Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Wrestling with Jesus. An interesting post at Atlantic Blog on The Passion, with some good links to Jewish responses and debate on the possible anti-semitic impact of the film and their perceptions of Christianity in general. I would really like to reserve judgment on the film until I see it (when and if it ever gets over here). I'm intrigued to see if I can understand some of the Aramaic dialogue (its basically a dialect of Hebrew) and to see how they handle the whole issue of the languages in general. On the other hand, I'm told the movie is obscenely violent and I'm not sure I want to sit through a solid hour of a guy being flayed alive and then crucified...But all this got me thinking of my own relationship to Christianity and Christians in general. Like most American Jews, its been a highly ambivilent one. My father's family came from Eastern Europe and generally held the opinion that Christianity in its devout form was inherently anti-semitic and hostile to Jews and Judaism. On the other hand, I spent my early childhood in an Irish Catholic suburb of Boston where I never experienced even a trace of anti-semitism. I'm not sure I even percieved much of a difference between us and them, besides the fact that we didn't celebrate Christmas. My first experience with devout Christianity, however, was at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where the wall-size midevil depictions of the Crucifixion horrified me as a young child. Its unfair, I realize, but Christianity has in many ways remained that way in my own perception: a kind of bloody death cult, semi-idolatrous and more than a bit fascinated with the ferocious brutality and violence of Jesus's last hours. Something about the Christ figure was always hugely disconcerting to me, and I contrasted it in my own mind with the Judaism I grew up with, which I felt to be, at its best, joyous and enraptured with life, in opposition to the dark, sin-obsessed Christianity I felt I knew. Of course, my experience of Christianity was, at best, tangential. I did not witness a church service until I was twenty, when I saw mass performed at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. That experience changed my perception somewhat: I admired the pageant of it, the tremulous silence of the processional of priests and the way the service made the abstract manifestly physical. I also became very good friends with a philo-semitic Christian Scientist, who proved to me once and for all that the mere fact of being a believing Christian did not axiomatically make one an anti-semite. His grandmother, who died at the age of ninety, had a devout faith in Jesus as a healing force which comforted her through her long illness. Her quiet love for a pastoral, eternally compassionate Messiah bespoke a Jesus who had little to do with the blood-spattered totem who had terrified me as a child. But even that I began to understand. It was not the violence and death that was at the center of the Crucifixion. It was the sacrifice, the willingness of a divine figure to suffer human pain for the redemption of his chiildren. The greater the suffering, the greater the sacrifice. The blood and nails and shattered limbs were not fetishes but the stigmata of a sinful humanity and the infinite compassion of its savior.

Of course, I am still on the outside looking in. Aspects of Christianity still mystify me. I still find the worship of a human being as God discomforting from a Jewish point of view. The Christian use of Jewish scripture to justify Jesus's divinity still strike me as obviously false and distorted. The long history of Christian anti-semitism cannot be ignored. Many Christian denominations seem unable to accept the Jewish return to power and self-determination which Zionism represents. Others seem incapable of relating to us as anything other then harbingers of the Second Coming. There is a fervent love and a fervent contempt for my people among Christians that I often find equally worrisome. As in all great faiths, Christianity has glorious ideals, but it also has corruption, hypocrisy, and venality. Original Sin is an idea which still repels me. I still find myself contrasting Judaism's embrace of life with the Christian concentration on the next world...but what of it? Christianity is not a single creed or ideology. It is a world. A civilization unto itself. A complex mosaic of often conflicting and paradoxical ideas. Mel Gibson's film may or may not be anti-semitic. It may or may not incite further anti-semitism. But whatever it is or is not, it is not Christianity itself. A single film, like a single creed or a single denomination, cannot define an entire faith. Considering the ugly controversy that may be about to ensue, this is something both of us need to try to remember.