Panel probes Passion &mdash Interfaith dialogue aids understanding

“It’s only a movie!”

That was the opening admonition from Orthodox Jew and New Testament (yes, New Testament) scholar Amy-Jill Levine Tuesday, March 9, at a panel discussion on Mel Gibson’s screen phenomenon “The Passion of the Christ.”

She had a lot more to say on the subject, much of it unflattering to Gibson. The same went for her co-panelists, Anti-Defamation League education director Caryl Stern-LaRosa and the Rev. Stephen A. Meriwether, chancellor of the San Francisco Archdiocese and a local Catholic leader in inter-religious affairs.

More than 100 people filled the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s new Kanbar Hall to attend the event, co-sponsored by the JCCSF, the archdiocese and the University of San Francisco.

Though the Gibson film has sparked debate across the country, the same could not be said of this event. Panelists sat at a long table, their remarks dry and academic. The audience sat silently, their questions handwritten and pre-screened.

It was like an “Intro to Philosophy” class in a supersized college lecture hall.

Still, the level of scholarship represented on the dais made for an intellectually challenging evening.

Moderator Daniel Tarman, a member of the ADL executive committee, noted that “it’s crucial to understand the lens through which Jews and Christians view the film.”

Levine, an impeccable scholar with a global reputation, then spoke, insisting that “the New Testament is a splendid and beautiful book.” But she questioned the film’s historical and biblical accuracy, and strongly decried Gibson’s tactics in the run-up to the movie.

“Gibson accused critics as people who hate the Bible,” she said. “However, the Gospels are necessarily subjective.”

The Vanderbilt professor recounted the sorry legacy of Passion plays and the Jew hatred they engendered. Levine also described how she had been included in a group of Bible scholars Gibson assembled to review an early version of the script. Once the group submitted its report (pointing out the script’s myriad inaccuracies), Gibson promptly accused the group of having “stolen” a copy of the script.

Now, with the film in theaters, Levine contends Gibson’s “Passion” could provide anti-Semites with an excuse for criminal actions. “The Gospel,” she says, “should not be according to Mel Gibson.”

Meriwether echoed Levine’s comments. He conceded the film depicted Jews as greedy, brutal and guilty of deicide. “There is room for concern here,” he said.

Stern-LaRosa, herself married to a Catholic, made no apologies for the hard-line stance the ADL took throughout the “Passion” flap, even if it unintentionally helped stir wider interest in the film. “We don’t regret that we spoke out,” she said. “Our mission is to speak out.”

Audience questions centered on the historical person of Jesus, and drew surprising answers. “He was a perfectly wonderful, halachically faithful Jew,” said Levine.

Added Meriwether, “Jesus turned over apple carts, including Pontius Pilate’s. If we are to cast blame [for his death] I’d throw it Pilate’s and the Romans’ way.”

As for the charges of anti-Semitism surrounding the film, Meriwether said categorically, “It’s very difficult to be consistently Christian and anti-Jewish.”

Afterwards, audience members seemed to have learned much. “They established dialogue, blending history, fact and opinion,” Rosemary Jenckes of Pleasant Hill said.

Added Barbara Rosenberg of San Francisco, “I don’t see in a city like this as much controversy, and I’m not certain any anti-Semitism would occur here. But I thought [the film] was quite brutal.”

“It was the intention of the Gospel writers to make the Jews look bad,” said Sam Litovsky, also of San Francisco. Litovsky said he would not be seeing the film anytime soon. “I thought [Meriwether] was quite supportive of the view that the film could have anti-Semitic interpretations.”

Related story:

‘Passion’ gets thumbs down for bad theology, history

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.