Fallout continues this week over Mel Gibson’s upcoming film "The Passion," about the violent death of Jesus, following a blistering review by the Anti-Defamation League and other viewers after a screening in Houston.
New developments include:
Reports that Gibson and his Hollywood based Icon Productions are planning to launch a "Jewish initiative" to address the film’s effects on Christian-Jewish relations. Critics charge the movie features ancient anti-Jewish concepts (believed to have been abandoned by modern-day Christians) that will fuel anti-Semitism.
The ADL, based in New York, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, based in Los Angeles, both reported sharp increases in anti-Semitic mail as result of the controversy.
Houston’s Jewish community is in turmoil following the Aug. 15 screening, community leaders said. There is friction within the city’s Jewish community over the ADL’s decision to break a confidentiality agreement and go public to blast the movie as a potential vehicle for anti-Semitism.
But there is also hurt feelings between the city’s Christian and Jewish leadership, not only due to ADL’s aggressive stance, but because of the vastly different, and perhaps irreconcilable responses to the film: Christians were spiritually moved, while Jews recoiled.
"A lot of pain and suffering has taken place. There needs to be some healing," one Houston Jewish community official told The Jewish Week.
Illustrating the deep interfaith division in Houston are the reactions of Leo Linbeck III, a Catholic who helped Gibson arrange the screening, and prominent Houston Rabbi David Rosen of Congregation Beth Yeshurun.
Linbeck, in an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, warned that "the tactics employed by the ADL violating confidentiality, launching ad hominem attacks on Mel Gibson, pressuring him to self-censor his movie, etc., could backfire and drive a wedge between Jews and Evangelical Christians. That can’t be a good idea."
Linbeck, who is sponsoring community dialogue meetings next week, hailed the "stunningly violent and visually beautiful film" as "definitely the most powerful film I have ever seen. ‘The Passion’ will be very strongly embraced by Christians, particularly Evangelicals."
While strongly rejecting the notion of collective guilt against Jews for Jesus’ death, the Houston businessman also warned that "the promotion of collective guilt (and its evil twin, collective victimhood) is a cottage industry. Collective guilt is a profit center."
At the same time Linbeck dismissed the disparate responses Jews and Christian as a case of "confirmation bias: a common psychological phenomenon that causes us to pay attention to data that confirm our preconceived notions, and ignore data that contradict those notions. "
So it was with the biggest hot-button issue in ‘The Passion’: the complicity of Jews in Jesus’ death," Linbeck wrote. "The ADL, on its Web site, has condemned ‘The Passion’ for blatant anti-Jewish prejudice, including Jewish complicity in the death of Jesus. But for Christians, ‘The Passion’ is true to the Bible in showing that some Jews were complicit in Jesus’ death.
"So, in this case, there is agreement on the facts. ‘The Passion’ presents some Jews of the time as complicit in Jesus’ death. But for one group, that means the film is anti-Jewish. For the other group, it means the film is historically accurate and consistent with the Bible. Does that mean the Bible is anti-Semitic?"
For many, that last question is the crux of the controversy: the "proper" way of reading the Gospels.
Some Christian biblical scholars critical of Gibson say the four differing Gospels must be understood in their historical context. They are not historical transcripts, they say. For example, contrary to Gospel accounts and the film, "Jesus had no Sanhedrin trial and no hearing before Pilate," said Michael Cook, professor of Judeo-Christian studies at Hebrew Union College. And only later "did Christian fears and animosities induce presentations of Jews as the culprits."
Critics also cite 1965’s Vatican II Council, which repudiated the deicide charge against Jews and tries to promote academically informed teachings about Jesus’ death.
But Gibson, whose sect rejects Vatican II guidelines, dismissed the Church initiatives as "revisionism" during a question-and-answer session last week in Houston.
Houston Rabbi David Rosen, who saw the film, warned in a Sabbath sermon last week that Gibson’s use of selective anti-Jewish Gospel passages and his choice of costumes and tone is as dangerous to the Christian-Jewish dialogue as the worst Passion Plays, "which can leave viewers with emotions and attitudes that may be harsher than those which even a literal reading of the Gospel text might induce."
"I can tell you that ‘The Passion’ is just such a production," Rabbi Rosen said in a copy of his sermon obtained by The Jewish Week.
He warned "The Passion" could become as powerful for Christians as "Schindler’s List" was for Jews.
"Many well-meaning Christians are going to leave the theater confused about the role played by Jews in Jesus’ trial and death, especially where it conflicts with the Catholic Church’s teachings since the Second Vatican Council.
"If I am right about this film’s potential appeal, then I believe we need to be ready," with study guides for pastors, priests and rabbis.
Acknowledging that editing is still being done, Rabbi Rosen said that based on Gibson’s radical religious beliefs and recent statements, he doesn’t expect the director to make significant changes to the film he saw.
"Mel Gibson may be well intentioned, but I also believe he is genuinely incapable of putting himself in the shoes of others who have given their entire lives to building ecumenical fences." However Icon marketing director Paul Lauer told several news organizations that Gibson, who co-wrote the script, is directing, and has spent $25 million of his own money, intends to push a "Jewish initiative" to build greater Christian-Jewish dialogue around the film.
"We plan to convene eight to10 significant Jewish leaders over the next 30 days, invite their dialogue, their feedback," Lauer told CNN’s Aaron Brown last week.
Lauer outlined two issues: "What can be done about the film, if anything, and still remain faithful to the Gospel as we see it, and as over 300 Christian leaders have now validated that we are accurate biblically and historically. What can be done … to recognize these Jewish sensibilities."
The second issue is, "What can we build around the film to further Jewish-Christian dialogue, whether it be videotapes, print materials, educational materials." He told CNN he is reaching out to Jewish interest groups, saying "work with us. Build something positive around this controversy."
Contacted by The Jewish Week, Lauer refused to discuss the interfaith initiative. It was not known what if any Jewish groups have been contacted.