I am an orthodox Jew who harbors a profound admiration for Christianity, in general, and evangelical Christians, in particular. I would go so far as to say that while I do not, of course, embrace all elements of the evangelical agenda, and indeed harbor some profound and serious disagreements, I believe that evangelical Christians constitute one of the most potent and profound forces for good in all of America today.
When I served as rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years, the student organization I ran had hundreds of Christian members, a great many of whom worked tirelessly and selflessly for the organization, even though it was officially Jewish. Since returning to the United States four years ago, my admiration for evangelical Christians has soared to the stratosphere.
I am inspired by their profound patriotism, exemplary love of God, and fierce determination to back President Bush in fighting evil dictators like Saddam Hussein. I join them in rejecting the increasingly foul and depraved Hollywood culture which is destroying our youth. I salute their marvelous capacity to raise well-adjusted and spiritual children (a great many of whom are homeschooled), and I am grateful for their undying love and support for the state of Israel. Indeed, the similarities between evangelical Christians and orthodox Jews are striking, and when I am in the company of evangelical Christians, I immediately feel at home.
A small case in point is how, at the end of virtually every e-mail and phone call, I sign off with “G-d bless you.” When I lived in England, a mostly secular country (Europe, what do you expect?), this salutation made people feel profoundly uncomfortable. They literally stuttered, not knowing how to respond. Even here in the United States, “God bless you” is an expression that is mostly used in special circumstances, like at the end of a State of the Union address. But whenever I tell my evangelical Christian friends, “G-d bless you,” they come right back at me, “God bless you, too.”
It is therefore with a heavy heart that I am watching the developments surrounding Mel Gibson’s upcoming film, “The Passion of the Christ.” I truly fear this film may serve to hinder the increasing and remarkable intimacy that has begun developing between Christians and Jews. To be sure, my evangelical friends tell me they do not blame the Jews for the death of Christ, and that Jesus willingly submitted his life so that humanity might be saved from sin. This evangelical reading is a version of the crucifixion portrayed in the gospel of John, where Jesus is in control of the entire Passion narrative.
But the version that Mel Gibson seems to have highlighted – based on every serious review of the film that I have heretofore read – is that contained in the synoptic Gospels, and especially that of Matthew, where the Jews are portrayed as being the principal agitators for the murder of Christ, goading the reluctant Romans into the act of deicide.
Elsewhere, I have written how this narrative requires elucidation and should not be taken at face value, not only because it is deeply offensive to Jews – Jesus was, after all, one of us – but because it is historically implausible. Pontius Pilate was the cruelest proconsul the Romans ever sent to Judea, and he regularly slaughtered thousands of Jews – particularly those who, like Jesus, challenged Roman authority – on a whim without even the semblance of a trial.
But even if my evangelical colleagues are correct, and Christians will harbor no ill feeling after seeing the film’s graphic portrayal of the Jews calling for Jesus’ death, I fear that it is the Jews themselves who will begin to pull back from their close relationship with Christians, feeling that the terrible lie that we killed the Christian God is being perpetuated.
Can Christians understand just how painful it is for Jews to be accused, from a Christian perspective, of having murdered the source of all goodness, of having blotted out the source of all light and life? Of having been in such intimate league with the devil that we killed the Divinity? Can my Christian brothers and sisters understand the deep pain we feel – committed as we have been for more than 3,000 years toward a moral and ethical lifestyle – when we are portrayed as reveling in sadistic delight as the Romans savagely beat Jesus?
Indeed, can the human mind even conjure up a more offensive accusation than that a nation killed the Creator? Aside from the accusation being deeply offensive and insulting, there is the far more serious issue of how this has indeed led to the slaughter of literally millions of Jews for the past two millennia.
Consider this quotation published in the collection of Catholic essays, “On The Jewish Problem”: “The mystery of Israel is a bloody mystery … Perhaps it is necessary for Israel to kill their god whom they failed to recognize. But since blood mysteriously invoked blood, does it not perhaps belong to the charity of Christians to let the horrors of pogroms compensate, in the hidden balance of the divine intention, for the unbearable horrors of the crucifixion?”
Or the words of the celebrated French orator and Bishop, Jacques-Benigne Bossuet: “I hear the Jews crying out, ‘His blood fall on us and our children.’ There it shall be, a cursed race! Your prayer will be answered more than amply. His blood will pursue you and your last offspring until the Lord, grown tired of his vengeance, will remember, at the end of time, your miserable remnants.”
Or the story of Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel, who approached the papal nuncio for help in stopping the extermination of Slovakian Jews. The Catholic archbishop replied, “There is no innocent blood of Jewish children in the world. All Jewish blood is guilty. You have to die. This is the punishment that has been awaiting you because of that sin [the death of Jesus].”
I fear that since many Christian organizations are not passionately promoting “The Passion” as an evangelical tool, it will increase the feeling on the part of my Jewish brethren that, for all their love and support of Israel, Christians are not our friends. I have spent my entire rabbinical career battling Jewish insularity and the deep distrust toward Christians that 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism has understandably engendered among some Jews. Is the support of this film really worth all of us going back to square one? Was there not some other way of portraying the death of the Christian savior, without the Jews clamoring for his crucifixion, and thereby being equated with the anti-Christ?
I fear that Mel Gibson’s film does not show the other side, how the Gospels expressly declare that the Pharisees (progenitors of modern-day Judaism) tried to save Jesus’ life (Luke 13:31), how Gamliel, the leader of all the Pharisees, saved the lives of Peter and the rest of the apostles from execution by the corrupt high priest, the agent of Rome (Acts 5:33-40), or how Paul was saved by the Pharisees at his trial with their declaration, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” (Acts 23:6-9).
But there is something more. I fear that the main victim of “The Passion” will be Jesus himself, and here is why. For thousands of years, what has most divided Christians and Jews is the figure of Christ, with the former believing in Jesus as deity, savior and Messiah, and the latter looking upon him as a renegade Jew. There exists today the startling possibility that because of the new social, religious and political ties among Christians and Jews that the Jewish people might look at Jesus anew and that both groups might meet through the personality of Jesus himself, even as we both understand him in totally different ways.
Jews have rarely taken a serious look at the teachings of Jesus. Indeed, in most Jewish households, the New Testament itself is completely taboo. There are two principal reasons for this. Firstly, the idea of a man as god violates the central tenets of the Jewish faith. But even this would not explain why Jews have not been prepared to look upon Jesus – who was, after all, a Pharisaic rabbi – as a wise man who promulgated exemplary ethical teachings, even if he wasn’t the Messiah.
The Jews will not accept Jesus as savior, but why not as sage? They will not embrace him as god, but why not as guru? After all, many Jews study the teachings of the Buddha, even while remaining faithfully loyal to Jewish observance! And it is this act of total rejection of Jesus that serves to hinder a deeper intellectual or spiritual connection between Christians and Jews from developing.
But the reason for the complete closed-mindedness of Jews toward Jesus is that Jews have simply suffered too much in Jesus’ name to give two cents about what he had to say. Christians historically committed an abomination against the memory of Jesus by turning him into the source of all anti-Semitism. Christians delighted in telling Jews how Jesus said, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires,” (John 8:44) and that, according to Jesus, Jews are condemned to the damnation of hell (Matthew 23). There was never any balance. They never bothered telling Jews that there was another side as well, a side of Jesus where he expressly says that Jews are more dear to him than non-Jews (Matt. 10: 5-7; Matt. 15:22-26) and that he was a great lover of his people.
If you were a Jew and you heard how much Jesus hated you, would you want anything to do with this man? If your ancestors were killed for being Christ-killers, would you run to read Jesus’ beautiful teachings on forgiveness in the New Testament? Is this not a Christian crime, not only against Jews, but especially against Jesus himself, to so thoroughly alienate a man from his own people?
And now, here we go again. Rather than a movie coming out showing that, from the Christian perspective, Jesus died to atone for the sins of all mankind, we instead get a depiction of how Jesus died because a bunch of godless Jews wanted him dead!
The uncompromising modern evangelical support for the state of Israel has inspired a new understanding among Jews for the man Jesus as a rabbi who, even after 2,000 years, still inspires his followers to love the Jewish people and defend Jewish life against terrorist murderers. How sad that all this may be neutralized by a Hollywood film. Is this not Hollywood at its absolute worst? A fundamental Jewish reassessment of the historical personality of Jesus is being threatened by a film made by a man who rejects the reforms of the Vatican II that officially absolved the Jews of the charge of deicide. Why would evangelicals get behind such a film?
To be sure, Jews will never accept the divinity or messiah-ship of Christ and I am utterly opposed to all Jewish conversions to Christianity, just as am I opposed to Christian conversions to Judaism. I believe in the authenticity and integrity of both faiths, as they worship God in their own way.
But that does not mean that Jews cannot look at Jesus as I have come to, as a wise and learned rabbi, immensely devoted to the welfare of his people, who despised the Romans for their paganism and especially their cruelty to his Israelite brethren. He worked to rekindle Jewish ritual observance of every aspect of the Torah (Matt. 5:18) and to counter horrible Roman oppression even if that meant physical battle (Luke 22). So greatly did Jesus love the Jews, and so deeply did he believe in his own messianic mission to drive off Roman dominion and renew Jewish sovereign independence, that even when he realized that his activities would incur the wrath of the murderous Pilate, still he did not waver.
But the images of films like “The Passion of the Christ,” where the Jews, rather than the Romans, are portrayed as Jesus’ implacable enemies, are bad for Jews, bad for Christians and, most of all, bad for Jesus. Bad for Jews because it perpetuates the lie that we killed one of our own, when he simply wished to better the lot of his people. Bad for Christians because it shows that evangelical zeal for Christ can only come at the expense of his Jewish identity, thereby obscuring the authentic, Hebraic identity of Christ. And finally, bad for Jesus because it makes him the de facto ally, not of the poor Jewish victims of Roman oppression, but of the brutal and murderous Pontius Pilate, the Saddam Hussein of his time.