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Whodunit? Rabbi, ‘messianic Jew’ Debate the Blame for Jesus’ Death

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The murder occurred nearly 2,000 years ago, but the case apparently remains unsolved.

At least, that’s what one could conclude from the hoopla surrounding Mel Gibson’s upcoming film, “The Passion of the Christ,” which many in the Jewish community fear could revive accusations of Jewish culpability for Jesus’ death.

On Tuesday, more than 750 Jews and Christians poured into a large room at a Hilton hotel in Manhattan to consider the question of who killed history’s most famous Jew.

Unlike two years ago, when Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and Michael Brown, a “messianic Jew,” argued over Jesus’ messianic claims, this time the two panelists kept their tone passionate but amiable, joking and often agreeing with each other.

“This is a Jew-Jew discussion about the most important Jew who ever lived,” Brown said in his opening statement.

Brown spent the first five minutes of his presentation condemning the Catholic Church for its history of anti-Semitic persecution sparked by the deicide charge — that Jews killed Jesus and that every generation of Jews throughout history bears responsibility.

Brown chose a more theological perspective that blames Jesus’s death on all of humanity, because of its sins.

Christians, who made up a little more than half the audience, responded to many of Brown’s assertions with cries of “Amen!”

The debate was sponsored by the Chosen People Ministries, a messianic Jewish group. Boteach thanked the group for not placing restrictions on what he could say.

Boteach began by placing the guilt for Jesus’ death on the Romans, and calling on Jews to reclaim Jesus from the gentiles.

“I think it’s time to take back Jesus from the anti-Semitic Christians,” Boteach said. “He’s one of us.”

Boteach also expressed admiration for evangelical Christians who support Israel and espouse moral values similar to those of Orthodox Jews.

Boteach said he feared that the bonds that have developed between Christians and Jews in recent decades will be undone by “The Passion of the Christ,” which is set to open in theaters Feb. 25.

Gibson, who belongs to a fundamentalist Catholic splinter group that rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Conference in 1965 — which repudiated the deicide charge against Jews — has said that he wanted “The Passion” to portray the intense violence of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life.

While Tuesday’s debate focused less on the film than on the wider issues separating Jews from so-called messianic Jews — many of whom are actually Christian, not Jewish — both speakers had clear thoughts about the film’s potential consequences.

“This is bad for evangelicals because Mel Gibson is closing Jewish hearts to Jesus,” Boteach said at a pre-debate press conference.

Many evangelical groups have openly supported “The Passion,” hoping it will touch viewers nationwide.

“I think it will be impossible for anybody, Jewish or not, to walk out of a movie theater and not be asking themselves, ‘Who is this man Jesus?’ ” said Kyle Fisk, executive administrator of the National Association of Evangelicals, the largest network of evangelical Christians in North America.

Unlike most Jewish community leaders — who have not been invited to the film’s few screenings — Fisk saw two screenings and said he thinks the film will advance rather than hinder Jewish-Christian relations.

Both Brown and Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries, admitted that messianic Jews don’t completely agree with the evangelicals’ positive take on the film.

“Messianic Jews are not quite as enthusiastic as evangelicals, because we understand the raw nerve that this is touching,” Glaser said.

While Glaser said he believes some Jews played a part in Jesus’ death, he said problems arose when the death was blamed on all Jews for all time.

Many Jewish groups are concerned that scenes in the film of Jews calling for Jesus’ death could ignite new waves of anti-Semitism, similar to the effect of medieval passion plays.

In response to the fears, the Anti-Defamation League asked Gibson to add a postscript to the film denouncing anti-Semitism. A Gibson spokesman said a postscript would not work cinematically.

The Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, an umbrella organization for 90 messianic congregations, also released a statement asking Gibson to repudiate Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, and wants him to include a rider to the film clarifying that only a small number of Jews demanded Jesus’ death.

The union’s statement said that Jews and Christians will see the film through different lenses. Christians will base their opinions on how closely it hews to the stories of the New Testament, while Jews will evaluate it according to other historical sources.

“I’m with the side of history — and as much as we know, the Jews did not kill Jesus,” said Leo Shliselberg, 77, a religious Jew who attended Tuesday’s debate.

Shliselberg said he won’t watch “The Passion” — or any future Gibson films, for that matter.

Although Boteach has encouraged people to boycott the $25 million film, both he and Brown plan to see it.

“I can say for a fact that if there’s anything that comes out in the way of misunderstanding or anti-Semitic venom from that film, my voice will be as loud as Shmuley’s to fight against it, protest it and expose it,” Brown said.

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