July 2, 2010
BERLIN – The redo of Germany's famous Oberammergau Passion Play apparently works.
A prominent American rabbi and the archbishop of New York said Friday that this year's production is more balanced than in the past, after the director removed several stereotypes that had raised concerns of anti-Semitism.
New York's Roman Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Rabbi Gary Greenebaum of the American Jewish Committee watched the play together Thursday in the Bavarian village where it has been performed for more than 400 years. They both told The Associated Press in separate phone interviews they agreed at a joint dinner during the play's intermission that the show was more sensitive than previous performances.
The two religious leaders lauded the passion play's director, Christian Stueckl, for his re-enactment of the suffering and last days of Jesus Christ.
"I have always been sensitive to Jewish concerns that the play could perpetuate the ancient and tragically unjust misunderstanding that the Jews are responsible for the killing of Jesus," Dolan said. "But thanks to the courage of the directors, the villagers and the Jewish leaders, the script has gradually been renewed."
Greenebaum said the American Jewish Committee and other Jewish groups had worked with the producers of the Oberammergau Passion Play since the 1970s to help them overcome anti-Jewish stereotypes. He said this year's performance "is more balanced than ever before and we need to appreciate the tremendous efforts that have gone into it."
The Alpine village of Oberammergau has performed the passion play for more than 400 years and it is considered the most famous one in the world. It is staged only every ten years, and roughly half of the village's population — some 2,500 people — perform in it.
Changes to the performance, which began in 1633 to fulfill a promise the village made to God if he were to end the Black Plague, are always hotly debated.
In this year's edition, Stueckl — who normally directs at Munich's Volkstheater — has altered the script and staging of his third Oberammergau Passion Play to make even clearer that the Jews at the time could not be held responsible for the killing of Jesus.
Stueckl has also highlighted the Jews' oppression by the Romans, making Pontius Pilate a more provocative character, and clearly showing Jesus' Jewish roots.
"Jesus understands himself completely as a Jew. He was never baptized, he never had a First Communion, but he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at 12 and died as a Jew on the cross," Stueckl told the AP at an interview in May. "Increasing awareness of this is very important to me."
Greenebaum and Dolan, who went backstage before the play to chat with the actors, discussed the five-hour-long play over dinner during its three-hour intermission, then continued their talks for two more hours.
They are both involved in interreligious dialogue in the United States. Dolan is the co-chair of the Catholic-Jewish relationship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Greenebaum is the U.S. director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group based in New York.
Still, they said some concerns remained.
The depiction of Caiaphas — the Jewish high priest whose blame for Jesus' crucifixion has long been debated by Jews and Christians — seemed to stick out.
"The high priest character is still the most difficult to watch for Jews," said Greenebaum. "He does do things that could be seen as stereotypical."
While not explicitly referring to Caiaphas, Dolan also said some scenes in the play still "may give impression that Jewish people at the time bear guilt with the crucifixion."
However, this year's production is a far cry from past performances, when Jews were shown with horns and the Jewish crowd affirmed that Jesus' "blood be upon us and upon our children."
"The Oberammergau Passion Play is a paradigm for the friendship of Jews and Catholics, it has shown low points in their relation in the past, but now it has also become a sign of great progress," Dolan said.