The passion play at Oberammergau
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The passion play at Oberammergau

Two local rabbis talk about their work as they help change the 500-year-old notoriously anti-Semitic pageant

It sounds like one of those charming Mitteleuropean traditions that could be at home in Disney — once every 10 years, in a tradition that started in 1634, a village in the heart of Bavaria, the Catholic center of otherwise-Protestant Germany, comes to life, presenting a huge-scale open-air-except-when-it-rains production of the passion play — the betrayal, execution, and resurrection of their lord Jesus Christ.

The play is presented — acted, directed, produced — only by village natives, and the villagers with no theatrical talents or aspirations provide food and drink and lodging and general Alpine color to the guests who flock there every summer in each year that starts a new decade (and also every 50 years after its founding. That means that if this tradition persists, it will play next in 2024). It’s colorful and theatrical and some people find it deeply spiritual; it’s folk religion at its most rousing.

But every good melodrama needs a villain, and for Oberammergau, as for the entire genre of passion plays, the Christian Bible is clear on who that villain should be.

The Jews.

According to the traditional passion play, it is the Jews who betrayed Jesus, who thirsted for his death, who demanded it, and who gloried in it.

Bavaria was Hitler’s home; Hitler saw the passion play in Oberammergau. The region’s history of Jew hatred culminated with him, but it did not die with him, and it has been on clear display at least once every decade.

But then Vatican II happened, and it produced Nostra Aetate, the revolutionary church pronouncement that demanded a change in the relationship that Catholics had with Jews. Pope Paul VI made clear that not all Jews were responsible for Christ’s death — yes, we knew that, but it was revolutionary for such a statement to come from the Vatican.

That meant that passion plays, with their arena-size declaration of the complicity of all Jews everywhere across all time in Jesus’s death, could — should? — change, at least to some extent, in their presentation of Jews.

That’s hard because the plays are based in centuries of unchanging tradition, and also in the text of the Christian scriptures; a reader does not have to squint too hard to see the Jews’ complicity in its text, although it can be read in other ways as well.

But Oberammergau has taken the mandate to change seriously; in the years since Vatican II, and particularly since 1990, when its director, Christian Stückl, first took over — he was in his late 20s then — and even more since 2000, when he’s had more freedom to change. He also works in less tradition-bound, more clearly artistic venues, so he brings a theatrical eye to his work.

Oberammergau has meaning to Jews because of the importance of the relationship between Jews and Europe in general, and between Jews and Germans in particular, but it also has some local connections.

Rabbi David Fine

Rabbi David Fine, who heads Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, and Rabbi Noam Marans of Teaneck, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations, both are part of the small group of Jews and religious scholars who have been advising Mr. Stückl and his team. Both are vocal about the opportunity the director is providing — and in which he fervently believes, they say — to remove the production’s inherent anti-Semitism and replace it with understanding.

Rabbi Fine, who earned a doctorate in modern European history, not only leads his shul in Ridgewood but also is an adjunct professor at the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel seminaries at the University of Potsdam — that’s the one in Germany, not upstate New York — has spent a great deal of time in Germany, and knows the culture as well as an outsider can. He saw the passion play in Oberammergau for the first time in 2010 — he was with Rabbi Marans then — and now he’s planning on bringing a synagogue group with him. He thinks it’s the first synagogue group ever to go to see it.

He tries to explain what it feels like to be a Jew in Oberammergau, and at the passion play. “It has a surreal feel,” he said. “It’s not religious — religion is in the air, but this is not a religious endeavor. It is an artistic endeavor. There is a long tradition of people being involved in the theater in this town. How do you present this drama, from the formative period of the religion, and translate that for a modern audience?

“The audience is complicated. In general, it’s a place for people to go in the summer. The audience is mixed, with a large mostly American evangelical component.”

How do American evangelical Protestants get to this German Catholic production? Because word about it gets around.

“When I visited Orlando, I saw a place called the Holy Land Theme Park,” Rabbi Fine said. “They have a model of the Temple in Jerusalem there.” And it has characters mingling with the guests, as at Disney World, but with a difference. “Instead of Mickey Mouse, you have Jesus walking around.

“They have brochures there for the passion play. Evangelical tour companies are selling trips there this summer; first they go there, and then they go on to Jerusalem, to walk the Via Dolorosa.”

That’s one part of the audience. “Then there is the general tourist component of the audience, and then the sophisticated audience, people who understand that Christian Stückl is trying to do sophisticated work.

“He is not afraid to confront the issues and the problems that the play brings up,” Rabbi Fine continued; in fact, he added, Mr. Stückl is working on a book that “explores Oberammergau over the years, and specifically in the Nazi period. It’s typical of his generation of Germans” — Mr. Stückl was born in 1961 — “who are exploring more than what their parents and grandparents told them.

“This is not just lip service. He is really, genuinely struggling with how to tell the story. He can’t rewrite the Christian Bible. So how can you be true to the story, but not only be sensitive to the Jews, but move beyond sensitivity to reconciliation?

“In the 2010 production, the biggest change was to present Jesus as very Jewish; as a rabbi, as reading the Torah. When he starts the Last Supper, you have him say the Motzi, and boreh pri hagafen over the wine. They have Jewish elements; they have him put on a tallit when he says the brachot.” Who puts on a tallit when making the brachot at the beginning of a meal? Well, maybe it’s not entirely accurate — “there is some Jewish kitsch” — but the symbolism — symbolism the audience can recognize — is there. “It’s to indicate that Jesus and his disciples are Jews. Jews are not the bad guys.

“At the scene in the Temple, where Jesus overturns the moneychangers’ tables, they open a Torah scroll and the whole cast sings a choral version of the Shema,” Rabbi Fine said. “Remember that this is big-stage drama.”

Because the passion play is a huge production, where nuance is at a premium and meaning has to be telegraphed with oversized gestures, costumes matter. Actors playing Jews used to wear bright red and huge odd pointy hats, looking grotesque. That has changed.

New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan greets Christian Stückl in 2012 as Rabbi Noam Marans looks on. (Yael Marans)

Using costumes and staging, the director has made clear the difference between the Jews and the Romans, who have the power in this story. It also stresses the difference between the Sanhedrin, whose members want Jesus dead, and the ordinary Jews, who do not. “And even among the leaders of the priestly establishment, there were some sympathetic characters” in the production, Rabbi Fine said. “There was a debate about what to do. And Judas Iscariot” — whom the Christian scriptures tell us betrayed Jesus, turning him over to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver — “is treated as a tragic character, filled with doubt and remorse over working with the Roman. He kills himself.

“And the soliloquy he gives on stage is very powerful. I was told that getting the role of Judas used to be drawing the short straw, but now it is among the most coveted roles.”

The other element that Mr. Stückl has introduced “is to show that it is the Romans who really are responsible. How do you do that? The Christian tradition is clear that it is the Jews.” But beginning in the 2010 production, and even more clearly now, “it is clear that Pontius Pilate” — a Roman — “is manipulating Caiaphas, the high priest. It’s Pontius Pilate who has the real power, and he wants Jesus executed.

In 2010, “Caiaphas entered carried on a palanquin, and when Pontius Pilate entered he just walked in, wearing a black uniform, followed by soldiers. Now he enters the stage on a horse — a real horse! — with centurions behind him. This is a very conscious change that indicates that he is representing a military power. An occupying power. When he says that he is washing his hands of the matter, he is not a weak ruler bending the rules for the Jews. He is a strong Roman ruler, getting what he wants.”

Other changes to the production include the tableaux vivant, the set pieces that involve unmoving actors arranged as if they were a diorama in the Museum of Natural History. They’d be displaying some story from the Hebrew Bible while the sung text stressed supersessionist ideas — the idea that Jewish history prefigured Christian history, and that our stories, ideals, and values were replaced by their better, stronger ones. Now, the tableaux remain, but the texts do not.

The way that Mr. Stückl is working out these problems reminds him of his own work, Rabbi Fine said. “How do we retain the elements of tradition, how do we remain within the confines of a traditional text but infuse it with new meaning? As a Conservative rabbi, I know that we make minimal changes in liturgy but we understand its meaning differently and interpret it differently.”

Rabbi Marans — who, fun fact, led Rabbi Fine’s shul until about 18 years ago, when he left the pulpit rabbinate for the AJC — said that working with Rabbi Fine and the other Jewish advisors on the passion play “is about how we can influence constructively, because you can’t achieve as much when you use only sticks. You have to use carrots as well. You have to believe that the perfect is not always the goal.

“We should not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the better.”

Jewish groups have tried to start boycotts of the play — it’s not as if many Jews go, but other groups, from universities and alumni, among others, do — but that hasn’t work. “But you cannot be an influence for change if your goal is to destroy,” Rabbi Marans said.

Instead, “we can use the play as a laboratory to achieve broad goals beyond the play.”

The first goal is to make sure that Vatican II’s proclamation that there is no “collective Jewish guilt in the death of Jesus,” and that the “play reflects that evolution.

The second is “to use the play and its history as a vehicle for addressing Germany’s past.

“The play hadn’t really changed” until 1990, he continued. “There was an almost Sinaitic relationship with the text; it was unmalleable, and only the full democratic process of the village could tamper with it.” It wasn’t until Mr. Stückl took over that such change as possible.

“What it requires is a willingness to change,” Rabbi Marans said. “The tools are there. You have to have a commitment to do it. That is what is different today in Oberammergau. It is not the Jews demanding change; it is the leadership of Oberammergau in conversation with the Jewish people. That is a sea change.”

The work matters, Rabbi Fine said. “Christian Stückl is getting the Abraham Geiger prize; Angela Merkel got it a couple of years ago.” It is an award from the Jewish rabbinical seminary in Germany. “It has incredible meaning for Christian. When I was in his office in November, I saw that the letter from Geiger was sitting on top of a stack of papers. And it certainly had not been in that week’s mail. It was sitting there because it is so important for him. It is a validation of the good work he is doing, that the Jewish community in Germany is celebrating him.”

What is it like to be at Oberammergau for the passion play? “You go to it with the history of the Jewish people and our relationship with Christendom in your subconscious,” Rabbi Marans said. “It is part of who you are. And you enter with your dukes up.

“That is essential, but it is not sufficient to look at it as part of the ongoing battle. We also need to understand who they are. Where they were. Where they are now, and where they can yet go. And how your relationship with them can make it happen.”

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