"Well," people ask me, "did you finally see the movie?"
The answer is yes -- and no. I went to a showing of "The Passion of the Christ," I watched for as long as I could bear it, and then, when the scenes of sadistic torture began to make me feel physically ill, I closed my eyes. True, I had been duly warned by reviewers that this is no less than "The Goriest Story Ever Told," a Marquis de Sade version of the Gospels; in the words of Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, "a repulsive, masochistic fantasy, a sacred snuff film." And still I was not prepared for what appeared on the screen.
As the movie mercifully came to an end and the lights went on in the theater, the woman seated next to me, a total stranger, turned and asked how I had liked it. I was in no mood for a theological discussion so I simply said I was appalled by the violence. "You must be Jewish," she said.
For a moment I felt complimented. Surely what she meant was that I had reacted by way of my religion's sensitivity and abhorrence of bloodshed. But her anger and the words that followed made me understand the real problem with a film that has already achieved not only unparalleled press but also a veritable cult following. "Jews are always going to find fault," she said, "with a story that tells the truth about our Lord!"
And then I understood. How is it possible for so many to witness graphic images that ensure nightmares -- and happily bring their children along with them? How can an American society that becomes frantic at the momentary sight of indecent exposure at the Super Bowl be so indifferent to the 90-minute display of unimaginable cruelty?
The answer? Americans have profound respect for religion, and the genius of Mel Gibson is that he has marketed this film as a spiritual experience. It masquerades as a sacred work of art, a Hollywood production disguised as the holy wood of the cross. It asks to float above criticism because the theater has become a cathedral and you, the viewer, are privileged -- just like the specially invited guests of evangelicals who were for two months invited to pre-screenings for "the faithful" --- to be witness to the word of God.
Don't be grossed out by the blood and the gore -- or even watching a raven pluck out the eye of the thief on the cross next to Jesus, a scriptwriter's pure fantasy -- because Gibson has successfully made it seem that his Mel O'Drama is nothing less than the Bible and a family outing to this film is as spiritually significant as a Sunday morning church service.
Disagree with any part of "The Passion" and for many you aren't anti-Gibson but anti-God, a non-believer who doesn't deserve the courtesy of a hearing because you're obviously simply a heretic.
But to my mind the most important truth that has to be publicized is that the movie isn't the New Testament, Gibson isn't the voice of God, and the Jews of the film aren't the Jews of church doctrine.
Jewish critics of "The Passion" have to be careful, as some have correctly pointed out, not to edit Christian doctrine. We don't have a right to tell others what to believe. But when Gibson tells Diane Sawyer, "Critics who have a problem with me don't really have a problem with me and this film; they have a problem with the four Gospels" -- well, to put it bluntly, he's not telling the gospel truth. It is Christian scholars who take Gibson to task for manipulating the Gospels he relies upon to tell an incomplete and distorted story; for fabricating events that appear in none of the Gospels and for incorporating as New Testament-verified history the visions of two nuns of the 17th and 18th centuries.
A panel of church leaders, not Jews, (as reported in the New York Times, Feb. 25), said the movie "deviated in bizarre ways from the Gospel accounts…and is numbingly violent." The Rev. Philip Blackwell put it succinctly: "Mel Gibson says it's a literal interpretation. It's not. It's Mel Gibson's interpretation."
And when it comes to the way the movie treats Jews, it's crucial for us to remember that Gibson doesn't have the right or the moral authority to speak for the Church.
What makes the dispute so unnerving, though, is the surfacing hatred that threatens to overwhelm any dialogue.
By now we've got to pretty much agree to disagree on the question of whether "The Passion" is anti-Semitic. The argument rages beyond the assumed biases of viewers. There are Jews who are satisfied with the fact that the Romans are identified as the actual executioners. There are Christians who are disturbed by the portrayal of a Jewish mob demanding Jesus' crucifixion from a supposedly unwilling Pontius Pilate. What makes the dispute so unnerving, though, is the surfacing hatred that threatens to overwhelm any dialogue -- an unfortunate consequence of Gibson's claim to the depiction of truth by virtue of his having had "the help of the Holy Ghost" when he made this film so that whatever he did can't be questioned.
Sister Mary Boys, a professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, who was part of an ad hoc group that was asked to read an early screenplay, publicly warned that it could inflame anti-Semitism. The result? Sister Boys said that not only was Gibson furious but since the group made those criticisms, she and other members have been attacked by supporters of the movie as "anti-Christ, the arrogant gang of so-called scholars, dupes of Satan, forces of Satan and other terms that I cannot use in polite company." Mess with Gibson's version, is the apparent message, and you're messing with God.
But the truth is that the Church is on the side of Sister Boys. For Jews who have used this movie to confirm their conviction that Christians will always hate Jews, Gibson has perpetrated an unforgivable crime that negates one of the most remarkable acts of communal religious repentance in history. The Second Vatican Council acknowledged the sin of the Church for almost 2000 years in blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus. Neither the Jews of that generation or of those to come, they decreed, bear any guilt for deicide. In 1988, the Vatican published Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion, with a list of nine points that any future depictions of Passion Plays are to use as guides. Gibson's movie ignores every one of them.
To blame "the goyim" instead of Gibson is for Jews to ignore progress of incredible import in interfaith relations. Pope John Paul II just welcomed the Chief Rabbi of Israel as "my older brother." He has condemned anti-Semitism as "a sin not only against the Church but against mankind." We are no longer in the age of Christian-approved pogroms or Crusades and we dare not let a "Mel"-evolent lie blind us to a theological turning point of history.
"The Passion" is a movie that ought to give pause to Christians not only because it is unfaithful to Church doctrine. It is pornography that asks to be accepted as inspiration; it is violence in the misplaced service of veneration and love; it is the message of Jesus summarized not by the teachings of his life but by the horrors of his death. As Peter Rainer put it so well, "The real damage will not, I think, be in the realm of Jewish-Christian relations, at least not in this country. Anti-Semites don't need an excuse to be anti-Semites. The damage will be to those who come to believe that Gibson's crimson tide, with its jacked-up excruciations, is synonymous with true religious feeling."
For us that carries an important message as well. Jews who are upset with the movie have concentrated their outcry almost totally on its implicit anti-Semitism. But this New Testament a l? Gibson has another agenda. The production company considers it "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years", and plans to market it worldwide to "the faithless." Soon we will be bombarded by "the good news" of salvation "through the blood of Jesus" for all mankind. "The Passion" is passionately interested in converting those who still don't believe that the crucifixion is our only hope for forgiveness.
"The Passion" doesn't connect with Jews because we reject the very notion that God can be tortured, can scream out in pain, and can die.
Perhaps our best response to this Hollywood missionary effort is to look inward and take pride in the beauty of our own faith. We need to use this as an opportunity to explain that for Jews personal accountability is the real path to heaven; that we do not believe someone can die for our sins, nor that God requires the death of His son to appease Him. At the end of the day, "The Passion" doesn't connect with Jews because we reject the very notion that God can be tortured, can scream out in pain and can die. Not only Christians, but all too many secular Jews still don't get the great theological issues we have with a movie that from a Jewish perspective distorts the definition of God and the relationship we have with Him.
Many years ago I met with Ernest Hemingway. In a remarkably frank conversation, the Pulitzer Prize winner confessed to me that there was something about Judaism that he admired more than any other religion. "From my understanding," he told me, "Judaism, unlike the Christianity in which I was raised, is a religion of life, not a religion of death."
That brilliant insight is what I wish Jews would stress as the ultimate reason why we can't relate to a film that is preoccupied with nine hours of dying. "Choose life" is the cardinal message of our religion. A movie that celebrates death, produced under the Icon Films label, can only make me regret as a Jew that Gibson didn't take to heart the Biblical prohibition of the Second Commandment: "Thou shalt not make for yourself any icons."
For more on "The Passion" see: