(RNS) — Passion plays originated in the Middle Ages in Christian Europe as a way to celebrate and teach the story of the last days of Jesus’ life and from the beginning embodied the anti-Judaism derived from the depiction of the Jewish religious authorities in the Holy Week Gospel readings. Passion plays regularly triggered anti-Jewish violence by repeatedly affirming in the minds of Christians and others who viewed Passion plays the powerful spectacle that Jews are devilish, manipulative, legalistic and blood-thirsty Christ-killers.
With the post-Holocaust transformation of Christian attitudes toward Jews and Judaism, Passion plays began to change for the better. Jewish caricatures were increasingly challenged on both historical and theological grounds, and the shows have de-emphasized the role of Jewish figures and the idea that blame for Jesus’ death lay on the Jews as a people.
But change came very slowly to Oberammergau, Germany, home to the best-known Passion play, which resumes this week after a delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Oberammergau’s play has been presented once every decade since 1634 to fulfill a sacred vow made by its plague-ravaged residents. Often viewed in person by half a million pilgrims, the Bavarian version is regarded around the world as the genre’s gold standard.
Adolf Hitler, no lover of Christianity, who viewed the play in 1930 and in 1934 at its 300th anniversary, instrumentalized it as a tool of antisemitism. “Never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed,” he said.
Dangerously, Oberammergau resumed its play after the Holocaust as if nothing had happened. It remained unaffected by the evolution of Christian attitudes regarding Jews, which was enshrined in the Catholic Church’s 1965 teaching “Nostra Aetate.” That document, paralleled and improved upon by subsequent Catholic and other Christian denominational statements, teaches:
What happened in His Passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.
Some of Oberammergau’s most venomous portrayals of Jews remained as late as the 1980s. In 1980, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious affairs, labeled Oberammergau “the international capital” of religious antisemitism. His successor, Rabbi A. James Rudin, condemned the 350th anniversary edition, in 1984, as “unmistakably antisemitic.”
In 1990, Christian Stückl became the director and built a team that shared his vision for reform. With each production — this year’s will be his fourth — Stückl has accelerated and extended the process of eradicating antisemitic tropes, costumes and scenery.
Stückl’s most lasting legacy will be his careful portrayal of the Jewish character and context of Jesus and the story. The play no longer presents a timeless picture of Jews murdering the founder of Christianity; that was anachronistic at best, virulent at worst. In Stückl’s production, Jesus and other Jews struggle to sustain their lives and integrity as God’s people under crushing Roman subjugation. The Romans didn’t like trouble; Jesus was trouble, and the ruling Jewish priests were expected to keep Jerusalem quiet.
In 2010, a radically new scene was introduced: Jesus lifting a Torah as hundreds sing a rendition of the central Jewish prayer, “Shema Yisrael.” It now is a highlight of the play. The 2022 edition has more Hebrew prayers, including a new musical setting of Psalm 22 by Markus Zwink, and more Jewish costuming and ambience, crafted by designer Stefan Hageneier.
Portrayal of the complex wrestling between Roman procurator Pontius Pilate and High Priest Caiaphas still presents some difficulties as a result of the different pictures offered in the four Gospels. Stückl brings deeper nuance with new lines, like Pilate’s: “The Jew” — Caiaphas — “has seen through me. The death sentence for Jesus has already been written.” And Caiaphas’: “You” — Pilate — “wanted him, now take him.”
The play has been transformed, not perfected. The genre defies perfection, and the work against anti-Jewish interpretations defies completion, as the gospel story cries out for “actualization” in the terms and context of every era.
Stückl also knows that a global production cannot be shaped by Bavarian Catholic perspectives alone. Building on relationships established before the 2010 play, he has invited an academic advisory group convened by AJC into a process of constructive engagement with him on the interfaith issues. Since April 2019, he has devoted long hours and much candid discussion to our reviews of the script and a full dress-rehearsal. His tweaking of the production through previews, and even after the May 14 premiere, will reflect that commitment.
Oberammergau is no longer a capital of antisemitism. In an age of rising antisemitism around the world, hauntingly so in post-Holocaust Europe and Germany, where more than 10% of the population voted in 2021 for an antisemitic right-wing populist party, the Oberammergau Passion Play has become a working laboratory for the advancement of Christian-Jewish and German-Jewish relations.
To paraphrase a rabbinic text, the task is not complete, but people of goodwill in Oberammergau and beyond no longer believe they are free to desist.
(Rabbi Noam E. Marans is American Jewish Committee’s (AJC’s) director of interreligious and intergroup relations. The Rev. Peter A. Pettit is teaching pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)