2016-06-30
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is Vice President of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and a frequent commentator on Judaism and spirituality. He spoke with Beliefnet after watching "The Passion of the Christ."

You had strong feelings about the movie before it was released. Have your views changed since actually seeing the movie?
I was both more moved than I thought I would be and more disturbed than I hoped to be.

What disturbed you?
The movie is a story that is told beautifully, but it's told with a lot of anger, with a very clear sense that if the viewer does not believe what the storyteller is telling them, they are cursed. In the movie, when you have two people crucified next to Jesus, one recognizes his divinity, and the other one begins to laugh. The first one is told he'll sit with Jesus in Paradise and the second one has his eyes pecked out. That transcends Jews and Christians; that, to me, says that people who feel, think and practice differently than you do are cursed and damned.

You thought anger in the movie was directed more at non-believers rather than at Jews?
Yes. The Romans are portrayed much more horrifically than the Jews in this film. But the truth is, there haven't been so many Romans murdered in the name of Jesus over the years, so Italians are not quite so nervous. That's what Gibson has to be accountable for.

In what parts of the movie does it seem like he is not acting responsibly?
It comes out in a few places. The obvious one that people have remarked about is that in the courtyard when the Jews scream out quoting Matthew, "His blood be upon us and upon our children," Gibson has them shout it, but doesn't translate it. If you're going to say it, then say it straight and translate it. And if you're not going to translate it, maybe it shouldn't be said at all.

The place where that's even more pronounced is when they are arresting Jesus and bringing him to the temple, the Jewish guards scream at him in Aramaic, "Jew Bastard." So many people have been hurt over time as they listen to people scream at them, "Jew Bastard." Why put that in? How does that honor the story of the death of the Christ? In the end that has to be the question. It's not about which is historically accurate. The question has to be as you tell a particular religious story, who is being helped? Who is being hurt? And am I balancing those things appropriately?

What do you think of Gibson's response that he's just portraying the way it's written in the Gospel?
That's clearly not true. That doesn't mean he shouldn't do it. The issue isn't historical accuracy, or what's in the Gospel. If you live in a world in which a story is being used to cause more death than it is life, to cause more hate than it is hope, it just may be not the healthiest story to tell at this moment. Retreating behind the fact that it says so in the scripture is not for me a sufficient test of whether we should say it in the twenty first century.

How should Jews and Christians address these issues, now that the movie is out?
We need to have a genuine conversation, not debate, in which people begin to look at their own traditions and the relationships they have with followers of other traditions and new ways. We have an opportunity here to move past the last 40 years, which has been about negotiating what we won't say to each other, and begin to really talk honestly about what we feel.

We should talk about how we can honor the tradition of Christ on the cross. Then, how do you then honor that tradition without hating all those who don't come to your conclusions about the message of that moment? That's the challenge.

If I made a Purim movie and celebrated the murder of thousands of Persians, it would not be acceptable to say, "Well, that's what it says in the Megilla [the Scroll of Esther]." What we really have to figure out is how are we going to come clean about the fact that all of traditions have hateful text in them. This week when Jews read the Megilla, we're going to laugh with glee at the death of the bad guys. Then we'll go on to Passover and talk about the drowning of the Egyptians in the sea. The test cannot be: do you have those stories? Every tradition has those stories. The question is, what do you do with those stories?

If you were to make a movie of the Purim story, would you just ignore that bloody part at the end?
No, but it's a very different message. I don't have a Christ figure in that story. So I would want the part with Jews defending themselves and killing the Persians in the movie, and I would want you to see both the necessity of it and the ugliness of it. It's both. It is necessary to kill those who come to kill you, but you must understand that you, too, are bloodied forever by that process. The fact that you may be in the right, does not mean you are not wounded by having done it. That's a covenantal telling of a biblical story as opposed to a Christ-like telling of the story.

I can't tell Christians how they're supposed to work out the fact that there is profound ugliness in the telling of what's supposed to be a perfect life. The Megilla is different--it's very clear from the beginning that Esther is a Jewish girl who marries a gentile. No one is perfect in the Purim story. So it's no problem to show how these imperfect people do imperfect things.

How would you begin the conversation that you think Jews and Christians should have now?
I guess everyone who sees this film as beautiful and powerful needs to be asked, "But do you see what's scary and dangerous about it also?" And everyone who is screaming that it's ugly and dangerous has to be asked, "But do you see how beautiful it is to tell people that no matter how much you've been put down, you can always get up?" The word most repeated in this film is "Kum"--"Get up!" The idea that you could tell the world no matter what has happened to bring you down, you can still get up, is a very important and valuable lesson.

Do you think that the public Christian response that we've seen so far has acknowledged that dark side?
I don't think anyone has really come clean about the fact that it is both beautiful and horrible. And the horror is not because it's violent. The violence is simply a fact of first century life in the land of Israel. The horror is because it is at moments, rageful and angry and hateful.

Are there ways Gibson could have made it a less angry or dark movie?
I don't think it could have been less dark--when you nail people to crosses, it's a pretty dark story. But it could have been less hateful. I don't know how Jesus' suffering is clarified or sharpened by the narrowness or the venality of virtually every Jewish leader portrayed in the movie.

What John Dominic Crossan believes happened is that the priests were nervous that they had a guy who was not just a spiritual rebel but actually a political rebel and that if Rome got wind of this, they were going to exterminate the Jews of the land of Israel. That is entirely possible. So you could have had a film in which a people that was suffering conspired with their oppressors to make someone suffer even worse. It's not like Jews would look great. It turns Jews essentially into the Kapos in the concentration camps. But you do think about a Kapo in a concentration camp differently than you would think about this high priest because you see the complexity of his life--both its ugliness and its tragedy would both have been present. There was no tragedy present for the Jews depicted in this movie.

The Jewish priests were collaborationists in some way. But to be a collaborator when you're an oppressed person is a different experience than choosing it freely. This movie made it seem like Jews choose it freely as opposed to being an oppressed people dealing with their oppressor.

What did you think of the portrayal of Pilate?
Somehow Pilate was inverted. The role that Pilate plays is actually what I imagined priests felt: damned if they did and damned if they didn't. They protect this guy, the Romans will kick the shit out of all of us. If they offer him up, then they are collaborators. But that's the bind that most people who try and exercise leadership under oppression are in.

This does not mean I believe that Mel Gibson hates Jews. I don't. I do not. And I do not believe anyone will see this movie and become an anti-Semite.

What moved you about the film?
In the end, the movie is an incredibly powerful telling about suffering, endurance and love. The very graphic nature of the portrayal I think is both true to the period historically and appropriate to the moment. As Americans, whether Christian or not, most of us are much better for understanding the insight that comes from the life of Jesus and the hope that comes from the resurrection of Jesus. The lessons, the dignity, the love that flow out of the suffering and endurance of this character are not something we're always so open to, since it means being open to a gory, painful, horrible story.

For Jews, the story of Jesus is not the primary source of those lessons. But even though it's not the primary source of the lesson for me, I still think we could be open to it. It's hard, though, because the same story that has so much to teach us about the ability to get up, no matter you've been beaten down by, has been used to beat down an awful lot of people. What frustrates me is that people who understand the first half of that claim refuse to accept responsibility for the second, and the people who understand the second half of that claim refuse to give credit to Christianity for teaching us the first.

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