Ajcommittee Study Shows That the Passion Play Remains Anti-semitic
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Ajcommittee Study Shows That the Passion Play Remains Anti-semitic

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Despite a serious effort by officials of Oberammergau in West Germany to cleanse the 350-year-old Passion Play of its anti-Jewish polemic and prejudice, the drama remains “structurally anti-Semitic.” It continues to malign Jewish law, to depict the Judaism of Jesus’ time as corrupt and punitive, and to dramatize those Gospel sources which cast the most negative light on Jewish motives and actions.

These conclusions emerge from the latest line-by-line analysis of the revised 1980 Oberammergau Passion Play published by the Interreligious Affairs Department of the American Jewish Committee. The findings of the study, entitled “Oberammergau 1980-Progress and Problems,” were made public here today at a meeting of the AJCommittee’s Interreligious Affairs Commission, whose national chairman is Robert Jacobs of Chicago.

The Commission is meeting in connection with the AJCommittee’s National Executive Council sessions, continuing through Sunday at the Fairmont Hotel here. In presenting the study’s findings to Commission members from throughout the country, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, AJCommittee’s national interreligious affairs director, who met with Oberammergau officials on four successive occasions since 1977, declared:

“Our systematic study of the 1980 text finds that a number of significant passages, scenes, and languages changes have been made which correspond in detail to the findings of the Germany-language analysis which AJC delegations submitted to the Oberammergau Town Council and discussed with them during our four meetings in 1977, 1978 and 1979. The removal of these anti-Jewish passages are to be welcomed. Nevertheless, the overriding conclusion of our latest study is: ‘As it stands, the drama retains an anti-Jewish impact despite the well-intentioned efforts of those who have revised it.'”


Conducted by Judith Bank, AJCommittee assistant interreligious director, the study analyzes in detail major problem themes or areas in the 1980 text, and comes to these general conclusions:

“Faced with the formidable task of removing the anti-Semitism from a structurally anti-Semitic drama, those who revised the script for the 1980 performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play have tried to accomplish this end largely through judicious cutting. They have made a serious effort to cleanse the play of accusations of collective Jewish guilt and rejection, and of anti-Jewish polemic and prejudice.

“They have deleted the explicit allegations in the 1960 and 1970 text that God has rejected the Jewish people and ended His covenant with them. They have removed many of the most blatant expressions of sadism, vengefulness and greed on the part of the traders (in the Temple), the priests and ‘the people.’ They have added an introductory exhortation cautioning each spectator to ‘recognize himself as guilty in what happened….'”

Unfortunately, the study continues, “these well-meaning modifications are undermined by the drama itself, for the way in which the story unfolds and develops has not been basically altered…. Thus, the Jewish religious leaders of the time are all lumped together as hateful enemies of Jesus who cynically manipulate the populace into a screaming mob, and who hound Jesus to the cross and derive joyful satisfaction from his condemnation and suffering. The merchants, though their importance has been diminished (in this text), still play their non-Biblical role.

“Pilate is still portrayed as a sympathetic weakling, forced into condemning Jesus by the cruel Jews against his will. Jewish law is still depicted falsely as harsh and punitive. The Jewish people still call down the blood curse upon themselves and their children. In short, revision of the Oberammergau drama has taken the form of substantial cutting, but not of essential rethinking. The traditional anti-Jewish polemic which shaped the original text has not been examined, not have the insights of current Biblical and extra-Biblical scholarship been incorporated into the dynamics of the play.”


Tanenboum reported that “significantly, a leading Catholic priest-scholar in Germany, Father Wilm Sanders of Hamburg, who is a member of the Ecumenical Study Commission of the German Catholic Bishops Conference and German Coordinator for the Societies for Christian-Jewish Relations, has completed his own study of the 1980 revised text, and his conclusions coincide with those of the American Jewish Committee study. These are summarized in his words.”

“The play for 1980 is certainly not the play for oil of the future, nor has Oberammergau taken seriously its opportunity to share in the changed understanding of the relationship between Jews and Judaism to a large part of Christendom as our ecumenical study group formulated in 1970.

“With abbreviations and the change of words alone, there is no positive message and this is, of course, the declared goal of those to whom the continued existence of the Passion Play is of heartfelt concern. You cannot do it in a single sentence in the prologue.”

Tanenbaum announced that the AJCommittee study was being published in German by the Bavarian Catholic Academy in Munich and would be distributed to the German and international press as well as to tourists who will be attending the 1980 performance.

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