In Oberammergau, a Passion Play for the Times

Jesus has been 're-Judaized.'. Church scandals are alluded to.

Sarah Bregger

For almost 400 years, the residents of Oberammergau, a picture-book village in Germany's Bavaria, have told and retold the story of Jesus' last days. Honoring a promise made to God in 1634 to perform a Passion Play once a decade if they were spared from the Bubonic plague, the townspeople began their five-month run this May.

Yet Oberammergau's current production might seem jarring to the originators of that vow, let alone those whose knowledge comes only from Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." With a revised text and new direction, the play has shifted from emphasizing Jesus' suffering—and those responsible for it—toward focusing on his life and deeds.

As the townspeople try to move away from the disturbing anti-Semitic history for which the play has been famous, while also struggling to come to terms with recent church scandals in Germany, they are re-discovering in Jesus' story another message: reform.

"For many centuries Oberammergau was concentrated on a suffering Christ," says Christian Stückl, who is directing the play for the third time. "I wanted to give him a deeper profile, to show that he was a man who wanted to say something."

Whereas the 2000 performance opened with Jesus condemning merchants in the temple, the 2010 play starts earlier in the story, with him entering Jerusalem among the people.

"For me the message of Jesus is not only that he died for our sins on the Cross" says Frederik Mayet, one of the two actors who portray Jesus in the current production. "He had very simple statutes like, 'Love your enemies' and 'If someone slaps your cheek, give him the other.'"

Mr. Mayet, who is gaunt and has shoulder-length blond hair, studied the scriptures in order to absorb these messages. But he was also trying to understand Judaism. In this production, the emphasis on Jesus' Jewishness can't be ignored.

It is a change from earlier versions. Ingrid Shafer, a professor emeritus of religion at the University of Oklahoma who translated the 2000 and 2010 scripts from German to English pointed out to me that the Oberammergau play once portrayed Jesus and his disciples as Christians, while unambiguously depicting Jews as deicides, God-killers whose guilt falls upon their children.

The anti-Jewish sentiment around the Passion Play perhaps reached its apex, unsurprisingly, in the 1930's, as Hitler—who attended the play in 1930 and in the anniversary year of 1934—praised it for showcasing "the whole muck and mire of Jewry."

In this year's production, by contrast, Jesus and his disciples light menorahs, read the Torah and wear yarmulkes. They also recite Hebrew verses—taught to them by head of the Munich synagogue choir. Mr. Mayet, along with all the principal actors and crew, spent a week in Israel learning about first-century Judaism.

Although it is unlikely that first-century Jews carried silver menorahs in public, as happens here, the anachronism helps the audience understand Jesus' heritage. "It's important to know that Jesus had a bar mitzvah," says Mr. Stückl. "What's a bar mitzvah?" people in the village now ask him.

"Now Jesus is portrayed as a reformist rabbi," says Rabbi Noam Marans, the associate director for interreligious and intergroup relations of the American Jewish Committee. Since 1990 the Oberammergau production has been working with Jewish organizations such as the AJC to remove the most blatantly anti-Jewish elements (as recently as 1984, for example, Jewish priests in the play wore horns). This year both the Anti-Defamation League and AJC released statements expressing "concerns" about the production, but praising the efforts to remove anti-Jewish stereotypes from the script and the attempts to re-Judaize Jesus.

The production also highlights the battle of wills between an upstart Jesus and the religious authority of the Jewish priests, corrupted by their own power. For viewers this year, Jesus' frustration with religious institutions may seem particularly familiar. Recent scandals within Germany's Catholic church—for instance, in the nearby city of Augsburg, where Bishop Walter Mixa was forced to resign after allegations of sexual and physical abuse and the misuse of funds—have left many people angry at the clergy.

"You can see from the play that Jesus was against hierarchy and against institutions," says Mr. Mayet, who adds that he was shaken by the recent discoveries of sexual abuse at the Ettal Benedictine Monastery next to the village. These revelations and their effects were discussed in rehearsal, Mr. Mayet adds.

Within this context, the new message of Oberammergau 2010 seems clear. "In the contemporary Catholic church there is clearly a conflict between those in power—the hierarchy—and and ordinary people," says Ms. Shafer, who sees this year's play as reflecting that conflict. "It is showing that whether it is the Christian church or the Jewish community, it is those who have the power who abuse it. And the play's goal was to show what happens with the abuse of power."

In the process, the town is attempting to create a play that inspires Christians with Jesus' message, one that they think the modern-day church needs to hear. And for director Stückl, the play and his re-interpretation is not only a work of art but also an act of faith: "Religion is dying in Europe like an empty shell and the Passion Play is the chance to bring heart to it."

Ms. Breger is the Harold S. White Fellow at Moment Magazine.
Copyright 2013/2014 AJC