The Words of the Haft Family

Movie Review and Commentary of "The Passion of the Christ": A Jewish Perspective

Mel Haft
March 29, 2004

Title: A Movie for the Faithful; for Others, the Wrong 12 Hours

I can’t pretend to know exactly what this movie means to a believer—but as someone who was raised up in the Jewish faith (my grandparents were orthodox Jews) and who has studied the Pentateuch (5 books of Moses) and the Gospels at a Seminary and viewed a number of movies on Jesus’ life, I can say this—though a far cry from the sentimental and pious depiction that popular culture portrays Y’shua (Jesus), "The Passion of the Christ" is likely a winning 4-star movie for the faithful Christian believers supporting a deep theological message, one that has sustained many, including its co-writer, producer, director, financial backer and actor Mel Gibson. It is status quo with a touch of Mel Gibson’s personal inspirations, including the not so surprising pronounced streak of sado-masochism and martyrdom running through Gibson’s movies. We will likely see out of this more committed Christians and more secular Christians back to Church. Debates in church circles will likely be limited to the extent of brutality and violence portrayed, and of Jesus enduring the ultimate physical agony. But all will likely be moved by his suffering and agree it necessary to understand the humanity of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice. Certainly it did awaken me and my wife (raised up in an Episcopalian home) to the torture that historians talk about but that one generally does not dwell upon—an event that the Gospels often treat with circumspection that tends to be thought of about somewhat abstractly. Though focused on these final 12 hours of Y’shua’s life, it is this kind of savage brutality, depicted in graphic detail which was the accepted mode of treatment of those times, especially the crucifixion which has forever focused the attention of the world on this cruel mode of capital punishment. But it is the basic message for the 100 million American orthodox Christians that Jesus did ‘die on the cross for my sins’ that is reconfirmed as well as the message of their salvation and rebirth. And, they will continue to pray and wait for his return.

For Jews viewing "The Passion of the Christ," we may ask, "Is this what is meant by ‘Jesus dying for your sins?’" And, is this Jesus’ most noteworthy trait, his ability to absorb pain through overwhelming endless torture? In fact, it may just appear as another one of those unbelievable miracles, this one of survival from such brutal mistreatment and it may be the sadism, not the alleged anti-Semitism that may be most striking. I don’t believe the movie is anti-Semitic, but more sensitive Jews may disagree, especially for those Jews whose family and ancestry were persecuted and tortured in the name of Christ and the Cross. For those already inclined towards feelings of bigotry, they could find fuel here for their fire. Certainly, some of the Jewish leaders are portrayed as sinister, and the mob they incite and command is full of ugly rage, which does not seem to exceed what is found in the source material. However, the film has caused great concern in the Jewish community. One contemporary Rabbi complains that the crowds of angry Jews all have stereotyped big noses and mashed teeth. The Rabbi’s claim is clearly an exaggeration.

Jewish critics and some historians say the movie portrays Pontius Pilate as more benign and less in control than he actually was and ascribes too much power to Jerusalem’s Jewish religious leaders and to the crowds. We do know however, that scholarly research shows us that those writing the gospels, likely written by Jews, did not want to upset the Roman authorities by pointing to them as the bad guys for fear that it would evoke the wrath of Rome upon them.

In defense of fairness to Mel Gibson, there are clearly Jewish sympathizers to Y’shua’s cause. Jewish priests and council elders Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimithea who clearly object before the High Priest Caiphas and the Council of elders over the unfair treatment and judgment of Y’shua. Also, there was the one Jew, told by a Roman soldier to help carry Jesus’ cross, who hesitated and then has a change of heart and fights back the crowd to protect Jesus from more beatings. And then there’s the woman amidst the angry crowd of Jews who yells out to ‘stop beating him, he is a holy man!’ Good and evil are often intertwined even in the most horrific of holocaust movies where Germans, Christians, and yes, Jews too, and even entire nations are depicted as both good and bad.

Prior to its final cut, Gibson rejected an especially provocative line of dialogue that referred to the Jews: "His blood be on us, and on our children." That line is from the book of Matthew. There are many theological boundaries separating Judaism from Christianity. Orthodox Jews and some Jewish scholars tend to stay away from discussing theological issues in interreligious discussions because such discussions they feel may emphasize what they disagree upon and not that upon which they agree. But differences are not always the case. Recently the World Jewish Congress (now the home of International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations) took the lead very recently in organizing a dialogue between 6 Chief Rabbis and 12 Catholic Cardinals to advance the cause of common understanding and cooperation. Their goal was to find common ground such as the question of the first commandment, in light of a passage in the New Testament in which Jesus is asked to ‘identify the most important commandment’ (MT.22:34-40, MK 12:28-34). Getting total agreement from all persons on the importance of loving God and one’s fellow human being was not so difficult! Orthodox Jews are now playing a major role in Catholic-Jewish relations.

It is however somewhat awkward for many of us American Jews who experience friendly and warm interactions with Christian neighbors, friends and co-workers each day to explain why many Jewish organizations seem caught up in the grip of love and hate for Christianity, and that often seem intent on an agenda of hostility toward Judeo-Christian values and reconciliation.

Though some see unfair portrayal of the Jews, the film however portrays almost everyone as responsible for the death of Jesus though the pagan Romans take the prize for the physical and more often verbal abuse of Y’shua while the Jewish leaders seem intent on the letter of the law as they harshly judge and mistrust the young teacher and Rabbi Y’shua. They also try so hard to convince the Roman and political Jewish authorities to join their self-righteous villainy. Americans, being a rather pluralistic and harmonious interreligious nation are unlikely, I believe, to be swayed by several of the movies probable exaggerations and the actions of a few Jews 2,000 years ago.

The film is a limited understanding of who Y’shua was, is and knew he was born to be. For some, in these final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, there are more questions asked than answers found here than in his whole lifetime of 33 years. Questions surrounding his predestined death— could Jesus have shed his blood without dying? Are the suffering, the crucifixion and the symbol of the cross as important as his teachings and his example? What might he have taught and accomplished for God and mankind if his physical life had not been taken? And from a Jewish perspective, if Jesus came from a long line of Jewish ancestry, including Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well as King David, why would he not continue their example of family?

Why did the early Jewish followers (of ‘the Way’) use the symbol of the fish and not the cross which was introduced 300 years after Jesus’ death by Emperor Constantine—a cross that has been associated with so much further suffering to many Jews and Muslims?

And as with the dialogue between the Chief Rabbi’s and the Cardinals, can we Jews conceive of going the next step and face our fears of what might in fact lie ahead with both Catholics and Protestants? This film, I believe, has brought us to step one of needed serious dialogue about Y’shua the Jew and Jesus the Christian. Our ancestors knew that they had not been chosen for any privilege except that of serving God and man, by bringing enlightenment to the world. Their election, therefore, meant an exacting responsibility. As the prophet Amos said in God’s name: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I will punish you for all your inequities." Can we consider that at that time 2000 years ago that perhaps Y’shua the Jew was the punishment and restitution for the inequities of our people and of the times, for the unrighteousness and for the vengeful? And can we believe that "it was Caiphas [the Jewish High Priest] who had given counsel to the Jews that it was expedient that one man should die for the people" [JN 18:14]? And that Y’shua’s primary principle teaching and deeds of "loving one’s enemies" was indeed more explicit and a deeper more challenging message beyond the teaching of Jewish scriptures of the age? And can we see from this that then Israel gave birth to other religions that have brought many to God and that the promise of Israel is the universal promise?

And it seems that we have little or no clue as to what was Y’shua’s true heart and relationship with his Heavenly Father. We only sense that he had a dream, a task to fulfill for God; he called on God with passion to give him an understanding heart to feel how solemn is the responsibility of his own people, chosen by God. But none of this really reads through in the film. How disappointing.

But it would take a big mind to grasp the larger story of the love and sacrifice of the one who was born 2,000 years ago who is expected to bring an end to the terror inflicted man to man—whether he be called a Jewish prophet or great teacher of the Jews or a messiah for the Christians (my teacher, a Rabbi, would say in his course on ‘Messianic Movements’ that the word ‘messiah’ is not a title or position, but a task to be completed). Y’shua was someone by his word and deed who could show the way to cleanse from their hearts the anger, hatred, jealously and dark forces from within that encourage us to defame and scourge one another emotionally and physically.

Talking of dark forces the film does tackle quite well the nature of Satan and his relationship to Jesus and humankind. The presence of a de-spirited, pale, hooded Satan at the onset of the movie who lurks in the background at the Garden of Gethsemane sets the eerie mood for the entire film. Is this the same Satan from the Garden of Eden, the original adversary to God, who was first called Lucifer, the archangel and depicted as a serpent? Is he still hanging around doing evil? It seems so, except for Jesus who startles us all by abruptly smashing the serpent.

It is this powerful slithering force of darkness and evil who hardly speaks a word yet seems to maximize and manipulate his power to crucify Jesus. The contradiction within human nature of good and evil is everywhere; the betrayal and lack of faith of Jesus disciples, Pontius Pilate (who is conflicted with being in this desolate outpost away from Rome), and in contrast to his wife, Claudia who seems supportive of Jesus and the Jewish leadership who desire to keep peace, control and power.

At one other significant scene in the movie, while Jesus is being ruthlessly beaten by Roman soldiers, Satan appears once again—with a deformed child in his arms. When the child turns to the audience, we see a sinister adult face that looks sickly. One may wonder if this deformed looking child with stunted size is indeed the state of all of fallen humankind or a glimpse of the future and the sickness of mankind through Satan. One can also imagine that through the nasty cold smirk of the child that Satan is pridefully showing his son to Jesus and perhaps teasing him, look at the son of God! Where might your Father be?

But while Satan uses his power to physically kill Jesus through almost all the players, it seems God uses his power to bring the dead to life—the righteous defenders and/or sympathizers of Jesus—Nicodemus, the Jewish Priest; Mary Magdalene his disciple; Claudia, the wife of Pontius Pilate; the Jewish man who refuses to help Jesus carry the cross and then protects Jesus from further beatings; or at the last hour the woman who still proclaims Jesus as a holy man; and the Roman soldier who allows Jesus’ mother, Mary, near the cross. They are all spiritually recruited out of the compassion that is invested in each one of us by God and unfolded in due time.

There are only a few passing references to the teachings of Jesus which sometimes comes through in a fleeting vignette, a memory of Jesus. Jesus expresses as a mentor, teacher, rabbi a parental heart towards his disciples in a few short scenes (in Gethsemane where he tells Peter, his disciple, ‘it is better to die by the sword than to live by the sword’). One could possibly grasp the frustration but patience that Jesus had, how could he transform his disciples into substantial beings of God’s love knowing that his fate was sealed and that the disciples would be left with no spiritual parent? He was raising his disciples to be unchanging, even preparing them for how to face death. Perhaps one of his greatest teachings about forgiving one’s enemies and being concerned for those who persecute you is expressed in just one significant quote at one most excruciating and painful moment, "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." His love towards the detractors of his mission, even at the moment close to death is an incredible lesson and a powerful message for all humankind. The Jewish High Priest, the Roman administrators and Roman soldiers, his own disciples who betrayed him and the angry crowds, John the Baptist and his own family who could not understand who he was, all represented the whole of humankind that Jesus loved, as God would love all his children regardless.

Through its 12 intense hours of conflicting relationships, what was lacking was grasping the reality of Jesus’ relationship to God—not easy for anyone—Christian, Jew or Muslim to fully understand, how important Jesus was for God. This, ‘The Passion of Christ’ misses and therefore lacks passion. Jesus is really a story of someone who loved only his Heavenly Father. He intimately connected with God’s love for him and for all humanity; this is the passion Jesus had— to transform the people into those same beings of God’s substantial love. He only knew God’s heart of sorrow, the deepest sorrow in God’s heart—that sorrow was of losing His firstborn, Adam who became a fallen man. And Jesus knew that through his own inevitable death that God’s sorrow and grief would be once again a painful reminder. And once again, as in the Garden of Eden, Lucifer, the Archangel receives such demonic joy believing that he had completely defeated the lineage of God. But Jesus never wavered in his love for God or for man, even in the midst of his savage death, he was true to his teachings—"love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Therefore, Satan’s victory was not a total victory.

"The Passion of the Christ" is a calling to put behind us our tears over Jesus’ suffering and pain and the grief of God and to move ahead with hope, and joy in the reconciliation process in healing the human spirit, healing and reconciling with each other and with God.

A well-done movie of a limited understanding of a man whose love is beyond comprehension, a limited understanding of what he longed to do from the time he was so young, a limited understanding of the hope and vision his Heavenly Father had for him and for the transformation of this world.

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