The Passion: Responses from Orthodox Judaism


"I attended a showing of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ". In it, Gibson displays the Jews as bloodthirsty mob demanding the pain and torture of Jesus. Having discussed "The Passion" with an orthodox community leader this week, he had the following to say. I am paraphrasing his words:

"No where in his Torah does G-d condone pain or torture, or desire anyone to experience it. No where in the Torah is brutality accepted, or valued. In true Judaism, animosity and public humiliation of another Jew would never be tolerated, certainly not by our priests.

Integral to Judaism is the avoidance of pain - not only towards man, but towards animals: Kosher is achieved only by painless slaughter. We are commanded to send away a mother bird, lest she see when we take her eggs, and she experience the same sorrow for her lost offspring as felt by humans. (Maimonides) Even when the prophet Samuel killed the wicked Agag, he did so quickly, sparing Agag any pain. If we captured a Hitler today, his sentence would be quick, with no torture. Torture is a violation of G-d's Judaism. The mere handing over one of our own to others, violates Torah law. Certainly, crucifixion is barbaric, and not a Jewish idea. We certainly would not crucify anyone, and we would not approach other peoples to do so for us."

I do not see proof for the Gospels, and find in them contradictions, as has already been stated by others. However, if a false prophet would arise, observant Jewish leaders would never violate Torah law, committing acts of torture or handing over one of our own. The false prophet would not paraded around in chains, nor would other Jews be encouraged to jeer or abuse the false prophet. Barbarism is not G-d's way.

A truly observant Jew is never a traitor to justice, and meticulously adheres to G-d's Torah system. Jewish Priests above all others, are responsible for educating Jews and Gentiles, and on the whole do not violate their positions, although no man is insulated from sin. The observant Jew is merciful, and is commanded to offer his only pillow to his slave, as kindness is at the core of our law: "And you shall love your neighbor as yourself." "And you shall love the convert." "And you shall watch them and keep them as they (the commands) are your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who will hear all these statutes and declare 'what a wise and understanding people is this great nation. Because what great nation has God close to them like God, whenever (they) call to Him? And what great nation has statutes and laws as righteous as this entire Torah'..." (Deuteronomy 4:6-8)

The Rabbis stated in line with this quote, that we are chosen for no other reason than to imbue the world with God's wisdom. His "righteous" laws aim towards peace and harmony among all people, securing both physical and psychological ease.

As G-d's Torah passages teach, the Torah system is one which when upheld, generates in Gentiles a respect and admiration for the righteousness contained, not revulsion for it's sadism, which opposes Torah.

The observant Jew is not bent on anger, hostility or sadism, but on mercy, forgiveness, justice and charity. Maimonides teaches that of all man's traits, two must be completely avoided: haughtiness and anger. The High Priest Aaron, Moses' brother, was famous for his chasing after peace between others. He represents the Torah's ideal. The truly observant Jew does not live in a subjective world, seeking vengeance fro those who wrong him. He is attached to G-d's objective laws, and follows them, not petty emot ions.

In contrast, Gibson's "Passion" includes many of his own fabrications -not found in the Gospels - which in no manner do I validate. As such, the vile depictions of Jews and their attitudes deserves ridicule which falls exclusively on Gibson."

Moshe Ben-Chaim

"The passion has evoked both strong negative and positive responses from those who have viewed the movie and film critics. I do not have intense feelings about the film. But the movie and the reactions it has evoked have caused me to make a few observations. First, I think much of the discussion regarding whether the movie is in fact anti-Semitic is a dispute over semantics. Speaking with many people that have seen the movie and having read numerous reviews, I have not heard any evidence that the movie is overtly anti-Semitic. Nonetheless, it does portray the death of Jesus and the role played by the Jewish people in a manner that has historically inflamed anti-Semitic responses. So, I would not be surprised if the movie provoked anti-Semitic sentiments and incidents.

Second, I think that in general an artist has the right in this country to express personal sentiments and views. The public has the opportunity to decide whether it will view the artist's work and support it. However, we do recognize that there are clear exceptions to this rule. For example, we do not allow the right to free expression to be used to libel or defame someone. So, the decision of a newspaper to publish an article that knowingly falsely defames an individual cannot be defended as an act of artistic expression or freedom of expression. The newspaper would be held responsible for any damage caused by its willfully irresponsible actions. It is interesting that issues of religion are not held to the same standard. So, although Gibson's portrayal of Jesus' death is almost universally regarded as historically inaccurate, and as a reasonable person he should recognize the volatility of the emotions evoked by his portrayal, no one suggest that he should be held to the standards of respon sibility applied in other circumstances. In other words, no one has suggested that he should be held responsible for any harm caused by his film.

This special treatment of religious expression implies that issues of religion are completely determined by faith and exist in a subjective realm. Because Gibson's views and actions are expressions of his personal faith, they are regarded as legitimate religious expression. As religious expression, they are exempt from the common standards of responsibility. In short, we would all agree that if a publisher intentionally printed a report that he should have known was both false and damaging to a community or individual, he would be responsible for his actions. But if he printed a report with the same characteristics but it was an expression of religious faith, he would be above criticism.

Frankly, I do not understand why religious expression should receive this special treatment. It seems to me that parameters of truth and falsehood should apply to religion just as they apply to other issues. I fail to grasp the reason for exempting a movie that expresses religious convictions from the general liability for defamation and libel."

Rabbi Bernie Fox
Northwest Yeshiva High School

Dear Rabbi Ben-Chaim,

I read your critique of Mel Gibson's movie with interest. While there are many negative things to say about the movie (and fortunately, many people are speaking out strongly against this disgusting, anti-Semitic movie), the argument that you put forward in this circumstance does not hold water.

As you say, Torah would never condone barbaric treatment and torture of any human being, even an apostate. Kavod Habriot should always be uppermost on the mind of a truly observant Jew. But that is really the key to this argument - a truly observant Jew. While Torah would never sanction this type of treatment, one has to remember historically what this period of time was like. These were the last few decades before Churban Bayit Sheini, when evil rulers like Herod showed little care about the value of human life. The Kehuna Gedolah was not much better, with people buying the position and ending up dying on Yom Kippur when entering the Kodesh Kodashim. This was the period of time when Sinas Chinam was rampant and led to the destruction of the Bait Hamikdash and Galus of the Jewish people. So, in the absence of Torah leadership in power, it is very possible that the Jewish leadership could have perpetrated this kind of evil. For this reason we have to depend more on the historical record (including Josephus and others), and even the Christian records which do not support Gibson's warped views and calumnies.

Efraim Weinblatt


I and my husband are Polish Christians. We are in very good relationships with Jewish community in our town. We have been for several years working in aid of peaceful and friendly relationship between Christians and Jews - not believing in Jesus. We try to fight anti-Semitism, try to change Christians' point of view about Jews and Judaism, show how anti-Semitic interpreters foolishly distorted the Gospel, and this is why we started some times ago with our page And after “The Passion’ by Mel Gibson (in Polish cinema since Friday) we felt as if somebody decided to squander our efforts, and not only ours, but also our friends' efforts here in Poland.

Before watching the film I thought two things:

1. Well, I am Christian, so despite the macabre, will I find anything in the film moving me?
2. Jews had very difficult history, full of persecutions organized by Christians, so perhaps their protest against this film stems from their oversensitive nature.

But even it is true, we- Christians- never should treat this touchiness as a “next Jewish sin’. We are responsible for this kind of reaction. But really this protest can be only partly - if at all - explained as “Jewish oversensitiveness’.

There is simple principle among people: if I harmed anybody and then want to reconcile, I avoid any behaviors, which could renew the conflict between us. Mel Gibson didn´t show this minimum of tact and decency for Jews. There are several scenes in the film neither from Gospels nor historical, which places Jews in very bad light.

The whole community of those times, Jews and Romans, were uncivilized, bordering on parody. Romans like in the cartoon about Asterix and Obelix: idiots with a smile of fool on their faces. In this film, Jews are not only uncivilized but also demonized. I had an impression that the film was based on the medieval idea about Jews - as demonic beings. The film doesn´t show Jesus´ death as the redemption but rather as an act of murder, committed by demonic Jews and barbaric Romans. Among the Jewish community we see only bad priests with their eyes narrowed hatefully to little gaps, or someone mentally ill or crazy. Jesus is plundered of his Jewish identity. We see him in several scenes according to not biblical but Gibson´s idea for example as a carpenter who invented modern kitchen table, but we do not see him even once in the Temple, reading Torah.

I think that film is also anti- Christian. Imagine that some man was convicted to death by torture but his friend decided to die instead of him. The man hangs on the wall in his flat, the pictures showing his friend´s body deformed by torture; he sculpts details of fleshy and bloody wounds. It is not normal. It is rather a miserable, mental distortion. And something like this horrifies me in the film.

Gospel means joyful message, not macabre! If this macabre film was to be “a label’ of Christianity I think every Jew has right to go out from the cinema proud he is not Christian.

I think it is possible that the discussion about Jesus, if he is Messiah or not, about his Deity (even Christians are not agreeable in this point) between Jews and Christians can take place in the atmosphere of peace and love. We experience such a discussion here. But it should be casual, free, unconstrained theological conversation during which everyone has a right to his own conclusion and opinion. But through my coreligionists´ fault (Christians generally, Protestants and Catholics from past and present times), through my Christian ancestors´ fault this “conversation’ stopped being free and unconstrained long time ago. Evangelizing missions taken in the name of falsely understood Gospel make that Jews are still “under the fire’ in this “conversation’.

“The Passion’ is an attempt making a step back in the process of regaining mutual respect and confidence. I enjoy that there are people on both sides whose good will is too strong to be broken by such a schematic way of thinking without respect for historical context and Jewish point of view.

I think this film can be “fine’ only for someone who has never tried to make peace and for "Christians" without minimum of self-criticism, still wanting to pull out the mote from Jewish eye instead of pulling out the beam from their own eye. This kind of film doesn´t allow Christians to do their basic duty of Christian faith: the penance for sins of murdering not one but thousands innocent lives.

Best wishes,

Ewa Sidor with my husband Darek.

To: Shlomoh Sherman
From: Deke Barker
Date: Fri, Mar 12 2004
Subject: RE: Some Ortho-Jewish comments on the PASSION


Some interesting responses. I thought the Polish Xians' response was especially thoughtful.

Libel: Rabbi Fox is *WAY* off base in his remarks about the law. There is no legal basis for libel-by-proxy, which is the only rational charge that could be made against the film. If such a law existed, fictional literature and film would disappear.

France (previous message): I have always had a problem with the French and German restrictions on speech and press. OTOH, I am not opposed to such restrictions in some circumstances. Developing nations often benefit from authoritarian policies until stable institutions can be created (see Singapore, maybe even Russia). If a 1st-world nation is at a "development" stage in something -- in this case, tolerance and respect for human rights -- then such laws may be appropriate.

Deke's ongoing observations:

Based upon the large number of responses to the film that I have read, I am still on track for concluding that Gibson himself is anti-Semitic, and that in the process of creating the film, he made every effort *THAT HE COULD GET AWAY WITH* to highlight what he apparently believes to be the perfidy of Jews.

The key here is "that he could get away with". Gibson is a major filmmaker and has invested significant money in this film. Gibson is no fool. Whatever one may think of the film, it could have been far worse. But in making it far worse, Gibson would have sealed its doom. So he toed the line, coming close to outright anti-Semitism without completely stepping over the line.

I'm not yet completely convinced this is the case, but I'm definitely leaning that way. Gibson's removal of the "blood libel" subtitles was what finally convinced me. It was bad enough that he filmed the scene in the first place. Then, he didn't remove or alter the scene, just left the subtitles off the American edition. To what purpose would anyone bother even *FILMING* that scene? Gibson had to know that it would inflame passions. It serves *NO* religious purpose. The only reason for filming it would be to fan the flames of anti-Semitism.

Deke Barker is a member of the church of The Disciples Of Christ.

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