punishable by expulsion, to express the Biblical abhorrence of homosexual acts.
Religion is drained of all its power and majesty when its adherents witness its sacred texts and thousands of years of exegesis adjusted in accord with the demands of the local thought police. Recently, I was asked by a BBC moderator of a discussion of the Women of the Wall, "But don’t you think that a religion must update in accord with the times?"
"Not unless it wishes to be as irrelevant to the lives of believers as the modern Church of England," I replied.
Related Topics: Biographical - Jonathan Rosenblum, World Jewry
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