PROVIDENCE — A Providence College forum addressed the issue of anti-Semitism through the lens of the Oberammergau Passion Play, a centuries-old tradition from a small Bavarian town of Germany that has been marred by accusations it has retained anti-Semitic tropes and language despite numerous revisions.
Villagers of Oberammergau first performed the play in 1634 to fulfill a vow made to God that they would hold the event if he spared them from the Black Plague. During the Nazi era, the play was reportedly a favorite of Adolf Hitler. A revised version of the play is still performed every ten years, drawing tourists from around the world.
Holy Week in Europe historically was a dangerous time for Jews, with Good Friday being the most perilous, Jewish scholar Judith Banki told the Jewish-Christian Theological Exchange on Nov. 24.
The exchange, now in its tenth year, was held at PC’s Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies.
Passion plays became an occasion for violence against European Jews because they were blamed for Christ’s death. The plays traditionally depicted Roman authorities in a sympathetic light as “innocent dupes” of Jewish temple leaders that were portrayed as “subhuman bloodthirsty Sadists,” Banki said.
“The power of such para-liturgical dramas to influence attitudes and inflame emotions is well-documented,” Banki said.
In Rome, the passion play was associated with the routine sacking of the Jewish ghetto, leading to the suppression of the play. In Germany, in 1934, the Nazis revised the play so that Jesus and His disciples appeared as Aryans. After World War II, the Nazi-specific elements were removed, but the anti-Semitic aspects of the play remained, according to Banki.
“How did it all come about? How did we jump from a Torah-observant Jesus steeped in and nourished by his own faith, followed by Jewish crowds listening eagerly and enthusiastically to his teachings, who argued with his pharisaic critics as a Pharisee, who had to be arrested at night because of his popularity, who was executed in Roman fashion by a Roman governor for the crime of sedition?” Banki said.
The Second Vatican Council firmly repudiated anti-Semitic interpretations of the Gospels. “Nostra Aetate, The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” states, “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” (Banki’s book, “The Image of the Jews in Catholic Teaching,” helped influence the development of “Nostra Aetate.”)
The forum also featured Hilary Salk, the author of “Eavesdropping in Oberammergau,” a novel about the village and play based on her own experiences living there as a young girl. The story unfolds from the perspective of two characters, a girl modeled after her, and a Jewish man who was imprisoned at the Dachau Concentration Camp and later returned to the village after World War II.
Salk suggested that those who are not Jewish have difficulty in recognizing how widespread anti-Semitism is.
“If it is not your family, if it is not your religion, you don’t even see the anti-Semitism. You don’t even notice it,” Salk said.
The third speaker, Father Kevin Spicer, C.S.C., a professor of history at Stonehill College and chair of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, was unable to attend the event due to a death in the family. His paper was read by PC theology faculty member Father John Allard, O.P.
In his paper, Father Spicer summarized the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations’ evaluation of the play’s 2010 script, pinpointing the its improvements but also warning of its lingering anti-Semitism.
The play has made positive changes, such as accurately conveying the diversity of Judaism of Jesus’ time and his own Jewishness and identifying ‘human sin’ as the cause for Jesus’ death, Father Spicer noted. There are still lingering issues, such as an anachronistic portrayal of the temple priests and other inaccurate interpretations of sacred scripture.
He discussed his own experience attending the play in Oberammergau and the conflict he experienced between elements of faithful Christian devotion and its enduring anti-Semitism.
“I found viewing the passion play to be a deeply moving experience, enkindling my faith,” Father Spicer said in his paper, noting that he was moved to tears by the crucifixion scene.
“As a devout Catholic, it was truly a religious experience,” Father Spicer wrote. “Despite these authentic feelings, tied so closely to my own personal faith, there were moments in the play that forced me, at least momentarily, to step outside my viewing experience and to question the play’s dialogue and staging.”
The next play will be performed in 2020. The script for the play has yet to be released.