Published: 21 May 2010
Performed every 10 years and attracting some half-million people, the six-hour production has traditionally been a source of friction between the Jewish and Christian communities.
“Passion Plays are theatrical dramatizations of the last days and hours in the life of Jesus based on narratives in the Christian Bible,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s associate director of interreligious and intergroup relations. “Historically, they have triggered anti-Jewish violence.”
The Oberammergau Passion Play, inaugurated in 1634, is the largest and most influential of all Passion Plays, added Marans, who recently returned from the Bavarian town he visited with a group of 15 young American Jews.
“It was probably the single largest group of Jews ever to attend the play,” he said of the delegation.
Co-sponsored by AJCommittee and Germany Close Up — a Berlin-based program designed to introduce American Jews to modern Germany — the May 6 to 16 trip brought the visitors to Germany not simply to attend the play but to learn more about the country.
Marans suggested that the German organization “is loosely like Birthright, but with different goals. It’s heavily funded in order to create a better relationship between young American Jews and Germany.”
The overriding purpose of the trip, he said, was to introduce participants to the interreligious dialogue between Christians and Jews specifically within the German-Jewish context, “with all the implications regarding the post-Holocaust relationship.”
The American group included rabbis, scholars, and students of Jewish-Christian relations, as well as individuals engaged in theater, music, art and art history. In Germany, they were joined by additional American Jewish scholars.
“A key piece of the trip was a three-day, two-night stay in Oberammergau, where the most influential Passion Play on the planet” is performed, said Marans. While there, the Americans enjoyed home hospitality and, he added, the respectful attention of play directors Christian Stückl and Otto Huber.
According to Marans, “The play is a huge undertaking, involving more than half of the town’s 5,000 residents. It has a long history of anti-Jewish elements within it that were initially exposed by AJCommittee and other Jewish groups in the 1970s.”
“A process of reform took place, with the changes starting to be made beginning in 1990, and great progress has been made,” he said. Nevertheless, there are “lingering issues.”
“The primary lingering issue is the fact that the play doesn’t meet the standards of the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate, which dismissed the charge of deicide against the Jews,” he said. “Notwithstanding the good intentions of the current Oberammergau leadership, one leaves the play feeling that the priests specifically and the Jews in general are responsible for the death of Jesus.”
“The play is no longer blatantly anti-Semitic,” he added, “but when one considers it in the context of the advances of the Second Vatican Council, it fails to meet the standard that was set by the Catholic Church for Passion Plays: that the plays should be about Jesus dying for the sins of humanity and not about who is responsible for his death.”
Marans, who read the text of the 2000 play, said he approached the current version with an open mind, hoping that “it would not leave him with the feeling that the Jews were responsible.” Unfortunately, he said, a critical scene “fell short of clarifying that only the Romans had the power and ability to put Jesus to death.”
“Our concern is, What is the impact of watching … a critical scene where you can only hear those Jews who are shouting ‘Crucify him’ and cannot hear the small opposition?”
The American group had “mixed feelings,” he said, noting that he spent time explaining the play to them “within the context of the history of Christian-Jewish relations. Nearly all of them were immersed in a pre-play education process,” he said.
And, he pointed out, while the last few days of their trip were devoted to the play itself, most of the visit was spent “engaging in interreligious dialogue in fascinating contexts in preparation for the play.”
For example, he said, the group spent two days at a “high-level seminar” with graduate students of theology at Berlin’s Humboldt University. They were joined there by scholars as well as the head of the Germany Close Up program. In addition, they visited a museum collection of Passion Play portrayals.
“The overarching goal of the trip was to take advantage of the quintessential venue where Christian-Jewish dialogue has been tangible and tactile, and thereby introduce them to a lifetime as participants” in this dialogue, he said. This was “an immersion program using one of the best-known foci of Christian-Jewish dialogue in the post-Holocaust era.”
He added that Hitler had seen the Oberammergau play in both 1930 and at a special performance in 1934, commenting later, “Never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the time of the Romans.”
Marans pointed out that the Oberammergau play is important “not only because it’s the crucible of the issues in the history of Christian-Jewish relations, but because of its location in the heart of south Bavaria, where Hitler flourished.”
In an AJC opinion piece written in December, he gave another reason why the site of the play is important.
“Pope Benedict XVI, whose papacy so far has had some Catholic-Jewish challenges, once served as the archbishop of Munich and Freising, which includes Oberammergau,” he wrote. “The pope is very familiar with the Oberammergau Passion Play’s relevance to Catholic-Jewish relations. As the first German pope since 1058 and as a native of Bavaria, Benedict’s views of Oberammergau will be scrutinized.”
Marans noted that the anti-Jewish elements of the play — whose previews began on May 8, with the formal opening taking place on May 15 — are also of concern to Christians, as evidenced in a report released last Friday by the Council of Centers of Jewish-Christian Relations. He explained that leading Christians have “joined forces with Jews to analyze and offer constructive criticism of the play.”
Still, he said, “It’s not enough to constructively criticize the play. One must go there and constructively engage with the local population and leadership, which is what we did. We know it had a positive effect and will continue to do so.”
Differing somewhat in his assessment of the play was delegation member Rabbi David Fine, religious leader of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, where Marans had served as well. Fine holds a doctorate in modern German history and has been actively involved in interfaith work.
“My reaction was positive,” he said, adding that he was favorably impressed by the “significant changes” from previous Passion Plays.
“This was not Mel Gibson’s movie,” said Fine, noting that several members of the group had seen Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” — which was decidedly unfriendly to the Jews — and were expecting something similar to that.
“It could not have been more different from Gibson’s version,” he said, noting that there are “different ways of presenting the same text.”
The most significant change from past versions, he said, was stressing that Jesus and his followers were Jewish.
“He’s constantly referred to as ‘rabbi,’” said Fine, “and he says brachot at the Last Supper.”
Fine said that at the beginning of the play, when Jesus comes into the Temple and overturns the merchants’ tables, “He takes out a Torah scroll, lifts it up, and starts singing the Sh’ma and V’Ahavta in Hebrew.”
According to Fine, “There were 700 people on stage, singing a beautiful composition written specifically for the play.”
Fine learned from the director that performers had complained to him that the words were “hard to memorize,” but Stückl insisted that it be done in Hebrew rather than German.
“It was like a play within a play,” said Fine, with the director having to educate and sensitize the cast to Jesus’ Jewish heritage. He even took them to Israel, making a stop at Yad Vashem.
The director also attempted to show that Pontius Pilate was manipulative, said Fine, noting that throughout the play, Pilate was depicted as calling the shots, while the High Priest, Caiaphas, allowed himself to be controlled by the Roman. In addition, he said, Pilate — who in plays presented during the Nazi years was robed in white — here was dressed in black, “looking like a Gestapo officer.”
Still, said Fine, “not everyone saw what Stückl was trying to do. Plenty of people didn’t read it the way I did. I saw it because I understand German and I studied the script.”
Fine noted also that in the scenes called “living images,” which reflect iconic stories in the Bible, pains were taken not to dismiss incidents in the Hebrew Bible as being merely precursors to Christianity. Instead, he said, the narrator presented comparisons between Jewish and Christian stories.
The Ridgewood rabbi acknowledged that any changes to the play must, of necessity, be incremental.
“It’s an inherited story,” he said. “It has to end up the way the New Testament tells the story.”
He noted that “the director can only go so far in changing things. He’s dealing with a whole town and its traditions. The story will always be problematic for us,” he said, “but that is an issue with the New Testament texts themselves. As a work of interpretive ‘midrash’ that tries to present the text in a way that makes sense to us, this was a fascinating attempt that, while unfinished and still requiring more work, is on the right path in finding the precarious balance between textual fidelity and interreligious and historical sensitivity.”
Fine said he also learned from a fellow group member, a graduate student in theater, that at the official cast party, the actors wore T-shirts they made for themselves reading “Oberammergau Passion Play 2010” in Hebrew.
“The Hebrew, he told me, may have had a few errors, but the thought itself is revealing of what is going on now in that small town,” said Fine. “The remaining errors are symbolic of work still left to be done, but still, I imagine that the Third Reich leader is rolling in his grave.”
Discussing the importance of interreligious dialogue, Marans said that “a very important piece of what we did [in Oberammergau] is the development of relationships.” That relationship-building began in October, he added, when he and others visited the director and deputy director of the play to discuss the upcoming presentation.
The goal is to build ties “so this can be the beginning of a conversation, not a one-shot opportunity,” he said. “We’ve set the stage for confidence-building so that a conversation can happen long before the 2020 play.”