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.
The most pressing issue regarding the current controversy is what, precisely Mel Gibson's attackers hope to accomplish with their sky-is-falling denunciations of his work. He paid for the film himself (to the tune of $25 million) precisely because he wanted to realize his own religious vision without compromise. This commitment hardly represents an act of hatred or fanaticism but a statement of the highest artistic aspiration. Having seen the film, it's obvious that he's succeeded in creating a cinematic work of undeniable immediacy and power. It is not, by the way, about "the Jews," but rather about one particular Jew worshipped by Gibson (and two billion others) as the messiah and the deity incarnate.
As I have written in numerous venues (including Christianity Today, in a current article), Jews will not enjoy this movie, but we ought to recognize it wasn't made for us and it doesn't focus on us. "The Passion of the Christ" counts as a project of the Christians, by the Christians, and for the Christians. It will open on more than 2,000 screens on February 25 and will draw literally tens of millions of eager filmgoers, regardless of calls for a boycott by Shmuley Boteach and others. The inevitable success of the film makes it an especially foolish strategy for Jewish organizations and individuals to continue expending energy and credibility in denouncing it. This posture makes us look both mean-spirited and, finally, powerless and irrelevant. We also fall into the devastating trap of "crying wolf"--when anti-Semitic depredations fail to materialize as predicted in response to this movie, it will make it far more difficult to mobilize concern over genuine dangers in the years to come. Above all, the misguided agony over "The Passion of the Christ" serves as a tragic distraction at a time when we need unity and allies more than ever before. Let us never forget that the menacing recent wave of anti-Semitism in the Middle East and around the world arises from the Islamic community and the anti-religious Left, not (so far, at least) from traditional Christians. In this context, the challenge to Christian orthodoxy implicit in the more intemperate attacks on Mel Gibson's movie serve no constructive purpose and work to foment, rather than deflect, anti-Semitic attitudes. When facing an onrushing express train (like this sure-to-be-popular movie) it makes little sense to stand on the track in the midst of a railroad trestle holding up a hand and pleading, "Stop!" Or, to put it in even more commonsensical terms, when you've already placed yourself in a deep hole, it's a good idea to stop digging.