NEW YORK (Oct. 11)
“Jesus Christ, Superstar,” the rock opera opening on Broadway tomorrow night, has been criticized by a Presbyterian scholar as “less than fair in depicting the role of Jewish individuals and institutions in the Passion of Jesus, as we know it from the New Testament.” The critic, Dr. Gerald S. Strober, active in intergroup affairs and consultant on religious curriculum to the American Jewish Committee, claims that the show “unambiguously lays the primary responsibility for Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion to the Jewish priesthood…portrayed as hideously inhuman and satanically evil; contemptuous, callous and bloodthirsty.” This concept, he says, is not borne out by the New Testament.
Dr. Strober attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, received his master’s degree in Jewish culture from New York University, has been pastor of the Surrey (N.H.) Congregational Church, has served on the staff of an inner-city church in Brooklyn, and has been acting director of the History Department at Barrington (R.I.) College. A spokesman for the AJCommittee described him as “a prominent Protestant educator.” Dr. Strober, who prepared his seven-page analysis of “Superstar” at the request of the AJCommittee, comments:
“In some cases, the emotional coloring is deepened to make Jewish individuals and their acts appear more sinister than the gospel record warrants. In other cases, historical facts are enlarged, modified or glossed over so as to create black-vs, -white contrasts where the record indicates only grays. These changes may have been made innocently for dramaturgic reasons, but their potential for harm remains.” Dr. Strober, who read the text of the show–available in the complete original cast album–and attended several preview performances, adds that “Even more important, perhaps, the play bypasses the transcendental meaning of the Passion,” by “shuffl(ing) the responsibility (for Jesus’ death) among the various human agents” instead of “encourag(ing) the audience to identify with the crucifiers.”
SEEN AS POSSIBLE BACKWARD STEP
At another point, Dr. Strober notes, “the priests are shown manhandling and punching Jesus and joining Herod in a dance that mocks him”–a sequence that “is freely invented,” since “according to Luke 23:6-11, the chief priests stood by as Herod questioned Jesus, following their accusation.” In another scene, the educator writes, the production “wordlessly yet unmistakably implicates the priests in the crucifixion sentence upon Jesus,” without, he says, biblical authority. Pontius Pilate, continues Dr. Strober, is depicted as “the image of reason and patience…a rather weak but well-meaning man who sympathizes with Jesus from the moment he meets him and is kept from helping him only by the demands of the mob.”
Dr. Strober states: “This entire portrait of Pilate, designed to minimize his role in Jesus’scourging, trial and death and thereby maximize that of Jesus’ Jewish antagonists, is wildly unscriptural and unhistorical. Roman and other sources leave no doubt that Pilate was an exceptionally harsh governor even by the far from lenient standards of Roman occupation government.” Dr. Strober also comments: “It may be worth noting that in the current performance the role of Judas, a victim of Jewish perfidy, is played by a black man.”
The educator concedes that “‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ avoids the worst pitfalls into which earlier works of the type have fallen,” in that “it does not repeat the myth of the Jews as Christ killers condemned by God for all time; it does not claim that all Jews of Jesus’ time knew him and forsook him.” But, Dr. Strober concludes. “in arbitrarily laying nearly all the blame on a group which the viewer knows to be Jewish whether the text says so or not, ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’ is, if nothing else, insufficiently thoughtful, potentially mischievous and possibly a backward step on the road toward improved Christian-Jewish relations.”
BORDERS ON OBERAMMERGAU PASSION PLAY
Copies of the Strober report have been sent to thousands of Jewish community leaders and to all the New York media critics as part of an “intensive educational campaign,” according to Rabbi Marc H. Tanenbaum, national director of interreligious affairs of the AJCommittee, who in an introduction says he hopes the study “will help sensitize the reader to the issues and thereby contribute to the advancement of Christian-Jewish understanding in the context of the popular arts.” Rabbi Tanenbaum added to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the show, which he saw in preview, was “potentially a very harmful thing…a defamation of Jews.” He said the production “undermines the belief in the divinity of Jesus” and “perpetuates the myth of the Jews’ primary responsibility for the death of Jesus.”
Jews, he continued, “are the villains of the piece,” and “we stand behind every word in the (Strober) document.” An AJCommittee spokesman labeled “completely untrue” a claim to the JTA by a spokesman for producer Robert Stigwood that religious leaders have been “generally enthusiastic” about “Superstar.” The AJCommittee spokesman quoted from two letters to Rabbi Tanenbaum–one from Rabbi Leon Fram of Detroit, calling the show “anti-Semitic,” and one from Sidney Lawrence, head of the Kansas City Jewish Community Relations Bureau, concluding that the “anti-Semitic overtones…border on the sins of Oberammergau,” a reference to the German Passion Play. The producer’s spokesman said the album of “Superstar” has already sold three million copies. Rabbi Tanenbaum reported that the show is sold out until February.