Jewish leaders are talking -- but also wary of talking too much -- about filmmaker Mel Gibson's controversial religious film, "The Passion of the Christ," opening Feb. 25.
"My fear would be an overreaction on the part of the Jewish community. It raises, to high prominence, Gibson and makes him a theologian," said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. "There is nothing that would be more harmful than raising this up to an issue that I don't think requires this kind of overreaction."
The film's reported portrayal of Jews as sinister and largely responsible for Jesus' death has repulsed leaders of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The film's final cut has not been distributed, but leaders of several Jewish organizations have viewed near-final versions with select Christian audiences.
ADL National Director Abraham Foxman and Wiesenthal Center founder and dean Rabbi Marvin Hier both saw the film and are making continual, public pleas for Gibson to add a pro-tolerance commentary at the end of "The Passion."
"He may realize that doing that does not compromise his view, his creativity and yet it would help to insulate some of the hate," Foxman told The Journal. "I don't think he's motivated by anti-Semitism. Sometimes the results of true belief are unintended consequences."
One "Passion" fan site (www.passionmovieinfo.freeservers.com) listed six things Christians can do to support the movie, including, "Pray for Mel," "Pray for this country," and "Pray that the persecutors in the media who hate this film with a 'passion' come to know our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
Neither Foxman nor Hier want "The Passion" boycotted.
"We have been too frequently the object of boycotts," Foxman said. "It's your business if you want to see it. The average Jew who wants to see it can see it. Nobody's being put in herem if they do," he said, referring to the traditional Jewish practice of excommunication.
"What should be done is not in our hands," Hier said, adding that anti-Semites may view the film, "like a dream come true; to have an icon in Hollywood like that put out a movie ... that blames the Jews. My opinion is the overwhelming majority of Jews, the tremendous majority of Jews, will be horrified."
Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, executive director of the American Jewish Committee's Los Angeles office, is trying to understand the film's deeply religious supporters.
"This is a much larger and more complex issue than simply one of anti-Semitism, which is how some Jewish organizations have construed it," Greenebaum said. "It's important to deal with the film as a film. Jews need to understand that this is about another person's religion. It's not all about us."
Conservative Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, is exploring possible interfaith activities to negate "The Passion's" damage, though what the film's fallout could be is unclear. "I don't see pogroms in the streets," he said. "Let me be clear here -- my concern is long-term, the days after the film, the weeks, and the month and years after the film."
Foxman said that Gibson, an ultra-traditionalist Catholic worshipping at an obscure Catholic sect that rejects much of the Roman Catholic Church's modern teachings, is positioning the film to Protestant conservatives as religious truth.
"He is selling it in the churches as the gospel truth," Foxman said. "That's what makes it so troubling; he is wrapping himself in the gospel truth. And he is hawking it as a religious experience."
The University of Judaism (UJ) has scheduled a Feb. 10 panel discussion not on the film but on parallel issues entitled, "Crucifying Jesus: Sacred Texts and Their Contemporary Interpretations, Historic Fears and Contemporary Anxieties." Panelists will include Christian scholars and UJ Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum.
Metropolitan Theatres Chair Bruce Corwin said he would screen "The Passion" at one of his two Santa Barbara theaters and not ban it the way he banned the Martin Scorsese film, "The Last Temptation of Christ," which in 1989 was loudly opposed by some of the same fundamentalist Christians now praising "The Passion."
"We're going to show it because I believe the public has the right to make the decision," said Corwin, adding that after one of the opening weekend's Santa Barbara screenings, a discussion will take place -- "A couple of rabbis and a couple of reverends and have them talk about it."
"Nobody should have any comment until they see it; to just talk about it by virtue of what you have heard is really not fair to the picture," he said. "I really did learn my lesson from 'The Last Temptation of Christ.'"