The Passion - Jewish Insights

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," has unleashed a firestorm of discussion and controversy. This is particularly evident in the American Jewish community where negative remarks about the film early on by "leaders" of the American Jewish establishment added fuel to the conflagration.

As the embers begin to cool, I think it an appropriate time for us to take a look at Gibson's cinematic creation, placing it in the context of the times. For while Gibson, as any film producer, was selective in his source material for his film, it is evident that all the background material was rooted in Christian sources of one form or another. Deciding to give more credence to one of the Gospel accounts of the last days of Jesus' life, electing to use additional material from some rather controversial Christian sources and finally utilizing his own gifts as an actor and film producer, Gibson has succeeded in crafting a riveting and magnificent film that has gone on to break all records at the box-office as well as prompt hundreds of thousands of believers and non-believers alike to seriously consider the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.

I have a warm and cordial relationship with The Rev. Richard Simon, Pastor of St. Thomas of Canterbury Roman Catholic Church, located but two blocks from our Synagogue (Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago) on Kenmore Ave. Fr. Simon and I have enjoyed many hours of discussion on subjects ranging from Theology to the problems of our times. The good Father not only serves his Parish with distinction, but as well teaches at one of our local Catholic Seminaries. A traditional Catholic, I find Fr. Simon and I have a great deal in common on many issues.

And so, when the controversy surrounding the Gibson film first began, it was only natural that Fr. Simon and I discuss it. In fact, we both attended a screening of the Gibson film in Skokie together. Both of us reached the same conclusion - it is extremely important for Christians and Jews to understand the times in which Jesus lived as well as the years after his crucifixion during which the Gospels were written. The general ignorance of Jewish history found among our co-religionists, the reality that most Jews view Judaism through "Christian glasses," glasses that, in most cases, need to be properly focused, has added to the fear and confusion that already exists in ewish life whenever the Passion is mentioned. For it has been this very story, retold in generation after generation, that has been the basis for the torture and murder of countless Jewish People. Fr. Simon and I have already made a joint presentation on this topic before two local Chicagoland Parishes which was well received. A recording of this presentation, broadcast on national Catholic Radio, has as well received a very positive response.

Let us try to understand the events of that period by considering a text taken from The Book of Acts in the New Testament regarding the encounter of Rabbi Gamliel and the Apostles of the early Christian Church.

Then the High Priest and all that were with him (which is the sect of the Sadducees) were filled with indignation. And laid their hands upon the Apostles and put them in prison. But the angle of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought them forth and said, Go, stand and speak to the People in the Temple all the words of this life. And when they heard they entered into the Temple early in the morning and taught. But the High Priest came, and they that were with him, and called the council together, and all the senate of the children of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought... Then came one and told them saying. Behold the men who you put in prison are standing in the Temple and teaching the People. Then went the Captain and the officers, and brought them without violence for they feared the People lest they be stoned. And when they brought them they set them before the council: and the High Priest asked them, Saying, "did we not straitly command you not to teach in this name, and, behold you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us?" Then Peter and the other Apostles answered and said, "We ought to obey God rather than man. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, for to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are his witness of these things, and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them who obey him." When they heard that, they were cut to the heart and took counsel to slay them. Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamliel, a doctor in the law, had in reputation among all the People and commanded to put forth the Apostles a little space; And said unto them, "Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men. For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves; who was slain, and all, as many who obeyed him, were scattered and brought to naught. After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much People after him: he also perished, and all, even as many that obeyed him, were dispersed. And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone; for if this counsel and work be of men, it will come to naught. But if it be of God, we cannot overthrow it; lest haply we be found even to fight against God." And to him they agreed, and when they had called the Apostles and beaten them they commanded they should not speak in the name of Jesus and let them go. And they departed them, the presence of the counsel, rejoicing they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name. And daily in the Temple and in every house they ceased not to preach and teach Jesus Christ. (Taken from the Book of Acts, Chapter 5, 17-42, as recorded in the Gideon Bible)

The authorship of the Book of Acts in the New Testament is attributed to Luke, a Roman who converted to early Christianity. His Gospel, the Book of Luke, compared to the other Gospels, is one of the most anti-Jewish, which makes the above excerpt even more compelling.

Let us try to understand the above story in which Rabbi Gamliel literally saves the lives of the Apostles allowing them to continue on in their work in spreading the message of early Christianity. Indeed it is to Rabbi Gamliel that Christianity owes its very survival!

Who was the High Priest? (Cohen Gadol)

The High Priest's name was Joseph Caiaphas. He was appointed to his post by the Procurator Vlerius Gratis and, interestingly enough, removed from that self-same post by Vitelius, Governor of Syria who, at the same time, removed Pontius Pilate from his position for his extreme brutality (but three years after the Crucifixion). Pilate must have been a monster given Rome's notorious reputation for brutality. This is a far cry from the Pilate in Gibson's film who seemed compassionate and reluctant to cross swords with Caiaphas. Rome held complete and absolute sway over Jewish life including the Temple and its Priests. The Priests were Sadducees as were the Jewish aristocracy. The Sadducees were pro-Roman, unlike the Pharisees and Essenes. It is important to note that Judaism as we know it today is an extension of the Pharisees and not the Sadducees or the Essenes. In Jesus' period the Pharisees were the spiritual leadership of the People, while the average Jew generally disliked the Sadducees.

Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Anan, heir to an important and wealthy Priestly family. In fact, according to John (18:13), Jesus was brought in the middle of the night to the house of Anan and not to Caiaphas as other Gospels would have it. The Book of John records that Caiaphas said, "It is better for you that one man die for the nation, than that the entire nation be lost." One could understand this as Caiaphas suggesting that Jesus could have brought the wrath of Rome upon the Jews because of his open anti-Roman stance. However, there is no doubt that Jesus' anti-Temple attitude caused the Sadducees, the Priests, to dislike him.

The Pharisees

In reading Acts, one can understand the stance of the Pharisees in that period. While the Sadducees controlled not only the Temple but were in the majority in the Sanhedrin as well, the Pharisees attempted to be true to their beliefs without openly entering into conflict with the Sadducees. They seem to have taken the same position regarding Rome. Acts does convey the domination of the Sadducees in the Sanhedrin and the great love and affection the People had for Rabbi Gamliel. Rabbi Gamliel himself presents to the Sanhedrin an argument rich in rabbinic insight. The motivations of the Sadducees in arresting the Apostles were not of the purest. Rabbi Gamliel knew this well. Moreover, his simple argument that man's efforts only succeed if they are the Will of God amply encapsulates the position of the Pharisees. Realizing the immense power of Rome and understanding the Sadducees' complicity with the Roman oppressors, the Pharisees relied upon their deep Faith in God to redeem His People. Rabbi Gamliel is successful in saving the lives of the Apostles, yet Acts points out the Sadducees had the Apostles beaten before they freed them. By the way, Luke records an incident in which the Pharisees protect Jesus from his enemies (see Luke 13:31).

The New Testament recounts time and time again conflicts Jesus had with the Pharisees. There is little mention of his having any conflicts with the Sadducees. If, in fact, the Sadducees were his real enemies and the Pharisees were not, why is this so?

Reading the New Testament, one comes away with the sense that Jesus was always an observant Jew. Shabbat, Kashrus, as all the Mitzvos, were integral parts of his religious expression. I think it reasonable to conclude that, if Jesus was forced to align himself with one of the various sects of the day, he would be a Pharisee. Yet, he was an activist. More than that - it is more than accurate to call him a rabble-rouser. Filled with passion against the Romans and the Sadducees, he is frustrated with the Pharisees' seeming unwillingness to take up the cause with him. I think the line "you only hurt the one you love" best describes this situation. And so, at every turn, he calls the Pharisees hypocrites. At least that is what the Greek text of the New Testament states. Over the years the word hypocrite has taken on a rather negative meaning. In Greek it simply means an actor. No doubt what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees is the same line thrown by activists for centuries at those who share their views but will not join them in their actions. "If you believe what you believe why aren't you standing with me on the picket line; why don't you join me in demonstrating?" As far as the Sadducees were concerned, Jesus saw them as totally without redeeming qualities, mere sellouts to Rome feeding off the masses of Jews through their control of the Priesthood and Temple.

Why then did Christianity lay the act of Deicide at the door of the Pharisees and in consequence for almost two thousand years at the door of the Jewish People?

Unlike the false Messianic movement of Shabbati Tzvi, which took place but a few hundred years ago, Christianity made little inroads into the Jewish community. When the Gospels as we know them today were being written, about 50 years after the Crucifixion, the Church leaders were directing their evangelical effort toward pagan Rome. Jews no longer controlled the leadership of the Church itself. At the same time, leadership in the Sanhedrin had changed with the Pharisees now in the majority. The leadership of the Church placed greater emphasis upon the role the Sadducees played in crucifying Jesus than they did on the Roman involvement. After all, how could they convert Romans to their beliefs and at the same time blame them for killing their Messiah? They made little distinction between the various sects in the Jewish community, as they were not Jews themselves but former pagans. Consequently, the then leadership of the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and their followers, the Jewish People at large became the murderers of Jesus.