Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Reverent or Revolting? Jewish Critics Review “temptation”

August 15, 1988
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Behold, the movie.

Defying calls for a boycott by Christian fundamentalists and dodging picketers in Los Angeles, New York and seven other North American cities, filmgoers, including many Jewish leaders, were finally able to judge for themselves the merits — artistic or religious — of “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Packed houses greeted the film’s first showings on Friday, as did generally favorable reviews in the major media. Protests of director Martin Scorsese’s film peaked the day before, when 10,000 protesters marched on Universal Pictures headquarters in Los Angeles to denounce what they felt is a blasphemous portrayal of the life of Jesus.

The anti-Semitic content of the protests was muted during the film’s first weekend. Earlier in the month-long campaign against the film’s release, protests warning of a “backlash against Jews” were directed at chairman Lew Wasserman and other Jewish principals in the MCA conglomerate, which owns Universal.

Prominent Jews — professional critics and others — who saw the film were unanimous in denouncing the anti-Semitic tone of the protests.

But when discussing the film itself and its controversial content, unanimity was dropped in favor of a spirited discussion of what the film means to art, religion, and the centuries-old debate between Judaism and Christianity.


The film earned the admiration of Annette Insdorf, Professor and Director of Film Studies at Columbia University, and the author of two books on cinema. Insdorf praised both Scorsese’s moviemaking and the film’s message for filmgoers.

“I must admit that I can understand why certain Christians have been nervous,” said Insdorf. She referred to the 30-minute finale of the film, in which a crucified Jesus, portrayed by Willem Dafoe, imagines marrying Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) and raising a family.

Said Insdorf: “Perhaps if I were a Christian mother I would not want my children to see that section of the film for fear it might confuse them about a sacred being.

“Nevertheless, I found the first two hours such a compelling affirmation of faith that if I were a Christian, I would be saying ‘What a celebration of us!”

A second professional filmgoer, critic Michael Medved, rejects the film on both artistic and religious grounds.

“I am offended by the movie in two ways,” said Medved, co-host of the “Sneak Previews” program on the Lifetime cable network and public television.

“First, as a movie critic, because this terrible movie is about as pleasant as three hours in a dentist’s chair.

“But I am also offended as a Jew because of the total lack of sensitivity to religion in general, and Christianity in particular.”

The film, he said, “is a direct, unmistakable assault on the foundations of Christian belief.”

For Medved, an observant Jew, a number of scenes which show Jesus in conflict with his fellow Jews “recycle a lot of anti-Semitic canards that have appeared in some films of the past.”

“The religion of Israel is portrayed as a primitive pagan cult — bloody, brutal and benighted,” said Medved.

Furthermore, Medved was disturbed by the “Arabic” flavor with which ancient Judea is depicted. The movie was filmed in Morocco, and Peter Gabriel’s score relies heavily on Arabic musical instrumentation and textures.

“I wonder if that sort of portrayal was dictated by the exigencies of the politics of the moment,” said Medved.


While not a professional film critic, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum brought to the movie his experience as chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. In portraying the human side of Jesus, said Tanenbaum, Scorsese takes “a radical departure from a reverent Christian understanding of (Jesus’) asceticism.”

Tanenbaum, the international affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, also found what he called “some strong traces of the classic anti-Jewish elements found in traditional passion plays.”

Tanenbaum compared “Temptation” to other films about Jesus and called it “the least Jewish of any life of Jesus I’ve ever seen.”

Organizational heads who viewed the film preferred reserving artistic judgment of the film’s artistic merits.

However, Seymour Reich, international president of B’nai B’rith, noted in a statement that the movie “was made in good faith by Christians who did not intend to mock religion, and who sincerely profess reverence for Christianity and Christian theology.”

Because the film has found support among the “highest levels of the Christian clergy in this country” — it was praised by some liberal Catholic and Protestant ministers for portraying Christ’s human side — “there is no justification for the attempts of censorship and infringement of free speech,” said Reich.


Despite its relatively peaceful opening, however, “The Last Temptation of Christ” has raised troubling questions about the relation of artistic license to religious sensitivity.

Film critic Medved, while denouncing the anti-Semitic flavor of early protests, nonetheless found it “disgusting” that Wasserman, MCA president Sidney Scheinberg and Universal chairman Tom Pollack, all Jews, “were so insensitive to Christian sensibilities.”

According to Medved, the film “shows the depth of Hollywood’s insensitivity to religion in general.”

In response, one national Jewish leader called Friday for a conference that would include representatives of the film industry and the Christian and Jewish faiths.

The purpose, according to Rabbi A. James Rudin, interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, would be to defuse the tensions aroused by the film.

Said Rudin: “We need a roundtable of mutual respect — not to stifle the creative talent of artist nor to silence the very valid concerns of religious groups, but to break down the stereotypes and caricatures that have emerged this summer.”

Recommended from JTA