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Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" – Before the Fact
Feb. 20, 2004
© Rabbi Jack Moline

First introduction.

In the year 70 of the Common Era, the second Temple was destroyed by Rome. Jewish life persisted in the Holy Land, but the magnificent city of Jerusalem lay in ruins. Three rabbis of renown, says the midrash, burst into tears when they saw a jackal scamper from among the fallen stones of the holy precincts.

In fact, if you visit the western wall of the Temple Mount today, you can see huge Herodian blocks fallen on the paved street below. If you walk through the passageway alongside that wall, you can touch the ash from the fire set by the Romans that burned the Temple.

A generation later, we are told, the rabbis who sought to preserve the spirit of the Temple were forbidden to teach Torah by the Roman authorities. Many of them defied the ban. Our Yom Kippur liturgy recounts the deaths they suffered – one was decapitated, one had his skin flayed, one was wrapped in a Torah scroll and set afire, his heart covered with tufts of wet wool to prolong his pain. One was pierced with three hundred lances; one was tied by his hair to a horse and dragged through the streets, after which his body was dismembered.

The midrash teaches: Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai once was walking with his disciple Rabbi Joshua near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua looked at the Temple ruins and said: “Woe is us! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel [through animal sacrifice] lies in ruins!” Then Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai spoke these words of comfort: “Be not grieved my on. There is another way of gaining atonement even though the Temple is destroyed. We must now gain atonement through deeds of lovingkindness.” As it is written, “Lovingkindness I desire, not sacrifice.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 11a)

Second introduction.

Elie Wiesel writes of his time in Auschwitz, during those dark years when Europe went mad and a German dictator exploited the fears and hatred of the German people and turned them into a nation of murderers.

“On day when we came from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains – and one of them a young boy, a sad-eyed angel.

“The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. ‘Long live liberty!’ cried the two adults. But the child was silent…At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs were tipped over…

“Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive…For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed.

“Behind me I heard a man asking, ‘Where is God now?’

“And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging on this gallow…’”

It is hard to imagine emerging from such a world, such an alternate universe and ever reclaiming a sense of faith and optimism. Yet, we know one of the six million, a young girl who hid from her German pursuers, but eventually died of typhus in Auschwitz, left behind this legacy during the years of her deprivation and fear.

Anne Frank wrote:

“It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

The rest of the sermon.

I wish I could have Rabbi Yochanan’s natural insight. I wish that I could have Anne Frank’s optimism. But the fact of the matter is, when I hear the stories of the destruction of the Temple and the rabbinic martyrs, or when I envision the destruction of European Jewry and the children crushed and discarded, hatred wells up within me. As far as I am concerned, Rome got what it deserved as it spiraled into decline and fall. The eventual misery that was the Roman Empire gives me, a Jew, satisfaction when I contemplate that the progeny of those martyred rabbis study the history of an extinct power. And as for the Germans, a pox on all of them. How could they not have a conscience when their neighbors were legislated out of society and carted away, their possessions distributed among the Aryans, their homes occupied by squatters? And the Poles – I spit on them as well. The stench of burning flesh, the screams of thousands, the sight of barbed wire and smoke stacks – what did they think was going on when a third of the population of the country disappeared?

Gladiators in chariots remind me of Pharaoh at the sea. The sound of the German language is as endearing as the bark of a German shepherd. I roll my eyes when I hear of the magnificence of Roman society, with its sophisticated laws and culture, especially when I remember that it was a slave society that valued debauchery and excess. I stiffen when Wagner or Nietzsche is heralded as a genius, or even when an unquestionably loyal American with an Austrian accent is elected to public office.

Am I a bigot? Am I disloyal to the teachings of my tradition, to make lovingkindess the act of devotion to God, to see the goodness of people in spite of it all? And why must we the Jews, why must I the Jew tell the story of Roman atrocities before I can convey the message of compassion? Why must we the Jews, why must I the Jew recount the agony of German atrocities before I can affirm the possibilities of the humanity? Why must I break my heart and your heart before I can affirm my heart and your heart?

Answer those questions and you can view Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” through the eyes with which it was made. For Christians, particularly Christians who take seriously the narrative of Christian Scripture, the message to be conveyed to humanity is the power of God’s love and grace. It is a message that seems to be at odds with the suffering of the man who taught that lesson, Jesus of Nazareth. And it seems peculiar to us that such a powerfully affirming message of embrace and acceptance would be expressed in a context of violence and death, filled with recrimination and anger.

Why must a person filled with love and belief immerse himself or herself in blood and tears?

There is an answer. It may be more evident to us as the generation after the Holocaust than it is as the heirs to the legacy of the destruction of the Temple, but it is true in each case.

Both the Sho’ah and the Churban were cataclysms of unimaginable proportions for the people of their day. You have heard story after story of families destroyed, children orphaned, parents bereaved, communities decimated. The detritus of destruction is on display on the streets of Jerusalem and in the killing fields of Poland. But we who tell the stories and learn the lessons are not the victims. We are not Elie Wiesel. We are not Rabbi Akiva. By what authority do we dare to teach “Lovingkindness I desire, and not sacrifice?” By what authority do we dare use the phrase “in spite of everything?”

We must find a way to look upon the horror and thereby shed the tears. We must find a way to make the suffering our own in some symbolic way so that we dare speak the lesson we do not have the chutzpah to claim as our own.

In the process, we run the risk of tearing a scab off an old wound. And if the wound that has tried to heal is reopened, the infection of hatred and anger that is beneath the surface is exposed again. How can we look at the child on the gallows and not hate the person who hung him there? And yet, how can we teach “in spite of everything” if we do not know what that “everything” is?

For devoted Christians, like devoted Jews, this dilemma presents itself. How can one speak of the grace and love of God for a suffering humanity if one does not look at the face of suffering that inspired that grace and love? As Mel Gibson himself said, “pain is the prelude to change,” and a change of heart is what the lesson of the Passion is all about.

But I am not a Christian, and so I do not look at the story of the death of Jesus as a metaphor for humanity redeemed. I am a Jew. The role played by the Romans in the destruction of the Temple and the role played by the Germans in the Holocaust is played by the Jews in this particular version of the Passion. It is reasonable for me – as someone who knows how this story goes – to worry that I will be expected to be ashamed and bear the burden of this monumental suffering caused by a crowd chanting “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

If I must learn to understand the need of a Christian to revisit the Passion because I know how much I need to revisit the Churban and the Sho’ah, then Christians must understand the fear I feel as a Jew when placed in the role that the Romans – ancestors of the Roman Catholic Church – and Germans – descendants of the teachers of the Passion played in those disasters.

Maybe if I stopped here I would have made my point. But I must go one step farther. Because I have misdirected your attention on purpose, and it is time to ‘fess up.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai indeed lived after the Temple was destroyed, but never knew of the rabbinic martyrs and the tortuous death they endured. He visited the destroyed Temple, but he lived in relative peace in Yavneh, then a day’s journey away. His lesson on lovingkindness was not a remarkable response to the cruelty of Rome against Torah teachers. I just made it sound that way.

Anne Frank was sent to Auschwitz and died in a concentration camp well after she wrote her optimistic insight. Who knows if she would have held onto her belief in spite of everything if everything included the vision of Elie Wiesel she could not have imagined? But I made it sound that way.

There are four different versions of the death of Jesus in Christian Scripture, and not a one of them goes into the detail that the film will depict. The lessons of love and grace taught by Jesus in his lifetime were tested on the cross, but not invented on the cross. His teachings are all the more remarkable for the story of his death, but that story was not recorded until long after his death, and those lessons in relation to the crucifixion were told by people who, like me, played fast and loose with chronology.

They are no less important for that piece of information, but neither are they to be taken as, well, gospel. And if I bemoan anything at all about Mel Gibson’s film before I have seen it, it is this: people will forget that it is a movie and not a documentary. It is midrash on midrash, it is not journalism. It is the story of one man’s religious conversion – a man who is first of all an actor and not at all a theologian, who had a spare $30 million dollars to create a record of what billions of Christians can only picture in their minds.

Do not fear this movie. There will be no angry mob streaming from the theater with torches to burn down the synagogue. We are in far greater danger from the government of France than we are from Mel Gibson. If you go to see it – as I will this week – watch it, as everyone should with two sets of lenses. Watch it as victim. Watch it as perpetrator.

And here is the only observation about the movie itself I feel confident to make until I have seen the actual movie. The book was better.

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