The Passion - The Movie
By Rabbi Benjamin Blech
"Well," people ask me, "did you finally see the movie?"
The answer is yes -- and no. I went to a showing of "The Passion of the Christ," I watched for as long as I could bear it, and then, when the scenes of sadistic torture began to make me feel physically ill, I closed my eyes. True, I had been duly warned by reviewers that this is no less than "The Goriest Story Ever Told," a Marquis de Sade version of the Gospels; in the words of Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, "a repulsive, masochistic fantasy, a sacred snuff film." And still I was not prepared for what appeared on the screen.
As the movie mercifully came to an end and the lights went on in the theater, the woman seated next to me, a total stranger, turned and asked how I had liked it. I was in no mood for a theological discussion so I simply said I was appalled by the violence. "You must be Jewish," she said.
For a moment I felt complimented. Surely what she meant was that I had reacted by way of my religion's sensitivity and abhorrence of bloodshed. But her anger and the words that followed made me understand the real problem with a film that has already achieved not only unparalleled press but also a veritable cult following. "Jews are always going to find fault," she said, "with a story that tells the truth about our Lord!"
And then I understood. How is it possible for so many to witness graphic images that ensure nightmares -- and happily bring their children along with them? How can an American society that becomes frantic at the momentary sight of a breast at the Super Bowl be so indifferent to the 90-minute display of unimaginable cruelty?
The answer? Americans have profound respect for religion, and the genius of Mel Gibson is that he has marketed this film as a spiritual experience. It masquerades as a sacred work of art, a Hollywood production disguised as the holy wood of the cross. It asks to float above criticism because the theater has become a cathedral and you, the viewer, are privileged -- just like the specially invited guests of evangelicals who were for two months invited to pre-screenings for "the faithful" --- to be witness to the word of God.
Don't be grossed out by the blood and the gore -- or even watching a raven pluck out the eye of the thief on the cross next to Jesus, a scriptwriter's pure fantasy -- because Gibson has successfully made it seem that his Mel O'Drama is nothing less than the Bible and a family outing to this film is as spiritually significant as a Sunday morning church service.
Disagree with any part of "The Passion" and for many you aren't anti-Gibson but anti-God, a non-believer who doesn't deserve the courtesy of a hearing because you're obviously simply a heretic.
But to my mind the most important truth that has to be publicized is that the movie isn't the New Testament, Gibson isn't the voice of God, and the Jews of the film aren't the Jews of church doctrine.
Jewish critics of "The Passion" have to be careful, as some have correctly pointed out, not to edit Christian doctrine. We don't have a right to tell others what to believe. But when Gibson tells Diane Sawyer, "Critics who have a problem with me don't really have a problem with me and this film; they have a problem with the four Gospels" --well, to put it bluntly, he's not telling the gospel truth. It is Christian scholars who take Gibson to task for manipulating the Gospels he relies upon to tell an incomplete and distorted story; for fabricating events that appear in none of the Gospels and for incorporating as New Testament-verified history the visions of two nuns of the 17th and 18th centuries.
A panel of church leaders, not Jews, (as reported in the New York Times, Feb. 25), said the movie "deviated in bizarre ways from the Gospel accounts...and is numbingly violent." The Rev. Philip Blackwell put it succinctly: "Mel Gibson says it's a literal interpretation. It's not. It's Mel Gibson's interpretation."
And when it comes to the way the movie treats Jews, it's crucial for us to remember that Gibson doesn't have the right or the moral authority to speak for the Church.
What makes the dispute so unnerving, though, is the surfacing hatred that threatens to overwhelm any dialogue.
By now we've got to pretty much agree to disagree on the question of whether "The Passion" is anti-Semitic. The argument rages beyond the assumed biases of viewers. There are Jews who are satisfied with the fact that the Romans are identified as the actual executioners. There are Christians who are disturbed by the portrayal of a Jewish mob demanding Jesus' crucifixion from a supposedly unwilling Pontius Pilate. What makes the dispute so unnerving, though, is the surfacing hatred that threatens to overwhelm any dialogue -- an unfortunate consequence of Gibson's claim to the depiction of truth by virtue of his having had "the help of the Holy Ghost" when he made this film so that whatever he did can't be questioned.
Sister Mary Boys, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, who was part of an ad hoc group that was asked to read an early screenplay, publicly warned that it could inflame anti-Semitism. The result? Sister Boys said that not only was Gibson furious but since the group made those criticisms, she and other members have been attacked by supporters of the movie as "anti-Christ, the arrogant gang of so-called scholars, dupes of Satan, forces of Satan and other terms that I cannot use in polite company." Mess with Gibson's version, is the apparent message, and you're messing with God.
But the truth is that the Church is on the side of Sister Boys. For Jews who have used this movie to confirm their conviction that Christians will always hate Jews, Gibson has perpetrated an unforgivable crime that negates one of the most remarkable acts of communal religious repentance in history. The Second Vatican Council acknowledged the sin of the Church for almost 2000 years in blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus. Neither the Jews of that generation or of those to come, they decreed, bear any guilt for deicide.
In 1988, the Vatican published Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, with a list of nine points that any future depictions of Passion Plays are to use as guides. Gibson's movie ignores every one of them.
To blame "the goyim" instead of Gibson is for Jews to ignore progress of incredible import in interfaith relations. Pope John Paul II just welcomed the Chief Rabbi of Israel as "my older brother." He has condemned anti-Semitism as "a sin not only against the Church but against mankind." We are no longer in the age of Christian-approved pogroms or Crusades and we dare not let a "Mel"-evolent lie blind us to a theological turning point of history.
"The Passion" is a movie that ought to give pause to Christians not only because it is unfaithful to Church doctrine. It is pornography that asks to be accepted as inspiration; it is violence in the misplaced service of veneration and love; it is the message of Jesus summarized not by the teachings of his life but by the horrors of his death. As Peter Rainer put it so well, "The real damage will not, I think, be in the realm of Jewish-Christian relations, at least not in this country. Anti-Semites don't need an excuse to be anti-Semites. The damage will be to those who come to believe that Gibson's crimson tide, with its jacked-up excruciations, is synonymous with true religious feeling."
For us that carries an important message as well. Jews who are upset with the movie have concentrated their outcry almost totally on its implicit anti-Semitism. But this New Testament a là Gibson has another agenda. The production company considers it "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years", and plans to market it worldwide to "the faithless." Soon we will be bombarded by "the good news" of salvation "through the blood of Jesus" for all mankind. "The Passion" is passionately interested in converting those who still don't believe that the crucifixion is our only hope for forgiveness.
"The Passion" doesn't connect with Jews because we reject the very notion that God can be tortured, can scream out in pain, and can die.
Perhaps our best response to this Hollywood missionary effort is to look inward and take pride in the beauty of our own faith. We need to use this as an opportunity to explain that for Jews personal accountability is the real path to heaven; that we do not believe someone can die for our sins, nor that God requires the death of His son to appease Him. At the end of the day, "The Passion" doesn't connect with Jews because we reject the very notion that God can be tortured, can scream out in pain and can die. Not only Christians, but all too many secular Jews still don't get the great theological issues we have with a movie that from a Jewish perspective distorts the definition of God and the relationship we have with Him.
Many years ago I met with Ernest Hemingway. In a remarkably frank conversation, the Pulitzer Prize winner confessed to me that there was something about Judaism that he admired more than any other religion. "From my understanding," he told me, "Judaism, unlike the Christianity in which I was raised, is a religion of life, not a religion of death."
That brilliant insight is what I wish Jews would stress as the ultimate reason why we can't relate to a film that is preoccupied with nine hours of dying. "Choose life" is the cardinal message of our religion. A movie that celebrates death, produced under the Icon Films label, can only make me regret as a Jew that Gibson didn't take to heart the Biblical prohibition of the Second Commandment: "Thou shalt not make for yourself any icons."
Rabbi Benjamin Blech is the author of seven highly acclaimed books, including Understanding Judaism: The basics of Deed and Creed. He is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and the Rabbi Emeritus of Young Israel of Oceanside which he served for 37 years and from which he retired to pursue his interests in writing and lecturing around the globe. He is also the author of "If God is Good, Why is the World So Bad?"
Responses to this article by some of my Christian friends-
From: Jim Massey
Sent: Thursday, March 04, 2004 8:36 AM
This woman needs to be slapped and told to shut her stupid trap. Anyone who is a Christian and can even talk after seeing this movie did not get the message of the movie. In a full theater where I was, a few people were hugging and crying afterward, and everyone else was completely silent, all the way out of the theater. I said nothing all the way home, and if I hadn't had to answer the phone I might not have said anything all evening. It is a movie that brings out the Pietist in anyone with any understanding of the Christian story: you leave the movie hating all you have done to put Him there, and praying, and devoting your life to greater holiness. I have not been able to shake the sense of the depth and breadth of God's love for me, and my inability to give Him anything worthy of it in return.
From: Scott McMeekan
Date: Thu, 04 Mar 2004 16:18:08 +0000
I couldn't agree more, Jim. And I'm sorry, but I have not run across a SINGLE PERSON who has said anything REMOTELY close to this. Not ONE.
From: Deke Barker
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 2004 09:42:26 -0700
Absolutely *GREAT* commentary.
I'm reluctant to comment on the film itself since I haven't seen it. However, I *CAN* comment on its marketing, its historical accuracy (using Gibson's own description), its apparent intent, and its effect on true-believers. IMO, the good rabbi hit the nail on the head every time.
I would like to see a defense of "Passion... " that responded to the critics' claims instead of just calling the critics "anti-God" and then ducking any serious examination of the film. It would be most interesting, but I doubt that it will happen. Alas, the New Christian Right that is so supportive of this film is not interested in facts that prove them wrong. It's not interested in facts at all; instead, it prefers that its adherents wallow in willful ignorance. It appears that this film was made for them.
From: Deke Barker
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 2004 10:13:17 -0700
I believe you are sincere in what you are saying; Scott too. I also think you are looking at the situation through rose-colored glasses.
Conservative evangelical Xians have *LONG* been known for their anti-Semitism and their general dislike for minorities (including Roman Catholics). Not all of them. Maybe not even the majority. But a lot them, a substantial plurality. Do you seriously think that this woman is unusual?
You say you haven't "heard" any such comments. And why would you? These days, even committed bigots are reluctant to wear their bigotry on their sleeves, especially around strangers or people who are *NOT8 obviously bigoted.
What about the alleged distortions in the film, distortions that *APPEAR* (in reviews) to exaggerate the wickedness of the Jewish leaders and minimize the role of Pilate and the Romans? Nearly all Xian scholars acknowledge that the evangelists were trying hard not to annoy the Romans when they wrote their gospels, and nearly all Xian scholars agree that the evangelists' communities were in direct conflict with the post-70 Jewish leadership. Thus, nearly all scholars, Xians and Jews and secular scholars, agree that the Passion story in the gospels distorts the situation to the disfavor of the Jews. And now Gibson has come along and taken those distortions and exaggerated them.
You don't see this as an intentional effort to create a further wedge between Xians and Jews? What else could it be?
And why all the blood? How many viewers understand the difference between 1st century Near Eastern attitudes toward violence and 21st century American attitudes toward violence? How many realize that what is appalling behavior for us may have been fairly commonplace in the 1st century CE?
Imagine that you were anti-American and wanted to make a film about America. Do you think it would be effective to show George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as they violently raped female slaves? We know they had slaves. We are pretty sure they had sex with them. And rape is rape. (In fact, we know a lot more about their sex lives than we do about the Passion story.) How do you think that audiences in (say) Europe would react to such a movie? Do you think it would be fair to show George and Tom violently raping their slaves? No? Why not? It's probably as close to the truth -- or closer -- than Gibson's "Passion... ".
You might answer that it wouldn't be fair because it distorted the facts and abused the context. ("Abuse of context" occurs when a filmmaker or author highlights a situation, perhaps accurately, but does so in a visual or literary vacuum.) But isn't that what Gibson has apparently done?
Or, as I haven't seen the film, am I basing my comments on biased reviews?
From: Jim Massey
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 2004 12:30:05 -0500
I have no idea if she is usual or unusual. I said she should be slapped and told to shut up, meaning that those on my side of the worship aisle should correct their own.
I didn't say that I hadn't heard any such comments; I said that I heard NO comments after the movie, because the audience was speechless. They walked out as people are supposed to walk out of a Good Friday liturgical service: in silence and retrospection. I can't speak for every showing at every theater, only of the one I experienced in mine, but from what I hear silence seems to be a common response.
Pilate looks like a foolish middle manager, and I saw enough of them in the US military when my father was a GS-11 to recognize the type. I actually think the movie made the Roman soldiers look much worse than the Sanhedrin. The movie makes the Sanhedrin want Jesus dead because he was a troublemaker and didn't fit in with their beliefs, and the mob want him dead just for laughs; they reminded me of the administration and some of the faculty at my former community college and the way they treated me. The soldiers, on the other hand, took great delight in their torture and killing. As partially an Italian-American, I might be afraid of anti-Italianism if I thought the movie's message wasn't so obvious to anyone who is willing to see it--a message that Jesus suffered, and suffered horribly, for our sins.
An attempt to show how Jesus suffered for our sins! For Christ's sake (and I mean that literally), go see the movie! and let it, not your prejudices, not your social fears, not your anti-"Xian" biases, let IT, the movie, the suffering and death of Jesus, speak to you.
This is a good way to learn! Most people have a sanitized, Max von Sydow half-drugged ghotied beatnik view of the crucifixion. It was gross as HELL, because it was HELL that was being broken by His death.
I plan to respond to Rabbi Blech's review when I can, but I have already taken too much time writing this and must get back to my grading before ETS starts docking my pay.
From: Deke Barker
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 2004 11:46:18 -0700
Romans v Jews: "Romans" no longer exist. "Jews" do. Nobody perceives a direct link between 1st century Romans and modern Italians, at least not in the sense that they link 1st century Jews and modern Jews. After all, the "Romans" became Christian, so they were forgiven 1600 years ago. Anyway, if Gibson had any understanding of history, he would have known that hardly any of the "Romans" in Palestine were from Rome. For all I know, they weren't even from the Italian peninsula. *PAUL* was a "Roman"!
Gibson's use of Latin seems like a perfect metaphor for his film: It enhances Gibson's claim to authenticity in spite of the fact that there is little chance that anyone in Palestine spoke Latin, other than a handful of native Romans (probably high officials) in private conversations.
To put it simply: Gibson's use of Latin puts the lie to his claims of fidelity to the historical record.
Blood: Sex with slaves is rape, but we don't consider Washington and Jefferson to be rapists. (At least, I don't.) Their behavior has to be put into the context of their time. But Gibson appears to have *EXAGGERATED* the suffering, suffering that -- in the context of *JESUS'* time -- was hardly unusual. Gibson apparently took that punishment and suffering out of its original context and then, according to several reviewers, *GROSSLY* exaggerated it.
I guess what I'm saying is this: Yes, Jesus suffered. So did all the other Jews who were strung up on crosses that day. So did later Christian martyrs. So did Huegenots suffer in the fires of Roman Catholicism. So did countless Jews for 2000 years at the hands of Christians. What was so special about the *NATURE* of Jesus' suffering to make it the focal point -- apparently the *ONLY* point -- of Gibson's film? Why focus so totally on the suffering and then exaggerate that suffering?
I won't bother with seeing the film unless I am forced to do so by circumstances. I'm not into religious fantasies.
From: Deke Barker
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 2004 12:22:19 -0700
Uh, Jim.... our discussion on "PASSION", like the one on the presumed civil downsides to gay marriage, never got started. You were too busy.
The fact is, I don't watch *ANY* so-called "religious" films purporting to portray historical truth. That's because they never do. It has nothing to do with Gibson's film per se.
Furthermore, the facts that I'm addressing don't seem to be in doubt. If I am ever distorting the film's presentation, let me know. As far as I am aware, I'm basing *ALL* of my comments on things that have been written by *BOTH* critics *AND* evangelical Xian supporters, on matters where there is common agreement on what the film portrays. Are you saying that these areas of agreement are themselves distorted?
Let me ask you one question:
Can you put yourself outside your own beliefs for a moment? That is, can you try to perceive the film the way a non-Xian or a "lapsed" Xian might see it? If so:
What would the non-Xian's perception of Xianity be after seeing this film? Would s/he get any insight into Jesus' ministry, his ideals, his vision for mankind? Or do you have to be a "true believer" before you get anything positive out of the film?
From: Scott McMeekan
Date: Thu, 04 Mar 2004 19:27:34 +0000
I guess what I'm saying is this: Yes, Jesus suffered. So did all the other Jews who were strung up on crosses that day. So did later Xian martyrs. So did Huegenots suffer in the fires of Roman Catholicism. So did countless Jews for 2000 years at the hands of Xians. What was so special about the *NATURE* of Jesus' suffering to make it the focal point -- apparently the *ONLY* point -- of Gibson's film? Why focus so totally on the suffering and then exaggerate that suffering?
Because it is his SUFFERING, DEATH and RESURRECTION that is the "mystery of faith". It's what makes *true* Christians tick, it's what we're betting our lives on, Deke. But then, since you view the Gospel accounts as historical fiction, and reject the notion that acceptance of a literal death and resurrection is what defines a "Christian", I can understand why you're confused.
The NATURE of Jesus suffering and death was that he was taking on ALL OF HUMANITY'S sin. Not just a few people, or a few thousand people's. Not just everyone who had previously lived, or were currently living. ALL HUMANITY, past, present and future. And as he cried out, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" in utter agony, it was complete and total separation from God that finally paid the price.
And truthfully Deke, it's literally absurd for you to critique this film at all without seeing it. I thought you would understand that. But then, you've obviously already formed your opinion of it, so all you would be doing is reinforcing preconceived opinions. Now where is the scholarly honesty in that?
Deke Barker is a member of the church of The Disciples Of Christ.
Jim Massey is a Lutheran
Scott McMeekan is a Lutheran transitioning to Roman Catholicism
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