Passion Play continues to excite strong feelings
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Passion Play continues to excite strong feelings

Play still problematic, scholars say

The 2010 Oberammergau script shows the “results of significant work to distance the Passion Play from its long history of anti-Jewish characterizations and animosity,” according to the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations. But, said the CCJR in a report issued last Friday, it also “recalls perennial demeaning depictions of Judaism.”

A network of organizations that aims to promote understanding between Jews and Christians, the CCJR, together with the Anti-Defamation League, had assembled a team of nine scholars to assess the script ahead of the May 15 premiere. (The report is also supported by the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, and the National Council of Synagogues.)

Based only on the text, which the scholars had been provided in both German and English, the report did not address production factors but it did note that, in performance, the play “will be significantly affected by casting, lighting, music, and other staging elements.”

Among the changes it viewed as positive was the representation of “Jewish society in Jesus’ day … as variegated and vibrant” and the fact that “Jesus is clearly shown to be a Jew.”

It also viewed as positive the fact that “the relationship between Caiaphas,” the Jews’ high priest, “and Pontius Pilate,” the Roman prefect, “is nuanced…. Happily missing from the script is a patent role-reversal in which Pilate is a weakling manipulated by Caiaphas into doing something that Pilate does not want,” as has been the case in Passion Plays that have depicted Jews as “Christ-killers.” That depiction has led to violence against Jews throughout history.

Nevertheless, according to the report, “Caiaphas, the script’s principal antagonist, as well as Annas,” the former high priest, “are unnecessarily and baselessly portrayed as fanatics driven to see Jesus crucified. As a result the depiction of Pilate is somewhat skewed as well. In short, Jewish opponents of Jesus are unjustifiably depicted in such extreme terms as to risk impressing on the audience a negative image of the entire Jewish community.”

Among the report’s suggestions for future scripts, perhaps most resonant for Jews is that “The Old Testament and the Jewish tradition must not be set against the New Testament in such a way that the former seems to constitute a religion of only justice, fear, and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor.”

The report concludes: “As the Second Vatican Council declared in Nostra Aetate, 4: ‘All should see to it … that they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.'”

Meanwhile, a delegation from the ADL attended a preview of the play on May 8, concluding that, in the words of Amy-Jill Levine, ADL special consultant and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, “There have been welcome changes that emphasize that Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples were practicing Jews within a vibrant Jewish context under cruel Roman occupation. Sadly, the play continues to depict damaging stereotypes of Judaism and presents Jewish leadership as deceitful, legalistic, vindictive, and xenophobic.”

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