By Tuvia Abramson, Hillel Executive Director, Penn State Hillel
Last Monday evening, I invited an Argentinean Jewish couple to have dinner at my house. I told them that I was writing an editorial on the movie, "The Passion." During our conversation, they told me that all their lives when they lived in Argentina, they were called "Jesus killers." Upon hearing their story, I decided that this editorial should be written like an open letter to the Christian community.
I am writing this article two weeks after seeing the movie. It is written with only one goal in mind – to explain to my Christian friends my feelings about the movie. Please continue reading, even if you disagree with some of my opinions. It is important for me to try to convey to you my feelings as a Jewish person.
We all went to the same movie but what I saw was totally different from what you saw. What I felt was probably different from what you felt. If any good can come from this movie, it can come only if we build bridges, not increase the gap. My attempt here, is to begin to build that bridge.
Lights out. The movie begins. For you, it is about the son of God. For me, it is about a Jewish man. We start these two hours of watching the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, according to Gibson, from totally different assumptions. You know one story and I know another and we both believe that "we" know the truth. As the movie progresses, the gap between these two assumptions becomes bigger and clearer.
Christians see the source of their faith, the source of good and forgiveness. I see the source of hate and destruction, the beginning of "blood libel" and the definition of Jews as "killers of the Messiah." From the first scene when money changes hands, through the betrayal, the torture and the crucifixion, we see the Jews (all Jews) as ugly creatures who betray, who laugh, who spit, kick – we see them as a mob without values. Their leaders are corrupt and ruthless and they, not the Romans, are ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus. In this movie, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, is presented as humane and as a protector of Jesus.
I was sitting in a comfortable seat in a climate controlled room watching horror on the screen. How a good man was being tortured minute by minute…more blood, more violence and more ugly Jews. The Jews are presented as hooligans who throw a shackled Jesus over a bridge. I had to take a break. I stood up. The pastor, who sat next to me and with whom I spoke before the movie began about my hatred of violence, gave me a supportive pat on the back.
The night outside was cold. The air was fresh and pure. No violence. All is calm. I looked at the stars and wondered. According to Judaism, we are all born pure. We humans are given the choice to choose between good and evil. It is our choice as to how to live our lives. In the movie, it seems that none of us have chosen to be good. In Judaism, if we make mistakes, we have to ask for forgiveness, first from the people we have offended and then from God. Nobody, nobody, should die for our sins. Our sins are our responsibility and we must change our ways, accordingly.
I looked at two middle-aged men sitting by the ticket office of the theater. I asked them for a cold drink. I needed something to crush the fire that was burning inside me. I was angry and I needed to talk to anyone, anyone please… I told these two men how much I was bothered by the violence in the movie. They nodded their heads. Yes, they said. They had seen the movie. They said it is "cruel but all true and is based on historical facts."
I challenged them.
I told them that I will be writing an article about the movie from the Jewish point of view. I explained that I researched and read hundreds of pages before coming to see the images on the screen. Then I proceeded to tell them that most historians do not accuse the Jews, but the Romans, for the death of Jesus. The way Jesus was killed, by crucifixion, was the way the Roman court executed political prisoners. And thousands and thousands of other Jews were also crucified by the orders of Pontius Pilate, who according to historical facts was a cruel, sadistic murderer with total control over the lives of the Jews. Historically, he was not a "good human being" as portrayed in the movie.
One man, who sat next to the door, responded by saying that he is not an expert and really does not know much about that period in history. The second man looked at me and said, "I have seen this movie. It's a great movie. I believe it is all true." Then he added, "But don't worry. I'm Christian and I have forgiven you (the Jews) for the death of the 'son of God'." "Jesus," he added, "died for our sins, yours and mine."
I was quiet for a moment, trying to control my anger. And then I responded. "You have it all wrong. It is we, the Jews, who should forgive many Christians for 2000 years of torture and death that eventually led to the Holocaust. For you, this is a turning point – the birth and death of Jesus was the birth of a new faith. For us, it was the beginning of suffering. For the last two thousand years, as a result of the "blood libel," the followers of Jesus mounted ongoing attacks on the Jewish communities throughout the world. Jesus' death, for us, was the opening page of death and suffering. It did not bring us new faith. It did not bring us new values. It brought destruction to the lives of many Jews and many Jewish communities throughout the world.
I returned to my seat in the theater. The pastor on my right squeezed my hand as to say, "Welcome back." The horror on the screen continued. Jesus was carrying the cross and continuously being beaten by the Jewish mob and the Roman soldiers. The only good Jewish person we see appears. He was forced by the Romans to help Jesus carry the cross. Scene by scene, play by play, Gibson shows us the suffering of Jesus. But it is not a real suffering. It is not real blood. It is all artificial. It was not filmed in Jerusalem but in Europe. It is a movie where the director chose to show us his interpretation of the suffering of Jesus, his interpretation of "history" and his interpretation of the evil of the Jews.
The movie progresses. I look all around me. Hundreds of church-goers, religious leaders and children are watching. The climax of the movie arrives. Jesus is nailed to the cross. I saw Mel Gibson's hand hammering the first nail. I had had enough -- the staging of so much violence and the defamation of the Jews. I got up and left the theater.
It is important to overcome the hatred which people feel when they see so much violence in a movie based on someone else's interpretation of history. Hatred against the Jews is not only because of the death of Jesus, but because the Jews have not accepted Christianity as their faith, as the Romans have. Nobody ridicules and tortures them. In the beginning of this article, I wrote about building bridges. Building bridges needs the cooperation from both sides. The foundation of the bridge must be built on Christianity's acceptance of Judaism as an equal partner, not as somebody who needs to be shown the "right way." Do you want to build a bridge? What about acceptance, respect and trust as the foundation?