The Passion: A Collision of Faiths

In an afternoon Hebrew High School class early in my career in the Rabbinate, I was once confronted by a student who challenged me to explain the difference between Judaism and Christianity. "So we go to synagogue on Saturday and they go to Church on Sunday, we have large family get-togethers on Passover and they have large family get-togethers on Easter, but what's the real difference? We are all doing the same thing just in different ways." This same sentiment was also expressed in a brochure, I once saw, published by a Liberal Judaism organization in England. The brochure posed the following question: what are the differences in faith between Liberal Judaism and liberal forms of Christianity such as Unitarianism? The answer, presented in the brochure, was nothing -- both Liberal Judaism and Unitarianism ultimately share the same beliefs. The difference, it was contended, is solely in the method of worship. Liberal Jews choose to use Jewish motifs in their spiritual endeavours; Unitarians choose to use Christian motifs. The difference is form, not substance.

This, I would project, is how most North Americans perceive the distinction between religions. While different names for the Divinity may be used and different stories of faith told, ultimately, most individuals see the distinctions in faith as reflecting methodology: how one practices his/her spirituality. We are all seen as worshipping the same God. The details of doctrine as presentations of absolute truth are, thus, greatly discounted. The result is tolerance. Tolerance of religion is a call to be tolerant of differences in methodology, of expression, of culture. There is no reason for prejudice and hatred; after all, we all believe in the same values, in the same God, anyway.

Gibson's The Passion challenges this perspective and is causing us to re-evaluate this perception of religion. With its portrayal of the Jewish High Priest and the Jewish populace wishing the execution of Jesus, this movie forces us to again recognize that religions do not disagree on matters of methodology but on substantive matters of faith. I am especially offended by the movie's portrayal of the saintly rabbis of the Sanhedrin. If a Sanhedrin arrived at a decision to execute any individual, it was only done so reluctantly, compassionately, with intense contemplation and because it was absolutely necessary. As such, my response to a Gospel account that the Sanhedrin was involved in the death of Jesus must be: (a) that this story, in whole or part, is fiction; (b) that there was great and deserving reason for this verdict; and/or (c) that this so-called Sanhedrin, or segment thereof, was in fact a corrupted body, perhaps instituted even by the Romans, that really had nothing to do with Judaism -- with the result that I am thereby offended by the historical association of generic Jews with criminals.

Realistically, and in turn, I would expect some Christians to find my response problematic. Religions disagree on what is true. Judaism and Christianity disagree on the nature of Jesus. Within Christianity itself there are also disagreements on this matter. While Unitarianism and Liberal Judaism may agree on their basic beliefs, their beliefs are in disagreement with Orthodox Judaism or Roman Catholicism. These faiths disagree on the nature of the Divine. The effect is that they also disagree, in a practical sense, on values and even the definition of morality. The modern issue regarding the legitimacy of same-sex marriages is a case in point. Many proponents of Liberal Judaism favour the legalization of same-sex marriages and this position is derived from their beliefs. Proponents of Orthodox Judaism, by definition, must oppose same-sex marriages, not because of a difference in the methodology of spirituality but as a result of their substantive beliefs -- their understanding of God, Revelation and His involvement in creation. The disagreement is in substance, not form. Effectively, what one believes matters.

The problem is that this perspective can challenge our tolerance of different faiths. This is essentially what is occurring in response to The Passion. Liberal forms of both Christianity and Judaism, as mentioned above, do not take Bible stories literally and, therefore, apply their substantive beliefs to argue that the distinctions within religion are, in fact, simply matters of form; thus the call for tolerance of religion is explainable and understandable. When we, however, encounter Christian beliefs that literally accept the New Testament account that the Jews of the time participated in the death of Jesus, we face the possibility of hatred developing toward individuals of the Jewish faith. A confrontation of substantive belief can yield tension as individuals learn the depth of disagreement that actually exists between variant faiths. This can lead to intolerance. There is reason why members of literal faiths, albeit perhaps unconsciously, avoid the consequence of their beliefs. While a liberal theologian may have a belief that accepts a tolerance based on the acceptance of differing forms, a literal theologian cannot share this same view. He declares the non-literal reading of the Bible by the liberal as heresy. Similarly, one with differing texts and understandings of texts cannot be accepting of the other with whom he/she disagrees. The one who accepts the words of the Koran as the literal truth is in conflict with the one who accepts the words of the New Testament as literal truth and vice versa. And this disagreement is not over who is the best baseball player but, especially to the man of religion, the most significant of questions: how we understand God. As the words good and evil become applied, there is reason to be concerned for friction. There is reason why our society does not wish to confront the substance of faith distinction. Torquemada or Osama bin Laden is the possible result.

The answer cannot be an avoidance of the challenge of religious truth. Intolerance need not be the result of conflict in religious belief. Tolerance through the misrepresentation of the nature of religion may be beneficial but there is a cost. It is important to confront the essence of religion; it is important for society to be involved in the search for truth. Society should demand tolerance and should demand an understanding of religious distinctions - the challenge is to create a perspective that allows both to exist. Jewish thought, in fact, has such a mechanism. It is built upon the recognition of the parameters of human thought. The process of discovering truth is a challenge to the human being. It is not easy to gain proper knowledge. It is this recognition that is necessary for us to accept. Judaism accepts the value of the process of discovery, and demands of us to search for truth. Yet, Judaism also recognizes that one, with all sincerity and effort, may still arrive at incorrect perspectives and decisions. We can be tolerant of others, even as we disagree with their decisions on truth, if we accept the limitations of human abilities and recognize, thereby, the parameters of human conclusions. Good and evil are important yet complex terms, especially in their application to a human being, and must, therefore, be applied with great caution. We can be tolerant if we recognize that, while we must be bound to our conclusions, ultimate value lies in encouragement of and commitment to the proper effort in the attempt to uncover truth, not in the forced assertion of the conclusions we reach through our limited human abilities.

The problem with those who are intolerant arises from their own haughtiness and, subsequent, arrogance. Anyone who diligently investigates truth knows the difficulty of this endeavour. They have no patience for the ones with viewpoints who have not sweated. They also have no patience for the ones who reflect no doubt. Is this not in itself a form of intolerance? Thoughtful tolerance does not mean that we must tolerate every opinion. There is reason to be intolerant of an Osama bin Laden. His own intolerance demonstrates that his view is not a result of the difficult path that is the pursuit of knowledge. Such an individual does not recognize the limitations of his humanity. It is this recognition that must guide us. It is this limitation that is actually at the very heart of the pursuit of the Divine. It is because of our humanity that we search for God. It is this same humanity that must also be at the root of our recognition of tolerance. It is important for us to see our differences -- our substantive differences -- and it important for us to be tolerant of these differences.

The problem with The Passion is not its portrayal of the particular faith of Mel Gibson. He has the right to present his beliefs. The problem is that Mel Gibson does not choose to face the important reality that his faith will, by definition, conflict with my faith. He does not, thereby, confront what he is effectively saying about me, my goodness, my perception of God and my beliefs. In presenting his faith, I think he should have also considered these issues. It is thus that we can ask: does this movie inspire us to struggle with truth and tolerance or does it simply present dogma and thereby reawaken our intolerance?

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht