Two Rabbis, an Archbishop and the Oberammergau Passion Play

It has fascinated me since I first heard about it from Sister Mary Bosco, my fourth-grade teacher, in 1960. In 1634, she explained, the sturdy folk of this little Bavarian village promised Jesus that, if spared from the ravaging Black Death, they would, in gratitude, produce an all-day Passion Play every decade.

No more citizens died, so, true to their word, Oberammergau has kept the vow. An act of faith, of piety and of perseverance, to be sure, but, for 476 years, the renowned Oberammergau Passion Play has been celebrated as well for the poetry of its script, the inspiration of its music and song, the art of its costuming and set, and the amazing talent of its cast, all taken exclusively from this tiny town.

I went in 1984 (the Play occurs at the beginning of each decade, but also in ’34 and ’84 of each century to commemorate the 1634 vow), with my recently retired first pastor, and we caught each other tearing up more than once during the six-hour spectacle—and enjoyed the beer, Bavarian sausages and dumplings at the lunch break! I promised myself then I would return.

So, earlier this year, I readily accepted the kind invitation of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre to serve as chaplain on their June pilgrimage to Bavaria, the highlight to be the Passion Play. We had to move quickly, as the 5,000 seats at each performance, five times a week from May through October, go right away.

Once again, I was very moved at the Play, and was hardly surprised that each one of our 65 other pilgrims were as well. The awesome natural beauty and warm Catholic culture of southern Germany helped make our journey very memorable.

This time around was even more meaningful than a quarter-century ago. I had come to learn that the Oberammergau Passion Play was noted not only for its devotion, art and spiritual inspiration—alleluia for all of that—but also, soberly, because of its past anti-Semitism.

While a seminarian at the North American College in Rome, I benefited immensely from a course on Judaism by the acclaimed scholar Rabbi Joseph Lichten. He had told us how Holy Week, and public reproductions of the Passion of Christ in Catholic cultures, had at times tragically prompted outbreaks of anti-Semitism in the past. He specifically mentioned the granddaddy of all Passion plays, my beloved Oberammergau, as an example. I can remember my shame when Rabbi Lichten related how Hitler had attended the play in 1930 and 1934.

The problem was that often these plays blamed the Jewish people collectively for the rejection, suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, and that this inaccurate and unfair indictment had engendered harassment and persecution of the Jews.

Thank God, Rabbi Lichten went on to tell us in his lectures in Rome in 1973, things were changing for the better. He credited the Second Vatican Council (which he attended as an official observer), which taught in its document Nostra Aetate that it was downright wrong to blame the Jews collectively for the crime of killing the Son of God. He happily pointed to the revision of the Good Friday liturgy, and—to the point—to the brave action of the Archbishop of Munich (whose pastoral jurisdiction includes Oberammergau), Cardinal Julius Doepfner, who had refused to approve the 1970 Play until it had reformed the script to bring it in line with the council’s teaching.

My subsequent study had shown me that 1970 was only the start of a slow process to bring the legendary Play in line with clear Church directives, rendering it more sensitive to the understandable worries of our elder brothers and sisters in faith. Thanks to the efforts of respected Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, Rabbi James Rudin and Rabbi Leon Klenicki, and supportive Catholic voices, the script has been revised considerably.

So, this summer, when two prominent officers of the American Jewish Committee, Rabbi Gary Greenebaum and Rabbi Noam Marans, asked if they might view the Play with me, I was thrilled. As you can imagine, my excitement was on high that day we met outside the theater in Oberammergau to attend the production together.

Even the mayor of the village was there to welcome the two rabbis, Father Dennis McManus and me, and he was accompanied by the director and associate director of the Play, Christian Stückl and Otto Huber, both courageous reformers of the script. They invited us to go backstage to meet the hundreds of townsfolk in the Play, and to lead them in prayer. And then this archbishop and the two rabbis settled in to watch.

At the dinner break later, we were joined by Stückl and Huber, as well as the 30-year-old man portraying Christ, Frederick Mayert, for a most fascinating visit. Mayert—it was uncomfortable addressing the Christus as "Fred"—told us that the major actors had traveled to Israel better to appreciate the drama, and the rabbis complimented him on the Hebrew he had learned to assure that moments of public prayer by Jesus and His apostles were more authentic. I mostly listened as the rabbis and directors reviewed progress in the Play, spending a lot of time on how the new emphasis on the "Jewishness" of Jesus and the apostles had enhanced the quality of the production.

Three hours later, upon completion of the Play, the directors invited us backstage to join the cast for some banter and a beer. We sat up late discussing the masterpiece we had just experienced, rejoicing in the obvious progress, and attentively listening to Rabbi Greenebaum and Rabbi Marans thoughtfully point out some remaining unresolved issues.

Our Jewish colleagues first expressed deep appreciation for the power and inspiration of the Play. Rabbi Greenebaum, who had never seen it before, remarked that he found the production very moving, while offering the insight that a fuller discussion of the Christian attitude on suffering—a constant theme of the Play, and, of course, of the Gospel itself—should be a future agenda item for Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

Rabbi Marans brought up what is a regular topic in our dialogue, the Christian praxis of viewing the Old Testament only as a prefigurement of the New. His observation was timely, because a significant part of the Play is the "still tableaus," where the cast silently portrays an Old Testament scene—let’s say, for instance, the sacrifice of Isaac—right before the "fulfillment" of that event by Jesus—in this case, the crucifixion. "Be our guest," is how Rabbi Marans expressed his feelings about such a Christian interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures, but, he continued, "watch out!" For us as Jews, he went on, these sacred events have normative meaning on their own, not merely as antipasto for the main course, Jesus.

Both rabbis renewed their high praise for the Play’s accent on the fact that Jesus and His apostles were deeply faithful Jews, singling out the Seder meal of the Last Supper.

Rabbi Marans, who had viewed the spectacle before, and was well-informed on the history of past tensions, commented that negative stereotyping of Jewish leaders in costume and script was much less than in past decades, but pointed out some areas where improvement could go on.

Most of our post-production conversation centered on the neuralgic point of blame. Does the 2010 script, admittedly a vast improvement over older ones in cleansing any vestiges of anti-Semitism, still hint that the Jews are to blame for the death of Christ?

The two rabbis noted some positive advances here, commenting, for one, that the Romans, led by the tyrannical Pontius Pilate, were the clear villains in the Play; two, that all seemed to bear the blame, even the apostles, who hardly came off very well at all; and, three, that Jewish sentiment about Jesus
is presented as dramatically divided in the Play, with "pro-Jesus" Jewish leaders such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimithea very prominent foils to the "anti-Jesus"s crowd led by Annas and Caiphas.

However, our two rabbi-friends were still concerned, they candidly admitted, that the Play might give the impression that the Jews of the time collectively were the major culprits, especially, Rabbi Marans observed, because of the obsessive hatred of Jesus by Annas and Caiphas. Rabbi Greenebaum weighed in that, by the end, he saw Annas and Caiphas as just petty, evil men, not as representatives of the Jewish people.

Christian Stückl, Otto Huber, Father McManus and I were more at peace that the script was balanced and fair, not tilted to collective blame on the Jews. The real devil, Father McManus observed, was Pontius Pilate and the brutal Romans. I conferred that, as a bishop—thus, in our Catholic understanding, a successor of the apostles—I hung my head in shame at the depiction of the Twelve, whose misunderstanding of, rejection of, betrayal of, denial of and abandonment of their Rabbi, Lord, Savior and friend was so tearfully evident in the Play. The only heroes, I commented—apart, of course, from Jesus—were Jews: the faithful women, the teenage John, and the two leaders, Nicodemus and Joseph.

Well, needless to say, this tender issue needs more consideration, we all agreed.

"Gospel," of course, means "good news," and, bottom line, there’s "good news" in Oberammergau, as two rabbis and an archbishop were inspired by the 2010 Play; as major progress in the ongoing noble goal of removing any hint of inaccurate and unjust caricaturing of Jews has been made; and as the three of us agreed that continued dialogue about the renowned Play could indeed be a boost to Jewish-Catholic friendship.

God willing, what has been in the past a cause of acrimony between the children of Abraham can become now an occasion of deepening understanding and reverence.