The controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" has brought to the fore the differences that exist between the Jewish and Christian communities, even in this age of profound Jewish-Christian rapprochement. I have watched the mounting debate over this film with great sadness these last few months. Throughout my rabbinical career I have made no secret of my profound admiration for Christians in general, and evangelicals in particular. Lovers of G-d and country, raisers of refined and spiritual children, stalwart defenders of the State of Israel, and deeply committed to combating the moral decay of the popular culture in America, evangelical Christians are people to whom all Jews can look to for brotherhood and inspiration. Which makes it all the more painful to see a sharp area of disagreement erupting between our two communities.
Several high-profile Jewish co-admirers of Christianity--my dear friends, national radio host Michael Medved and orthodox scholar Rabbi Daniel Lapin, in particular--have made the case that the Jewish community dare not alienate the evangelical community over something as insignificant as a movie. This is a point that Michael Medved made to me in a debate we had recently on his radio show, which is curious because Michael is at the forefront of arguing, as do I, that TV and movies have a huge impact on how people think and behave.
I believe Medved and Lapin--both phenomenally committed and profoundly knowledgeable Jews--are forgetting that notwithstanding the Jewish community's deep gratitude to evangelicals for their unflinching support of Israel, we still remain two distinct communities that at times have vastly different agendas. To be sure, America is a country built on Judeo-Christianity, and we share the common goal of sustaining and advancing America's moral and spiritual heritage, built as it is on the bedrock of our mutual faiths. But there will nonetheless be times that, for all their commonalities, the two communities come into sharp disagreement. At those times it behooves neither community to falsely paper over those differences.
Such an issue is the question of Jewish culpability for the death of Christ. I would like to see Christianity grow and flourish in the United States, but with one essential caveat: that such growth does not come at the expense of Judaism. Our Christian evangelical brethren are choosing to use "The Passion" as a tool for promoting the gospel, even though it falsely portrays the Jews as demanding the death of Jesus amid intense Roman reticence.
Medved and Lapin have emerged as crusaders for this film. In hailing "The Passion" as "the finest Hollywood adaptation ever of a biblical story," Medved has dismissed charges of anti-Semitism in the movie by saying that in the film "some of the bad guys are Jewish, some of the really bad guys are Roman, and virtually all of the good guys are Jewish." Remarkably, he neglects to mention that all the Jewish 'good guys' are Jewish followers of Jesus, in other words, Christians, while the throngs calling for Jesus to be executed are Pharisaic Jews, from whom all modern Jews descend.
Rabbi Daniel Lapin is intensely hostile to any hostility to "The Passion," going so far as to compare Jewish organizations that oppose the film to 'Rottweilers'' (read article). He further impugns the motives of the film's Jewish critics by saying their intention was 'to ruin Mel Gibson.' I personally could care less for Mr. Gibson. People like me who protest "The Passion"'s portrayal of the Jews as being responsible for Jesus' death do so simply to end a 2000-year-old defamatory lie and refute the world's first blood libel, that the Jews killed the founder of Christianity. In that respect, it does not matter whether or not, to use Lapin's words, the film will lead to 'a pogrom in Pittsburgh.' Surely if someone defamed Rabbi Lapin and called him a murderer, even if such a charge would not lead to any violence against him, he would seek to exonerate his name.
Rabbi Lapin says that he'll give the Jewish leaders the benefit of the doubt and not accuse them of falsely inflaming Jewish fears simply for the purposes of fundraising: "Apparently, frightening wealthy widows in Florida about anti-Semitic thugs prowling the streets of America causes them to open their pocketbooks and refill the coffers of groups with little other raison d'être." But even by mentioning this gratuitous insult against organizations like the ADL, he unwittingly reinforces the most negative stereotype of Jews being prepared to sell out their interests for cash, a stereotype based on Judas's betrayal of Christ for thirty pieces of silver in the passion narrative. Surely Rabbi Lapin agrees that there is still plenty of anti-Semitism to combat even in the United States, as one who simply googles the word 'Jew' will discover (the very first website that pops up is "Jewwatch," 'keeping an eye on. Jewish terrorists, Jewish atrocities, and Jewish banking and financial manipulations.').