Jewish National Fund

Mel Makes a Major Mistake

Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank

Okay, I saw it. I was able to secure a ticket for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and on the first day of its official distribution, I finally viewed the movie which has inspired so much pre-release discussion and debate. It wasn't an easy movie to sit through. If you intend to see this movie, be prepared for sustained violence, lots of blood, and the sadism of Jesus' Roman tormentors. But that's only if you intend to see it. There have been many arguments as to why Jews should not see the movie. For example, why line Gibson's pockets with undeserved dollars? Why subject yourself to two hours of watching a man murdered? Or why honor a tale that has itself exercised the masses to murder millions of Jews over the past 2,000 years? These are all legitimate reservations. But let me add one other reservationit's not a well-made movie.

The characters are poorly developed. Most of them are as flat as cartoon caricaturesthe High Priest Caiaphas is the evil one and King Herod is the jolly one. Even Jesus is little more than a tortured, victimized prisoner. Much of the action, perhaps faithful to the Gospel, seems unmotivated. Why did Jesus welcome the torture? Why did Judas betray his master for 30 silver coins that he later rejects? Why does Peter deny knowledge of his teacher three times? It's all part of the story, but it's a story line that is disconnected with the rest of the tale. Parts of the movie even seem amateurish. The splitting of the ancient Temple looks like a scary ride at Disneyworld. The Aramaic and Latin seem a bit stilted, reminding us that we are watching actors that have memorized their lines. And it's very difficult to believe Jesus could carry that solid wooden cross any distance to the crucifixion. By the time of the crucifixion, he is so beat up, bloodied, and disfigured, that his carrying so much as a pale of water would be a stretch for an audience to believe.

Mel Gibson has missed an opportunity. When Steven Spielberg created Schindler's List, he had two goals in mind. He obviously had to tell the story of Schindler, but he also had to tell the tale of the Holocaust. In other words, he had to give the Schindler story a historical context that rendered the story intelligible. Gibson should have done something similar. He had to tell the tale of the Passion, that is, the tortured death of the Christian messiah, but he should have also told the tale of Jesus' life. And he doesn't. If Jesus had a following, as the Gospels certainly maintain, you couldn't tell from the movie. Because his supporters were absent, the questions aboundWhat made him special? What made him powerful? What made him worthy of the title Messiah? What made him worthy of death by Rome or Israel? Gibson fails to develop these issues. The movie's focus is so narrowthe last 12 hours of Jesus' lifeit by definition lacks the depth to really capture the power of this charismatic Galilean rabbi whom many called Messiah.

In all honesty, the Romans come off worst than the Jews. The High Priest is mean-spirited and the Jewish throng is of one mind, forever chanting "Crucify him" (need I point out that portraying Jews as of one mind on anything is almost certain evidence of historical unreliability?). But the Roman tormentors eagerly whip Jesus and compete with one another in gashing his flesh. Their sadism is horrificmocking him, stabbing him, and beating him. The only good Roman is the enlightened leader, Pontius Pilate. He wipes his hands clean of Jesus' death as the Jewish throng chants in Aramaic, "His blood be on us and on our children," a phrase that does not receive a translated sub-title, but nevertheless, present in the movie. And all this leads to the central, burning question for Jews. Will this movie move the masses to acts of anti-Semitism?

Perhaps we can rely on the reaction of one pastor from Dix Hills, NY who said, "I felt that what I saw last night was the greatest love story ever told." Hmm... Did we see the same movie? Actually, probably not. And that is a critical point. Jews and Christians are seeing two different moviesone group seeing a brutal, seemingly endless murder the source of which lies with the Jews, while another group is seeing the suffering of one man who endures the pain in his singular life in order to free millions of the pain they might otherwise face. And so the movie, I suspect, will not incite the masses to reckless, anti-semitic acts. And yet, I worry less about this movie than I do about the DVDs that will linger among the young and untutored, for years to come.

Can we depend on the good work of the Church to move its parishioners to focus on a tale that will inspire rather than horrify or enrage? It is very difficult to change sacred texts. It's a whole lot easier to reinterpret them. The Church has been doing its best to do just that and that is why many within the upper echelons of Christian leadership have taken grave exception to The Passion of the Christ. Whereas Christians today have tried very much to focus on Jesus' life or his resurrection, this is a movie that focuses on his murder. And that should disturb any moral, thinking person dedicated to improved relations between Christians and Jews.

I was not unmoved by the film. We know from our own martyrsRabbi Akibah, Rabbi Hananya ben Tradyon, Rabi Hutzpit the Interpreter, etc.just how brutal the Roman executioners were. But unfortunately, a Christian theology that differs from our own, gets in the way. Jesus cries to God to "forgive" the two Roman thugs who are torturing him. But these two thugs, enjoying every lash they inflict upon Jesus, did not deserve God's kindness. Had they repented of their sins, that would have been one thing. But under the circumstances, they both deserved death. Jesus' plea is meant to reflect his piety, but it more accurately reflects a strain of pacifism in First Century Judaism that we have learned, twenty centuries later, to regard with suspicion. Would it not have been better for some daring soul to knock out the thugs and rescue Jesus from his torment?

Actually, no, at least, not from the Christian perspective. And that ultimately is what separates Jews from Christians. The suffering was Jesus' gift to the world. His suffering is proof of his love of humankind. I don't quite understand that, but our Christian neighbors maintain it, and I thus accept it as a religious principle to which they hold fast. I respect their convictions and gratefully acknowledge the ethical principles by which they guide their lives. But in the final analysis, I wish Mel Gibson had not made this movie. It strikes me as a big mistake. As inaccurate history, it serves no one's interests. As a brutal mythology, it may inspire a few, but I fear that it will enrage others, and will most certainly disgust many.


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