I really did not know what to expect. I was thrilled to have been invited to a private viewing of Mel Gibson's film The Passion, but I had also read all the cautious articles and spin. I grew up in a Jewish town and owe much of my own faith journey to the influence. I have a life long, deeply held aversion to anything that might even indirectly encourage any form of anti-Semitic thought, language or actions.
I arrived at the private viewing for The Passion, held in Washington DC and greeted some familiar faces. The environment was typically Washingtonian, with people greeting you with a smile but seeming to look beyond you, having an agenda beyond the words. The film was very briefly introduced, without fanfare, and then the room darkened.
From the gripping opening scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, to the very human and tender portrayal of the earthly ministry of Jesus, through the betrayal, the arrest, the scourging, the way of the cross, the encounter with the thieves, the surrender on the Cross, until the final scene in the empty tomb, this was not simply a movie; it was an encounter, unlike anything I have ever experienced.
In addition to being a masterpiece of film-making and an artistic triumph, The Passion evoked more deep reflection, sorrow and emotional reaction within me than anything since my wedding, my ordination or the birth of my children. Frankly, I will never be the same. When the film concluded, this "invitation only" gathering of "movers and shakers" in Washington, DC were shaking indeed, but this time from sobbing. I am not sure there was a dry eye in the place. The crowd that had been glad-handing before the film was now eerily silent. No one could speak because words were woefully inadequate. We had experienced a kind of art that is a rarity in life, the kind that makes heaven touch earth.
One scene in the film has now been forever etched in my mind. A brutalized, wounded Jesus was soon to fall again under the weight of the cross. His mother had made her way along the Via Della Rosa. As she ran to him, she flashed back to a memory of Jesus as a child, falling in the dirt road outside of their home. Just as she reached to protect him from the fall, she was now reaching to touch his wounded adult face. Jesus looked at her with intensely probing and passionately loving eyes (and at all of us through the screen) and said "Behold I make all things new." These are words taken from the last Book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelations. Suddenly, the purpose of the pain was so clear and the wounds, that earlier in the film had been so difficult to see in His face, His back, indeed all over His body, became intensely beautiful. They had been borne voluntarily for love.
At the end of the film, after we had all had a chance to recover, a question and answer period ensued. The unanimous praise for the film, from a rather diverse crowd, was as astounding as the compliments were effusive. The questions included the one question that seems to follow this film, even though it has not yet even been released. "Why is this film considered by some to be "anti-Semitic?" Frankly, having now experienced (you do not "view" this film) "the Passion" it is a question that is impossible to answer. A law professor whom I admire sat in front of me. He raised his hand and responded "After watching this film, I do not understand how anyone can insinuate that it even remotely presents that the Jews killed Jesus. It doesn't." He continued "It made me realize that my sins killed Jesus" I agree. There is not a scintilla of anti-Semitism to be found anywhere in this powerful film. If there were, I would be among the
first to decry it. It faithfully tells the Gospel story in a dramatically beautiful, sensitive and profoundly engaging way.
Those who are alleging otherwise have either not seen the film or have another agenda behind their protestations. This is not a "Christian" film, in the sense that it will appeal only to those who identify themselves as followers of Jesus Christ. It is a deeply human, beautiful story that will deeply touch all men and women. It is a profound work of art.
Yes, its producer is a Catholic Christian and thankfully has remained faithful to the Gospel text; if that is no longer acceptable behavior than we are all in trouble. History demands that we remain faithful to the story and Christians have a right to tell it. After all, we believe that it is the greatest story ever told and that its message is for all men and women. The greatest right is the right to hear the truth.
We would all be well advised to remember that the Gospel narratives to which The Passion is so faithful were written by Jewish men who followed a Jewish Rabbi whose life and teaching have forever changed the history of the world. The problem is not the message but those who have distorted it and used it for hate rather than love. The solution is not to censor the message, but rather to promote the kind of gift of love that is Mel Gibson's filmmaking masterpiece, The Passion.
It should be seen by as many people as possible. I intend to do everything I can to make sure that is the case. I am passionate about The Passion. You will be as well. Don't miss it!
10 January 2004
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"The Passion and the Talmud" by columnist Terry Mattingly. This column was syndicated by Scripps Howard News Service on 02/11/2004
The ancient rabbinic text is clear about the punishment for those who twisted sacred law and misled the people of Israel.
Offenders would be stoned and then hung by their hands from two pieces of wood connected to form a "T." The Talmud once included this example from the Sanhedrin.
"On the eve of Passover they hung Jesus of Nazareth," said the passage, which was censored in the 16th century to evade the wrath of Christians. "The herald went out before him for 40 days saying, 'Jesus goes forth to
be stoned, because he has practiced magic, enticed and led astray Israel. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and declare concerning him.' And they found nothing in his favor."
If armies of Jewish and Christian scholars insist on arguing about Mel Gibson's explosive movie The Passion of the Christ, it would help if they were candid and started dealing with the hard passages in Jewish texts as well as the Christian scriptures.
At least, that's what David Klinghoffer thinks.
The Orthodox Jewish writer -- whose forthcoming book is entitled Why the Jews Rejected Christ -- believes these lines from the Talmud are as troubling as any included in the Christian Gospels. They are as disturbing as any image Gibson might include in his controversial epic.
The Talmudic text seems clear. Jesus clashed with Jewish leaders, debating them on the meaning of their laws. They hated him. Many wanted him dead.
It is possible, said Klinghoffer, to interpret these documents as saying that Jesus' fate rested entirely with the Jewish court. The use of language such as "enticed and led astray" indicated that Jesus may have been charged with leading his fellow Jews to worship false gods.
There are more details in this confusing drama. Writing in 12th-century Egypt, the great Jewish sage Maimonides summed up the ancient texts.
"Jesus of Nazareth," he proclaims, in his Letter to Yemen, " ... impelled people to believe that he was a prophet sent by God to clarify perplexities in the Torah, and that he was the Messiah that was predicted
by each and every seer. He interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment, to the abolition of all its commandments and to the violation of its prohibitions.
"The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him."
Is that it? What role did the Romans play?
In terms of historic fact, stressed Klinghoffer, it's almost impossible to find definitive answers for such questions. But the purpose of the Jewish oral traditions that led to the Talmud was to convey religious belief, not necessarily historical facts.
"If you really must ask, 'Who is responsible for the death of Jesus?', then you can only conclude that both the Gospels and the Talmud agree that the Jewish leaders did not have the power to execute him," he said. "Did they influence the event? The religious texts suggest that they did, the historic texts suggest that they did not. It's hard to know. ... But if Gibson is an anti-Semite, then to be consistent you would have to say that so was Maimonides."
Obviously, Klinghoffer is not spreading this information in order to fan the flames of hatred. His goal, he said, is to provoke Jewish leaders in cities such as New York and Los Angeles to strive harder to understand the views of traditional Protestants and Catholics. And it's time for liberal Christians to spend as much time talking with Orthodox Jews as with liberal Jews. It's time to everyone to be more honest, he said.
"I don't see anything that is to be gained for Judaism by going out of our way to antagonize a Mel Gibson or to antagonize as many traditional Christians as we possibly can. I think we have been yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater," said Klinghoffer.
"To put it another way, I don't think it's very wise for a few Jewish leaders to try to tell millions of Christians what they are supposed to believe. Would we want some Christians to try to edit our scriptures and to tell us what we should believe?"
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University and is senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities. He writes this weekly column for the Scripps Howard News Service.
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