Oberammergau Passion Play - Introduction

The Oberammergau Passion Play, a ritual drama primarily concerned with the events of Jesus’ last days and performed at regular ten-year intervals in the village of Oberammergau, Germany, presents unique challenges – and opportunities – for both Christians and Jews. Embedded in the play’s 366-year history are certain anti-Jewish elements that have prompted the American Jewish Committee and others to act in tandem with Oberammergau leaders to transform aspects of the drama’s text, set, costumes, and performance. AJC has been involved with this issue since 1929, and continues to be a leading participant in dialogue about and in Oberammergau today.

In the weeks before the premiere of the 2010 Passion Play, AJC, in partnership with Germany Close Up, brought a group of young American Jewish leaders to Germany in order to engage in critical discussions about the play within the wider contexts of German history, German Jewry, and Jewish-Christian relations. The ten-day trip centered on conversations with the Passion Play’s directors, organizers, and actors; it also included a seminar with theology students at Humboldt University in Berlin, a visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, a meeting with German Catholics and Protestants as part of Ecumenical Church Day in Munich, and, of course, a viewing of the Passion Play itself.

In July 2010, AJC further heightened its involvement with the Passion Play by hosting a joint Catholic-Jewish leadership journey to Oberammergau. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who also serves as the moderator of Jewish affairs for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, joined AJC’s director and associate director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, Rabbis Gary Greenebaum and Noam Marans, in attending a performance of the Passion Play and engaging in critical dialogue with the director and assistant director of the Play. Father Dennis McManus, assistant to the Archbishop, also joined the group. These AJC missions are now landmarks for constructive interfaith approaches to addressing the historically anti-Jewish aspects of the Oberammergau Passion Play.

For centuries, Passion Plays have been a focus of concern for Christians and Jews, and never more so than in the ongoing post-Holocaust era. Like certain other Passion Play performances, Oberammergau has perpetuated negative stereotypes of Jews and incited acts of violence against Jews. Oberammergau’s legacy is particularly problematic: in addition to the stereotypically negative portrayal of Jews in its Passion Play, the Bavarian village was once a Nazi stronghold. After seeing the Oberammergau Passion Play, Hitler claimed that “never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened at the time of the Romans.” Although much has changed in Oberammergau since then, Jewish and Christian leaders have sometimes found it difficult – even in recent years – to effect meaningful transformations in the play’s message.

A major concern regarding Oberammergau has been the play’s failure to fully adhere to the Catholic Churche’s Nostra Aetate statement (1965), which spoke out against those who would blame Jesus’ death on the collective Jewish people. While collaborations between American Jewish organizations, the Catholic Church, Oberammergau leaders, and Bible scholars have secured significant improvements in the script and performance of the play, the 2010 version still requires vigilance about eradicating anti-Jewish elements.

The most positive change in the 2010 Passion Play is the firm depiction of Jesus as Jewish, lifting a Torah prop high and leading the people in singing the important Sh’ma prayer. However, the drama continues to portray the Jewish crowd, and the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas in particular, as primarily responsible for Jesus’ death. AJC looks forward to continuing its efforts to positively transform any lingering anti-Jewish elements of the Oberammergau Passion Play through collaboration and dialogue.

AJC in Germany for the Oberammergau Passion Play

May 2010


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Left to right: Oberammergau Passion Play Deputy Director Otto Huber, Oberammergau Mayor Arno Nunn, AJC Associate Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations Rabbi Noam Marans

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Left to right: Oberammergau Passion Play Director Christian Stuckl, AJC Associate Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations Rabbi Noam Marans

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