By Rigoberto Emmanuel Vinas
Westchester Jewish Chronicle
February 2006

Two years ago this month, Mel Gibson released the movie "The Passion of the Christ."

It was preceded by months of criticism, worry condenmation and fear coming from the Jewish community

We were warned that its release would cause an upsurge in anti-Semitism around the world.

We publicized that it was overtly anti-Semitic because Gibson and his father had made anti-Semitic statements and we feared that those who watched it would leave the theater blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus.

The fear was based upon centuries of anti-Jewish murderous riots all across Europe after our neighbors would partake of "Passion Plays" during the weeks before Easter.

The Jewish community expressed its outrage and did everything it could to dis-
credit the movie and the story it depicted. Countless amounts of communal funds were directed toward combating it by preparing studies, publishing manuals that provided responses and by alerting the media to our discomfort.

The media reported our fears and the more they reported on it the more it attracted attention from viewers adding to its pre-release sales. It became the highest grossing R-rated film ever made, bringing in $370 million.

Today, its DVD sales, merchandising and international sales have made it the 10th highest all time domestic gross producer in movie history. On DVD it has been translated into multiple languages and can be found all over the world.

Millions have watched it and it continues to be used as a religious education movie in countless churches.

But there have been no reported anti-Semitic backlashes attributed to the film aside from those who expressed outrage at the Jewish community's attempt at debunking and removing parts of the film.

Two years later, hardly a voice among Jewish leaders can be heard talking about this film and our reactions to it.

Maybe we should look back and try to learn from our reactions to the film, so that we can learn more about ourselves and our position in American society

The Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, directed by Dr. Gary Tobin, conducted a nationwide poll in 2004 right after the movie was released. They found at that time that it did not appear that the movie was fanning the flames of anti-Semitism.

Eighty-three percent of those who had seen the film said that it had no impact on the extent to which they feel contemporary Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus. Two percent felt that the movie made them feel more likely to blame contemporary Jews and the rest did not know.

There are a number of questions that we might want to ask ourselves regarding this movie, our place in American society and our reactions to fears of anti-Semitism. All of these are topics too lengthy to fully expand in this article but it is important to at least bring the topic into the open for our consideration.

For the purpose of beginning this self-reflection let me ask a few questions which many of us may feel uncomfortable discussing.

Why did we focus our attention on debunking the movie and trying to remove parts of it that we found offensive or scary rather than using the attention of the media toward clarifying what occurred during this terrible time in Jewish history?

Why didn't we use the opportunity to talk about the oppression the Romans imposed on our community and the destruction of our Temple, the central communal institution of that time, and our subsequent exile?

Why didn't we tell them about how the Romans tortured our rabbis, giving the example of Rabbi Akiva whose flesh was torn off his body using combs of steel for loyally teaching Torah?

This movie was intended to depict the Christian theological belief that the emotional and physical suffering of Jesus was a gift of love that he agreed to in order to liberate humans from sin and the consequences of sin being eternal damnation.

Why didn't we explain clearly our belief system as being an individual process of connection and reconnection with God through study, good deeds and repentance?

Why didn't we tell them that the Torah abhors human sacrifice and prefers internal self-reflection, development and growth?

We could have told them that our view of God is one that forgives and empowers us to change and grow through internal development, not by an outside gift of suffering on the cross.

In short, why did we waste this precious moment in time defending ourselves instead of using it to educate and create connections between us?

Was it fear of anti-Semitism that blinded us to the opportunity inherent in the moment? Maybe.

Perhaps it was a product of the fact that we have not yet fully comprehended that we live in a society that is so free of anti-Semitism that our neighbors are willing to marry us, assimilate us and even add Yiddish expressions to their conversations. Haven't you ever heard a person with a southern accent say the word "chutzpah?" When I went to the movie I wore a white kippah and sat there along with everyone else and no one said one negative comment to me. My reaction: God bless America!

Then there is the issue of our secularism.

Some of us appear to be more comfortable addressing and focusing on anti-Semitism (the negative aspects of Jewish life) than we are focusing our attention on the positive aspects of Jewish life (Torah and Jewish spirituality). Too many of us believe that what has held us together for so long has been our response to persecution.

Maybe this was an opportunity to redirect our response to anti-Semitism by focusing on our positive past not on our negative past.

Maybe we should shift our focus and accept that what has held us together and maintained us to this day is our sweet and life affirming Torah and the blessings that come from it.

Maybe Jewish life was so fulfilling and life affirming for our ancestors that they couldn't give it up - no matter how much anti-Semitism was hurled at them.

Perhaps if we shifted our focus from defending ourselves to affirming ourselves and our traditions, we could create deeper connections with our non-Jewish friends and neighbors and our younger generations would feel happier living Jewish lives.

Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Vlnas is spiritual leader of Lincoln Park Jewish Center in Yonkers. NY [Westchester County]

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