by Rabbi Benjamin Blech, from Aish Hatorah Resources, www.aish.com
His latest lethal weapon? Mel’s film promises spiritual inspiration but
instead evokes the kind of rage that for centuries past resulted in ruthless acts
Soon we’ll find out who is more powerful, Mel Gibson or Pope John XXIII.
Shortly before his death in 1963, the spiritual leader of Catholics round the
world composed this prayer: “We realize that our brows are branded with the
mark of Cain. Centuries long has Abel lain in blood and tears because we have
forgotten Thy love. Forgive us the curse which we unjustly laid on the name of
the Jews. Forgive us, that with our curse, we crucified Thee a second time.”
It was an awesome admission that reversed almost 2000 years of unjustifiable
hatred. Christian anti-Semitism, rationalized as fitting punishment for the
Jews guilty of the heinous crime of deicide, killers of Christ, was officially
declared “a great sin against humanity.” Jews dared to hope that the
distortions of ancient history which prompted Crusades, pogroms and perhaps — as many
scholars suggest — even the world’s silence during the Holocaust, were finally
put to rest in the dustbin of grievously outdated theological errors.
How strange then to now have the 21st century witness the re-birth of a
monumental lie. What the Pope declared a sin, Mel Gibson has resurrected as the
definitive story of the death of Jesus. Once again the world is told that it was
the fault of “the perfidious Jews.” In a movie that reeks with gruesome
violence unbearable even by Hollywood standards, “The Passion of the Christ” weaves
the contradictory threads of the Gospels’ accounts describing the last hours
of the life of Jesus into a tale that portrays a reluctant Pontius Pilate
decreeing crucifixion for “the son of God” at the mad urging of a Jewish mob led by
Caiaphas, the High Priest.
No, according to Gibson it wasn’t the guilt of the Romans. Pontius Pilate, as
the movie sees it, would never have carried out such cruel punishment. Mike
Evans, a Dallas minister and head of the pro-Israel Jerusalem Prayer Team,
suggested to Gibson that he might add a one-sentence message on the screen after
the last scene: “During the Roman occupation, 250,000 Jews were crucified by
the Romans, but only one rose from the dead.” That would make clear to the
average viewer that Jews, just like Jesus, were victims of the same vicious regime.
But so far, that message does not appear. It would detract from the theme
that runs throughout the film.
Rejecting the views of the Second Vatican Council, Gibson holds firm to his
literal interpretation of the Gospels that make Jews the villains of the most
horrendous crime of history: Jews killed God. In one version of the movie, the
Jews utter the line that almost begs for retaliation against them to this day:
“His blood be upon us and our children!” Whether this scene survives the
final cut is still unknown. (It is in fact included in the version shown to
Newsweek’s reviewer.) But Gibson is confident that whatever he decides will be the
will of God. As he’s publicly stated, “The Holy Ghost was working through me on
this film.” And surely not even the healing words of Pope John XXIII can
override a harmful conflicting message to Gibson directly from the Almighty
Keep in mind, this is from the man who admitted to saying about New York
Times columnist Frank Rich, who was critical about his film, “I wanted to kill
him. I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog.”
Most remarkable of all, to my mind, in the storm of controversy surrounding
this film, is that it ought to be even more of a Christian issue than it is a
Jewish problem. After all, it is the latter-day Church itself, through its
spiritual leadership, that addressed this ancient question of Jewish culpability.
The former Pope was courageous enough to acknowledge the Church’s regrettable
role in blaming the blameless. The present Pope, John Paul II, affirmed this
confession as he “recognized Christian responsibility for past wrongs against
Jews throughout history” and, using the Hebrew word tshuvah, “repentance,”
asked for forgiveness.
“The Passion of the Christ” suggests that Hollywood is wiser than His
Holiness. It offers a discredited version of history that is far more fitting for
“13th Century Fox” than a contemporary studio aware of the theology of papal
Those who’ve seen the movie (Full disclosure: I haven’t yet — but I’ve
spoken to several people who did, both Jews and non-Jews, Rabbis and priests. I do
plan on seeing the film once it comes out and will write a follow up article.)
agree that the Romans fare much better than the Jews in their treatment of
Jesus. As J. W. Eagan famously said, “Never judge a book by its movie.” This is
a film that makes the Gospels seem almost tame in their depiction of Jewish
evil. Which is why it’s so irrelevant to ask the question, “Is Mel Gibson really
Those who wonder whether Gibson hates Jews simply don’t get it. It doesn’t
matter. Take Gibson at his word, if you want to, and accept his profession of
friendship. He may like us. But that isn’t the issue. What matters is what the
film is going to accomplish. Simply put, I am told it is almost impossible to
walk out of the theater without hating the villains — and the villains are
clearly identified as Jews.
In a time when religions most need to teach the message of reconciliation, a
film promising spiritual inspiration powerfully evokes the kind of rage that
for centuries past resulted in ruthless acts of retribution.
Passion plays have a history. Jews knew that performances were almost
invariably followed by pogroms. What can we expect after millions of people see this
film? Some Christian leaders are offended by the very notion that this may
have any relevance today. William Donahue, president of the Catholic League for
Civil and Religious Rights, attacks those who express fear of “the unintended
consequences” of the movie’s critical portrayal of the Jews as “pernicious.” So
if Jews suspect that history may be a guide to modern times, if not by way of
old-fashioned pogrom but in more sophisticated contemporary guise, we’re
guilty of over-reacting and, worse, of even suggesting that anti-Semitism can
again get out of hand.
Make no mistake. Movies create mindsets far more than any other medium.
Ingmar Bergman was right. “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and
goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” To
sit in a darkened theater and be enveloped by a larger-than-life screen is to
feel that you are actually experiencing an event rather than just hearing
about it. The Reverend Billy Graham, it’s reported, wept bitterly when he watched
“The Passion of the Christ” — and surely it wasn’t the first time he heard
No passion play of the past could ever have had the emotional power of
actually being present at the Crucifixion — with the added impact of special
effects that have made some viewers scream out in revulsion.
Responding to criticism, Gibson denies his intent is to blame the Jews. “It’s
not singling them out and saying, ‘They did it’. That’s not so. We’re all
culpable. We’re all guilty. We all killed Jesus.”
Let me make clear to Mel Gibson that for myself, I deny any personal
involvement. I didn’t kill Jesus. Neither did my ancestors. Ironic, isn’t it, that the
same Gibson who willingly accepts universal guilt for the crime of deicide
chooses only the Jews to be singled out as the real perpetrators. “We all killed
Jesus,” he claims — but it’s just Jews whom the movie clearly depicts as the
Do Jews have a right to share their concerns with those who choose to believe
in a different version of history? Can Jews object to an ultraconservative
Roman Catholic Hollywood icon producing a movie that reflects his personal bias?
The same freedom of speech that guarantees Gibson the right to make his film
as he sees fit allows us to point out what we find so objectionable.
Gibson speaks in the name of Christianity even as he rejects the explicit
pronouncements of its highest spiritual spokesmen.
Gibson claims he is guided by a desire to promote “love and forgiveness,”
while he stresses a stereotype of Jews that for millennia led to hate and
Gibson publicizes his film as the “historically accurate story” of the last
hours of Jesus when its depiction rests far more on faith than on facts and
includes scenes — like the one showing Jewish guards brutally beating Jesus as
they take him to the High Priest — that have no basis in any New Testament
source. (Some of Gibson’s script is inspired by the visions of two nuns: one in
17th century Spain and the other in 18th century France.)
While the Church has made major strides forward in reaching out to Jews in
reconciliation, “The Passion of Christ” takes a giant leap backwards to vicious
Jew-bashing and stereotyping. As Holocaust memories fade and scholars note the
resurgence of worldwide anti-Semitism, the one thing worse than the
“Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in our times is a mass-marketed appeal to religious
passion against Jews in the guise of the Gospels.
Regrettably, its very notoriety may well make this movie highly popular.
That’s why I pray viewers understand the reason “The Passion of Christ” so
strongly fails as a spiritual message. Not only is it anti-Jewish and indifferent to
the harm it will surely bring in its wake to relations between gentiles and
Jews, it is so profoundly un-Christian.
First of a two-part series. Rabbi Blech’s second installment will discuss his
reactions to seeing the film.