Friday, August 29, 2003

In Beliefnet.com, the Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine makes some very good points about the response to critics of Mel Gibson's movie. In The Reaction to Mel Gibson's Jesus Movie, Passion, May Be Anti-Semitic Itself, she says
What I notice from the media coverage of this controversy is that once again "the Jews" are being blamed--only this time "the Jews" are a scholarly panel and "the truth" is a Hollywood script.

The media have minimized the Catholic scholars' participation and emphasized the Jews'. They've also downplayed the fact that the panel was convened by a Catholic group. Some examples:

* "The Washington Post" (July 7) speaks of criticism by "Catholic scholars at the Anti-Defamation League" (emphasis mine).

* "The Christian Science Monitor" (July 10) speaks of the "ADL and an ad hoc group of Jewish and Catholic scholars"(note the order).
* The Catholic news agency "Zenit" (30 May 2003) reports: "The ad hoc scholar's group... comprised a mix of nine Jewish and Christian academics [note again the order]. One of the signers, Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University, describes herself as 'a Yankee Jewish feminist.'" The description comes from my website, but the article uses it mockingly; I am, by the way, both the only group member described and the only member with a clearly Jewish name.

Next, the media deemed this committee untrustworthy. The Wall Street Journal (7/25) insinuated the scholarly committee members "have an agenda" and repeated Michael Medved's accusation in the July 22 USA Today that the committee went "beyond honest evaluation of the film's aesthetic or theological substance." (Mr. Medved, incidentally, also focuses on the ADL--not a joint committee convened by Catholic bishops--issuing "critical statements" about the script.)

Our scholarly panel's "agenda" was hardly sinister: We were concerned with biblically fidelity, historical accuracy, and the avoidance of anti-Semitism. While I have not seen Mr. Gibson's film, I have seen a script that has anti-Jewish components. Here are three examples that are already part of media coverage:

* Jesus' cross is manufactured in the Temple. This unbiblical and a-historical scene is analogous to asserting that the ovens of Auschwitz were constructed in the Vatican itself under the watchful eyes of Pius XII.
* The Roman governor Pilate--who, like all Roman governors of Judea, had the authority to appoint Jewish high priests--is intimidated and manipulated by a luxuriously garbed priest Caiaphas. Analogy: Those poor Nazi occupiers of mid-20th century Rome could not resist Vatican pressure to rid the city of Jews.

The problem with lumping all first-century Jewish leaders together is illustrated in Linda Chavez's August 6th CNSNews.com commentary. She said, among other things, that "Christ's death on the cross may have been ordered by Pontius Pilate at the urging of the Pharisee Caiaphas--following the judgment of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court that judged Jesus guilty of blasphemy..." Any "New Testament 101" student knows that Caiaphas was not a Pharisee; he was, rather, part of the priestly aristocracy in league with Rome. That the Pharisees are the group who give rise to Rabbinic Judaism and ultimately the Judaism of today only makes her mistake worse. As for Pilate, he could not possibly have cared less about blasphemy: he executes Jesus as a political threat, the presumed "King of the Jews" as the inscription on the cross reads.

* Jews repeatedly and spontaneously torture Jesus, whereas the Romans need Satan's prompting. This is tantamount to saying that "the Jews" in Dachau tortured fellow Jews just because they felt like it, whereas the Nazis needed supernatural incitement.

I hadn't seen these details of the movie before -- they are really quite appalling. Gibson and his production are certainly being disingenuous in claiming that this movie intends to follow the historical record strictly!

Thursday, August 28, 2003

More on the Mel Gibson Passion controversy. In an interview with the Jerusalem Report, The Gospels Agree - Jesus Was Killed by Rome, Eugene Fisher, "associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Consultor to the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews," reiterates current Catholic teachings:
Jesus really was killed under the authority of Rome, on the cross, which is not a Jewish way of doing things. But a gospel isn’t meant to be a newspaper. Look at Genesis 1 and 2, where you have two different versions of creation. Some Christians think the purpose of Genesis is to give us a cosmology. But it’s meant, rather, to teach us that God created the universe. It’s in a sense like asking whether a joke is true or not. Who cares? The Gospels were not primarily written to provide a historical record, but to provide understanding of humanity and of salvation.

It's interesting that he is very specifically refuting here some current notions that view the Bible as a whole as a kind of "newspaper," meant to state scientific and historical truths. When I teach about the Hebrew Scriptures it is often very hard to get students away from this way of reading the Bible -- for example, I have had students who have wanted to find a scientific explanation for all the plagues. It seems to me a curiously modern way of reading the biblical texts -- trying to make them "scientific" and "historical" to match the scientism and historicism of the modern world.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Well, that time of the year has arrived -- the beginning of the fall semester. I definitely feel a pang that I will soon have very little time to do anything except prepare for classes and organize and go to Jewish Studies events....although I think my classes this fall will be good: Hebrew Scriptures (despite the name, we're reading the Tanakh in English translation), and Jews in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (from 586 B.C.E. to 1492 C.E. in 14 weeks!). I was just looking over some readings on the Cairo Geniza documents and the world they describe. I think I'll have my students read excerpts from Amitav Ghosh's wonderful book (In an Antique Land), which links his experiences doing anthropological field work in Egypt with his researches into the life of the Indian slave of Ben Yiju. One of the details about the book that particularly fascinates me is that when Ghosh starts to do research on the Geniza documents (many of which are written in medieval Judeo-Arabic -- i.e., colloquial Arabic written in Hebrew characters), he doubts very much that he'll be able to understand the documents he's interested in reading. He's skeptical that the modern spoken Arabic of Egypt that he's learned will help him much with the medieval language. He finds, much to his surprise, that much of what he learned, including various idioms, is very useful in reading the Geniza documents. Fascinating to see the persistence of the vernacular language.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

More on the bombing in Jerusalem early today. This one is even more painful to read about than usual because of the number of children killed and injured.

JERUSALEM, Aug. 19 — A Palestinian suicide bomber killed at least 18 people, including children, when he detonated an explosive packed with ball bearings tonight aboard a city bus crowded with families, some of them returning from Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall.

The blast resounded across Jerusalem as it peeled up the roof of the bus and blew out its windows, smearing human remains on a preceding tour bus and opening a deep wound in the American-backed peace effort.

More than 100 people were reported hurt, many seriously, in one of the deadliest attacks in almost three years of conflict. Men carrying blood-spattered children raced toward approaching ambulances. On a street strewn with broken glass and bloodied sheet metal, a man knelt near the shattered bus to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a toddler.

Later, in a hospital here, Yaacov Bahar, 35, held his hands in the air in front of him, as though he were still carrying an infant, as he described helping bring four children from the bus. "In my eyes, I'm still seeing the nightmare," said Mr. Bahar, who was being treated for shock. . . .

In Gaza City, the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, told reporters, "I declare my strong condemnation of this horrible act that doesn't serve the interests of the Palestinian people." Mr. Abbas said he offered "my real sorrow" to the families of the victims.

Israeli officials noted that Israel had recently softened its own demands on the Palestinian leadership, insisting only that it supervise the people Israel considers terrorists and prevent them from committing new attacks, rather than putting them in jail. The bombing tonight appeared certain to renew Israeli and American pressure on Mr. Abbas, to take more forceful action against militant groups. Mr. Abbas said he had ordered his minister of security, Muhammad Dahlan, "to immediately investigate this attack and to take the necessary measures regarding its perpetrators."

Mr. Abbas and Mr. Dahlan have resisted taking action against militants, seeking instead to persuade them to abide by a unilateral suspension of attacks on Israelis declared on June 29. The bombing tonight occurred as Mr. Abbas was meeting in Gaza City with leaders of Islamic Jihad in an attempt to extend the cease-fire, which was to last three months. Mr. Abbas was scheduled to meet on Wednesday with leaders of Hamas, but he canceled that meeting after the bombing. . . .


To call Abbas's meeting with Islamic Jihad at the exact time of the bombing ironic is to stretch the meaning of irony.

Fireworks burst over Hebron tonight as Palestinians there celebrated the bombing. . . .

There were many children aboard the bus this evening, survivors said. Zvi Weiss, 18, a seminary student from Borough Park, Brooklyn, said he was sitting in the second row, squeezed in with three children. One of the children had been left in a vacant seat by his mother, who then pushed the baby carriage toward the back of the bus, he said. "His mother was in the back, so I think — I don't know what to think," Mr. Weiss said. He said he leaped through a window and ran as the explosion enveloped him in "smoke, noise, the smell of fire." He was being treated in Bikur Holim hospital for shrapnel wounds to his arms, which had stained his white shirtsleeves crimson. He was having trouble hearing, a common difficulty of bombing victims.

Yehiya Luria, 38, said the bus was "so full that you couldn't have put a pin in there." He said he was seated at the far back, and also escaped through a window. "There was a lot of blood on me — blood, bits of flesh, teeth, hair," he said. He was being treated for shock. "It was a miracle," he said of his survival. "I prayed at the Western Wall today."

Nearby, a 2-year-old boy lay in another hospital bed, holding a white blanket and a foil bag of snacks as he sucked on a red pacifier and silently watched the bustling ward. His aunt said he had been riding in a sedan that smashed into the back of the bus, and that he was slightly wounded. She said his name was Abraham.

Initial reports by the authorities were that five children were among the dead. The police reported removing 18 bodies from the bus. The bodies and body parts were enclosed in black or white plastic bags, which were placed in a traffic circle among three small trees. Investigators opened the bags to take photographs of the dead to identify them.

Generators hummed as emergency workers in the harsh white glare of portable lamps scoured the red-and-white bus for the remains of the dead. In the shadows, hundreds of young men in the white shirts and broad-brimmed black hats of the devoutly religious gathered on the sidewalks and rooftops, outside a police cordon, to survey the scene.

Three hours after the bombing, a spokeswoman for another hospital, Haddassah Ein-Kerem, said no one had claimed a month-old baby boy brought from the scene, raising the possibility that his parents had been killed.

"He is a very sweet 4-week-old baby boy," the spokeswoman, Yael Bosem-Levy, told Israel Radio. "He has light injuries. He has impact wounds to his stomach, and the entire time he has been here he didn't cry even once."


I find it really difficult to know how to respond to this attack. I could try to say something political, but I really don't know what I would say. To say that one condemns the terrorist murder of children seems so obvious -- but after a while, it is just mere words. Grief is the only first reaction. All I can think of are the children of my friends in Jerusalem, and how I would feel if one of them had been on that bus.

I wrote a poem a while ago that expresses some of the feelings I have each time I hear about such violence. (I know it's risky to present one's own amateur poetry, but please bear with me).

My brother’s blood calls from the ground
and earth will swallow him up.

God called to Cain: Where is Abel your brother?
Cain said to God: your earth will take him,
he is like the rebels who followed Korach;
their fate is to lie in the earth,
buried alive and not dying.
God called to Cain: You are cursed from the ground which gaped open its mouth to take the blood of your brother Abel.
Cain said to God: And your people, O God, your people? They are scattered over the face of the earth and we pursue them to their deaths. Do not speak to me of curses.
God called to Cain: The shedder of human blood, by humans his blood will be shed.
For humans are made in the image of God.
Cain said to God: We have shattered the image like so much broken glass on the city street.

I cradle my brother’s head in my arms
his blood has soaked into the ground and he lies still.
Where is your image O God on this earth?





The "hudna" seems to have conclusively fallen apart today: Several Children Among the Dead in Bus Bombing in Jerusalem.

A suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus packed with ultra-Orthodox Jews on Tuesday, killing 20 people, including at least three children, and wounding about 100 in one of the deadliest bombings in the past three years of fighting....

The militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad both claimed responsibility. Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas condemned the bombing as a "terrible act."....

The blast went off shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday, as the crowded tandem bus -- which has two passenger sections -- drove along a main thoroughfare in Jerusalem and another bus pulled in front of it, witnesses said....

Several children also were among the wounded in Jerusalem.

"It was the No. 2 bus that came from the Western Wall," said a motorist, Jacob Bitnovsky. "I heard a huge blast and when I turned around I saw parts of the bus flying everywhere. I got out of the car and ran. There was a lot of smoke and running, saw a child on the ground gasping for air."

The bus had started out at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest shrine, and was headed to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood.

One report said among the passengers were members of a family who had celebrated a Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage into adulthood for boys, at the Western Wall.

A second bus passing nearby when the explosion went off was also badly damaged, with windows blown out. Rescuers had to use blow torches to get out some of the wounded.

"What is clear is that it was a very big bomb," said Jerusalem fire chief Amnon Amir.

Shocked survivors, including several crying children with blood-smeared faces, were led away from the scene. A paramedic cradled a little girl in his arms, and two others led away an elderly woman.


So much for the claim that Hamas or Islamic Jihad (both of which claimed responsibility for the bombing) are only interested in establishing a Palestinian state in pre-1967 West Bank and Gaza Strip. And so much for the claim that they only fight against the "Zionists" -- most of the dead were probably ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom are opposed to political Zionism.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

So the Zayed Center in the United Arab Emirates may be closing, a development that Arab League thinks would be a "great loss" (for details, see: Arab League: Zayed Center closure would be 'great loss.' This is the same center highlighted last year by a Los Angeles Times article for its conference on "Semitism" -- i.e., the evil entity that anti-Semites oppose, the Jews. For more information on the Zayed Center and its anti-Jewish activities, see the web site of Morality Not Money, set up last year by Rachel Fish, a graduate student at the Harvard Divinity School. The Zayed Center came to her attention because Sheik Zayed of the Emirates (after whom the center is named) has also given money to the Divinity School for a chair in Islamic Studies. She questioned the wisdom of accepting this money, given the anti-Jewish and anti-American speakers and conferences organized by the center. At the Divinity School graduation in June, when she received her diploma from HDS Dean William Graham, she handed to him a dossier of information about the Zayed Center and Sheik Zayed's connection to it.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

More on Mel Gibson's movie from the Jewish Week, "Jews Horrified By Gibson’s Jesus Film." Apparently, the screening that Rabbi Eugene Korn of the Anti-Defamation League attended also had about 30 other Jewish community leaders at it. They included Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee, who said, "We have a very long record with Passion Plays — ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ — so I went in with an open mind,” said Rabbi Rudin, who attended the Houston screening. “I came away very troubled because this movie as it stands has the potential to harm Christian-Jewish relations in many parts of the world. Therefore, we are officially requesting a meeting with the producers and director with the hope it will be changed so there will not be anti-Jewish elements in it." Apparently, Rabbi Korn and Gibson had an "acrimonious exchange" during the discussion after the film, and Gibson's production company, Icon, is accusing Korn of violating a confidentiality agreement he signed. In reply, "[Abraham] Foxman [of the ADL] responded that Gibson supporters who saw the movie and signed the confidentiality agreement have for weeks been praising the film on television, in newspapers and on the Internet."

What's interesting to me about this film is that it's clearly exposing a rift between those Catholics who accept the reforms of Vatican II and those who have opposed it all along. I wonder also how this will affect those evangelical Christians who have become very vocal supporters of Israel, but who may think very highly of the film and be shocked by the real Jewish dislike and fear of the movie. As one Jewish audience member said, “When the movie was over, there were two films: Jews saw it one way and Christians another. Christians were deeply moved. People were crying. It was a very powerful movie, very spiritual.”




Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Well, it seems as if Mel Gibson's production company is finally allowing Jews into the private screenings of his new movie. Rabbi Eugene Korn, the Anti-Defamation League's Director of Interfaith Affairs, saw the movie yesterday. In a press release posted on the ADL's web site, ADL Concerned Mel Gibson's 'Passion' Will Fuel Anti-Semitism if Released in Present Form, Rabbi Korn said, "Sadly, the film contains many of the dangerous teachings that Christians and Jews have worked for so many years to counter. . . . This is not a disagreement between the Jews and Mr. Gibson. Many theologically informed Catholics and Protestants have expressed the same concerns regarding anti-Semitism, and that this film may undermine Christian-Jewish dialogue and could turn back the clock on decades of positive progress in interfaith relations."

Many of the problems that were already flagged by Paula Fredriksen in her New Republic article have seemingly remained in the film, as outlined in the ADL statement:

ADL's concerns include:
 * The film portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish "mob" as forcing the decision to torture and execute Jesus, thus assuming responsibility for the crucifixion.
* The film relies on sinister medieval stereotypes, portraying Jews as blood-thirsty, sadistic and money-hungry enemies of God who lack compassion and humanity.
*  The film relies on historical errors, chief among them its depiction of the Jewish high priest controlling Pontius Pilate
*  The film uses an anti-Jewish account of a 19th century mystical anti-Semitic nun, distorts New Testament interpretation by selectively citing passages to weave a narrative that oversimplifies history, and is hostile to Jews and Judaism.
*  The film portrays Jews who adhere to their Jewish faith as enemies of God and the locus of evil.


I guess the reemergence of antisemitism in its various forms in the last few years has given new vigor to the old canards of Christian anti-Judaism.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Danny Rabinowitz, in an article from today's Ha'aretz, Return of the Native, outlines some possible creative solutions to the issue of the Palestinian right of return which might actually be acceptable to both Israelis and Palestinians. (It's always good to hear a bit of good news from the Middle East!)
For those interested in the relationship between early Jewish and Christian mysticism, there is a wonderful web site at Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism. It includes many articles, including one of mine that I gave at last year's Society of Biblical Literature meeting, Amulets and Angels: Visionary Experience in the Testament of Job and the Hekhalot Literature, and a short excerpt from my book.

Another good site with papers from past SBL conferences is the Society of Biblical Literature Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism Webpage. It includes papers going back to 1996.

As for my own scholarship, I'm currently in the throes of writing book reviews on recent books in Jewish mysticism. The beginning of the next semester is fast approaching, so I'm also starting to plan my fall courses -- introduction to Hebrew Scriptures (in translation) and a history course, Jews in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. This fall I will also be engaged in planning a course that I will be teaching with another professor in the spring -- the tentative title is Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretation. We'll be looking at the interplay between Jewish and Christian interpretation, showing how Jews and Christians sometimes borrowed from each other, and sometimes also used biblical interpretation as a crucial site of polemics against each other.
Tom Friedman of the New York Times had a very interesting dinner with two Shi'ite clerics this week in Baghdad (Dinner With the Sayyids). One of them was the grandson of the Ayatollah Khomeini (!), the other was an Iraqi Shi'ite named Sayyid Iyad Jamaleddine. The most interesting thing that Jamaleddine said (in my opinion) was this: "I call for opening the door for Ijtihad [reinterpretation of the Koran in light of changing circumstances]. The Koran is a book to be interpreted [by] each age. Each epoch should not be tied to interpretations from 1,000 years ago. We should be open to interpretations based on new and changing times." The ability to reinterpret sacred scripture for new and changing times is a crucial tool for any religious tradition and it is most welcome to hear these words coming from a Muslim cleric.

Friday, August 08, 2003

Through reading paleojudaica, I found another amusing Jewish blog: Protocols. Their slogan is: "A group of Jews endeavors towards total domination of the blogosphere." They have a few musings on Tisha b'Av (which is today -- a fast day to mourn the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem).

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

For those interested, the Catholic scholars who viewed the script of Mel Gibson's movie have made a very judicious statement,Dramatizing the Death of Jesus. They emphasize that, "Our evaluation was founded upon magisterial teaching documents of the Catholic Church, which were extensively quoted in a four page appendix in our eighteen-page confidential evaluation. Suggestions that our criteria for evaluating the screenplay were not authoritative Catholic teaching compromise the magisterium's absolute rejection of the long-lived 'Christ-killers' libel against Jews, a rejection enshrined in the Second Vatican Council declaration Nostra Aetate and subsequent Vatican and episcopal conference documents."

The crucial paragraph from Nostra Aetate reads as follows: "Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (see Jn 19:6), neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion.  It is true that the church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy scripture. Consequently, all must take care, lest in catechizing or in preaching the word of God, they teach anything which is not in accord with the truth of the Gospel message or the spirit of Christ." The Boston College website provides links to further Catholic statements, made since the declarations of Nostra Aetate in 1965.

The Catholic scholars end with the pointed comment that "In this era, when ancient Christian antisemitic motifs are being recirculated widely because of international conflicts, any Christian producer of a dramatic presentation of the death of Jesus has a considerable moral responsibility."



Monday, August 04, 2003

A brief note: An interesting new article by Frank Rich, Mel Gibson's Martyrdom Complex, where he discusses many of the issues that Paula Fredriksen brought up in her New Republic piece.