- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

The following are excerpts from a message given by the Rabbi Jonathan Cohen at Mishkan Torah Congregation in Bowie.

So Mel Gibson’s long-awaited movie has finally arrived. From a Jewish perspective, it is a very disturbing film. As Rabbi Eric Yoffe, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has pointed out, Gibson’s marketing of the film has been despicable.

“The Passion of the Christ” is a movie version of a form of traditional Christian religious drama called a “passion play” (from the Latin passus est — meaning “he suffered”), which re-enacts the last hours of Jesus’ life. The purpose of a passion play is to fortify and deepen Christian faith and commitment by enabling Christian believers to experience Jesus’ suffering and the redemption that comes from His death and resurrection.

However, traditional passion plays did more than simply relate the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. They would often blame the Jewish people for Jesus’ death; they have a well-documented history of inflaming hatred, persecution and violence against the Jewish people.

Mel Gibson claims that he has tried to be “as truthful as possible” in relating the story of the passion. Thus, for example, the dialogue of the movie is entirely in Latin and Aramaic (with English subtitles supplied for those of us whose knowledge of dead languages leaves something to be desired). …

Gibson’s pious evocations of historicity rang more than a little hollow. How much homework has he actually done? … Gibson’s movie fails. Indeed, it does not conform with official Catholic teaching as enunciated by the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion (1988).

Given this sorry situation, how should we respond? As Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman have pointed out in a jointly authored article, the central problem about “The Passion” is that although Jews and Christians can sit in the same theater, Jews and Christians cannot see the same movie. Christians sit and see a powerful and inspiring movie about the sacrificial and redemptive suffering of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and they emerge wondering what all the yelling is about. Jews sit and see a threatening and ominous movie that revives the medieval curse of deicide on the Jewish people and emerge wondering how this vile blood libel can yet again surface in our times. Until we can see this movie through each others’ eyes, they argue, we cannot find each other, and if we cannot find each other, we cannot find God.

The two clergymen issue a challenge to both sides in this dialogue. For their part, Christians must not only own their formative story — they must also be aware of its painful historical consequences. … But Gellman and Hartman also challenge us to freely and finally grant our Christian neighbors the right to tell their own story in their own way. … [T]here is nothing essentially corrupt or prejudiced, or demeaning or destructive or anti-Semitic about the story of a Galilean Jewish carpenter who was given to all humanity to save it from sin. …

Jews and Christians, they conclude, cannot watch the same movie with the same eyes, but we can watch this movie with the same heart. We can watch with the same love of the same God who bestows different gifts upon different people, but the same hope to a single humanity. If this happens, then the liberations of Easter and Passover that approach will not be idle rituals, but rather transforming fires out of which we can emerge speaking calmly about the ways we are different but singing joyfully about the ways we are all the same.

It is in this spirit that I will be seeing the movie next week with two of my Christian colleagues.

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