May 22, 2000, OBERAMMERGAU, Germany (AP) -- When enraged Temple leaders shouted "Crucify him! Crucify him!" during a climactic scene at the premiere Sunday of the world's most famous Passion play, dissenters defended Jesus for the first time: "Set him free!"

The revision is among a series of thoughtfully scripted changes introduced for the millennial production of the Oberammergau Passion play, acted roughly every decade since 1634. Many of the story's most ardent critics now declare this version a milestone in decades-long efforts expunge negative images of Jews.

"I can say positively that it is a turning point," said Irving Levine, an interfaith expert for the American Jewish Committee, which has been working with the Anti-Defamation League since the 1960s to remove Jewish stereotypes from the Oberammergau play.

Jesus' Jewishness is emphasized for the first time in this play about the last five days of his life. He is called "rabbi" and gives a Hebrew blessing at the Last Supper, depicted as a Passover seder held around a menorah.

Most importantly, the blood oath that assigned Jews collective guilt for Jesus' death was removed.

"I've been working on it for 23 years. They have made huge progress," said Leonard Swidler, a professor of Catholic theology at Temple University who has worked with the ADL to recommend changes. "Academics can always argue about anything, but I see no substantive difficulties at all."

The question of how Jews are depicted at Oberammergau, the oldest continually acted Passion play in Europe, has been an issue since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s reversed nearly 2,000 years of church teachings about the collective responsibility of the Jews for Jesus' death.

"Oberammergau is the battleground for these issues," said James Shapiro, a director of the theater program at Columbia University in New York who has written a new history of Oberammergau.

"One reason is there's some leverage that can be brought on the village after Vatican II. And two, it's Germany. There's both some increased sensitivity and enormous sense of responsibility for death with Jewish questions."

Acted against an idyllic Alpine backdrop, the Oberammergau Passion play so perfectly served Adolf Hitler's ends that he praised it as a tool "that convincingly portrayed the menace of Jewry" after seeing a 300th anniversary staging in 1934.

The most virulent stereotype perpetuated in the Passion story, predating Oberammergau, is the notion of Jewish collective guilt for Jesus' death -- often seen as a primary source of anti-Semitic thought through the centuries. In 15th-century Frankfurt, city officials protected the Jewish ghetto during performances. Rome's Jewish quarter was regularly attacked following reenactments in the 16th century.

U.S. Jewish groups that hope the modernized version will influence Passion plays elsewhere and the nearly half a million people who will see the play between now and Oct. 8 -- 60 percent of them Americans.

Amid overwhelmingly positive reaction among critics at the premiere, there were skeptics. The Anti-Defamation League's Leon Klenicki voiced reservations about the depiction of the Temple leadership as the Jewish community's primary voice, united with the Romans against Jesus in a manner that he said creates a sense of "Jewish power."

"We are not against Passion plays. It is part of Christian spirituality. What we are against are the use and uses of the Passion play for anti-Semitism," Klenicki said. "There is this past that requires a reckoning of the soul."

Winning the changes in Oberammergau has required a reckoning with a centuries-old tradition that many here are loath to change. The play, acted roughly every 10 years to honor a pledge in thanks for sparing the village more deaths from the plague, is deeply ingrained in local life.

Actors must either be born here, or have lived in Oberammergau for 20 years. Some 2,000 actors are on the stage for every production -- nearly half of the village's 5,300 residents. Many first appear in the chorus as children.

Generational change helped secure the recast, after conservatives lost control of the script in a 1996 referendum. The new, younger directors reworked images to show support for Jesus even among nonbelievers and emphasize the absolute authority of Pilate, the Roman administrator.

Rather than merely deleting objectionable material from the 150-year-old text by Joseph Daisenberger, a Catholic priest, the directors recast much of the text to move blame away from Jews and more firmly onto the Roman occupiers. They looked to sources outside the traditional gospel, including rabbinical texts and even literature, for inspiration.

Significantly, the directors also suggest dissension within the Jewish leadership. For example, high priests no longer wear horned hats, but are clothed in different colored robes and caps of varying sizes to suggest a hierarchy and expunge suggestions that Jewish society uniformly opposed Jesus' message.

"The reformers and young people have won," Shapiro said. "There has been a fundamental break with tradition. Some kind of age is over; some kind of moment is over in the village."

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