Matthew Sweet, a British reporter, recently asked me for an interview. He was writing a piece for the Daily Telegraph on a London revival of "Jesus Christ Superstar," which was also recently revived in New York. He sought me out for my response to a critique made by my late husband, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, when the film version was released in 1973.
At that time, Marc was quoted as saying that the rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice was "a witch's brew of anti-black and anti-Semitic venom." He was gravely concerned about the negative depictions of the black-hatted, bare-chested Jewish priests; the furious cleansing of the temple scene; and the perpetuation of the discredited notion that Jews were collectively to blame for the crucifixion of Jesus. (It's worth noting that crucifixion was a uniquely Roman form of execution.)
All of this stood in stark contrast to the Vatican's formal repudiation of "Christ-killer" charges in the Second Vatican Council and also by the World Council of Churches. Given that the film was being distributed in many countries, Marc feared that it would fuel the ugly upsurges of anti-Semitic incidents that had recently been taking place in Latin American countries. He further feared that the film would introduce countless children to defamatory and inaccurate images that would profoundly influence their image of Jews and Judaism for years.
Now, here I was, in the odd position of responding to my husband's critique 20 years after his death and 41 years after the rock opera was first staged -- a unique position indeed.
It's immediately clear that "Jesus Christ Superstar" is an equal opportunity offender. Jews were understandably concerned about the way in which they are portrayed, but Christians also took offense. The rock opera depicts a very human Jesus, who often seems overwhelmed by his divinity. This is a Jesus who gets irritated with his disciples and wails, "I'm sad and I'm tired." When surrounded by lepers clamoring to be healed, he tries brushing them aside and cries, "Leave me alone!" But most controversial of all is the implication that Jesus' relationship with Mary Magdalene might have been a carnal one. Nevertheless, in 1974, the Vatican defended "Jesus Christ Superstar" against Christian conservatives who believed it blasphemed Jesus.
Nor is the depiction of Judas the conventional one. The Judas of "Jesus Christ Superstar" is a black man. (Is this racist?) But he's no cartoon character. Rather, we see a complex, questioning, highly idealistic Judas. So tortured is he, that he ultimately hangs himself. In the film version, the camera sees him from a distance, a solitary figure, dangling from a tree branch, in a scene that evokes the horror of a lynching.
According to Sweet, "'Jesus Christ Superstar' remains the most protested-against work in the history of musical theatre." This may well be true. But, in reality, this rock musical is part of a long tradition of Passion Plays that depict the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. This tradition includes the Oberammergau Passion Plays, which began in 1634, and more recent conceptions, such as Mel Gibson's controversial film, "The Passion of the Christ" and the current revivals of "Jesus Christ Superstar."
These reenactments of the Easter story serve to bring immediacy to the suffering of Jesus and a renewal of his message of redemption. But historically, Passion Plays and other retellings of the Easter story have inspired far less noble passions that led to vicious pogroms against Jews.
Marc's uncle was but one victim among thousands. Passing a church in his small village in the Ukraine one day, he was set upon by its congregants as they streamed out at the end of their Easter service. So inflamed were they by the fiery sermon, in which their priest railed against the "Christ-killer" Jews, that they pursued the first Jew they could find and forced him into the river to drown. Marc often contemplated this part of his family history and the impact of retelling the Easter story through sermons and Passion plays. He would ask: "How can a gospel of love be turned into such a gospel of hate when it comes to the Jews?"
Far too often there is a profound distinction between the way a religion is practiced and the core tenets of a religion. This applies to all religions and reflects how religion is misused to justify demonization and dehumanization of "the other." We see it in conflicts between Hindus and Muslims, Muslims and Christians, Christians and Jews, and all the other pairings that have led to such widespread displacement, destruction and death in the name of religion.
If selective use of religious texts can be turned into weapons of mass destruction, what does that mean for the practice of religion?
It means that we have a responsibility to contextualize those texts; to use them as teachable moments that help us understand the historical circumstances under which they were written. It means that we must find ways to focus on the nobility and ideals that represent religion at its best. Whether or not one believes that "Jesus Christ Superstar" does that, it certainly provides us with just such a teachable moment.