Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, has written a very interesting (and dismaying) column about the Jewish reaction to Mel Gibson’s upcoming film The Passion:
Never has a film aroused such hostile passion so long prior to its release as has Mel Gibson’s Passion. Many American Jews are alarmed by reports of what they view as potentially anti-Semitic content in this movie about the death of Jesus, which is due to be released during 2004. Clearly the crucifixion of Jesus is a sensitive topic, but prominent Christians who previewed it, including good friends like James Dobson and Michael Novak who have always demonstrated acute sensitivity to Jewish concerns, see it as a religiously inspiring movie, and refute charges that it is anti-Semitic. While most Jews are wisely waiting to see the film before responding, others are either prematurely condemning a movie they have yet to see or violating the confidentiality agreements they signed with Icon Productions…
For an explanation of why I believe that those Jews protesting Passion lack moral legitimacy we must take ourselves back in time to the fall of 1999. That was when Arnold Lehman, the Jewish director of the Brooklyn Museum presented a show called Sensation. It featured, from the collection of British Jew Charles Saatchi, several works which debased Catholicism including Chris Ofili’s dung-bedecked Madonna.
You may wonder why I highlight the Jewish ethnicity of the players in the Brooklyn Museum saga. My reason for doing so is that everyone else recognized that they were Jewish and there is merit in us knowing how we ourselves appear in the eyes of those among whom we live. This is especially true on those sad occasions when we violate what ancient Jewish wisdom commends as the practice of Kiddush HaShem, which is to say, conducting our public affairs in a way best calculated to bring credit upon us as a group. Maintaining warm relations with our non-Jewish friends is a traditional Jewish imperative and the raison d’?tre of the organization I serve, Toward Tradition.
There’s more, so read it all.
Lapin calls The Last Temptation of Christ a movie so slanderous that, “had it been made about Moses, or say, Martin Luther King Junior, it would have provoked howls of anger from the entire country.” This, I disagree with. Having seen the movie and read the book (many thanks to recent world-traveler Josh for giving to me all those years ago), I myself found the story to be ultimately very uplifting as well as complimentary to Jesus as a person. In it, Jesus is tempted, but ultimately rejects the comfortable life given to him by Satan (with Judas’s help) and instead chooses to die on the cross. While it doesn’t cling to traditional Gospel, it is an extremely spiritual (even hallucinatory) tale that is more flattering to Christian myth than slanderous. So here, I disagree with him.
Part of the problem when dealing with “art,” such as a photo of a picture of Jesus dunked into a glass of urine and dubbed “Piss Christ,” is the intention of the artist. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that depictions of religious icons covered with excrement, urine, pus, blood, or any other bodily fliuds are not art, but pathetic and limp attempts to make the people who believe in them very, very angry. They’re not worth defending and actually demean those who try to do so, because you can do anything stupid, inflammatory, or just plain ridiculous and call it art. Comparing Piss Christ to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because they both have Jesus in them goes beyond ludicrous.
Lapin makes some very good points in his column, and I’m quite troubled by what he’s brought to light. These days, my fellow Jews generally have no better friends in America than evangelical Christians. Luckily, the President of the United States is one of them. It’s a bad idea to alienate our allies, and attempts to bring down movies like The Passion only serve to divide new-found friends.