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One evening a few years ago, I attended a forum on anti-Judaism in the text of Bach's "St. John's Passion." It was Easter season, and the meeting was hosted by an Episcopal church in a Boston suburb and cosponsored by a chorus that was about to perform the piece. The speakers were the pastor; the chorus director; the paleontologist, Jew, and bass Stephen Jay Gould; and James Carroll, then known as a novelist and memoirist.

The choral director and pastor made well-intended efforts to reconcile great art and vileness, while Gould declared himself able to sing such lines as "away with him, crucify him!" with sufficient historical perspective that no sweat broke--and was convincing. And then Jim Carroll, in his earnest public manner, said that Christianity would never rid itself of the culture and sin of anti-Semitism until its scriptures were newly understood by all Christians as documents corrupted by the human failings of their authors.

At this point, an elderly woman seated behind me turned to the elderly woman seated beside her and whispered: "Oh, no. They're not going to take that away from us."

"They," she was saying, may have had good reason for persuading Christian churches to abjure anti-Semitic preachings and teachings. "They" may have had good reason for convincing many Christians to change the way they consider Jews and Judaism. And "they" may even have been right about making certain Easter traditions conditional on crowding 250 people into church to consider the consequences of text. But "they" simply could not be allowed to change the way Christians, innocent in their beds and Barcaloungers and pews, read the Word of God and relate to the beloved, familiar, and inspiring locutions and stories of the New Testament.
    -ESSAY: Can Christianity Be Purged of Anti-Semitism Without Changing the Gospels? (Ben Birnbaum, October 2001, Moment)

I asked Foxman if he believed that Gibson was an anti-Semite. "Per se, I don't think that Mel Gibson is anti-Semitic," Foxman said. "I think that he is insensitive."

But what of "The Passion" itself, I asked. Is the film anti-Semitic? "The film, per se, is not anti-Semitic," Foxman said. The problem, he added, was that, as with any literal reading of the New Testament, its message of love could be twisted into something hateful. "The film can fuel, trigger, stimulate, induce, rationalize, legitimize anti-Semitism," Foxman said.

"You know, the Gospels, if taken literally, can be very damaging, in the same way if you take the Old Testament literally," Foxman went on. "It says, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' Now, has the Jewish state, or have Jews, practiced the Old Testament by taking an eye for an eye? No. So a literal reading of almost anything can lead to all kinds of things."

Speaking with Foxman made me realize just what it was that Gibson had done in making "The Passion." Gibson had said from the start that he was going to make a movie taken straight from the Gospels. Foxman was saying that, for better or worse, Gibson had done just that.
    -ESSAY: THE JESUS WAR: Mel Gibson's obsession (PETER J. BOYER, SEPTEMBER 15, 2003, The New Yorker)

To commemorate the 250th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach's death, in 2000, Helmuth Rilling, artistic director of the International Bachakademie Stuttgart, commissioned four versions of the Passion, by composers from a variety of cultures. La Pasion Segun San Marcos (St. Mark Passion) is Osvaldo Golijov's entry in the Passion 2000 Project and it was greeted with rave reviews. Mr. Golijov, though European by ethnic background, was born and raised in Argentina. His Passion is reimagined for his continent, classical oratorio by way of Afro-Carribean music. As the liner notes of the album say:
"I don't have a theological burden here, but I do have to discover the truth.", says Golijov. For him, Jesus is a black person, of course.
Besides a black Jesus, the piece also features flamenco dancing, mamba, rhumba, persistent drumming and Mr. Golijov also has Christ's words sung not just by a male soloist but by a female and by the chorus. It makes for a raucous--perhaps even cacophonous--and necessarily unusual telling of the story. It struck me as mostly a novelty, somewhat amusing but, especially by comparison to Bach, quite trifling. It is easy to see how it could be offensive to the devout Christian, but the very universality of the Passion means that it can withstand a good bit of tampering and experimentation and still communicate its core message, that the most profound events in human history took place over those several days 2,000 years ago. So, if Mr. Golijov chose not to treat the material with as much reverence as some might have liked, he was certainly within his rights.

In fact, one could hardly have expected him to treat the Passion in straightforward fashion because Mr,. Golijov is Jewish. Predictably then, he has said, "I don't believe in resurrection, and I don't believe Jesus was God." Well, he wouldn't believe would he? But even still, few would argue that, as an artist, he is not entitled to make the Passion his own and make his own Passion. There would seem to be some risk, political risk anyway, in a Jewish composer rewriting Christian theology--whether he feels the burden or not, it is after all theological--but the work must ultimately stand or fall on its own merits. Personally, I think it leans but remains standing.

What's fascinating though is to compare Mr. Golijov's Passion to Mel Gibson's attempt to tell a very literal version of the story and to examine the hysterical reaction that has greeted his film, a film few, if any, of his critics have even seen. There's certainly legitimate criticism to be made of the way Passion plays were used in the past, but what is most disturbing here is the suggestion that the story of the Passion is in and of itself anti-Semitic and should not be told. Rabbi A. James Rudin has written in one essay that: "The Crucifixion story is radioactive material." and the title of another of his essays is When Jesus dies, passions rise, and anti-Semitism thrives. Marvin Hier and Harold Brackman, writing in the LA Times, compared the Passion to a recent biopic about Adolph Hitler. Perhaps least fair is the suggestion that to defend the film against charges of anti-Semitism may be anti-Semitic: -ESSAY: The Real Problem with the Passion: I don't know if the film is anti-Jewish. But the response to criticism of the movie smacks of anti-Semitism. (Amy-Jill Levine, BeliefNet). We approach very dangerous ground here, for if it is seriously the position of some group of people that the Gospel story is inherently anti-Semitic and must therefore not be told, let us face reality and say that they will not be listened too. In fact, they can do nothing but breed resentment. And because many of them will be Jews telling Christians what it is appropriate to believe, how can it but serve to breed an anti-Jewish backlash, regardless of whether there's inherent anti-Semitism to begin with?

Other problems arise too. Consider David Klinghoffer's recent essay, THE DISPUTATION: A Passion for Censorship (David Klinghoffer, 8/01/03, The Forward):
[T]he second reason we Jews need to learn some deep-breathing and other relaxation techniques is the one that always gets lost when others less meticulous than Fredriksen publicly humiliate a Christian for espousing his beliefs. If we are empowered to edit their doctrine, then why are they not empowered to edit ours?

In the past, Christians felt justified in telling Jews what we were entitled to write and read if it touched upon their savior. The Talmud was censored with their denunciations, and worse, in mind.

There seems little danger "The Passion" will incite violence. However, if it were to arouse Christians to demand that Jews similarly submit our faith for their approval - well, then, the attempt to cow Mel Gibson will have been most helpful to would-be Christian censors in making their case.

If Gibson someday says he would like to have a look at the Talmud with a view to fixing it up with some additional corrections, we should let Paula Fredriksen have a go at explaining to him why this would be inappropriate.
What is the difference between Jews telling Christians what to believe and Christians telling Jews?

None of this is to suggest that Jews should not be concerned about representations of the Passion, nor that they should not keep a wary eye. But we do live in a different country and a different time. Anti-Semitism is still very real, but there are many, and vocal, Christians and non, who very forcefully advocate for a reconciliation between Judaism and Christianity. For example, though he's a very conservative Catholic, Richard John Neuhaus's essay "Salvation Is from the Jews" is a model of Christian-Jewish understanding. That other, equally inclusive Christian scholars, like Michael Novak, have seen the film and found no anti-Semitism in it, nor has David Horowitz, who is constantly on guard for such things in the arts and the academy, nor Michael Medved, should at least give the critics some pause. Should they really be trying to censor a film they haven't seen and which so many vouch for?

And if such censorship is warranted, because they find the Passion tale to be de facto anti-Semitic, then what forms of anti-Christian censorship might be equally appropriate? Should Osvaldo Golijov have to rewrite his Passion? Let's hope that's not where we're headed.


Grade: (B)


See also:

    -INFO: The Passion (2004) (
    -FAN SITE: The Passion
    -FAN SITE: Mel's Passion
    -TRAILER: The Passion
-VIDEO DISCUSSION: Debating The Passion of the Christ: Christopher Hitchens, David Denby, Jon Meacham, and David Sterrit debate the merits of Mel Gibson’s Christian epic. (Charlie Rose (2004))
    -ESSAY: Revisiting Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” (Joseph Pearce, March 27th, 2021, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: The Passion and Its Enemies: The campaign against the movie bespeaks deeper animus. (Patrick J. Buchanan, April 26, 2004, The American Conservative)
    -ARTICLE: 'A Very Violent Passion': NY Daily News Profiles Mel Gibson's New Movie ( HOLLY McCLURE, 1/31/03,
    -ESSAY: Is the Pope Catholic . . . Enough? (Christopher Noxon, March 9, 2003, NY Times Magazine)
    -OPEN LETTER: ADL Letter to Mel Gibson (Abraham H. Foxman, March 24, 2003 )
    -ESSAY: 'Passion' Is Lacking For Scholars Report (Eric J. Greenberg, 6/20/03, Jewish Weekly)
    -ESSAY: Is Mel Gibson Plotting the Death of Jews?: Jews and Catholics warn Gibson about his film (Ted Olsen, 6/24/03, Christianity Today: Weblog)
    -ESSAY: Mad Mel: THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO GIBSON (Paula Fredriksen, 07.25.03, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: 'Portrait of an Anti-Semite': Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman accuses Mel Gibson of 'spouting classic anti-Semitism.' (Eric J. Greenberg, The Jewish Week)
    -ESSAY: Jesus gets his closeup: Mel Gibson must be careful with his 'Passion' film. It has the capacity to resurrect old anti-Semitic views. (Rabbi A. James Rudin, July 3, 2003, Jewsweek)
    -ARTICLE: Months Before Debut, Movie on Death of Jesus Causes Stir (LAURIE GOODSTEIN, 8/02/03, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Gibson's Passion (Abraham H. Foxman, August 4, 2003, New York Sun)
    -ESSAY: Don't crucify 'Mad Mel' (Ezra Levant, August 14, 2003, National Post)
    -ESSAY: Mel Gibson's Martyrdom Complex (Frank Rich, 8/03/03, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The Greatest Story Ever Sold (Frank Rich, September 21, 2003, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Bloodthirsty or a classic? Gibson's film of Christ's last days alarms Jewish groups: Star claims Holy Ghost helped him make film but threatens legal action after academics criticise script of The Passion (Gary Younge, August 4, 2003, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: When Jesus dies, passions rise, and anti-Semitism thrives Now the Christian world can make a final rebuke of the anti-Semitism embodied in the Passion plays (A. James Rudin, 9/04/03, Jewsweek)
    In defense of Mel Gibson: In response to scathing critics, Mel Gibson says he has softened the crucifixion story in his new Jesus biopic. But is it too little too late? (Kevin Eckstrom, August 14, 2003, Jewsweek)
    -ARTICLE: Capturing the Passion: A new film by Mel Gibson, to be released next year, depicts Jesus' last few hours. Jews and Catholics are raising concerns about its potential for stoking anti-Semitism. (Jane Lampman, 7/10/03, The Christian Science Monitor)
    -ESSAY: What Mel Missed: There's a reason why the gospels don't dwell on the blood and gore of the crucifixion. (Frederica Mathewes-Green, Belief Net)
    -ESSAY: The Real Problem with the Passion: I don't know if the film is anti-Jewish. But the response to criticism of the movie smacks of anti-Semitism. (Amy-Jill Levine, BeliefNet)
    -ESSAY: THE JESUS WAR: Mel Gibson's obsession (PETER J. BOYER, 9/15/03, The New Yorker)
    -ESSAY: Passion Misplay: Yes, Jews probably really did kill Jesus. (Steven Waldman, September 17, 2003, Slate)
    -ESSAY: Mel Gibson movie fuels excitement among Hollywood's Christian filmmakers | For many Christians toiling away in Hollywood, it is particularly gratifying to see a major star, such as Gibson, who practices a traditionalist brand of Catholicism, devote himself to a movie project that is an unabashed expression of personal religious devotion (DAVID FINNIGAN , 9/12/03, Forward)
-ESSAY: Protesting Passion: What happened to "artistic freedom"? (Rabbi Daniel Lapin, 9/26/03, National Review)
    -INTERVIEW: 'You Can't Whitewash the Events of the Bible': Mel Gibson's movie 'The Passion' is faithful to scripture, and that's why critics are angry, says a Bible scholar. (Interview with Darrell Bock, BeliefNet)
    -ARTICLE: Vatican Official Endorses Mel Gibson Film (The Associated Press, Sept. 18, 2003)
    -ARTICLE: Mel Gibson brings movie to city's church leaders (KAMON SIMPSON, 7/03/03, THE GAZETTE)
    -ARTICLE: Gibson talks up Christ film: Gibson's Christ film will not feature English dialogue - or even subtitles Hollywood star Mel Gibson has said Catholics and Jews should not be upset about his new film about Christ, saying the movie will "inspire not offend". (BBC, 6/17/03)
    -ARTICLE: Gibson rebuts criticism of religious film (AP, 6/24/2003)
    -ARTICLE: Mel Gibson's Great Passion: Christ's Agony as You've Never Seen It (, MARCH 6, 2003)
    -ESSAY: The Gospel according to Braveheart: Last week Mel Gibson launched an interfaith initiative following accusations that his film about Christ is anti-Semitic. Deal W. Hudson says that the star has been wrongly accused, and that the film is a great work of art (Deal W. Hudson, 8/23/03, The Spectator)
    -ESSAY: Passion Play: The controversy over Mel Gibson's forthcoming movie on the death of Jesus Christ. (Michael Novak, 08/25/2003, Weekly Standard) -ESSAY: I SAW THE PASSION (Church of the Masses, The Blog of Barbara Nicolosi, Director of Act One: Writing for Hollywood)
    -ESSAY: The Power of The Passion (Linda Chavez, Aug 8, 2003 , HUMAN EVENTS)
    -ESSAY: Mel Gibson, Wronged for His 'Passion' (L. Brent Bozell, III, Aug 19, 2003, HUMAN EVENTS)
    -ESSAY: Mel Gibson's Passion for 'The Passion' (David Limbaugh, Jul 10, 2003, HUMAN EVENTS)
    -ESSAY: The Passion Revisited (David Limbaugh, Aug 4, 2003, Human Events)
    -ESSAY: Mel Gibson's Passion (David Horowitz, July 30, 2003, FrontPage)
    -ESSAY: Fashionably blasting the gospel (Reverend Jerry Falwell, September 27, 2003,
    -ESSAY: THE DISPUTATION: A Passion for Censorship (David Klinghoffer, 8/01/03, The Forward)
    -ESSAY: ‹In Defense of a Despised FaithŠ - Christianity (Bruce Walker, August 12, 2003, Mens News Daily)
    -ESSAY: 'Passion' elicits unfair conflict (Michael Medved, 7/21/2003, USA Today)
    -CHAT: Controversial Film: "The Passion" (Michael Medved, August 6, 2003, Washington Post) -ARCHIVES: Mel Gibson's 'Passion' ( Hot Topics) -ARTICLE: Christians and Jews unite in praise of Mel Gibson's The Passion -ESSAY: GIBSON AND HIS ENEMIES (Tom Piatak, August 29, 2003, Chrionicles) -ESSAY: Jesus Christ Beyond Thunderdome: Gibson's contentious "Passion" ( Cathy Young, 8/19/03, Reason)

    -ESSAY: Can Christianity Be Purged of Anti-Semitism Without Changing the Gospels? (Ben Birnbaum, October 2001, Moment)
    -ESSAY: Are the Passion and Easter Stories Really Anti-Semitic?: In their original context, troubling verses are seen to reflect a vigorous intra-Jewish debate, not first-century anti-Semitism. (Ben Witherington III, BeliefNet)
    -ESSAY: Holy Week, a Time of Reconciliation: Christian Holy Week and Jewish Passover could represent a closing of the doors against the public world. (Martin E. Marty, BeliefNet)
    -ESSAY: Who Killed Jesus?: We can never excuse placing accountability for Jesus' death on any specific group, and certainly not on 'the Jews.' (John Dominic Crossan, Belief Net)
    -ESSAY: Oberammergau Overhaul: Changes make the Passion play more sensitive to Jews and more faithful to Scripture. (Paul L. Maier, 8/07/00, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: Who Killed Jesus?: After centuries of censure, Jews have been relieved of general responsibility for the death of Jesus. Now who gets the blame? (Paul L. Maier, 8/24/00, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY: Who Killed Jesus?: Mel Gibson's powerful but troubling new movie, 'The Passion of the Christ,' is reviving one of the most explosive questions ever. What history tells us about Jesus' last hours, the world in which he lived, anti-Semitism, Scripture and the nature of faith itself. (Jon Meacham, Newsweek)

    -REVIEW: of The Passion (Mary Doria Russell, Religion & Ethics)
    -REVIEW: of The Passion (Gregg Easterbrook, Easterblogg)
    -LINKS: The Passion (Christianity Today Weblog, 2/27/04)
    -FILM REVIEW: FAITH AND PATRIOTISM IN HACKSAW RIDGE (Titus Techera, 5 . 30 . 24, First Things)