Rabbi backs Gibson's `Passion'

Use film to teach, he advises Jews

November 19, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

Few films have generated as much controversy before audiences have seen it as Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ.

Jewish leaders began criticizing the movie months ago, saying it contains "dangerous" teachings that blame Jews for the death of Christ - a centuries-old charge the Vatican formally disavowed nearly four decades ago.

"The Jews are the heavies in these medieval Passion plays over and over again," Rabbi A. James Rudin told an interfaith group gathered in Baltimore yesterday.

FOR THE RECORD - A headline in yesterday's Today section incorrectly characterized Rabbi A. James Rudin's reaction to Mel Gibson's film The Passion of Christ. Though he advised Jewish leaders not to boycott it, Rudin did not give the film his blessing and criticized its portrayal of Jews. He urged Jewish leaders to use the movie as "a teachable moment" for Christians and Jews alike on how the story of Christ's death has been "used and abused" to fuel anti-Semitism.

But Rudin - one of the few people who has seen a rough cut of the film - advised Jewish leaders not to boycott the movie. Instead, he says, they should use it to teach people how the story of Christ's death has been manipulated to fire virulent anti-Semitism.

"Use this movie in what we call a teachable moment to bring together Jews and Christians to look at the whole story of how the Passion has been used and abused," said Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior adviser on interreligious affairs.

Rudin spoke to about 65 Jewish leaders and Christian clergy at a luncheon at the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. The event was organized by the American Jewish Committee, an international organization that combats anti-Semitism and promotes interfaith relations.

The Passion of Christ, directed by Gibson and financed with at least $25 million of his own money, is the latest in a long line of Passion plays, which depict the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The movie is scheduled for release on Ash Wednesday next year, which falls on Feb. 25.

The film, starring Jim Caviezel and Monica Bellucci, is in Latin and Aramaic with English subtitles. It was shot in Italy and, by all accounts, is quite bloody. Not since Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988 has a movie generated so much controversy before its release.

The debate erupted last summer when religious scholars read a bootleg screenplay and complained that the film would reinforce the notion that Jews were collectively guilty for Christ's death. Gibson soon returned the fire, accusing critics of stealing his screenplay and threatening a lawsuit.

In August, Gibson screened a 1 hour and 50-minute rough cut for about 100 religious leaders, including Rudin. The screening left some Catholics in tears, while many Jews remained uneasy, Rudin said. Some religious leaders have asked Gibson to confer with scholars and make changes to the film, but Gibson has refused.

The problem with Gibson's The Passion, says Rudin, is that it presents Jews in the worst possible light. Like the medieval Passion plays before, he says, it takes the most negative references from the accounts of Christ's death in the Gospels and weaves them into an indictment.

For example, Rudin says:

The crowd surrounding Christ is portrayed as a bloodthirsty Jewish mob, while the Gospels never give a sense of its size or how many people actually opposed Christ's teachings.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman consul who ordered Christ's death, is portrayed as a befuddled pawn of the Jewish establishment. "He's sort of a `Hamlet,' he's indecisive," Rudin says. In fact, Rudin says, Pilate was so ruthless that Rome recalled him because he was killing too many people.

The Vatican renounced teachings that blamed Jews for Christ's death in 1965. "True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ," Pope Paul VI wrote. "Still what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today."

In 1988, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued guidelines for staging the Passion and forbade shifting responsibility for Christ's death from human sin to the Jews. Among those who helped draft the guidelines was Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler, then the archbishop of Harrisburg, Pa.

None of this is likely to influence Gibson, an ultraconservative Catholic who rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Passion Plays first emerged in the 12th and 13th centuries as a popular entertainment in Spain, Italy and Germany, providing illiterate masses with a dramatic rendering of Christ's death. They also provided some Christian leaders with an opportunity to undermine Judaism.

"Many Christian leaders taught that Jews and their `discredited' religion must be treated with anger, contempt and rage, and all of this was played out on Passion play stages," says Rudin. "It's a clear case of scapegoating."

In modern times, Passion plays have included the musical and film Jesus Christ Superstar and Scorcese's Last Temptation.

While many Jews are concerned that Gibson's film could be used to justify anti-Semitism, some think that Jewish leaders may be giving it too much attention. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, says the criticisms may generate more attention than the film deserves - and could spark charges that Jewish leaders are trying to deny civil liberties and the freedom of Christians to express their faith.

Eckstein also said says that at a time when terrorists are blowing up synagogues in Turkey and Jews face anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East, the response to Gibson's film may be disproportionate to the threat.

"It's taking out your big guns and tanks and planes to fight the last war, when that war has pretty much been won worldwide among Christians," said Eckstein in a phone interview from his home in Israel.

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