Reflection by a Jewish Convert

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Hebrew Catholic Responses to “The Passion of the Christ”

Ed. The following appeared in The Hebrew Catholic #80

Reflection by a Jewish Convert, Charles Hoffman
Caught in the Crossfire, Roy Schoeman
A Conversation Between Two Jews About One Thing, Meredith Gould
My Thoughts, Sr. Miriam Rose

Reflection by a Jewish Convert

by Charles Hoffman

A year before a movie on the last 12 hours of the life of Jesus Christ produced by Mel Gibson called The Passion of the Christ was released, controversy about the film had already begun. Gibson’s movie is based mainly on the Gospels of Mark, Mathew, Luke and John. Several Jewish groups and some Catholics have stated that this movie will once again revive anti Semitism and possibly incite violence against Jews. Practically all of those protesting had not seen the movie which was still in the editing phase at the time and finally opened on February 25th.

There are those who say:

• All Jews are guilty of Christ’s death (collective guilt).
• The Romans killed Christ.
• The Jewish leaders had Jesus killed because they believed He was a political threat to their power.
• The New Testament writings are anti-Semitic and the basis for Jewish persecutions throughout history.
• The New Testament writings should not be taken literally regarding Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.

It is said that at Vatican Council II the Catholic Church repudiated the deicide charge, the collective guilt of Jews and the idea that they were cursed by God for the crime. Yet I had come to this understanding from Catholic Church teaching and the writings of many of the Church Fathers and saints during my own conversion process (1961-1962) from the Orthodox Jewish faith before Vatican Council II even convened. The Catechism published in 1566, after the Council of Trent, taught that it was not just the Jews but “our sins” that were responsible for “the torment inflicted on Jesus.” There have been and always will be those who for their own reasons interpret or distort scripture and official Church teachings to suit their own purposes. There are many Catholic, other Christian, and Jewish scholars who have varying opinions on what the scriptures are, say or mean. I joined the Catholic Church (1963) because I believed that of all the thousands of Christian denominations, it alone possessed the authority given by Jesus, when He gave the Keys of the Kingdom to Peter, to be the authentic teacher of His Gospel. I would like to address the question “who really is responsible for the suffering and death of Jesus” by sharing with you some of the views I held about Christ’s passion and death as an Orthodox Jew and what I had come to understand about it during my conversion process.

May I first briefly mention some thing about my background? I was born in Berlin, Germany on October 10, 1933. My mother and I managed to leave Germany on May 13, 1939. If we had not gotten out then, we would have been killed in one of the concentration camps (probably Auschwitz because we were Polish citizens) along with some of my relatives. In my youth, while attending high school and college in New York, my best friends were Christians even though I was an Orthodox Jew. We had many discussions about religion. Up to this point in time I had not read the New Testament and nothing my Christian friends said or the way they acted attracted me to Jesus. I was told many times by Christians that it was we Jews who killed Jesus. I rejected this and blamed the Romans. In college, as part of an assignment in English literature, I read parts of the New Testament. It was my first real encounter with Jesus Christ. My misgivings were not so much with His teachings but with who He claimed to be. He claimed equality with God. I felt it important to defend that the God of Israel was One God and not the three I thought Christians believed in. Also, Jesus was not the glorious Messiah I had been taught to expect, but one Who suffered and died. As an Orthodox Jew I had no choice but to reject Him. I saw that the Jewish leaders also had to reject Jesus because He blasphemed by claiming to be equal to God. They had no choice but to condemn him to death according to the Law. Since they were not allowed to stone Him to death, they had to somehow get the Romans to kill Him. I did not believe the Jewish leaders were politically motivated because Jesus was a threat to their power. I thought they considered Him a threat because they feared He would lead the Jews away from the Law of Moses and to believe in Him. They believed this would incite the Romans to destroy both their holy places and their nation (cf. John 11:47-48). I had come to this understanding based on my Orthodox Jewish training and from what is recorded in the Gospels about the passion and death of Jesus. I did not in any way think of the Gospels as being anti-Semitic. After all, except for Luke’s writings, the rest of the New Testament was written or influenced by Jews and all people involved (except for the Romans) with the crucifixion were Jews including Jesus.

During my conversion process to Christianity, there were several key issues I had to deal with because they presented great difficulties for me. One was the concept of Trinity and another that of a suffering messiah. In this reflection I would like to share how I came to believe that the messiah of Israel had to suffer and die. Please note that what I am going to summarize took over a year of study and prayer in order for the Holy Spirit to enlighten me as to the truth.

The passion of Jesus Christ played a significant role during my conversion and later in shaping my Christian faith. As an Orthodox Jew I had been taught to believe in a glorious messiah who would restore Israel to greatness above all the nations, raise the dead, and end suffering and death. For most Jews, Jesus did not fulfill their hopes. Also there was no thought in Judaism that the messiah would be God. A divine suffering messiah remains to this day an obstacle for Jews as it was for the Pharisees at the time of Jesus. The Gospels cite several instances where the disciples of Jesus, including Peter the Rock, could not understand why He had to go to Jerusalem to suffer and be put to death. Recall the story in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus, after His resurrection, appears to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Surely they thought by the signs He performed He was the messiah. But after seeing His passion and death they had lost all hope in Him. I came to understand the difficulties St. Paul encountered in spreading the Gospel. In his first letter to the Corinthians verses 22-24 he writes:

“…and so while Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here are we preaching a crucified Christ, to Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to pagans madness….”

This still applies to our times.

It was the New Testament Scriptures and other Christian writings, mainly Catholic, which showed me that the life of Jesus, especially His passion, appeared to match that of the suffering servant the great Jewish messianic prophet Isaiah wrote about in the suffering servant chapters. In Isaiah chapter 53 the life of a sinless innocent man who would die for all sinners is described:

“And yet ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried. But we thought of him as someone punished, struck by God, and brought low. Yet he was pierced through for our faults, crushed for our sins. On him lies a punishment that brings us peace, and through his wounds we are healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, each taking his own way, and Yahweh burdened him with the sins of all of us. Harshly dealt with, he bore it humbly, he never opened his mouth, like a lamb that is led to the slaughter-house, like a sheep that is dumb before its shearers never opening its mouth. By force and by law he was taken; would anyone plead his cause? Yes, he was torn away from the land of the living; for our faults struck down in death.”

As I was growing up and learning about my Jewish faith I never paid much attention to these chapters of Isaiah and I cannot recall any sermons by rabbis on these parts during the Sabbath liturgy. I went and looked at what Jewish scholars wrote about the suffering servant chapters of Isaiah. Since there was no notion in Judaism that the Messiah had to suffer and die, how did they address that suffering servant in Isaiah 53? Hebrew scholars say Isaiah was referring to the nation Israel. After reflecting and praying on this, the Jewish notion of nation made no sense. Israel was not sinless. The Old Testament is the story of constant infidelity by the people of Israel to the Sinai Covenant and of God’s faithfulness. I came to see, as pointed out by Christian biblical scholarship, that Isaiah was speaking of a man. And that Man was Christ. From that time on the passion of Jesus has been a constant reminder for me to what extremes God was willing to undergo for a sinner like me and indeed all sinners.

In 1992 Pope John Paul II released for publication the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, the first universal catechism in 400 years. This Catechism states in article 572:

“The Church remains faithful to the interpretation of ‘all the Scriptures’ that Jesus gave both before and after his Passover: ‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ Jesus’ sufferings took their historical, concrete form from the fact that he was ‘rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes’, who handed ‘him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified.’”

We read in article 597 that Jews are not collectively responsible for Jesus’ death:

“As the Church declared at the Second Vatican Council: neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his Passion. The Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy Scripture.”

In article 598 we read that all sinners were the authors of Christ’s Passion:

“Taking into account the fact that our sins affect Christ himself, the Church does not hesitate to impute to Christians the gravest responsibility for the torments inflicted upon Jesus, a responsibility with which they have all too often burdened the Jews alone.”

For an understanding of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the passion and death of Jesus Christ, I highly recommend reading articles 595 through 623 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

We know from the New Testament scriptures that Jesus looked at His life’s work and mission in terms of the Old Testament. Vatican Council II states that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. Most significantly, Jesus chose the Passover meal, the memorial of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt, as the memorial of His passage, or exodus, of His humanity from its fallen condition due to man’s sin not His, to its transfigured life in God. In the institution of the Eucharist, Jesus linked the central event of the New Testament — His passion, death and resurrection — with the central event of the Old Testament, the Passover from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.

Article 1364 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states the meaning of memorial for the Church.

“In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. ‘As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which “Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed” is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out.’”

We should be talking about Jesus’ suffering and death not only during Lent but all year. Why? Because the passion and death of our Lord as recorded in the New Testament is the greatest act of love, compassion, humility, and forgiveness the world has ever known or will know. It is the story of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, Who showed unequalled compassion for His enemies as they were inflicting great pain and humiliation upon Him and finally killed Him. It is the story of Divine Mercy and Forgiveness:

“Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).

It is the story of great caring for us as He gives us His Blessed Mother to be our Mother.

“Near the Cross of Jesus stood His mother and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing His mother and the disciple He loved standing near her, Jesus said to His mother, ‘Woman, this is your son.’ Then to the disciple He said, ‘This is your mother.’ And from that moment the disciple made a place for Her in his home.” (John 19:25-27)

If more Catholics understood all this, each Mass would be much more meaningful and important to them.

As I mentioned before, while growing up I was reminded many times by Christians that we Jews were responsible for killing Jesus. In one sense they were right. I was responsible for Jesus’ death. Not because I was a Jew. It was because I was and still am a sinner. Since all of us are sinners we are all responsible for His death, whether we be Jew, Moslem, Christian, Buddhist or Atheist.

If some Christians today still wrongfully blame only Jews for the death of Jesus, then they should equally thank Jews for forming the first Christian community described in the Acts of the Apostles.

“These remained faithful to the teachings of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. The many miracles and signs worked through the apostles made a deep impression on everyone. The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed. They went as a body to the Temple every day but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously; they praised God and were looked up to by everyone. Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved.” (Acts 2:42-47).

It was their witness of faith in Jesus Christ that allowed them with the help of the Holy Spirit to set an example for future Christian communities. They brought about many conversions to the infant Church by the example of their lives. Today, many of us Christians would find it very difficult to give our lives so completely to Jesus as these Jews did nearly two thousand years ago.

On March 5th I saw The Passion of the Christ for the second time. A Canadian priest, Thomas Rosica, who attended a preview of the film, stated in a February 6th Zenit interview:

“The film has been produced with stunning cinematography, excellent acting, fidelity to the Scriptures, attentiveness to the theological meaning of the passion and death of Christ, and extraordinary artistic and religious sensitivity.”

Having seen the film I could not have expressed my sentiments any better than Father Rosica. It is the most powerful scriptural film I have ever seen. For months I have been listening to and reading about criticisms regarding Mel Gibson and his film by so called experts who had not even seen the film. I thank the Lord that I can now ignore these “experts” regarding what I saw, should believe and feel. I would like to address two aspects concerning the brutality shown in the film. First, no movie could ever depict what our Lord truly suffered. Therefore more brutality than displayed would have been unnecessary. Secondly, any less brutality would have made this film less effective in helping us understand the sacrifice Jesus freely and willingly made for all people as well as His merciful love for all of us.

As for anti-Semitism no one has to explain to me what it is, especially some of the modern Jewish or Christian critics and experts. I experienced first hand what it was as a Jewish child in Nazi Germany during the late 1930s. In July 1990, my wife Sara and I visited Poland as part of a pilgrimage. It was my first visit back since I was a 4-year-old child visiting my grandparents in Krakow. While in Poland we went to Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp. It was an extremely emotional experience for me. Two of my aunts and their families were killed there. I saw pictures of little children (about 3 to 8 years old) who died in Auschwitz. Items on display included shoes, clothing, and other articles of the children. I realized then that but by the grace of God, and for what purpose He alone knows, I could have been in those pictures and my shoes and belongings could have been in that pile. The Nazis killed 6 million Jews during World War II. Did they do this only because Jews killed Christ? Hitler had no use for Christianity because it was founded by a Jew and said that nothing good could come from a Jew. The roots of Nazi anti-Semitism go much deeper then purely religious grounds. Let us never forget that millions of other human beings including clergy and religious died in the gas chambers as well. I also experienced anti-Semitism as I was growing up in New York as a Jewish teenager and young adult in the 1950s. Jews have been persecuted many times during the last 2,000 years by “Christians.” And many times these “Christians” would use the Gospels selectively as a pretext to justify their cruelty. But did they truly believe or understand the message of love and forgiveness that Jesus taught and required all His disciples to follow? In the film The Passion of the Christ Jesus is shown quoting from the Gospel of John chapter 10 verses 17 and 18 Jesus says:

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.”

It should be very clear then that to blame only Jews for the death of Jesus Christ means denying that Jesus, obeying the will of the Father, freely and willingly laid down His life for the sins of all mankind. This film is neither anti-Semitic or anti- Jewish. Most of those who make this claim are probably unfamiliar with the Jewish faith at the time of Jesus, the Gospels, Church history (the good as well as the bad) or they have another agenda.

I firmly believe that at this critical time, the Church needs once again to emphasize Jesus Christ crucified, especially through its preaching in the manner of Saints Peter and Paul. The Apostle Paul spent his life preaching Christ crucified to the Gentiles. It was because of this that many Jewish and pagan hearts were converted to Jesus Christ, and eventually a pagan empire was conquered. Therefore I welcome this movie The Passion of the Christ as something all people need to see and experience. I thank God for Mel Gibson who had the courage to produce it and withstand the vicious attacks against him. I am confidant that with the help of the Holy Spirit this film can only change the world for the better. May God be praised.

  • You are my witnesses (Is. 43:10)  •  You shall be my witnesses (Acts 1:8)