In the midst of this alarming eruption of anti-Jewish sentiment, some usually level-headed commentators have reached the preposterous conclusion that this is the perfect moment for a ferocious new debate with our Christian neighbors on the eternal question, "Who really killed Jesus?" The fact that my otherwise savvy friend Rabbi Shmuley Boteach believes that we have any chance at all of winning this debate reflects appallingly poor judgment. And the determination by Boteach and many others to conduct the argument in an aggressive and ultimately insulting way at this precarious moment in history represents a far greater spur to anti-Semitism than any mere motion picture from Hollywood--even a sure-bet box office blockbuster like Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
For the record, let me make clear that I agree with Rabbi Boteach that the Christian scriptures provide an often unreliable, occasionally contradictory account of the persecution and execution of Jesus of Nazareth. If I believed that the Gospels represented an unfailingly accurate report of the events of two thousand years ago, I'd be a Christian, not a Jew. In defending Mel Gibson and his movie from hysterical and destructive charges of anti-Semitism, I have never suggested that the film portrays historical truth-any more than one must argue that popular Moses movies, from "The Ten Commandments" to "The Prince of Egypt," offer a precise and incontrovertible account of the Biblical story of the Exodus.
The only relevant question about "The Passion of the Christ" (which Rabbi Boteach acknowledges he hasn't even seen) is whether or not its portrayal of the last hours of Jesus falls within the mainstream of Christian interpretation and finds support within the Gospel text. The enthusiastic embrace of this movie by leaders of every Christian denomination renders the specific attacks by Boteach largely irrelevant. In fact, all of the most controversial scenes and lines of dialogue stem directly from the Gospels, chapter and verse. This means that critics of the movie inevitably train their fire on Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, rather than "Saint" Mel.
Of course, Jewish observers retain a perfect right to challenge sacred Christian texts, or to denounce the altogether conventional interpretation of those texts by a major filmmaker, but one might reasonably inquire what possible purpose such arguments can serve? By what right do Rabbi Boteach and his many outspoken allies in the Jewish community demand that Mel Gibson and his innumerable supporters among Protestant and Catholic clergy should reject their own religious tradition to accept a Jewish version of the death of their savior? After many centuries of Christian persecution of Jews, we have finally won the unquestioned right to reject the Gospel claims, and yet live in peace with our gentile neighbors. But this precious right to deny the accuracy of New Testament texts does not somehow empower us to insist that our Christian fellow citizens must join us in that denial. For reasons that defy rational explanation, Rabbi Boteach insists upon picking an ugly public fight with believing Christians who view their own sacred books in the same way the Rabbi views the Torah - as the inerrant word of God. To characterize elements of the Gospels as "fabrications" and "cheap frauds," as Boteach does in one of his columns, hardly helps the cause of Jewish-Christian cooperation.
Mel Gibson has repeatedly asserted his impassioned acceptance of contemporary Church teaching - that today's Jews bear no blood guilt whatever, no inherited blame, for the decisions which the Sadducees may (or may not) have made in the First Century. Boteach's contention that our security and dignity today demand that Christians reject part of their own scripture to "clear" ancient Judean leaders from significant guilt in Christ's death represents a mad, arrogant obsession. All leading contemporary theologians, Protestant as well as Catholic, echo Gibson's position that we bear no present-day responsibility for the cruel events that culminated in the crucifixion. Only Boteach embraces the utterly untenable assertion that defending ourselves requires a retroactive defense of Caiphas.