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July-August 1999

Scene from the Oberammergau Passion play. To Christians, the play and the village where it's set are almost sacred. To Jews, mindful of the false witness against Jews enshrined in Christian theology, the place and the event symbolize a troubling legacy. Photo courtesy German National Tourist Office

Dialogue on a problematic Passion

Next year, many United Church members will mark the birth of Christianity by making pilgrimages. Some will journey to Bethlehem, some to Rome. Others will travel to a little mountain village in southern Germany.

In 1633, the tiny village of Oberammergau, in the Bavarian Alps, was facing death. The plague was sweeping central Europe and the village elders struck a bargain with God: were the village to be spared, then every 10th year thereafter the villagers would stage the great, late-medieval Passion play of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The village was spared. The villagers have kept the bargain. Oberammergau has become a place of pilgrimage for thousands from around the world. The Passion play is big business; it is also the focus of controversy.

For generations the Jewish community has argued that the Jewish people are condemned in the play for the death of Jesus, beyond even the blame found in problematic passages in the Gospels ó without benefit of historical qualification. Criticism has intensified in the last half century. Bavaria is the home not only of Oberammergau, but of Hitlerís mountain retreat.

Millennial fever will make next yearís performance bigger than ever. Also in 2000, the United Church will be studying the document, Bearing Faithful Witness, which addresses the false witness against the Jews long enshrined in Christian theology. The following dialogue is offered from that perspective.

Professor Eric Mendelsohn is a University of Toronto mathematician and Past President of Synagogue Darchei Noam in Toronto. Rev. James Christie is minister of Southminister United in Ottawa and a member of the national interchurch/interfaith committee. The two are friends, regularly consulting one another on issues of sensitivity between Christians and Jews.

Mendelsohn: So, Jim, what was your experience in 1990 when you attended the Passion play in Oberammergau?

Christie: For me, it was moving and overwhelming ó as much, perhaps, for the scope of the production and the sense of history as for the story. Odd thing; the production runs the length of a full work day, but it seemed to take no time at all.

Mendelsohn: Did you notice that although Jesus and all of the disciples were Jews, only Judas is depicted as a caricature of a Jew?

Christie: Iíve searched my memory and gone back to look at our photo-souvenir book ó but in 1990, Iíd be hard-pressed to say I noticed.

Mendelsohn: Part of my sensitivity is based on long history.

Christie: As a Canadian, I cringe every time I remember my first visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, and being confronted by the banner headline of our own governmentís comment, during the Second World War, on European Jews attempting to emigrate to Canada: ìNone is too many.î I donít know any Christians who would not, now, be horrified.

Mendelsohn: One Jewish interpretation of a pilgrimage involves four aspects: a holy congregation, traveling to a holy place, at a holy time, to hear and wrestle with holy text. Is the holiness of place palpable at Oberammergau?

Christie: Like you, Iíve visited a number of ìholy places.î I donít think I sensed the same thing in Oberammergau. Perhaps because itís hard to know whether it was a centuries-old faithfulness to witness to the Gospel, or good tradition blended with good tourism. But I did sense the faithfulness of those who made the journey. And Iím prepared to give the villagers the benefit of the doubt. After four centuries, theyíve earned it.

Mendelsohn: Speaking of the villagers, I understand that they have historically resisted softening of the text to remove the anti-Jewish bias.

Christie: Iíve also heard that the resistance to sensitivity has been weakening. Apparently, in next yearís play Jesus is to be portrayed as an influential Jewish teacher; Jesus, Mary and the Apostles as Jews firmly located in their own traditions. The scene based on Matthewís ìblood-guilt passageî ó that the Jewish people are guilty of Jesusí death for all time ó has been removed.

Mendelsohn: Well, you know parts of the Gospel according to St. John are problematic for Jews. John demonizes and ascribes civil powers to the Pharisees that they never had at the time. When Torontoís Tafelmusik presented Bachís St. John Passion, they had a statement about the sensitive interpretation of the text, and in the same year gave a concert at a synagogue instead of their usual venue in a church. Bachís music emphasizes the universal rather than Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion; in that sense the music is a commentary. Is there anything in the Oberammergau experience that might achieve some of the same things?

Christie: If there were in 1990, they escaped me. But you know, Eric, it has only been very recently that the Passion narrative from John has been prefaced by cautionary comments in Good Friday services. Weíve been slow learning. As to a more universal responsibility for the crucifixion, there was certainly nothing attractive in the portrayal of Roman might in the play.

Mendelsohn: Perhaps the ìRoman mightî was a comment on how the Lutherans of 1633 felt about Roman Catholicism. In any event, if I could ask anything of a Christian friend planning to go to Oberammergau, it would be to take a copy of Bearing Faithful Witness. Actually, Iíd ask they follow the lead of Jean ChrÈtien on his recent visit to Poland, and include a trip to Dachau.

Christie: Iíd echo that. My hope would be to revisit Oberammergau someday with a Jewish friend. Iíd like a critique on the spot. But Iíd also like to try and demonstrate some of the beauty of the story. The essence of Christianity is witness; tragically, weíre only just beginning to realize that it is a blasphemy when it includes false witness. Tough issues.

Mendelsohn: Yes, these are tough issues. Silence in response to false witness is also a blasphemy. Maybe if people of good faith work together, in 2010 we could gather a holy, multifaith group that would visit some problematic sites: Auschwitz and Birkenau in Poland; Oberammergau in Germany; the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem; the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Palestinian Hebron.

Christie: Now there, Eric, is a project worth working on. Hans Kung once said that he believed historians would look back at this most troubled of centuries and see, not primarily war, gulag and Holocaust, but rather that moment in history when the worldís great faiths first began to talk to one another.

Mendelsohn: If there is a brave, adventurous tour operator who would organize such a pilgrimage, please get in touch with one of us.

Postcript: In the upcoming Passion play, both Jesus and Mary will be portrayed, not as simply suffering, but as strong people. According to press liaison Harald Rettelbach of Oberammergau, thatís an example of revisions being made to keep pace with changes in Christian theology ó not in response to Jewish criticism. While it is true that Jesus is more definitely located in Jewish tradition, he says, and the ìresult is that the play is better for, and nearer to, Jewish people,î the reason for altering text and music is not because of Jewish people. Our reason is a Christian reason.î

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