Our Passion For "The Passion"

by Rabbi Adam Mintz
February 19, 2004

From: Leonard Davidman
Subject: "The Passion" - Sermon by Rabbi Adam Mintz
Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue, New York City
Date: Thu, 19 Feb 2004

Dear Friends:

My rabbi - Rabbi Adam Mintz - of Lincoln Square Synagogue (and also serving this year as the President of the New York Board of Rabbis) gave a sermon last week on the movie "The Passion" by Mel Gibson. This week he summarized it for our synagogue newsletter. I am presenting it below for your interest.

Lenny Davidman

Our Passion For "The Passion""
Rabbi Adam Mintz, Lincoln Square Synagogue
February 14, 2004

For the past several months I have tried, in my capacity as Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue and President of the New York Board of Rabbis, to see a screening of the new Mel Gibson movie "The Passion".  I quickly realized that it was the most difficult ticket in town.  The movie is generally being guarded by the distributors, and it is specifically being guarded from Jewish leadership and the criticism that they may levy against it.  What I was able to arrange together with the assistance of Rabbi Joe Potasnick, the Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, was that a group of rabbis together with a group of priests would see the movie on the day the movie opens, Wednesday, February 25th and then participate in a joint news conference.

In the past few weeks, I have begun preparing for the news conference about a movie that I have not yet seen.  I would like to share with you some of the issues I have tried to confront - issues that I believe we should all confront on the eve of the opening:

1. What really happened in the last days and hours of Jesus' life in 30 C.E.?
2. What is so troubling about the movie?
3. Is it really a reason for concern or are we blowing it out of proportion?
4. Should we be seeing it at all?

What really happened in the last days and hours of Jesus' life?  The Gospel, the Christian Scripture, contains four different accounts of the end of Jesus' life.  In addition, the historical evidence seems to contradict aspects of all of these accounts.  To start with, there is no question that Jesus was killed by the Romans under the governorship of Pontius Pilate and not by the Jews.  The Romans governed Judea at the time and Jews did not have the right to put anyone to death.  Romans put Jews to death that they were afraid would lead or encourage revolt or disturbances.  The two other people put to death with Jesus were traditionally understood to be robbers.  However, a closer look at the translation of the Gospel suggests that they were insurgents and not robbers.  Finally, crucifixion was not a form of religious death but rather the standard method by which Romans killed insurgents during that period.

One approach to addressing the issues of this movie would be to try to reconstruct the historical truth.  Dr. David Berger, Professor of Jewish Studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY and Yeshiva University, an expert on Jewish/Christian relations, argued in a recent article in the Jewish Week that we as Jews should not engage in debate about the authenticity of religious scripture.  He argued that we should respect the Christian Gospels the way we expect Christians to respect our Torah.  Put in other terms, belief in scripture is not based on proof but on belief.  In this week's Parsha we read, "when all the people saw the thunder and the lightening." Rashi comments "They saw that which is generally heard: that which cannot be seen in any other place."  If someone were to say to me that it is impossible to see thunder, I would answer that I don't really care.  God wants us to believe that it took place.  The scientific evidence is irrelevant.  We have to give the same respect to the Catholics.  I believe Dr. Berger is correct if the story presented was actually the story expressed in the Gospel, but it doesn't seem to be the case.

In an article in the New Republic in August, 2003, Paula Fredrickson, Professor of Scripture at Boston University and author of Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews, a Historical Study of the Last Twelve Hours of Jesus' Life, and part of a group who almost ten months ago was invited to see the movie, skillfully analyzes the substance of the movie.  Mel Gibson has been quoted as saying that he is being as truthful as possible based on the Gospel.  However, Dr. Fredrickson argues that the movie goes far beyond the Gospel. To understand the presentation of the movie we have to reflect on an internal Catholic debate.  The traditional view within Catholicism sees Jesus as a sufferer tortured and persecuted by the Jews. Actually, the word "passion" in Latin means "sufferer".  All that changed in 1962 when the Second Vatican Council claimed the following two items:  First, the Church can't hold all Jews in the first century responsible for the act of a few Jews in persecuting Jesus.  Second, that the Church cannot hold Jews throughout history responsible for the act of these Jews.  This led to a new, revised view of Jesus, seeing Jesus not so much as a sufferer but as a doer of good deeds.  Mel Gibson reverts back to the traditional view.  In his personal life Mel Gibson is a traditional Catholic favoring, for instance, the Latin Mass to the more modern versions.  In the movie, he sees the battle between Jesus and his followers and the Jews as one between the "old bad guys" and the "new good guys".  Jews are depicted as money hungry and lower class. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, is shown as being weak and indecisive, suggesting that it was the High Priest who was responsible for the crucifixion and death of Jesus.  The truth in this case is clear: that Pontius Pilate was a ruthless bloody leader of the Roman occupation in Judea.  This depiction, filled with anti-Jewish imagery, stereotypes and caricatures is based not on Gospel but on the nineteenth century writing of a French Catholic nun, Catherine Emmerich.  These stereotypical depictions are reminiscent of the Passion Plays of the Middle Ages, events that often led to anti-Jewish pogroms and the death of thousands of Jews.  Images make an impression; religious images all the more so.  This movie, according to Professor Frederickson, is not an issue of respecting the Gospel; rather it is one of protecting ourselves against anti-Semitic stereotypes that have been rejected by the Church itself.

Given all this, are we over-reacting?  Will the movie all blow over?  Is our interest in drawing attention and giving publicity to a movie that will be relegated to the shelves of Blockbuster Video in just a few months?  The answer, I believe, is as follows:  On one hand, we can't afford to over-react.  Jewish/Christian relations are better than ever in history.  The New York Board of Rabbis is just one organization that shows the Jewish community and the world that we have reached a level of mutual understanding between the Jewish and Christian communities.  In addition, the Christian support of Israel, whether we trust it or not, is something that is greatly appreciated and critical at this moment of tremendous fragility in The State of Israel.  We can't afford to upset this very delicate balance.  At the same time, we can't afford to under-react.  If there is anything the Twentieth Century has taught us, it is that anti-Semitism cannot be ignored.  It is all around us - in Europe, on college campuses, even in an upper West Side private school. Religious anti-Semitism is the most dangerous form of all.  The claim that the Jews killed Jesus is responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews throughout the centuries and it cannot be ignored.

So what do we do?   Should we boycott the movie?  It is fascinating that it was the Catholics in the 1930's and the 1960's who instituted the Legion of Decency to censor movies.  A "C" rating meant that it was forbidden viewing for Catholics.  I believe that as Jews we must advocate freedom of speech and free artistic expression.  We should not be involved in boycotts or rallies to ban the movie.

But should we see the movie?  I don't think we can know the answer yet. Maybe the movie will turn out to be so gruesome and unpleasant that no Jew will be able to sit through it.  A rabbi who saw the movie told me that he was angry for days following it.

So what is our responsibility as Jews?  The MISHNA in PIRKEI AVOT tells us "know how to respond to the heretic."  I believe that our challenge is to know the material.  Our challenge is to be informed on this issue when confronted by Jews and by non-Jews.  We traditionally look at Judaism for answers, and answers are, of course, important.  However, the rabbinic tradition, which has evolved since the very century in which Jesus was killed, is not one of answers.  The rabbinic tradition encapsulates our willingness to ask the questions and to confront the issues that impact our lives.  Whether around the Shabbat table or the conference table, we must understand the issues and know how to answer responsively and intelligently, aware and sensitive to the risks of the movie but realizing the broader historical and social implications of Jewish/Christian relations.

The victory we would give the anti-Semites who await the opening of the movie is in not being able to address their claims and accusations.  Let us not give them that victory.  Rather, let us utilize this opportunity to strengthen our own knowledge and fortitude, to be courageous enough to confront the difficult issues that impact our lives as we continue to solidify our place in a world that is increasingly complicated but ultimately beneficial to us all.

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