- - Wednesday, December 13, 2017


The Lone Ranger would have been proud. Appearing out of nowhere but just in the nick of time 12 years ago, a modern-day crusader helped others breathe a sigh of relief. His assistance has since morphed into an important friendship, and a working relationship between conservative Christians and Orthodox Jews.

The crisis was the impending 2004 release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” which alarmed some Jewish organizations — including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which I serve as the director of interfaith affairs. Many centuries of tragic history ingrained in Jews a deserved fear of depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus. Under Hitler, for instance, the Oberammergau, Germany, passion plays riled the masses into a violent frenzy against Jews who were depicted as the scheming “Christ-killer” figures.

Jews were in a quandary about what to do about the Gibson film. It would be shown worldwide, including many countries where a primitive, religion-based antipathy to Jews was alive and well, and its unusually vivid depiction of the passion could easily fire up people. Jewish leaders knew, however, that their arguing against a creative retelling of a New Testament story would be viewed by Christians as the height of arrogance or chutzpah.

My organization faced a particularly difficult predicament. A concerned citizen who had seen a pre-release version of the film said Mr. Gibson’s “artistic” choices included ones that consistently portrayed Jews negatively, despite Mr. Gibson’s assurances to the contrary.

Jews needed some credible non-Jewish voices to come to the rescue, to cry foul. The very first Lone Ranger was Dr. Larry Poland, who had spent decades reaching out with a message of faith in G-d to the major studios of Hollywood. He responded to the film with a pointed essay that spelled out what Christians and Jews should and should not take away from the film. Beyond its effectiveness, it was an unexpected gift of friendship and concern to the Jewish community.

In short order, Dr. Poland and I made personal contact. In the years that followed, a partnership developed, in which we became a resource for him and his Mastermedia International organization in understanding and connecting with the Jewish community. He did the same for us in evangelical circles. We became extremely good friends sharing our hearts and our views.

Another important relationship was with Sister Rose Pacatte, founding director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles. Essentially, Sister Rose’s reviews guide Catholic faithful about all things concerning film. She is as aware as anyone about filmmakers who often show hostility to faith; nonetheless, she refuses to reject the entire enterprise. I salute her optimistic perspective, by which she finds tidbits of moral value and instruction where others would come up empty.

What are the takeaways from this rapprochement between two religious? I would point to two.

The first, more obvious, benefit of traditional Jews and Christians getting to know each other is the realization that we should never make statements about the other community without soliciting the perspective of an insider. Thus, on a number of occasions when a film either impacted upon Jewish life or required a Jewish perspective, Sister Rose invited me to view the film with her, formulate a response and explain my thinking. My organization has made it a hard-and-fast rule not to comment about Christian ideas — related to film or not — without first asking a committed Christian for an insider’s perspective.

Here is the more subtle takeaway. The differences between committed, observant Jews and Christians are just as stark in lifestyle as they are in theology. It is ironic that the world of entertainment was the venue for developing some of these relationships because the approach of observant Jews to entertainment is so different. In parts of the Orthodox community, children grow up without any television at all, and many have never entered a movie theater nor streamed a film from the internet. Parents understand that their most sacred role is helping young souls become the best servants of G-d that they can, and they embrace the policy of setting limits.

Traditional Christians understand the sometimes-corrosive power of popular media. In addition to establishing personal and parental boundaries, they have done an excellent job creating healthy alternatives to popular music that are every bit as attractive. In this, traditional Christians and Jews are on the same page.

Rod Dreher’s much-discussed “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” proposes that negative cultural elements are so overwhelming that they cannot be ignored and pushback is a religious priority. The opening of a dialogue between traditional Jews and Christians makes available a Jewish model to the Christian devout. This model is one that accepts a certain degree of cultural isolation, one that is not afraid to say “no,” and insists on creating temples of holiness in the home and in the soul.

It will be interesting to see if this evolving partnership between the two camps — forged in the world of media — will be mutually beneficial as Christians seek the counsel of their “older brothers,” as Pope John Paul II called Jews, in formulating new attitudes towards entertainment.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is Director of Interfaith Affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and is co-founder and a featured writer on Cross-Currents, an online journal of Orthodox Jewish thought.

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