Title: Oberammergau: The Troubling Story of the World's Most Famous Passion Play
Author: James Shapiro
Publisher: Random House
• Fantastic and engaging history of important aspects of Christian antisemitism
• Exposes the deep roots of antisemitism on aspects of Christian theology
• History of the strongly antisemitic Passion plays held at Oberammergau, Germany and elsewhere
• Exploration of how antisemitic Passion plays have played a role in general social antisemitism
• Reflections on whether antisemitism can ever be removed from Passion plays
This book, more than many other volumes on Christian anti-semitism, offers readers not merely a vivid but also very contemporary and relevant explanation of the conflict between Jewish leaders and conservative Christian theology. This isn't just a historical treatise on medieval pogroms: this is a demonstration of how Christian theology, and its role in live theater, can still exercise power over the minds and lives of people.
As local legend tells it, in 1633, the residents of the small Bavarian village of Oberammergau were being decimated by the plague. A few who were still struggling to survive made a vow that, if they were spared from the wave of plague that was sweeping the countryside, they would perform a Passion play in perpetuity.
Supposedly, no more villagers died and the town has kept its vow. Records verify, with surviving scripts, the staging of a passion play as early as the late 1600s, and they have only had to skip a couple of their once-a-decade production: once during WWII and again when the Catholic Church was attempting to ban all such biblically-based plays.
The story of the Oberammergau production is fascinating for its cultural, commercial, and religious elements. For example, the village itself survives almost entirely because of tourists coming to see the play and purchase souvenirs, like hand-carved wooden figurines and crucifixes. One of the first scenes in the play, though, is that of Jesus attacking the moneylenders in the Temple and their efforts to make money off of religion. Irony doesn't get much thicker than that!
The sharpest analysis, however, is about the village's ambivalent efforts to deal with the harsh anti-semitism which has been characteristic not only of their play (no Jew is known to have ever performed in it), but other historical passion plays as well. Jews in the past suffered greatly after the staging of passion plays: in 1539, for example, the plays had to be stopped in Rome because they were regularly followed by a sacking of the Jewish ghetto. The role of passion plays in at least encouraging radical anti-semitism into the twentieth-century is also undeniable.
Hitler attended Oberammergau's play twice and praised it for its convincing portrayal of "the menace of Jewry" and the "whole muck and mire of Jewry." A man who twice played Jesus was an early convert to Nazism and participated in running out of the town its sole Jewish resident. Even the youngest children participated in the anti-semitism by portraying Jews in the play, gleefully shouting and jeering at Jesus and saying that his blood is to be on them and their children's children.
For the longest time, the play's anti-semitism was defended by people saying that it was in line with Vatican teaching. This was true, but it changed after the Vatican II Council in which the Jewish role in killing Jesus was greatly reduced. Official approval of the play's theology was thus actually denied for the first time and it was for this reason alone that pressure from Jewish groups was given more weight and attention. It became a test case for many Jews: how far had the Catholic church really come in repudiating anti-semitism, or were there pronouncements all talk and lacking in real action?
A boycott of 1970 production attracted lot of negative publicity and even the archbishop of nearby Munich publicly complained about it, stating that it contained "anti-Semitic elements" that needed revision. Recently, due in part to the combined pressure from Jewish groups and the Vatican, changes have been made to the script, making it both more historically accurate and adding a stronger Hebrew quality to Jesus and his disciples, but not all of the offensive aspects have been eliminated.
Anti-Semitism used to be seen in how Jewish characters dressed or talked; now, it is seen in the idea that Christianity has triumphed over and replaced Judaism, something which is at the heart of Christian theology. Jews can't see this without some offense possibly being taken, but it also isn't possible to portray the story of Christianity without this message being delivered:
...by scraping away the incrustation of offensive passages he had suddenly exposed more profound problems with the gospel narratives and with the Vatican position on how the story of the Passion should be told. Moreover, the extraordinary emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus highlighted as never before the sharp disjunction between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. It was one thing, in the old days, to see an ethereal and passive Christ, familiar from two thousand years of Christian iconography, undergo death and resurrection. It was quite another to see a resurrected Jewish Jesus.
People today still have trouble with the idea that Jesus was Jewish while alive, but should he be considered Jewish even after he was resurrected? Would he have prayed as a Jew and followed Jewish laws?
For all the ecumenical attention to a shared spiritual heritage, the play forces Jews and Christians to face the painful fact that they read differently and that a single version of the founding story of Christianity cannot be comfortably shared.
So what are people to do? Is it possible to do a good Passion play? Shapiro doesn't answer this question, but he gives readers a lot to think about.