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"Jesus as Goy"
The Last Temptation of Christ—
One Jewish View
by Pierre Sauvage
Jerusalem Post, Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, Sept. 24, 1988
There was no picket line to cross, but my fellow moviegoers and I no doubt shared a mild feeling of defiance as we filed in to see Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ at its second screening on opening day in Los Angeles.
Protesters held up signs, sang gospel songs, occasionally sought to win us over in bursts of conversation. At the head of the line, a friendly young proselytizer extended his hand in greeting over the rope, asked my name, and pointed out that there were better ways to Jesus than this movie.
"I don't need Jesus," I said, as I walked into the movie theater. "I'm Jewish."
Indeed, much of my family was murdered by the sons of Christians around the time of my birth. Other Christians had looked on. It hadn't even mattered that Jesus too, a fellow Jew, would have been gassed in Auschwitz along with my grandmother.
Today, yet again, we were being accused of going after Him—of having made Him a wimp. And yet, despite the alarming stench of antisemitism—and the essential wrong-headedness of the campaign against the film—I was not wholly unsympathetic to the protesters. I think there are understandable reasons why Last Temptation, sight unseen, has become the last straw for some Christians.
There is no denying that for many years now, American movies and television have largely disregarded the values and lifestyle of large numbers of religiously involved Americans. Adding insult to injury, the industry continues to serve up increasingly brazen dollops of moral know-nothingness in the guise of entertainment.
Furthermore, as a filmmaker myself, I am not unmindful that we Jews are being increasingly singled out for our not insubstantial contribution to this state of affairs. So as the lights dimmed and the walkie-talkie-armed ushers up front faded into the sidelines, the questions
swirling around in my head were not only "Is this a good movie?" and "Is it really offensive for Christians?"
There was also that seemingly ageless lament: "Is it good for the Jews?"
What unfolded at some length was a coherently eccentric vision, designed and executed with as much dedication and skill as medieval artists must have applied to those wan, ethereal religious portraits that seem so remote to us today.
This is fiercely committed, sincere filmmaking. The movie commands respect with its power and beauty even as you begin to recognize what you are seeing—Jesus as the Great Neurotic: less a wimp than a Hamlet, perhaps, but wracked with fear and doubt, and unceasingly questioning himself about his own identity, conduct and appointed role.
The Jesus of Last Temptation, torn by the struggle between the human and the divine, between the flesh and the spirit, was what I had half-expected: a modernist, metaphorical, me-generation portrait of a Savior you can "relate" to.
What I had not been prepared for, however, was my growing discomfort at the film's casual falsification of one key aspect of Jesus' life. This fearless, very contemporary film turns out to be yet another old-fashioned, conventionally expurgated depiction of Jesus as goy.
To be sure, he is called rabbi a half-dozen times, and once fleetingly derogated as a "Jewish politician." But in the context of what we see of him and his world, the references make no sense, any more than the incongruous close-up of the menorah at that last Passover Seder. More even than in the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as unconnected to his Jewish mother, drawing no strength and sustenance from his Jewish environment, cut off from his Jewish cultural and spiritual roots.
This is no minor matter for Jews, or indeed for increasing numbers of Christians. Over the centuries, the de-Judaizing of Jesus has allowed for the most violent and heinous of distinctions to be made between Jesus and his people. It has also robbed Christians of fundamental insights into their faith.
As it happens, that de-Judaizing underlies the very core of the movie at its most controversial and fanciful: the anachronistic attribution of Christianity-induced inner conflicts to Christ himself. As a man of his time, whatever his reasons for remaining a bachelor, Jesus would not have—and indeed surely did not—experience any such agonizing conflict between spirit and flesh.
That conflict (no doubt the essence of the 1955 Nikos Kazantzakis novel on which the film is based) takes on its most perplexing dimension only as one realizes that the film has no intention of providing anything else to think about: no moral enlightenment, no convincing illustration of religious teaching or leadership, indeed no sense of worship or the power of spiritual beliefs.
Righteousness, Last Temptation ultimately seems to say, lies merely in the experiencing of inner struggle, not in the joyous accomplishment of God's will.
And that flies in the face of what I have come to know from some of Christ's disciples, Christians who remained true to themselves and their beliefs at a time when Christian apostasy was running rampant in Nazi-occupied Europe. I'm alive today because even then there were such true-life Christians.
I've come to know them because I've just spent five years making a film about them—a Jewish film in praise of the people who welcomed me into the world. For it happens that I was born and sheltered in a mostly Huguenot community in the mountains of France: There, in and around the village of Le Chambon, some 5,000 Christians defied the Nazis and their French accomplices, taking in my parents and me and some 5,000 other Jews.
I learned that there had been no great inner struggle. No agonized sleepless nights. No momentous debate over the Big Decision. You just did what you had to do. As if nothing else was possible. Without looking upon it as any big deal.
Le Chambon happened, as one Jewish refugee put it, because these Christians were "the most solid people on earth"—rooted in their families, rooted in their heritage, rooted in their land, rooted, yes, even in the Jewish roots of their faith.
"God is not an Israelite," Jesus shouts to the Jewish high priests, in one of the film's most disturbing contributions to artistic exegesis of the New Testament.
I couldn't help thinking of the very different words of pastor Andre Trocmé, spiritual leader of Le Chambon during the war. "Let us never forget that the God of Jesus Christ was the God of Israel. The Christian faith dissolves into mythology as soon as it no longer leans upon Judaism. Nothing can be lost by re-judaizing Christianity."
"By their fruits ye shall know them," said Jesus himself, according to scripture.
If he had anything to do with inspiring the actions of the good Christians of Le Chambon and others like them, he could not have been the tortured, rootless soul of The Last Temptation of Christ.
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