I call Deborah, who is not only Jewish but also the daughter of Holocaust survivors, for permission to recount our conversation about Mel Gibson's movie The Passion and she hesitates ever so slightly. Exactly what do I want to write? Her silence gets a bit thick as I explain what I plan to say. She wants to make sure I really understand what she said and I want that, too.
I notice how we're being very careful and respectful as we make sure I really understand what she told me. We're being so careful and respectful that I seriously consider turning away from the temptation to make equally sure that she really understands what I said. But in the end, I go ahead and remind her what I said in response to what she said... and we immediately have the conversation all over again. Only this time there's a lot more charge to it for me.
By now, I've seen the movie twice, talked about it in private and in public. I've even talked about The Passion at length in therapy and more tersely with my mother. This conversation about whether The Passion is or isn't anti-Semitic triggers pain that's deep, primal, and almost beyond words.
Yes, I'm almost beyond words and this is a problem, but not because I'm a writer. It's a problem—a big one—because I'm a convert to Roman Catholicism from Judaism. And, despite what some of my fellow Jews may think, being confirmed as a Roman Catholic has not eradicated my Jewish identity. If anything, it has made that identity more real and more present in my life as a Catholic.
Deborah had been profoundly disturbed by what she characterized as the subtle, almost subliminal anti-Semitism in Gibson's casting choices. "For example, the next time you see that movie," she said, "please look at the faces and notice the hooked noses." I promised I would. What hooked noses? Nearly all the actors, Jews and Romans alike, looked like Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe) to me even though the credits reveal an abundance of Italian names. Being from the Middle East, wouldn't Jesus have been a Sephardic Jew? Well, actually, James Caviezel and Maia Morgenstern look like Sephardic Jews, so at least Gibson had cast Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mother well. But a promise is a promise, so the next time I viewed this film I was prepared to study the faces.
This conversation about whether “The Passion” is or isn’t anti-Semitic triggers pain that’s deep, primal, and almost beyond words.
I didn't have to wait long to see what she had been talking about. Sure enough, in the scene at Gethsemane when Jesus calls out to Kefa, the face of that disciple-slacker sports a major honker. My relief is followed by joy. Deborah had stopped reading scripture at the book of Malachi, so I'm very excited about being able to tell her, reassure her, that the first hooked nose she saw belongs to Peter. I'm going to fill her in on who Peter was in the life of the Catholic Church. I figure she'll be relieved to realize that this visage may serve to help Christians understand that, wow, Jesus and his disciples were Jews. Every one of them. Not Christians. Not Catholics. Jews.
She's not at all relieved when I relay this bit of Church history.
Once again, she wants to make sure I really understand what she meant. "Jesus and Mary did not look Jewish in that movie," she explains. Are you kidding? She's not. But don't they look Sephardic? Yes, they do. So what's the problem? "Everyone else looks Ashkenazi and they look different."
So now, we have two Jews arguing about who in "The Passion" looks Jewish. This, by the way, is not an anti-Semitic conversation because Jews submit virtually everything to Talmudic-like scrutiny. It's part of our charm and certainly one reason my father insisted I join the high school debate team. Still, I start feeling scared because maybe she's thinking it's an anti-Semitic conversation. After all, this Jew, the one who as a teenager opted for the trip to Europe instead of a nose job, has converted to Catholicism. And maybe the quip I just embedded in the previous sentence is anti-Semitic because as a Catholic convert I've lost my irony privileges? That can't be right, but I opt out of pushing that particular point. I've got other fish to fry, an expression that is filled with new meaning now that I am indeed Catholic (cf.: Luke 24:42; John 21:1-14)
"The Passion" opened on Ash Wednesday, and has been showing steadily for over ninety days as of this writing. On August 31, what has become the seventh top-grossing film of all time will be available on DVD. With the exception of one horrifically-worded church marquee that was immediately denounced by other Christians, it hasn't triggered the predicted outpouring of anti-Semitism. Good news. About this, Deborah and I agree.
I, however, mourn the many missed opportunities for interfaith outreach and reconciliation. This is the point I want to make, a point that seems to generate suspicion among Jews who perceive such outreach as a way for Catholics to sneak in some proselytizing about Jesus as Christ.
I spend a fair amount of time with other Catholics who know that Pope John XXIII's call for aggiornamento (updating) led to significant changes in Catholic-Jewish relations. Some even know that Pope John Paul II became the first Pope in 2,000 years to physically enter the synagogue of Rome. This Pope performed other significant acts of teshuva (repentance), in accord with Jewish tradition, by establishing diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the state of Israel; visiting the Holy Land and praying at the Western Wall; relocating a group of Carmelite nuns who had set up a convent of prayer at Auschwitz; and having We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah issued during his reign.
...despite what some of my fellow Jews may think, being confirmed as a Roman Catholic has not eradicated my Jewish identity. If anything, it has made that identity more real and more present in my life as a Catholic.
Do enough Catholics know these details of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation? Certainly not, but The Passion hubbub has shifted much from background to foreground. The Catholics I worship with and encounter in my travels want to know more about their—our—Jewish heritage. The Catholics I hang around with understand that dissolving calcified divisions among Christians is far more important than targeting Jews for conversion. While Catholics are called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to everyone, The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that the "Jewish faith... is already a response to God's revelation... the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable." (CCC 839). (And yes, I do know that most Catholics have not, nor have any intention, of mining 904 pages of the Libreria Editrice Vaticana second edition of the Catechism to find these gems.)
The Jews who still deign to talk with me generally do not know about Catholic efforts toward teshuva and reconciliation. Nor do they want to know how the disciples of a renegade rabbi managed to persuade a slew of first century Jews to eventually characterize themselves as Christians. And forget about your average American Jew reading Christian scripture. "Why would I want to do that?" Deborah asked. Of course, the response to that is: Because as Jews we come from a tradition that venerates knowledge and inquiry. Because as Jews we're committed to tikkun olam (repairing the world) and that requires reconciliation.
There's a new message on my answering machine from Deborah. She's had an insight about why our personal dialogue about Jewish-Catholic dialogue is so difficult. Usually, I'm pretty gung-ho about meta-level discourse, but now it's my turn to hesitate ever so slightly. Do I have the energy to go another round? Maybe not, but I'm a Jew in identity, a Christian in faith, and a Catholic in practice. And this means I'll engage in this discussion seventy-times-seven if I must. After all, if my beloved friend and I won't make an effort to overcome 2,000 years of misunderstanding and betrayal, what hope do either of us have of fulfilling God's call to help repair our broken world?