Christians and Jews

RAY JENKINS

March 31, 1991|By RAY JENKINS

Easter and Passover almost always fall near one another, because the two holidays are linked by ancient religious tradition; the Last Supper was, after all, a Passover observance. This year, by vagary of the calendar, the holidays coincide as closely as is ever possible.

Each in its own way is a joyous celebration -- Passover celebrating the deliverance of the ancient Jews from Egyptian slavery, Easter celebrating the deliverance of Christians from the suffering and hardship of this world into the bliss of eternal life. But for all the similarities in origin and purpose, the two holidays also bespeak an ugly rift between Christians and Jews which has existed, to the everlasting grief of Jews, for centuries on end.

Nothing better demonstrates this rift in stark personal terms than a story related this week by Robert P. Bergman, the director of the Walters Art Gallery. When he was a high school student in Bayonne, N.J., in the 1950s, one day a classmate grabbed him by the neck and began banging his head against a wall. Bob Bergman's offense? "You killed Christ," was the sole reason given for the unprovoked attack.

The utter preposterousness of holding a teen-aged Jewish boy responsible for a much-misunderstood event that took place 2,000 years ago is self-evident. And yet the attacker no doubt deeply believed that he was doing God's work. The reason: His religious teaching had given him firm belief that Bob Bergman had, indeed, "killed Christ." At that time, in fact, one of the most solemn incantations in the boy's church made an explicit reference to "the perfidious Jews."

Dr. Bergman related this poignant story a few days ago at a press conference announcing a forthcoming program on religious intolerance in Western culture, to be held at the College of Notre Dame on April 25.

The program, sponsored by the Baltimore-based Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies, will feature presentations and discussions by leading scholars, including Dr. Bergman. The purpose will be to demonstrate how anti-Jewish rhetoric

embedded in Christian writing has subtly pervaded not merely theology but art, music, architecture and, above all, social and political ideology.

The forthcoming dialogue takes an interesting approach to the issue in that the discussion will focus on J.S. Bach's masterpiece, the St. Matthew Passion, which will be performed by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on May 4. This is an appropriate choice for performance, because the St. Matthew Passion is now regarded as being remarkably free of the anti-Jewish sentiment that was as pervasive as air and water when Bach was born a little over 300 years ago.

Indeed, the work, first performed in 1729, represented a significant departure from the work Bach himself had composed just a few years earlier, the St. John Passion. Perhaps the great composer was beset by doubts and wanted to rectify a perceived wrong.

It is scarcely debatable that there are passages in the New Testament which carry an unmistakable ring of anti-Judaism.

Consider, for example, the hefty indictment of Paul as recorded in the New English Bible version of the first letter to the Thessalonians: ". . . the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out, the Jews who are heedless of God's will and enemies of their fellow-men. . . ."

Even Matthew, from which Bach drew the inspiration of his great work, contains a statement which seems to imply ongoing Jewish collective guilt: "His blood be on us, and our children."

It might be contended that such passages -- and many more could be cited -- were written 2,000 years ago by men who were at least ambiguous about their own Jewishness and, hence, their words could be considered to be in the prophetic tradition -- a quarrel within the family, so to speak.

But whatever their original intent, the passages took on different and profoundly sinister meanings as centuries passed, so that in our own time, the historian Raul Hilberg, in his monumental study of the Holocaust, "The Destruction of the European Jews," could write without fear of contradiction:

"The missionaries of Christianity have said in effect: 'You have no right to live among us as Jews.' The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: 'You have no right to live among us.' The German Nazis at last decreed: 'You have no right to live.' The German Nazis, then, did not discard the past; they built upon it. They did not begin a development; they completed it."

That inexorable progression of history cannot be eradicated, but it is possible to understand it, if only to avoid a repetition of the horrors of the past, which is the purpose of the symposium to be held on April 25.

Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

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