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March 26, 2004 - Image 36

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2004-03-26

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Facing Facts, Dispelling Myths



very now and then, the
world turns its attention to
the ivory towers of academia
for any number of reasons. At this
particular moment, attention has
been thrust upon one of my fields
of research: Biblical literature.
In part, I have Mel Gibson to
thank for that. I also have the
polemics and concerns (some legiti-
mate, some unfounded) of various
religious and civil leaders respond-
ing to Gibson's film The Passion of
the Christ — as well as statements
made by Gibson's family and peo-
ple's own fears of what to expect in
the wake of the hype.
One of the basic issues seems to
be that Gibson's father, Hutton, is a
rabid anti-Semite in the -classic
sense. You'll get no argument from
me on that point. Another seems to
be that because Gibson has made a
film about the final sufferings of
Jesus of Nazareth, he is joining a
long tradition of Passion plays that
were born from anti-Semitism and
incited it as well. On this, I am not
'so certain, and it would behoove us
to consider some important points
before circling the wagons.
Traditional Judaism has never
taken kindly to--the very idea of
Jesus, certainly not in classic rab-
binical literature. I seem to remem-
ber a rabbinic tradition that
attempted to dispute the idea that
God impregnated Mary — by say-
ing that Mary was a woman of loose
ethics and that her husband,
Joseph, stated that "God only
knows" who the father of her child
might be.
This aversion to respecting — not
adopting, just respecting — the
basis of what Christians believe per-
severes today. I have encountered
people who refuse to speak the
word "Jesus" or listen if someone
else does so. Indeed, some have
classified Jesus of Nazareth in a

Mark Leuchter is professor of Biblical
literature at Hebrew College in Newton,
Mass., and visiting professor of religious
studies at Northeastern University in
Boston. He is a 1987 graduate of Hillel
Day School of Metropolitan Detroit and
has published widely in scholarly jour-
nals on ancient Near Eastern history and


3/26 "


matter similar to the way a charac-
ter in the Harry Potter books is
classified: the one whose name must
not be spoken (or something along
those lines ... I'm a Tolkien man,
not a Potter fan).

deaf to the issues emanating from
one side is irresponsible (especially
when that side boasts roughly 100
times more people than yours).

Theology Revisited

Without getting into a discussion of
Dialogue's Value
Gibson's film, which is really not
the main issue at hand, there are a
For the better part of the last 2,000
few things I think Jews need to bear
years, those who did have faith in
in mind concerning the theological
the name of Jesus tended to use it
implications of the film:
as justification for monstrous
• Jesus was not a Christian; he
behavior against Jews, much the
was a Jew. Christianity arose as a
way Bin Laden and animals like
him wrap their hatred in the banner reaction to and interpretation of his
life and death. For the first
of Islam to justify their
50 or so years of their exis-
tence, Christians were just
The Jewish reaction to
one of many different
Jesus, or anyone concerned
Jewish factions (watch the
with discussing his life,
film Monty Python's Life of
death and teachings, seems
Brian and you'll see what I
to me to be primarily a con-
mean). It would only be
ditioned response and one
later, during the Jewish wars
that is certainly understand-
against Rome, that
able given the persistent
LEUCHTER Christians would distance
flow of anti-Semitism in the
themselves from broader
world. But is it helpful?
Commentary Judaism, largely for political
The council in the 1960s
reasons, and form a distinct
known as Vatican II, which
religious community.
led to the official Catholic
• Jesus was killed by the
doctrine that Jews are no
Romans, but the Jerusalem Temple
longer to be blamed for the death
establishment was indeed involved.
of Jesus, was and remains a land-
The Temple priesthood was relative-
mark decision that brought the
ly corrupt (politically) and had
Catholic Church out of the Middle
been since Hellenistic times, hun-
Ages. Many of the arguments I've
dreds of years earlier. The political
heard concerning Gibson and his
status quo benefited the Temple
film revolve around whether or not
priests, and Jesus was upsetting that
Vatican II will hold given the con-
tent of the film and the rise in anti- status quo.
This is typically the most difficult
Semitism over the past several years.
element with which Jews must con-
This is most certainly -a major
tend when dealing with the death
issue worth examining, but I would
of Jesus, because it appears to admit
argue that such an examination
should not begin with Jews covering guilt. But in truth, it is not an
admission of guilt. Some Jews were
their ears whenever someone men-
responsible for Jesus's death, but the
tions the terms "Jesus,"
Jews, as a people, were not.
"Crucifixion," etc.
Most of the world's Jews did not
Vocal leaders in the Anti-
live in Judea during Roman times,
Defamation League, the Simon
and did not even know who Jesus
Wiesenthal Center and other noble
was until years after his death.
organizations have commented that
Arguing this point allows for one to
Gibson's film may undermine a 40-
respect the most important spiritual
year relationship that has developed
idea and event for over 1 billion
between Jews and Christians since
people around the world (Jesus's
Vatican II. But a relationship is
death), while defending the inno-
based on communication, which
cence of the Jewish people.
means dialogue ... an exchange of
• Christian theology, by defini-
and respect for ideas that do not
necessarily define your–religious and tion, does not permit the blaming
of the Jewish people for Jesus'
social identity. Remaining willfully

death. Christology is founded upon
the Hebrew Scriptures, and in
Jeremiah 31:28-29 we find the fol-
lowing: "In those days they shall say
no more: "The fathers have eaten
sour grapes, and the children's teeth
are set on edge.' But every one shall
die for his own sin; every man that
eateth the sour grapes, his teeth
shall be -set on edge.

Coming Around

Jeremiah argues that the sins of the
parents should not be visited upon
the children. This is the best argu-
ment against anyone who today
feels that all Jews should be con-
demned for what a small group of
Jews did long ago. To do so would
be to negate the message Jesus him-
self preached, in reference to the
words of the prophets in whose
footsteps he followed: "Think not
that I have come to destroy the law,
or the prophets; I have not come to
destroy, but to fulfill" (Matthew
This also might be a good reason
to reserve judgment upon Mel for
his father's ignorance and bigotry.
If we expect a true and benevo-
lent relationship with Christian
communities to continue to devel-
op, we must be aware of some of
these issues. One must face facts
before attempting to dispel myths,
and objectivity coupled with sensi-
tivity, to my mind, will build much
stronger bridges. It is a far, far bet-
ter thing to find common ground
in order to respect our religious
boundaries than to run away from
each other when sensitive issues
I know what I've suggested here is
not necessarily going to be accepted
by everyone who reads this. One
person has, in fact, told me, to my
face, that it is a chillul HaShem, an
act of heresy against God, to adopt
the perspectives I have voiced here-
In the spirit of what I've written
above, I would respond that he and
anyone else is entitled to his-her
own opinion. Actually, I don't mind
the criticism. I wouldn't be the first
Jewish boy in his 30s to be con-
demned for saying something
unpopular. I'm in good company. El

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