I will begin our call with three comments that perhaps can help us to frame the discussion.
A: Mel Gibsons role has been despicable.
People have been careful not to call him an anti-Semite, and I am not going to suggest that he is.
But, going back five or six months, he marketed the film and did so very effectively by saying inflammatory things about Jews and the Jewish people, by threatening to kill his critics, by claiming that his enemies were threatening to kill him, and in general by setting Jews against Christians and liberal Christians against conservative Christians.
And while certainly not denying the Holocaust as his father has done, at one point he minimized its importance and at another point he charged that Judaism was trying to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church.
In recent weeks, Mr. Gibson has substantially modified his tone, and that is welcome in every way.
But Mr. Gibson is not simply a director who happens to be a religious man with some idiosyncratic views. He is also a savvy Hollywood insider who has exploited and fomented controversy in order to sell movie tickets
B: My second comment: I have no patience for those who say we should have remained silent.
In this country, when we face threats or potential threats, we organize, we educate, we lobby; we fight back.
But having said that, I have frequently been uncomfortable in recent months with statements on this film made by Jewish leaders.
The fact that we need to be saying something doesnt mean that what we say is wise, thoughtful, or effective.
Prominent Jewish conservatives have been defensive and apologetic about the movie, professing to see a balanced portrayal of Jews there that simply does not exist. It seems to me that they are much more interested in maintaining their ties with the Christian right than with evaluating this movie in an objective way.
Jewish critics of the film, on the other hand, have often made statements that strike me as alarmist, sensationalist, and sometimes at least bordering on the demagogic. This is a troubling film, and vigilance is always in order, but North American Jews do not face pogroms or imminent violence, and our position in American society is not being undermined in any fundamental way. The critics do us no favor when, in commenting on the dangers of this film, they make no allowance for the kind of country in which we live or for the basic good sense of the American people.
C: Final point: Until yesterday, this film was the domain of the critics, the scholars, the columnists, and the talk show hosts. But now it belongs to the people and the communities.
Permit me to explain.
Yesterday I sat through this film in a Times Square Theater with approximately a thousand people. It was exceedingly difficult for me to watch. It is a grim, angry, and bloody film, essentially a two hour-long execution, with ample torture and agony along the way.
And in the matter of the stereotyping of Jews, all of our worst fears were confirmed. It is not a close call. The Jews in this film are evildoers. We see the bloodthirsty mob crying for Jesus blood. We see the scheming priests. We see the timid and indecisive Pontius Pilate, who reluctantly lets the Jews talk him into crucifying Jesus.
I sat there stunned and uncomfortable, and struggling to understand where the positive religious message was in all of this.
But then I looked around. While I know that there is no such thing as a Christian response to this movie, many, many people in the theater with me were transfixed. The woman in the seat next to me sobbed throughout much of the movie. At the end there was substantial applause.
I thought about trying to talk to the woman in the next seat, but I decided against it. For her, this had clearly been a powerful religious experience. And I was quite sure that she did not want to hear my historical analysis, or questions that she might hear as accusatory, or anything that might appear, intentionally or not, to be passing judgment on her religious feelings and beliefs.
And I suspected that the Jewish issue so central to me was much more marginal for her. In fact, in interview after interview, Christians who were moved by the film have said that they really do not understand the charge of anti-Semitism and what the Jews are talking about.
My dilemma our dilemma is this: how do we demonstrate respect for this womans feelings and beliefs, while guarding against anti-Semitic seeds that may have been planted by the movie?
And the answer is, first, that we avoid hysterical and over-heated rhetoric. An extreme example of what we dont do is what a group in New York is doing: sending people to see the film dressed as concentration camp residents; what message does that send to the woman in the next seat? We will speak about the issues sincerely and openly, but in moderate and respectful tones, recognizing the sincerity of other peoples religious convictions.
And most important: coalition, coalition, coalition. In the final analysis, if the woman in the next seat is going to discuss these issues, she is going to be most comfortable discussing them with someone who shares her deeply held Christian beliefs and who can understand the film in ways that I cannot. If she is open to discussion at all, it will not likely be with a rabbi, but with a minister, a priest, or an educated Christian layperson.
And this is where we come in. We are the largest grassroots presence in the Jewish community, we believe in bridge building and dialogue with our Christian neighbors, and now we will be put to the test. We need to do on a massive scale what so many of our rabbis and congregations have already begun to do. We need clergy institutes and dialogue with Christian leaders, encouraging them to educate in their congregations just as we will educate in ours. We need to welcome their input into our congregational courses and suggest that they welcome our input into theirs. This is the moment for which all of those relationships have been built, and if we havent been building those relationships, we need to start immediately. A successful response to The Passion of the Christ will not be measured by the number of speeches we give or the number of articles we write, but by what our Christian friends and neighbors say in their churches and schools.