Why Jews Worry About 'The Passion'

  • by:
    • Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, Director of Interfaith Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League
  • April 2, 2004
    This article originally appeared in

The passion about "The Passion" has not abated. Mel Gibson's opus clearly inspires countless of faithful Christians. Whether in the pre-release screening for 5,000 Evangelicals that I attended , or in the New York City movie theatre on opening day, it is impossible not to be moved by the people who are inspired by the film. For many, the two hour movie brings them closer than ever before to one of the central moments of their Christian faith. For many, the Nicene Creed (of the 4th Century) resonates on two planes: on one, Jesus is put through his Passion because of "my sins" and on the other, Jesus suffers "for me."

As one who stands outside the body of faith that embraces those beliefs, and yet holds the traditions of other faiths with the utmost respect, I cannot help but be moved. The past 40 years of fruitful Christian-Jewish dialogue has taught us a great many things, perhaps the most important being to respect one another's faith.

Many people have been vocal in their concern about Mel Gibson's film, and those who disagree with our criticism that it has the potential to fuel anti-Semitism, have often accused us of attacking Mel Gibson personally. We have not. Many have said that our problems are not with the film but with Christian Scriptures. That is patently false. Many of those of us who are critical of the film have tremendous respect for Christian Scriptures, and have studied them carefully for years. Many people have accused the critics of the film as being anti-Christian. We are not.

So what are our problems? Can those who embrace the film listen with an open mind for a moment? Can we step back and be a little less passionate about a film and more passionate about each other, even if we hold conflicting beliefs?

Regardless of whether one hews to the notion that the New Testament is divinely revealed, or the product of faithful writers recording the story of Jesus encapsulating his life and teachings decades after the events, it is impossible to escape the disparities in the four Gospels. The Gospels sometimes disagree, as the writings come from different sources with different points of view at different times. To present one unified account of the final hours of Jesus' life requires a redactor or editor to pick and choose from four separate accounts. In doing so, choices are made -- to leave out things, to reorganize events, to emphasize one aspect over another. Different redactors will come up with different versions of the Passion depending on their own personal point of view.

Historically, the passion play at Oberammergau, performed every 10 years since the late Middle Ages, once presented a version of the Passion that inflamed hatred towards Jews, resulting in attacks on Jews and Jewish villages. Now, the producers of Oberammergau, relying on the same four Gospels, are able to present the Passion without it appearing that the entire Jewish community was arrayed against Jesus, thus downplaying one of the classic sources of anti-Semitism.

Mr. Gibson made choices as he prepared his screen play and many of these choices make it appear that, aside from a few of Jesus' followers, the rest of the Jewish community stood unified behind a corrupt and power-hungry Caiaphas. Mr. Gibson could have chosen to show the cruelty of Pilate (who was later recalled to Rome because of his unrelenting cruelty), or the way Rome oppressed the fractious Jewish community of the day. Instead Pilate is portrayed as compassionate, and Caiaphas and his cohorts, bloodthirsty.

In the years leading up to the rise of Nazism in Germany, political cartoons began to paint a darker and darker image of the Jew. Hooked-nose, bad teeth, concerned only for money and profits, the Jew of the political cartoons of the 1920's and early 30's laid the groundwork for a society's hatred towards the Jew.

Mr. Gibson, consciously or not, recreates these "Fagin" or "Shylock" images. Caiaphas and the members of his Sanhedrin are dressed in black (Pilate in the first scene in which he is introduced on screen is dressed in white - later in his apartment, white light streams in through white curtains, enhancing the image of the "good-guy"). Caiaphas demonstrates no remorse, no inner conflict. Pilate is tortured by doubt. Money is seen changing hands to encourage greater numbers of people to come out for a trial. The slow-motion shot of the money pouch thrown to Judas with coins falling out enhances the "money-grubbing" vision of the Jew (Judas). When Judas is pursued by village boys, the yarmulke wearing boys turn into demons. Satan is seen in groups of Jews. The imagery is hard to escape, and creates a subconscious culture of the Jews as villainous and demonic.

What images will the next generation of Christian faithful see when they open their Scriptures to study the core teachings of their faith? When they see the name Caiaphas, will it be Mel Gibson's vision and portrayal that will come to many their minds' eyes? When Pilate is mentioned or discussed, will they remember the tortured facial expressions of Mel Gibson's characterization of Pontius Pilate? When Matthew 27:25 is read, instead of envisioning a group of high priests and elders (maybe twenty men before Pilate), will they envision a courtyard of blood thirsty Jews screaming agreement when an angry Caiaphas demands Jesus' execution?

One hopes that an immersion in Scriptures will lead one to see that the writers of the New Testament focus not one whit on the physical torture Jesus endures. Several Christian scholars with whom I have been in dialogue have confirmed that Jesus' cry, which derives from a well-known Psalm, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?" (My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?), is not about the physical pain Jesus suffers, but comes from the emotional feeling of abandonment by his followers and his God. It should be noted that the Psalm ends with hope and confidence.

Mel Gibson's choice to focus on the physical torture that Jesus endured at the behest of a cruel and unified Jewish mob, rather than on the teachings of Jesus is just that - a choice. He has every right as an artist and as a film-maker to choose his subject and the way he presents that subject, but in doing so, he allows us - the viewers, in the spirit of fairness - to question those choices.

Why at the end of the film does the entire Temple tumble into ruins (in Matthew, only the parochet -- the veil in front of the Holy of Holies -- is torn) if not to suggest that the destruction of the Temple (which occurred in 70 CE) comes about because of the rejection of Jesus, rather than the historic fact that the Temple was destroyed by the Romans? Why did Mel Gibson rely upon the visions of a 19th century stigmatic nun to fill out the lacunae in the script - a nun who perpetuated the idea of a blood libel (that Jews used the blood of Christian children to bake Matzah) and a nun who described the brutality of the Jewish guards arresting Jesus in Gethsemane (no mention is made in any of the Gospels of Jesus being thrown off a bridge by Jewish guards).

The visual cues of the Gibson version of the Passion cannot help but leave an indelible imprint on future Christian adherents. Forty years ago, at the very first stage of Jewish - Christian dialogue we were able to dispatch the many painful misconceptions of the past. The dialogue ripened over the past two generations into a positive conversation that produced common action in the areas of social justice and concern. Centuries of enmity began to slough off as respect replaced suspicion. Yet, we have been unwittingly pushed back to the beginning. Our efforts return to discussions of the inter-testamental period, and who was responsible for the death of Jesus, and what role did the Church have in fomenting anti-Semitism. These are issues that had been addressed by Protestant and Catholic magisterial decrees.

As more and more people see the film, and with its eventual widespread availability on DVD in the U.S. and abroad, our concerns continue. Will responsible Christian leadership stand up and insist that "The Passion of the Christ" cannot be allowed to create a passion of hatred towards Jews or Judaism? Will responsible Christians ignore the visual cues and concentrate only on visualizing the crowd as an amorphous group that has no connection to people who live today? And finally, will someone say to the Jewish community, that bears on its back centuries of Church-based anti-Semitism fueled by Passion Plays not unlike Gibson's, "we understand your concern."