Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Church School: 10:45 AM
Constantine to Oberammergau:
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 19, 2010
Where does anti-Semitism come from? Why, throughout history, have the Jews been so hated by others? What are the reasons for the rushing currents of anti-Semitism that seem to flow, never too far beneath the surface of Western civilization?
There are theories for why Jew-hating has come lurching down through
Christian history, “like a drunk who can’t quite find his way home,” as one
writer has put it. The grand-daddy of all these theories—the one that seems to
hold on most virulently-- tells us that
so many (supposedly) “good Christians” hate the Jews because the Jews are
responsible for the death of Jesus. “His blood be upon us and our children,” the
All of these theories have resonated within the addled mind of the West to one degree or another over the years, and they have produced, throughout history, a most unsavory brew.
By the time of the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century,
Christianity was declared the state religion. But under
The emperors declared that only those who accepted Christ—only those who were baptized—would be saved. They were not just talking about salvation after death, in heaven, either; they were talking about being saved (or not) in this life, too. Accept Jesus—or die: that was the choice the subjects of the Emperor, including his Jewish subjects, faced.
The first mass slaying of Jews by Christians occurred in the year 414 in
Around the same time, the Bishop of Milan, hardly a random member of an “unruly mob”, declared that he was ready to burn down synagogues in his diocese, if need be—so “that there might not be a single place where Christ is denied.” A synagogue, this “man of God” declared was a “haunt of infidels, a home of the impious, a hiding place of madmen, under the damnation of God himself.” If one were to rebuild a synagogue that had happened to be burned down, the bishop said, that person would be committing “an act of treason to the Faith”.
So it was in the name of the Christian God that the great Crusades were
launched to wrest control of the
“The Jews are condemned to eternal slavery,” Pope Leo XI declared in 1555—in language strikingly similar to Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws of four hundred years later: “They are to own no real estate. They are to attend no university. They are to hire no servants. Their roles in society are to be strictly limited… They are to wear distinctive clothing and badges. Jews are not to be addressed as “sir” by Christians…”
Undergirding these official pronouncements was a foundation of popular
lies. The Jewish community was accused of killing children; of mixing human
blood with their matzo at Passover; of desecrating the Eucharist; of poisoning
the wells; of spreading the Plague (even though as many Jews died,
proportionally, in the plagues that swept
Nor are such calumnies against the Jews merely the product of an overactive medieval imagination. They continued into the Modern era:
During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (later lauded by Hitler himself as “the greatest German reformer of all time”) wrote a book titled The Jews and Their Lies (the title sort of gives away Luther’s main point). He wrote of the Jews as “a brood of vipers”. “This miserable, blind, and senseless people,” Luther continued. “Their arrogance is as solid as an iron mountain.” Luther’s solution? Burn their synagogues, of course!
Then came the Enlightenment—which wasn’t really so “enlightened” as far as the Jews were concerned, at least. Voltaire, especially, hated the Jews because they wouldn’t let go of their tribal God (as he saw it) and their “cultic” superstitions. Later, even Karl Marx himself (hardly a Christian saint; a Jew himself actually, and the grandson of two rabbis) seems to have drunk the anti-Semitic Kool-Aid. Marx, too, ranted against “the insipid vapor of Judaism” and the need for “the emancipation of humanity from Judaism”. Even Darwin’s theory of evolution—that basic, scientific building bock of modern society—was used by some to justify the extermination of older (supposedly) more “savage” races—like the Jews.
And perhaps it took the horrors of the Holocaust – which can, in some ways, be viewed as the logical culmination of 2000 years of anti-Semitic poison in the Western bloodstream—to wake Christianity from its deadly trance, and to set the Christian faith on a new and different path, as far as its relations with the Jews were concerned.
Could it be, too, that the twisted, difficult road to right relations
takes us a highly beautiful, but (given its own history) highly unlikely place,
high in the mountains of
One of the observers at that special performance in 1934 was none other
But after the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust, a group
of American Jewish intellectuals, including Arthur Miller and Leonard Bernstein,
signed a petition condemning the play’s portrayal of the Jews. They were soon
joined by well-known intellectuals within
Those early dialogues represented an early planting that took years—even decades—to bear fruit. The first thing to go, in 1984, were the horn-shaped hats worn by the High Jewish Priests, that made them look more like Norsemen (or—more to the point—Devils) than Jewish holy men. The blood oath from Matthew-- “His blood be upon us and our children”—was excised from the script in time for the year 2000’s production.
Then, in preparation for this year’s production, an entirely new script,
developed under the auspices of a council of rabbis and a theological adviser
appointed by the archbishop of
From my experience at
But what about the theology? It’s a great production, sure. But is it still full of all that anti-Semtic garbage? That’s a fair question to ask. Art does not exist in a vacuum, and as moral men and women, we cannot detach a particular artwork from the ideas it represents. So does the Oberammergau Passion Play, as beautiful and well-crafted as it may be, simply perpetuate the anti-Semitic nightmare that has marked our common Jewish and Christian history?
I think not. Rather,
Of course, not everyone will be pleased with what the Passion Play represents
and the story it tells. It is a Passion Play, after all: the story of the final
days of Jesus, from his entry into
But for people genuinely interested in dialogue—not in changing one another’s minds so that everyone agrees with us, but genuine dialogue, where we hold out the possibility that we might be changed, as surely as the other—the results are heartening and deeply moving. In my opinion, they add a deeper resonance and a whole new level of context to the Biblical narratives.
In previous productions, the Romans didn’t appear until the arrest of Jesus at
Perhaps most surprising is the amount of sympathy for Judas, who is portrayed as
wanting to facilitate dialogue with the priesthood and is duped into betraying
Jesus. When Judas understands that he has been manipulated, he storms the
Also remarkable is an undeniable Jewish sensibility that permeates the entire
play. The scenes of the Passion are interspersed with scenes from the Hebrew
Bible, showing the unmistakable link of the faith of Jesus with the faith of his
ancestors. Christian Stuckl, the play’s director, also stressed the link to
Judaism. “Jesus never lived as a Christian, but rather from the day he was born
to the day he died he lived as a Jew,” explained Stuckl. Jesus enters the
And Modl continues:
“This play of redemption seeks to capture the fears and longings of the people of our times and give them the kind of hope offered by faith… the play is not museum-like folk theater, it is a theater of the people for the people that reaches deep into life and seeks to convey hope.”
A hope based on a true reading of history. But a hope which seeks to redeem our history through a fearless searching of the past, and a fearless commitment to the worth and dignity of all people with whom we share this planet.