The debate within the Jewish community over the proper response to “The Passion of the Christ” was turned up a notch last week when an outspoken Orthodox rabbi declared the film’s Jewish critics can be placed in the religious category of rodef, or pursuer.
The term is used in rabbinic jurisprudence to describe an assailant who threatens Jewish lives and may be killed to preempt the danger.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, religious leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck, N.J., invoked the controversial term from his pulpit, saying that certain Jewish organizations were “endangering Jewish lives” by attacking a film widely hailed in the Christian community as iconic.
A handful of critics have echoed Pruzansky’s extreme criticisms. Rabbi Daniel Lapin, head of the Seattle-based Toward Tradition organization, declared on Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” that the Anti-Defamation League and its allies were “dangerous organizations, organizations that are driving a wedge between American Jews and Christians.” Referring to ADL national director Abraham Foxman, Lapin said that by calling Gibson’s film antisemitic, “what he is saying is that the only way to escape the wrath of Foxman is to repudiate your faith.”
Pruzansky’s use of the term rodef, however, especially infuriated critics who recalled that its invocation by rabbis against the late Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin had been cited by his assassin, Yigal Amir, as a justification for the murder.
In a subsequent interview with the Forward, Pruzansky insisted that he had made clear to his congregation, which comprises 500 families, that he was not calling for anyone’s death. He only invoked the concept of rodef, he said, as a way of emphasizing his opposition to the noisy criticism directed against Mel Gibson’s cinematic depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life.
In an initial interview, Pruzansky told the Forward he had employed the term as part of a larger argument for shutting down Jewish watchdog groups, including the ADL and the American Jewish Committee. Later, however, he said his speech was not directed at any particular organization.
But several Jewish communal leaders said they were still outraged by Pruzansky’s use of the term. “It was beneath contempt,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. “It was despicable.”
The rhetorical warfare is perhaps the most extreme example of a debate raging within the Jewish community over the wisdom of aggressively attacking Gibson’s film, which raked in $125.2 million in ticket sales during its first five days in North American theaters. Since the movie’s release and phenomenal box-office success, a growing chorus of Jewish organizational and religious leaders has begun blaming the film’s critics for giving it free publicity and increasing its popularity.
Fears have also been voiced that criticism of the film has soured relations between Jews and Christians, especially upsetting evangelicals who have been staunchly supporting Israel, but who also packed movie houses during the past week. A new study of Web sites and chat rooms conducted by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles has found a “heightened level of anger directed at Jews regarding their opposition to the film.”
Those who have recently questioned the tactics of the film’s critics include Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Rabbi Eugene Korn, the former ADL interfaith affairs director, who initially railed against the film, and Rabbi David Rosen of the AJCommittee, whose group has taken a more measured tone in criticizing the movie.
“Frankly, I think we should have had Christians out front speaking about it,” Hoenlein said last week in a radio interview on “JM in the AM,” a weekday morning show geared toward Orthodox Jews in the New York metropolitan area.
“There is a legitimate debate that tickets were sold by virtue of the controversy and that the better part of wisdom would have been to deal with it quietly and perhaps have Christians approach Gibson and let them fight it out,” Hoenlein said in the interview. He told the Forward that he had not been speaking as a representative of the Conference of Presidents.
Korn, who had served as the ADL’s point man on the film last year until his sudden exit from the organization, said that in October, when it became clear Gibson was not going to modify the movie, “the strategy should have changed to work behind the scenes in a quiet way with less testosterone to get Christian leaders” to lead the opposition. Korn has denied speculation that his departure from the ADL involved a disagreement with Foxman over how the organization should respond to the film.
Foxman and other communal leaders who attacked the movie are defending their strategy as the only possible reaction to a filmmaker who refused to engage in dialogue with them and a film that they say would have been worse if not for their speaking out. While acknowledging that their public shouting match with Gibson may have increased the film’s popularity, organizational leaders say that the movie would have been a hit even had they kept quiet, because of Gibson’s celebrity hype machine and the massive effort by church groups to fill theater seats with their constituents.
“Every time [Gibson] burped, the media was there,” said Foxman. “He organized viewings around the country, he gave them sex appeal by being there…. Anyone who thinks we did this has a perverted view of our power. We don’t control Hollywood.”
Foxman was once a member of Pruzansky’s congregation, but resigned publicly a decade ago to protest the rabbi’s vehement criticisms of Rabin prior to his assassination.
Foxman said that if not for pressure from Jewish groups, various liberal Protestant churches and Catholic officials would not have publicly reiterated their stance that Jews were not collectively responsible for the death of Jesus — a position critics say is undermined by the movie. Foxman added that Jewish groups had succeeded in convincing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a booklet of documents outlining how the last days of Jesus should to be portrayed. Included in the documents is the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate, the 1965 declaration on the church’s relation to non-Christian religions, which absolved Jews of the deicide charge.
Hier argued that the Jewish community in recent history has time and again wisely chosen to take its causes to the public arena, despite risks that the strategy might sometimes backfire. He mentioned the efforts to highlight suicide bombings in Israel, the ongoing debate at the International Court of Justice over Israel’s security fence and the campaign to win restitution of Holocaust-era funds from Swiss banks, which has sparked negative reactions against Jews in Switzerland.
Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, countered that by raising the Swiss bank issue, his group and its allies had “brought $1.25 billion to the Jewish community — we did not enrich Mel Gibson and the producers of that movie.” Moreover, said Hoenlein, the American Jewish community chose to adopt a low profile on the fence hearing in The Hague in order to avoid media attention here.
But Hier countered: “Our history has taught us we have paid a dear price by listening to the mentality of shtetl Jews who said sha shtil,” a Yiddish term meaning “keep quiet.” He added, “Within Orthodoxy, some people have nostalgia for the shtetl way.”
Hier, who is Orthodox, seemed to be commenting on an apparent trend within the Orthodox community to either disengage from the controversy about Gibson’s film or ally themselves with Christian conservatives who accuse its Jewish critics of attempting to sanitize the American culture of religion, an argument Pruzansky makes.
Orthodox reactions have been decidedly mixed, however. On the film’s opening day, February 25, groups of Orthodox protesters in New York demonstrated against the film. The Orthodox Union warned in a statement and a video that viewing the film could lead to “inner doubts” about Judaism.
More liberal elements within the Jewish community appear to be just as divided on “The Passion.” Some Reform leaders and civil rights groups have argued forcefully that the film could provoke dangerous anti-Jewish feelings, particularly in Europe and Latin America, while others caution against creating rifts between Jews and pro-Israel Christians.
Some communal officials argue that the very success of the film in the face of Jewish protests is a bad omen. “When you fight this kind of fight and lose, it encourages people who don’t like us to step back in the fray,” said David Twersky, director of international programs at the American Jewish Congress. Still, Twersky, whose organization stayed out of the debate, told the Forward that Jewish groups had no choice but to attack the movie. “What if they would have done nothing? Activist Jews would have said, ‘How could our agencies have done nothing?’”
But Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs at the AJCommittee, maintained that a more nuanced approach could have benefited the Jewish community. He said that strongly worded protests against the film, such as those released by the Wiesenthal Center, framed the dispute as a confrontation between Jews and Christians. “The controversy over the Gibson narrative is in fact an internal [Christian] debate,” Rosen said. “That should have been emphasized from the beginning.”
Instead, Jewish groups are being seen as the main critics of the film, said Pruzansky. “If there is any Jew-hatred that results from this event,” the rabbi said, “it won’t be from the movie but from the Jewish overreaction to it.”
Most of Pruzansky’s congregants contacted by the Forward were either in agreement with his criticism of the Jewish agencies or did not wish to dispute him in print. Said one Bnai Yeshurun member, Sheila Apfel, “I thought he spoke beautifully.”