Jewish Journal

Gibson Film Stirs Up Variety of Reactions

by Journal Staff

Posted on Mar. 4, 2004 at 7:00 pm

Jesus (Jim Caviezel) sits with the apostles at The Last Supper Photo by Philippe Antonello

Jesus (Jim Caviezel) sits with the apostles at The Last Supper Photo by Philippe Antonello

Rabbi Eli Spitz

This masterfully crafted film deals with a troubling event and could lead to trouble. The film fails to portray a larger context for Jesus and the Jews.

As recorded in the New Testament, Jesus lived as a faithful Jew and had Jewish crowds who loved him. The film focuses on only the last hours of his life, where the Jewish mob calls for his blood.

As a people, we have reason to feel nervous about the label "Christ-killers." The film could lead to anti-Semitism, both in America and abroad.

Eli Spitz is senior rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin.

Rabbi David Wolpe

I believe that the intent of this movie is not to stir up hatred against the Jewish people. But will it give aid and comfort to anti-Semites? Will it be something that those who hate the Jewish people can show their children with an easy conscience? I'm afraid so. And we do not live in an age when hatred should be given nourishment.

....In recent times, however, Jews and Christians have begun speaking to each other, reaching out, seeking to understand the other.... Christianity is a great world tradition whose cradle is my faith.

The greatest sin of this movie would be if the vision of a single Hollywood star overrode, even for an instant, the efforts of so many rabbis, pastors, churchmen, ministers and countless laypeople to understand each other, embrace each other, seek each other's heart.

I hope that a movie, which, with a spurious literalism, veils the remarkable message of love at the heart of the Christian tradition, will paradoxically enhance that love and so bring closer the time for which all pray, a time of peace.

This excerpt is from a sermon Wolpe delivered to his congregation, Sinai Temple, on Feb. 28. A complete version is at www.beliefnet.com.

Ron Austin

In all fairness, I think Gibson has attempted to depict the responsibility for [Jesus'] suffering and death as a guilt universally shared, as the Gospels, themselves, do.

The Jewish mob shouts for crucifixion, and the Roman legionnaires are monstrously cruel. Both Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate are corrupt, self-serving and lawless.

Differing interpretations of aspects of the film are inevitable, and, undoubtedly, some will find offense where others don't. It is, nonetheless, clear that Gibson made an effort, which some may find inadequate, to avoid the scapegoating of which he's been accused in the media.

....However painful and divisive the immediate response to the film has been, if there is reasonable goodwill, a greater understanding might yet emerge from the controversy.... In the context of our times, therefore, the repentance that "The Passion of the Christ" seeks to elicit and an understanding of the fears expressed by many in the Jewish community about the film's possible unintended effects are, finally, not separate matters.

The sober truth that calls for repentance within Gibson's film demands a sober response that goes far beyond our reactions as moviegoers. We must not fail to use the opportunity "The Passion of the Christ" has providentially given, whatever one thinks of the film, to proclaim our love of [Jesus], who died for us, and to demonstrate that love by cherishing and defending our neighbors.

Ron Austin is a veteran writer and producer, a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and a founding member of Catholics in Media. This excerpt reprinted from The Tidings.

Rabbi John Rosove

The film suffers, frankly, from Gibson's embarrassing ignorance of 50 years of new Christian scholarship on the subject of what led to Jesus' death. Instead, we get an immature and amateurish pre-Vatican II selectivity and interweaving of whatever Gospel texts have struck Gibson's fancy, along with extrabiblical source materials no sober Christian scholar would deem worthy to examine....

Gibson's denial, as well, that this film is anti-Semitic betrays his unawareness of the historical cause-and-effect interrelationship of Passion productions in Europe, with ensuing psychological and physical trauma, if not death, to countless Jews....

The disclaimer in the film that God intended Jesus to suffer and that guilt should not be laid at the door of the Jews is meaningless in light of the film, itself, and the effect that it leaves, Gibson's public statements notwithstanding. Long after his statements are forgotten, the film will speak for itself....

John Rosove is senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Dr. Robert Wexler

So often I have read books or seen movies about Jewish suffering throughout the ages, but none of these has ever inspired me to greater devotion. On the contrary, I see these stories as direct challenges to my belief in a God of love and mercy. More often than not these books and films filled me, at least temporarily, with anger, helplessness and confusion.

Herein lays the most important difference between the Christians and any others who might see this movie. For many Catholics and Protestants, "The Passion" will probably be a moving experience and even a call to faith.

For Jews, however, it will be difficult to appreciate a level of graphic violence that seems almost gratuitous. Although we do believe that pain and affliction can, at times, be ennobling, we have never embraced the idea of vicarious atonement achieved through the suffering of another.

My concerns about anti-Semitism in the film were at least somewhat allayed. True to a literal reading of the New Testament text, "The Passion" does blame the Jews for the death of Jesus, but I am now convinced that this was not intended to be the central theme of the movie.

Those who enter the theater with anti-Jewish biases will undoubtedly find reinforcement for their hostility, but most Christians will simply be inspired by the suffering and martyrdom of the man whom they believe died for their sins.

An excerpt from a review by Dr. Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism.

Michael Tolkin

The only reasonable response left to Jews now that the film is out is to find a Righteous Gentile and see if he's got any room left in his root cellar, or if you're lucky, his wine cellar. Any religion that uses this much blood as an affirmation of faith is scary, while any religion that uses "Fiddler on the Roof" as an affirmation of faith is probably not up to the task of fighting what's scary.

After "The Prince of Egypt" came out, DreamWorks licensed a seder plate. With this film, Mel Gibson licensed a necklace made of crucifixion nails.

You can't make up absurdity fast enough to compete with reality anymore. I guess in some mixed marriages this year, both the seder plate and the torture jewelry will be at the same table. I want pictures.

Michael Tolkin is the author of several works including "Under Radar" (Grove Press, 2003).

Amanda Susskind

We have never called Mel Gibson or the movie anti-Semitic. We have never sought to boycott the movie or to censor it. Although speaking out is not all we do, it is, after all, a pivotal part of our mission "to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all...."

The day after the movie opened, the notorious neo-Nazi group known as National Alliance started distributing recruitment fliers at theaters showing the movie. The fliers, which quote Gibson and denounce the ADL, openly recruit fledgling white supremacists.

As an organization devoted to eradicating bigotry of all kinds, the ADL stands together with people of all faiths to denounce victimization and stereotypes.... This is a time for Christians and Jews to reaffirm our work together and to empathize with each other's perspective.

Amanda Susskind is the Pacific Southwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, www.adl.org.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz

The film is pure propaganda seeking to convert nonbelievers. This is a concern for a Jewish community already confronted by an avalanche of proselytizing campaigns.

Its theme, "the suffering of Jesus Christ for the sins of mankind" is based on the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, which is so central to the movie that Gibson begins by projecting it on the screen.

Isaiah 53 is one of the most distorted texts, read out of context and replete with mistranslations. Evangelicals use it as a proof of the suffering of the Messiah.

Isaiah 53 is not speaking about vicarious atonement. This is an important point, since, despite Christian misinterpretations, the Torah teaches that each individual is able to repent directly to God without an intermediary and without the Jewish Temple or sacrifices.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the West Coast director of Jews for Judaism.

Michael Berenbaum

It was worse than I imagined, perhaps even worse than I could have imagined.

....Will this increase anti-Semitism? ....One can hardly leave this film more sympathetic to Jews, but one can well imagine that there will not be a linkage in many minds in the United States -- though not elsewhere -- between those Jews of the first century and you and me today in the 21st.

For Gibson, "The Passion" is the story of [Jesus].... I remain far more interested in the teachings of Jesus and their relationship to the Jewish community in which he was raised, educated and in which he died.

In short, this is Hollywood at its most compromised. A man of considerable talent and significant means brings his own uninformed and personalistic vision to the giant screen, claiming all along that his own idiosyncratic reading is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at University of Judaism.

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