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Jewish Congress Asks Catholic Bishops for Stand on Passion Play

March 21, 1967
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The president of the American Jewish Congress today called on the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops to implement their recently published guidelines for Catholic-Jewish dialogue by clarifying the Church position on Jewish guilt for the Crucifixion and combatting religious prejudice resulting from the presentation of Passion Plays.

Rabbi Arthur J. Lelyveld, in a 1,500-word letter to Bishop John J. Carberry, chairman of the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said he welcomed the guidelines as an “effective instrument in strengthening understanding between Catholics and Jews.” But he added that he was “deeply troubled” by the “unfortunate” wording of one of the dialogue themes, which he said may be construed as being weaker than the Vatican Council pronouncement issued by Pope Paul.

And he cited the presentation of a Passion Play under church auspices in Union City, N.J. — described as “permeated” by a “crude and blatant anti-Semitic atmosphere… of hatred for the Jew” — which he said was “antithetical to both the letter and the spirit of Vatican Council pronouncements and to the thrust of your own guidelines.”

The American Jewish Congress leader said the guidelines spoke “eloquently and directly” to some of the central problems of dialogue between Christians and Jews. “We especially refer to your sensitivity to the need to avoid proselytization; to your acknowledgement of the ‘living and complex reality’ of post-Biblical and contemporary Judaism, and to your espousal of a ‘frank and honest’ treatment of historic Christian anti-Semitism, including the need for maturity and discretion in the presentation of the Crucifixion story.”


Rabbi Lelyveld noted, however, that the wording of the Bishops’ statement on the presentation of the Crucifixion story urged that it be presented “in such a way as not to implicate all Jews of Jesus’ time or of today in a collective guilt for the crime,” whereas the Vatican Council declaration said: “What happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” He pointed out that “the persistence of the claim of such guilt, even when it is ascribed in limited fashion, makes interreligious dialogue difficult.”

He informed Bishop Carberry that a group of leaders of the American Jewish Congress had attended a special student matinee performance of the Passion Play which had been presented by the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church of Union City, N.J. in a local theater operated as church property and that these leaders had emerged “deeply disturbed by what they found to be the crude and blatant anti-Semitic atmosphere that permeated the entire production.”

Rabbi Lelyveld declared — “We in the American Jewish Congress recognize that no dialogue can or should seek to alter what is primary in the tradition and the scriptures of either faith. We are, however, encouraged by your statement to believe that we stand with you in seeking to combat religious prejudice and bigotry inherited in folk traditions and fortified by such spectacles as the Passion Play in Union City.”

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