September 16, 2010
Scholars Recommend Rewrite of 400-Year-Old Passion Play
— Eric J. Greenberg
This spring ten scholars came together to discuss the removal of anti-semitic elements from the world’s oldest Passion Play produced by the village of Oberammergau, Germany. The review of the play was part of a joint collaboration between the Anti-Defamation League and the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations (CCJR), the United States’ leading association of educational institutions to promote mutual understanding between Jews and Christians. The scholars include the Rev. Dr. Peter A. Pettit, Associate Professor of Religion at Muhlenberg College and Sister Mary C. Boys, the Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary. The scholars made recommendations for changes in the script of the Oberammergau play about the trial and death of Jesus.
The small Bavarian village has been performing their Passion Play about every decade since 1634, when residents swore to honor the Lord with a Passion Play if He saved them from the plague.
While the script has gone through several incarnations over the last 400 years, one troubling theme has remained constant: the ugly caricatures and negative stereotypes of Jews and Judaism, including the false charge of deicide: that Jews killed Jesus.
In the twentieth century Adolf Hitler attended the play twice in Oberammergau, praising it for showcasing "the whole muck and mire of Jewry." Even after the Roman Catholic Church repudiated the deicide charge at the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Oberammergau did not make changes to the script.
Since the 1970s, the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups have worked with Oberammergau play officials who have slowly made changes in the staging and text of the play. For example, they eliminated horned-headwear for Jewish priests. In 1990 with the appointment of the young new director Christian Stuckel and his partner Otto Huber, further changes helped not only reduce anti-Semitism, but also emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and his disciples.
In a sixteen-page report recently overwhelmingly endorsed by CCJR, the scholars welcomed key changes that present Jesus and his disciples as fully observant Jews. The play shows Jesus holding a Torah scroll and reciting the key Jewish prayer “Sh’ma Yisroel” (“Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Deut. 6:4-9).
According to the report, "Jewish opponents of Jesus are unjustifiably depicted in such extreme terms as to risk impressing on the audience a negative image of the entire Jewish community.” Therefore the scholars recommend an entirely new script be commissioned that would not be dependent on earlier versions which retain embedded anti-Jewish elements. They also urge the German Bishops Conference to adopt guidelines on the presentation of passion plays, similar to guidelines adopted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops some 25 years ago.
As a result of this historic project, the 2020 Oberammergau play can become a global model that reflects the positive new relationship between Catholics and Jews. Most importantly, the recommendations of the scholars will hopefully be applied to Passion Plays performed around the world.
Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg is the Director of the Department of Interfaith Affairs at the Anti-Defamation League in New York.