NEW YORK (RNS) This year, Good Friday and the start of Passover occur on the same date: Friday, April 3. The coincidence is no accident.
Jesus’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the eight-day Jewish festival marking the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egyptian slavery was a religious requirement for Jews of his day. After his death by Roman crucifixion, Passover became an integral part of the Easter story, and Jesus’ Last Supper was like an early version of what later became the Passover seder meal.
In past years, I anonymously attended Good Friday services in New York and sat alongside Christians as they commemorated the death of Jesus as recounted in the New Testament Gospel of John. I alternated each year between Roman Catholic and Protestant churches because I was interested in how preachers handled John’s 71 references to the Jewish people, a text that’s often called “radioactive” because of its negative teaching about Jews and their alleged culpability in killing Jesus.
I attend the most solemn Christian service of the year knowing it had often been a day of dread and even death for many European Jewish communities. On some Good Fridays past, worshippers stormed out of churches filled with hatred and venom for Jews. Many preachers riled up their congregations with sermons saying that “the Jews killed our Lord,” the infamous “Christ killer” or deicide charge that has long poisoned relations between Christians and Jews.
John’s Gospel introduces more problematic themes and hostile descriptions about Jews and Judaism than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Some contemporary scholars have attempted to mitigate or soften John’s negative description of “the Jews.” One explanation is that the Greek word “Ioudaioi” refers only to the obsequious Jewish leaders who collaborated with the Romans, not the entire people. Another approach is to translate the word as “Judeans,” the residents of Judea, the Roman name for the region.
Yet for most people, these are linguistic differences without any real meaning or significance. A more plausible explanation is that John describes a bitter intra-Jewish family feud, an internal clash between the followers of Jesus and those who remained faithful to the older faith. Vigorous angry debates took place within the “mishpacha,” the Hebrew word for “family.” Truth be told, people often utter or write more derogatory words and phrases in family disputes than they would ever use with those outside the family circle.
Such finely crafted academic opinions, however, were rarely heard at the Good Friday services I attended. Some preachers made “the Jews” into the chief adversaries, the eternal enemies of Jesus. They preached that the Jewish people merited eternal divine punishment because of their “crime.” The decisive and central role played by the cruel Roman authorities — the only ones with the power to carry out capital punishment — was frequently minimized or omitted completely. Jesus’ killers were “the Jews,” full stop. Such anti-Jewish Good Friday services were painful and distressing.
But I also attended Good Friday services in both Catholic and Protestant churches where the death of Jesus was portrayed in broad universal terms without placing the blame on “the Jews” or even the Romans: no condemnation, no divine punishment. Such sermons focused less on “who” killed Jesus than on the meaning of his death for our own age. Those positive sermons reflected the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 repudiation of the deicide charge and the call for “mutual respect and knowledge” between Christians and Jews.
After Passover and Easter concluded, I always contacted the various preachers and suggested we meet to discuss my Good Friday experience. Almost all accepted my invitation. The Christian clergy, including those who did not verbally beat up on the Jews, usually asked: “Rabbi, why didn’t you tell me you were coming to the Good Friday service?”
My response: “Would that have changed your preaching?”
The answer from even those who had spewed anti-Judaism from their pulpit was invariably something along the lines of: “Knowing a rabbi was present would have made a real difference. I would have changed my message so I didn’t offend you.”
My response: “It’s not a matter of politeness. Before you again falsely condemn Jews as ‘Christ killers’ and cursed by God, imagine that Jews, the kinsfolk of Jesus, are physically present at all your services, not just on Good Friday.”
(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. His latest book, “Pillar of Fire: The Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” will be published by Texas Tech University Press this fall.)
YS/MG END RUDIN