Updated: May 27, 2020
‘The Passion Controversy’ Extended Version
The following article was written in 2004. Although the movie, “The Passion of the Christ” was released in 2004 as well, the issues between Jews, Christians and other faiths unfortunately continues.
On Wednesday night, March 3rd, 2004, a small discussion group of Jews congregated at Kol Tikvah temple in Woodland Hills to discuss the film, “The Passion of the Christ.” There was an enormous amount of tension stirred up. Only a handful of about twenty-five citizens had seen the film that had only been in theaters a few weeks. One father spoke about his distraught seven-year-old daughter telling him that another young girl teased her in school, calling her a ‘Christ killer.’
Rabbi Steven Jacobs, an advocate for interfaith relations, who lead the discussion at Kol Tikvah, was invited to numerous similar discussion groups since the film’s release. His Catholic friend, Bernard White, invited him to lead a forum at the Church of Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood on March 30th. Jacobs was then invited to speak by Bella Vita retirement community at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City on April 22 with the Rt. Reverend Alexei Smith and moderated by Sam Rubin from KTLA News. The following reactions and observations are taken from these meetings.
To Jacobs, the cross in the film represented the crucifixion of the Jewish people. The cross conjured up visions for the rabbi of “a million and a half Jewish children hanged. Ninety-percent of Eastern Europe being decimated. Eight out of ten rabbis in Europe slaughtered.” The rabbi said, “Who can reasonably expect that I can see this picture of priests in crowds draped with prayer shawls hovered over by a she-devil without a measure of paranoia?” He said that for two thousand years the Jews have been accused of killing Jesus. Regarding the film, the rabbi said, “In two hours, Christians watched their savior tortured and killed. For the same two hours, Jews are watching Jews arrange the torture and the killing.”
The rabbi said that the Jews in the film, except for Jesus’ disciples, are few and often sadistic. Although the rabbi was very prepared for the story and the characters involved, the depiction of the Jews was still very upsetting to him. Jacobs mentioned his anger to some of his liberal Christian friends. One of his dearest friends, a very sensitive Presbyterian from a church in Atlanta thought it was the most beautiful movie. Jacobs’ Presbyterian friend asked him what upset him so much and added that there’s nothing anti-Semitic about the movie. Rabbi Jacobs said, “Let me tell you what my worry is. It’s not here in the United States. What’s going to happen when it’s shown in Arab countries? He said, ‘I never thought about that.’”
The rabbi expressed his concern of the outcome after playing in countries already so hostile towards Jews. The concern can make Jews paranoid. Jacobs says that it’s not paranoid that the movie is made by one of the world’s superstars depicting Jews as having Christ tortured and killed. The rabbi said, “It is for example difficult to imagine that this film will not be a hit in the anti-Semitic Arab world even though Islam denies crucifixion.”
The rabbi talked about May 2001 when Syria’s dictator, Assaud, greeted Pope John Paul II at the Dimascious Airport. Assaud’s welcoming speech was about the Jews’ betrayal of Christ. Jacobs said that it’s essential that Christians understand that every Jew, no matter what affiliation such as secular, religious, left wing, right wing, fears being killed because of being Jewish. “It is the only universally held sentiment amongst Jews,” said Jacobs.
The rabbi added that what Jews need to understand is that most American Christians watching this film don’t see the Jews as the villains. “Most American Christians, Catholic and Protestant, I believe, believe that a civic or city humanity killed Jesus, not the Jews,” said Jacobs.
Jacobs then mentioned that for most Christians it was God who made Jesus’ crucifixion happen, not the Jews or the Romans. The rabbi said that a book of mentions this and that Christians feel that Christ’s entire purpose was to come to this world and be killed for humanity’s sins. Jacobs said, “Most Christians now regard a Christian who hates Jews for what he believes in some Jews did two thousand years ago. The way you regard such a person is a moral, intellectual and a religious low life. Imagine what Jews would think of a Jew who hated Egyptians after watching the Ten Commandments and you get an idea of how most Christians would regard a Christian who hated Jews after watching The Passion.”
Father Alexei often talked about Nos Aetate, a documented event that will soon be celebrating its 40th Anniversary. It is the Catholic Church’s declaration on its relationship to non-Christian religions. This document revolutionized the way the Catholic Church looks at non-Christian faiths. Alexei mentioned that the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. He says that Nos Aetate further mandates that change in their relationship with these faiths particularly a change in their relationship with Judiasm.
Rabbi Jacobs didn’t like the fact that Jesus’ trial occurred at night. Jewish law prevented trials to take place at night. According to the rabbi, Poncious Pilot comes across as too compassionate. A man in the audience asked about what the Jews are taught about Poncious Piolt. The rabbi said that very little is taught in Hebrew school about Pilot.
The rabbi mentions the Seder, Passover scene and how Jesus expressed his love for humanity. He would have preferred the film to show a little more of the resurrection because, as powerful as the crucifixion is, “the resurrection is what is so powerful about humanity.”
A man in the audience asked a question about the line or sentence asked by Jews, “May the blood be upon our heads and the heads of our children,” taken out in English, but left in Aramaic, Sam Rubin responded by asking the panel if one line mattered. Father Alexei said that it depended on the line. Alexei added that whole quote has been used a lot in anti-Semitic thought. The Father addresses the man in the audience, “I’d like to caution you about something you said. Officially, the line says that the Jews said this. Well, again. We’re trying to teach our people not use that term broadly when it comes to the passion narratives. Not every Jew has originally said that. The leader of the gospel quotes, that text, that same through a leader of the Jews. Not all of the Jews. Does that mean that he is speaking on behalf of all the Jewish people? I don’t think so,” says Father Alexei.
Rabbi Jacobs disliked the portrayal of the crucifixion in the film due to Gibson relying on a source that was an 18th Century anti-Semitic nun. Another problematic element of the film for Jacobs is it’s opening usage of the passage of Isaiah. Jacobs stated how the New Testament is misleading and suggests that Jesus was born to a virgin. The rabbi said that the original Hebrew of that verse uses the word, alma. Alma means a young woman. It does not mean a virgin. The rabbi indicated that when something is translated into a language and then translated into another language, it’s very likely to misinterpret the original meaning. “If you see it in print you believe that. That’s the way history is about. It’s the way you see the Bible, you see the Testament written in a particular kind of way,” said Jacobs. The rabbi said that such sources and scriptures need to be put into perspective. Jacobs mentions that in Jewish tradition it is called mid-Rush. A section is taken and elaborated on to create stories around it. “You have to understand what (gospel) writers did,” said Jacobs. “They weren’t there.” Rabbi Jacobs said that Mel Gibson is entitled to tell his version of the story of Christ.
Rabbi Jacobs talked about how it’s difficult to escape the anti-Semitism that comes out of Gibson’s father’s mouth. Jacobs talked about how Mel Gibson responded in the interview with Diane Sawyer. “I don’t think I’d say ‘Let’s not go there.’ I would say that my father has his own thoughts. I do not share them. I think that that would have gone a long way,” said Jacobs. The rabbi added, “You cannot visit the sins of the parents upon the children. That’s that line from Isaiah. It’s removed. By the way, it’s removed in English about visiting the blood and the children. It’s not removed in the Aramaic. In the countries in which it will be seen that will have an even greater impact.”
The rabbi thinks that Mel is angry with certain people in the Jewish community. Rabbi Jacobs said that he would have waited and would not have had Jews say anything about the movie. Although Gibson didn’t preview the film for Jews, he didn’t let Jews in. Jacob’s criticism of Gibson is that in the movie and about Jesus because Jesus was there to tell the truth. According to Jacobs, Mel Gibson didn’t adhere to that. Gibson didn’t let people, especially Jews, in to the movie for preview screenings.
Father Alexei added that Mel Gibson rejects certain teachings of Vatican II. The Father said that Gibson rejects the teaching of Nos Aetate. Alexei mentioned that Gibson built two chapels in the cities of Agoura and Malibu. Alexei said that he works at the Cardinal’s office and hears the switchboard operators handling calls from people wanting to know the address of these churches. Father Alexei said that these churches are not recognized by the Archdiocese and they inform those callers where their Roman Catholic parish in Malibu, Our Lady of Malibu, is located. Alexei added that his church was not pushing anyone there. “We are in fact by saying that telling them they are not ordained by the Archdiocese. It’s sad that some of our people don’t accept it,” said Alexei. “We pray for everyone, but to these people in particular that they might open themselves up.”
Jacobs added that Gibson’s got to come to terms with his faith and what the differences are about. Rabbi Jacobs believes that people follow certain patterns in their lives. Jacobs’ feeling is that Mel Gibson was troubled and identified strongly with his own guilt and his own pattern. He also believes that the scene in which Gibson’s hand is the actually hand that puts the nails into Jesus has a great deal to do with Gibson’s past. “People can be very critical of me because I follow certain patterns in my life. I’m very involved in political activity because I believe religion and politics go hand in hand. I believe in change. If you believe in God of the status quo, that’s a political position. It kind of relocates religion to being an ambulance chaser, I guess. I really believe in a prosthetic faith. I believe in a good deal of what Jesus had to say of the gospels, of what I know about Jesus,” said the rabbi.
Jacobs thinks that it would have made the movie experience that much better. Jacobs would not have let his Catholic friends stand up and talk about the movie and not make it a Jewish-Christian connotation. Jacobs believes that including Jews earlier on would have prevented the film from appearing to be anti-Semitic and Jews that did get to see preview screenings may not have jumped the anti-Semitic bandwagon.
Sam Rubin asked the Rabbi and the Father if people were better off with or without the movie.
“In the beginning I felt very uncomfortable and I wished that it not been produced. I was concerned that part of the fabric that we built together would be desecrated,” said Rabbi Jacobs. Although he seems to remain upset about certain elements in “Passion,” Jacobs realizes the great opportunity for interfaith communities to discuss the film with each other. The rabbi says that it’s easy to talk about truths within your own congregation, but it’s very difficult to discuss truths with other communities of different faiths. “I’m involved in the interfaith world, but I’ve never had so many invitations since the movie has come out. It is a time to speak truths. And for people who have grown up on the gospels or who really don’t understand their Christian religion to understand how Jews feel about this movie. So I’m pleased. I’m pleased now. In the beginning I was not,” says Rabbi Jacobs.
Father Alexei mentions how the film has caused him a great deal of work, but he looks at that work as a “golden opportunity” and that he and the rabbi brought together a large amount of people that wouldn’t have had that opportunity before. Father Alexei says that the opportunity reminds people to learn about other faiths. “What the archdiocese and I share a number of inter-faith dialogues with the Buddists, for example, with the Hindus. Imagine this film was the hot topic in our dialogue sessions. They wanted to know what it was all about. They wanted to know what the controversy was or to raise their awareness of where the Jews are coming from,” says the Father who adds how the Buddhists also wanted to know where the church was coming from.
“My initial anger gave way to something else. There’s a part of me that wants to invite Mel Gibson not in any patronizing kind of way to come and to dialogue with me in the synagogue. Let him do it in the synagogue. I would like that,” said Jacobs.
The rabbi then mentions that this is the positive side of the outcome of the film. “This is an opportunity for us to begin, for Jews to begin, not only to understand our own tradition, but to understand what Christians believe,” says Jacobs.
“I have over these few weeks, emerged in a way in which I wanted to communicate about the goodness of our lives together and even when we differ be able to understand the film that I saw as a Jew and the film that you saw as a Catholic, as a Christian. That’s the way we move ahead in this world,” says Jacobs.
Rabbi reads a memo by another rabbi colleague of his that really inspired him. “I was moved by Jesus’ forgiveness of his tormentors and by the way he saw himself and his fame as fulfilling God’s plan for the world. As a Jew this plan is not what I understand God to desire for the world, but this is a Christian movie, Jesus’ forgiveness and gentleness was profound. There was strength in Jesus’ knowing submission to the word of God.”
Rabbi Jacobs interrupted reading the memo to remind the audience that this memo is from a rabbi. “I was also moved by the portrayal of the people closest to him…And they suffered with him as he suffered. They cleaned up his blood. They accompanied him to his crucifixion. After all have left they waited there until he died. Jesus’ suffering repelled them as anyone would be repelled to see their loved one in pain, but they bore him witness. You could feel them wanting to escape or flee. But they would not leave Jesus alone. That was moving to me and that would be moving to anyone.”
Rabbi Jacobs said, “We can learn from each other because ultimately that’s what this film is about. I think the only way we’re going to make it is by understanding one another. There are more of our similarities than our differences.”
Discussion group with Rabbi Jacobs and Father Alexei and Sam Rubin of KTLA at Sportsmen’s Lodge April 22, 2004 – Sponsored by Bella Vita. Discussion group with Rabbi Jacobs at Blessed Sacrament Church March 31, 2004 Discussion group with Rabbi Jacobs at Kol Tikvah March 3, 2004