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Rosh Hashana Morning 2004

This Sermon was delivered by Rabbi Mark Shapiro on March 19, 2004

    Itís been almost three weeks since I saw Mel Gibsonís movie, The Passion, at the West Springfield Showcase Cinemas.

    I didnít like the film then and, even with the passing of time, I havenít grown to like it.  I have had a chance to think about the film, however.  Iíve discussed it with Christians in various interfaith settings, and just about any time Iíve been anywhere and told Jews Iíve seen the movie, Iíve become involved in a conversation.

    Last week I was at a rabbinic retreat for Reform rabbis.  Someone raised a brief question about the film.  Many of us said we would be willing to offer an opinion as long as we didnít get into a long conversation.  Everyone agreed - no major discussion. 

    It made no difference.  One comment led to another, and 20 minutes later we were still talking.

   Everyone has an opinion or a question or a concern, a fear, or a thought about The Passion.

    And tonight itís my turn to say something here from the bimah about The Passion.  So, Iíve been thinking and thinking hard about this very upsetting, violent, manipulative film, and a day or so ago, it occurred to me that unless I could find a Jewish text out of which to spin my remarks, I would not properly fulfill my role as your rabbi.

    But what text?  What response comes out of Jewish tradition?

    Iíve got two, but before I share them let me be very clear.

    What I say tonight about Gibsonís movie or about Judaism is not in any way meant to be a critique of Christianity and Christian faith.

    What I say tonight about Gibsonís movie or about Judaism is not in any way meant to be a critique of Christianity and Christian faith.

    The Passion, which is the term Christians use for the New Testament stories describing the arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, is the central story of Christianity.  For Christians, it is the sacred story.  It more or less plays the same role for Christians that the Jewish story of being slaves, being freed, and going to Mount Sinai for the commandments plays for Jews.  The story of The Passion therefore needs to be respected by all of us here tonight. 

    I also know that there are four Gospels Ė four accounts of what happened to Jesus.  I know that those accounts were not written by people who stood by Jesus and saw it all happen with their own eyes.  The four Gospels were written from 40 to 70 years after Jesus died. 

    But these facts of historic transmission do not give Jews the right to question the significance of the New Testament.  Iíve often met Jews who were eager to minimize the Gospels by saying they werenít even written on the spot.  The implication has been that they are a bit of a fraud.

    Tonight, that approach is not acceptable.  After all, remember our Torah was written over perhaps ten centuries.  Parts of the text may go right back to Abraham; parts of the text may have been created centuries after Abraham, Moses, and Miriam lived. 

    Those who live in glass houses shouldnít throw stones.

    If the Gospels are sacred to Christians, we donít ennoble ourselves as Jews by mocking them.

    No, the real issue tonight is not Christianity nor is it the New Testament.  The real issue is Mel Gibson and his version, or as some of have suggested, his perversion of Christian belief.  Weíre talking about one manís passion, and we need to talk about it because he hasnít shared it with a few close friends.  Heís cleverly shared it with millions of people.  Itís of interest to us because that vision of his is so very ugly and dark.

    Thatís where Jewish symbol and text enter the picture for me.

    As you probably know, Gibsonís film presents the last hours of Jesusí life in excruciating detail.  The first part of the film presents the night-time arrest of Jesus.  It is literally dark for quite some time.  The second part of the film then portrays some of the darkest images you will ever see on the screen.  Satan lurks in the crowd.  Jesus is flayed, whipped, scourged, and abused.  Although it is broad daylight as Jesus schleps his cross up, up, up, and up the mountain, the mood of the film couldnít be darker.  When Jesus finally expires, the heavens let loose with a deluge.  The winds blow and an earthquake rips apart the Jerusalem Temple.

    This is the passion according to Mel.

    Dark, bloody, death-focused, death-oriented.  As Leon Wieseltier wrote in The New Republic, this movie is ďa sacred snuff filmÖit leaves you with the feeling that the man who made it hates life.Ē

    Which leads me to the Jewish symbols that counter this film.  The symbols for me are the Sabbath candles burning right here on our bimah.

    Many of you have heard me elaborate on the candles, but tonight I mean what I say even more.  Whatís wrong with Gibsonís vision of the world is that it is so bleak.  I know there is theoretically hope for Gibson because Jesus died to absolve him of all his sins, but that glimmer of hope is overshadowed for me by the horror of the film.  Satan is everywhere implying that there is a fundamental evil streak in the universe that fights humanity every step of the way.  We are doomed, says Gibson.  We are lost.

    Not me.

    Not me, Mr. Gibson.  As long as Iíve got these candles and I light them every seven days, I am affirming that hope is real.  Faith works.  No matter how black the night may be, the candles still burn.

    And, here is the best part, God wants this.  God blesses us.  God loves us. 

    That is the kindness and compassion that is missing in Gibsonís film. 

    In fact, if you want to really be sick, listen to what happens as Jesus is hanging on the cross flanked on two sides by common criminals.  When one of them mocks Jesus in some way (I canít actually remember what he says), a large, black bird appears around the manís head and attacks him Ė bloodying him, biting him, blinding him. Itís probably only a five second scene, but it serves to remind you how bloody, violent and dark Melís world is.

    That is why i chose a text from our siddur to compensate for mel gibsonís mean movie.

    When I was thinking about a response to Gibsonís darkness, I remembered our classic prayer about light.  Itís called the Yotzer and reads like this Ė ďPraised are You, God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes lightÖwho ordains peace and creates all thingsÖBlessed is the Lord, the Maker of light.Ē

    That is a Jewish vision of God that finds no place in Gibsonís world. 

    But thereís more to it, for the prayer in our siddur actually draws on the prophet Isaiah in a fabulous way.  Our prayer reads like this - ďPraised are You, God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes lightÖordains peace and creates all things. That opening line of the prayer is based on this quote from the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah  describes God as the One ďwho makes lightÖwho ordains peace and creates evil. (Isaiah 45:7)Ē 

    Do you hear the difference?

    In the Bible, Isaiah says God makes light and creates evil.  When the rabbis of the Talmud establish their vision of Judaism, they edit Isaiah.  They donít say God makes light and evil.  They donít do this because they donít believe in a Satan or a devil or an alternate force in the universe.  Therefore, the rabbis paraphrase Isaiah and teach the next 2000 years of Jews to believe in a God who creates light, peace, and all that makes the universe workable.

    Yotzer orÖ.Creator of light.

    Thatís my vision of the world.

    I think that is Judaismís vision of the world.

    I think the absence of any vision like this is what makes Gibsonís film so upsetting and so depressing.

    Of course, there are other dimensions to the misery of this film.  It is obsessively violent.  It is suffused with blood that drips, runs, sprays, spatters, and trickles.  It luxuriates in torture. 

    The film also whitewashes the Romans and absolutely vilifies the Jews. 

    The film purports to tell the history as it was, but does no such thing.  In fact, the greatest deception of the whole enterprise may be the claim to be telling the truth when the film is nothing more than an extended cinematic sermon.

    This isnít reportage; this film sucks out your reason to replace it with fuzzy feelings of guilt and remorse.

    During these days when there is so much talk about child abuse by the Catholic clergy, the grand irony may be that another form of abuse is taking place across the whole country.  Itís the abuse of audiences who see this film and are led to think that they have in any way come close to the real passion of Jesus.

   I guess you would have to say I didnít like Mel Gibsonís latest film.

   I know honest, sincere, and intelligent Christians who have been moved by the film.  For them, it presents the fullness of Jesusí sacrifice for human sin in images that trump all other images.  For them, it is a movie that is faithful.  It is full of faith.   

   For me, however, that faith is fake.  

   Not Christian faith Ė Christian faith can be real and powerful.   

   It is Mel Gibsonís faith that is wanting.   

   It is soaked in blood, pain, and darkness.   

   There is no light in Gibsonís world.  A few seconds of resurrection at the end of the movie canít undo the thousands of vicious images that come before.   

   And fortunately, for us the few moments of resolution in The Passion donít have to undo the rest of the movie.  They donít have to ďworkĒ for us  because in the end what counts for us in this sanctuary tonight is what kind of Jews we are. 

   Perhaps that is the ultimate message:  Sure, all of us should worry about Gibsonís movie and about the possibility of its increasing anti-Semitism.  But more than that, we ought to be worrying about our own Jewish lives.  We ought to be living Jewish lives that are the most significant response to anti-Semitism.    

   If youíre not a Christian and if youíre not an anti-Semite, this film asks you Ė then what are you?  Who are you?  What do you stand for?

   The film asks "What is your passion about Judaism?"   

   For me, the best response to Melís passions is to cultivate my passion.  I can light candles on Shabbat and embrace their centuries-old meaning.  I can pray and embrace the worldview of our sages by using their words.  I can study New Testament (and know more about Christianity), but I can also be passionate about my own texts from Torah and on upwards.

   In centuries past Jews like you and me did not go to the movies, but they knew the harshest truth about the passion story.  At this time of year, the telling of the story often resulted in their being attacked.    

   But that is not the end of the story, because the Jews of centuries past who did die as Jews didnít die for the sake of dying.  They did not seek out martyrdom.  They died in the main because they wanted to live as Jews and just wouldnít give up. 

   All of which means that the best response to their lives is to live what they couldnít.   

   Thank God, we can light candles.

   We can pray wherever and whenever we want.   

   We can study any Jewish text wherever and whenever we want.

   We can be as passionate as we want about Jewish living.   

   If Mel Gibson can get us to summon up our own passion, his movie may in the end do us all a favor.  Weíll be passionate Jews living meaningful lives as Jews.

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