Indeed, the similarities between evangelical Christians and orthodox Jews are striking. When I am in the company of evangelical Christians, I immediately feel at home.
It is therefore with a heavy heart that I watch the developments surrounding Mel Gibson's upcoming film, The Passion of the Christ. I truly fear that this film may serve to hinder the increasing intimacy that has begun between Christians and Jews. To be sure, my evangelical friends tell me that 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. But this evangelical reading is a version of the Crucifixion portrayed in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is control of the entire Passion narrative. The version that Mel Gibson seems to have highlighted-based on every serious review of the film I have 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-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 Jews themselves 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 of having murdered (from a Christian perspective) the source of all goodness, the divinity? Can my Christian brothers and sisters understand the deep pain we feel-committed as we have been for more than three thousand years toward a moral and ethical lifestyle-when we are portrayed as reveling in sadistic delight as the Romans savagely beat Jesus?
Aside from the accusation being deeply offensive and insulting, there is the far more serious issue of how it has led to the slaughter of literally millions of Jews for the past two millennia. Consider the following from a book of Catholic essays, "On the Jewish Problem" (cited in "Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic?"): "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 17th-century 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 more recently the story of Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel, who in 1955 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]." ["Faith After the Holocaust," Eliezer Berkovits, Ktav, 1973]
I fear that Mel Gibson's film does not show the other side, how certain passages in 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), and how the Pharisees even saved the life of Paul, although he was their biggest critic. (Acts 23: 6-9)
But there is something more. I fear that the main victim of "The Passion" will be Jesus himself. 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 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 a guru? After all, many Jews study the teachings of the Buddha, even while remaining loyal to Jewish observance! And it is this act of 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 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 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 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!
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 Vatican II, which 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 messiahship of Christ, and I am utterly opposed to any Jewish conversions to Christianity, just as am I opposed to Christian conversions to Judaism. I want Jews to be fully observant of the Torah and their own traditions, while not shying away from being enriched by exposure to other faiths. I believe in the authenticity and integrity of both faiths, as they worship G-d in their own way. I believe that G-d made us perfect the way we are, and that every religion that leads to G-dliness and goodliness is authentic. 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 and embracing of his Jewish identity, who hated the Romans because of their cruelty to Jews and who ultimately died trying to throw off the Roman yoke.