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Sunday, February 29, 2004

Should Jews see Mel's movie?

"Ein gozrin al ha-tzibbur elah im rov tizibbur yecholin la-amod baw . . . "
a rabbi should not offer a judgment that most people are not going to follow
So now, I have an answer to those who asked: should a Jew see this movie? And in giving my answer, I suspect I will be violating a rabbinic dictate which teaches, "Ein gozrin gezeirah al ha-tzibbur elah im rov tzibbur yecholin la-amod baw ...," that a rabbi should not offer a judgment that most people are not going to follow. I know that many of you are going to see the movie; if only out of curiosity or to see what everyone is talking about. Despite that, I still have to tell you, when asked if a Jew should see this movie, my answer is: No! Why should you?

First of all, you know the end! Who goes to a movie that they already know the end to?

Second, the end is: someone dies and the Jews are blamed. "Same old, same old." That same story has been repeated so many times, in so many different ways; how many times can you watch it and still be interested?

Third, Mel Gibson made the movie available for advanced viewing for selected groups across the country. "Selected" meaning Christians, but not Jews! If we weren't allowed in when it was shown for free, why pay now? Is it only Jewish money that counts and not our opinion?

Fourth, a Jew shouldn't see this movie because I don't think it is a very good movie. And many movie critics agree.

The Baltimore Sun movie critic compared it to "The Exorcist," labeling it "just a religious exploitation film." The New York Times writes, "This film seems to arise less from love than from wrath, and to succeed more in assaulting the spirit than in uplifting it." New Yorker Magazine's David Denby, called the movie "one of the cruelest movies in the history of cinema; a sickening death trip." So, what's in it for a Jew?

It certainly is not entertaining and, in fact, it is not really educational. You learn nothing about Jesus' Jewish roots or why some Jews considered him the Messiah, while most didn't. All you will learn as a Jew is that the fat High Priest and the vengeful, blood-thirsty Jewish mob insisted on his death! Which brings us to the next reason for Jews not seeing the movie:

The movie is a little hazardous to our health. More people are going to get their impression of what happened in Jesus' last hours from this movie than perhaps all the other movies and plays about this topic over the centuries, combined! What they are going to see certainly doesn't make the Jews look good; quite the contrary, it goes out of its way to make us look bad. And many Christian organizations are already planning to use the movie as a missionary tool to get people to convert to Christianity. I have this brochure which offers for sale Passion post-cards, Passion color banners, Passion door hangers, Passion impact cards labeling the movie, "Perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2000 years." If that be the case, you tell me why a Jew should see it?

And besides, the movie you're going to see is a very different movie from what a Christian is going to see. Christians are going to see their Lord tortured, killed and resurrected. For Christians this will be an inspiring experience. Jews are going to see why we've been presented as "Christ killers," a label that has caused us unimaginable pain and agony for 2000 years.

And this leads to what is perhaps the most important reason that a Jew should not see this movie. More than a Jewish problem, this movie is a Christian problem. In making this movie, Mel Gibson was not simply attacking the Jews of 2000 years ago, he was attacking his own church of today. The very making of this movie runs counter to what the Catholic Church stands for today. Stories of the Passion are nothing new. Passion plays and music, most certainly contributed to anti-Semitism down through the ages, depicting Jews as evil killers of God. After the Holocaust, the second Vatican Council came to the realization that these portrayals must end once and for all.

In 1997, Pope John Paul II said that "erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability (for the crucifixion) have circulated for too long, rendering feelings of hostility toward this people." The Pope recognized what Passion plays have led to, and has encouraged Catholics to revise and reconsider such presentations. And the presentation that was considered the worst of all -the Passion play at Omerammergau - which Hitler praised, presented a revised version several years ago. Indeed, New York's Cardinal Edward Egan found it necessary this week to write a letter to be read tomorrow in all the churches in his diocese about the movie, warning that "one may legitimately question whether such a representation exceeds the limits of propriety, good taste or artistic authenticity."

So why doesn't Mel Gibson, a good Roman Catholic, listen to his own Pope? Because he is part of a conservative branch of Catholicism that doesn't accept the Pope; he doesn't accept the changes made by the second Vatican Council. Rather, he sees things from his own distorted perspective.

I don't want to tell you too much about the movie because it has given me enough sermon material to last me a year. But for now let me just give you one example of what I mean. Mel Gibson's version of The Passion is "R" rated, because of the violence it has in it. Now you know, in our day and age, to get an "R" rating because of violence ... you gotta have a lot of violence! And this movie most certainly has it; with everything ranging from, as one critic put it, the Jewish priests "spit, slap and verbally abuse him (Jesus)," to Jewish guards of the High Priest "brutally beating Jesus, at one point throw him over a bridge where he is seen dangling by his chains and then yanked back up by the brutish guards." It's violent. It's brutal. It certainly makes the Jews seem a bit barbaric. The only problem is, the scene depicted is not found in the New Testament.

It's based on a vision of 19th century mystic nun, Ann Catherine Emmerich, who labeled Jesus' death "the crime of the Jews." Mel Gibson had a lot of ways in which he could have depicted this scene. He chose the way that now goes against his church's own teachings; a way that makes the Jews look as bad as possible. Whenever there is a historic doubt about what happened to Jesus, Gibson never gives the Jews the benefit of the doubt! This and much more led the movie critic of the New York Daily News to describe the movie as being "the most virulently anti-Semitic movie since the German propaganda films of WW II. It is sickening ..."

Does that mean that Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite? I really don't know, and to tell you the truth, I really don't care. One more - or one less - is not going to make much of a difference in this world. Does he think all Jews are going to go to hell? He thinks his own wife, who is a Protestant, is going to go to hell! If she can put up with him ... so can I! Is his father an anti-Semite? Well, he considers the Second Vatican Council "a Masonic Jewish plot." And as to the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, well, they are alive and well and living in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Does this make him an anti-Semite? Absolutely! If not him, then who? He is an emesdicker, Holocaust denying, anti-Semite. Like father, like son? Look at me and Jonathan; both "theologians!"

How Christians are going to handle this movie remains to be seen. It will put to test a lot of the good will that has been established by way of Interfaith relations since the second Vatican Council. Christians are going to have to deal with this movie. We Jews? If anything, I think we've already spent too much time and money dealing with it, leaving many Jews with the impression that after people see this movie, they're going to run out of the theatre and crucify every Jew they can get their hands on. But that's not the world in which we live. And it's important for us to remember that.

Sometimes we are so focused on the threats of anti-Semitism that we overlook the true gospel. The word "gospel" means "the good news." And while Jewish agencies have been so focused on the possible negative fallout from Gibson's movie, there has been lots of good news for the Jews in recent weeks. It begins right with my having seen the movie. Who did I see it with? I was invited by the Institute for Christian/Jewish Studies; a group specifically dedicated to improving relations between Christians and Jews. My father didn't live in a world that had such organizations. But it's much more than that. In recent weeks, as Joseph Aaron pointed out in a column in the Chicago Jewish Times:
- - France announced that it will provide more than $18 million to beef up security at Jewish institutions. Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin announced that during a meeting of his new Cabinet committee on anti-Semitism. President Chirac warmly greeted Israel's President Katsav.

- - Malaysia's former Prime Minister called for greater tolerance between Muslims and non-Muslims. Yes, this is the same nut who said Jews run the world. That got all kinds of play in the Jewish community. But now he says, "Muslims should accept other people's religions." How come we don't pay attention to that? Why isn't that as significant, if not more?

- - A controversial Canadian Indian leader was rejected as a candidate for a national committee because of a remark he made last year praising Hitler.

- - Thirty countries have written to the International Court of Justice opposing a hearing on Israel's West Bank security fence. The U.S., the European Union, Canada, Russia and South Africa are among the countries that opposed this week's hearing at the International Court of Justice.

- - European Commission President Romano Prodi proposed that the European Union adopt an annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. "The memory of the Shoah," he said, "a unique and unprecedented tragedy, is a universal value."

- - A new poll shows that 73% of Americans oppose U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
Were any of you aware of any of this? No, we've been too focused on a movie; overlooking the fact that the world depicted in the movie and the world in which we're living is very different. Sure, there is anti-Semitism in the world, plenty of it! But in Jesus' time the government was against us. The government that killed Jesus killed tens of thousands of Jews as well. Today, the governments are not where the anti-Semites are. The governments are punishing the anti-Semites. Not enough! There's still a long way to go, but let us not lose sight of the fact.

Last Monday we ushered in the month of Adar. Yes, it was the 20th anniversary of my father's death, but it has a very happy side to it as well, for we are told, "M'shnichnas Adar marbim b'simcha - when the month of Adar arrives our joy increases." For Christians, this is a solemn, ascetic season; a season that began with Ash Wednesday, the day on which Mel Gibson chose to unveil his movie, and continues with Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But for us, this is a good time of the year; a time for rejoicing and celebrating. If ever there's a time of year when a movie that can do us harm should come out, it is now. Now, when we prepare to celebrate Purim and Pesach. Now, when we are reminded, "sheb'chol dor v'dor omdim aleinu l'chaleisenu." In every generation there have been Gibsons; if not the son, then surely the father - those who would love to see us destroyed.

"V'Hakodosh borchu matzeilinu miyodom - but Almighty God redeems us from their hands." That's the greatest story ever told. And for that "Modim anachnu loch ... we give thanks to Thee, O Lord." Amen.
(c) copyright 2004 by Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. Subscribe to this Baltimore rabbi's sermon e-mail list; I did.