Oberammergau’s impact on Christian-Jewish relations

In post-Holocaust Germany, the passion play has become a focus for both Christian-Jewish contention and reconciliation.

christian pilgrims 311 (photo credit: AP)
christian pilgrims 311
(photo credit: AP)
A pioneering interreligious dialogue between young American Jews and German Christians in Oberammergau has opened a new chapter in the history of the world’s largest and most infamous passion play.
The American Jewish Committee, in cooperation with Germany Close Up, brought 15 young American Jews to Germany to view the production and develop relationships with their German Christian peers. Joining us were noted Christian and Jewish scholars of Christian scriptures, interreligious dialogue and the Oberammergau passion play experience.
My organization has long been critical of this intense drama whose anti-Jewish elements, 45 years after the Second Vatican Council, threaten to undermine the major achievements in Christian-Jewish relations. That’s why it is so important to involve the next generation in the kinds of interactions that can assure further progress in interreligious understanding.
The play is a huge endeavor, produced every 10 years, in this Bavarian village nestled in the Alps. Half of Oberammergau’s 5,000 residents are directly involved in the production, which opened on May 15. It will be performed 102 times through October, as 500,000 pilgrims, many from the US, make the journey to see it.
As recently as the 350th anniversary edition in 1984, the play seemed irredeemable from its caricatures that incited anti-Jewish sentiment and violence over the centuries.
After Adolf Hitler, who rose to power in Bavaria, saw the play in 1930 and 1934, he proclaimed: “Never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the time of the Romans.”
In post-Holocaust Germany, Oberammergau has become a focus for both Christian-Jewish contention and reconciliation. Under the leadership of Oberammergau reformers Christian Stückl and Otto Huber, the director and deputy director of the passion play, the 1990, 2000 and 2010 editions are less offensive to Jews and concerned Christians than earlier versions.
THIS YEAR’S play includes, significantly, a new scene that unequivocally asserts Jesus’ Jewishness. The actor lifts high a Torah facsimile as hundreds on stage, all Christian residents of Oberammergau, sing a newly-composed rendition of the first few verses of the Shema.
In addition to worrisome stereotypes, the play regrettably still perpetuates the slanderous deicide charge that has historically sparked violence against Jews. That twomillennia- old accusation was dismissed by the 1965 Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate, which proclaimed that “what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”
Stückl, the most sympathetic director in Oberammmergau history, has labored for decades to address concerns expressed by Christians and Jews, but he also has been maligned by the town’s traditionalists who oppose revisions of any kind. While Stückl single-handedly Judaized the Jesus in this year’s play, he was unwilling, or unable, to change a long-standing horrific scene which fails to clarify that Jews are not collectively responsible for the death of Jesus.
In advance of my visit, I had diligently studied the play, and became familiar with the cadence of every scene. Yet, nothing could have prepared me for the bone-chilling instant when 800 Oberammergau residents, representing first-century Jews, ascended the stage to call loudly for Jesus’s blood. The few shouting for Jesus’s release cannot be heard over the din of hundreds repeatedly screaming “crucify him” in German.
It is a scary medieval moment even for Jews who comfortably reside in the 21st century. The audience is left with the impression that the Jewish high priest Caiaphas has implausibly manipulated Pontius Pilate, the cruel Roman governor, into crucifying Jesus, and that a bloodthirsty Jewish mob carries the day. Lest there be any doubt as to where the blame lies, Pilate symbolically washes his hands of guilt, leaving “the Jews” responsible, for the death of Jesus.
For the sake of Christian-Jewish relations, revising that powerful scene still must be a priority. Our overall experience in Oberammergau gives cautious hope. The young American Jews were warmly welcomed by host families who are known in town by their passion play identities.
For example, several in our group stayed at the home of “Jesus’s mother” – that is, the mother of one of the actors who plays Jesus. And, despite a hectic schedule of previews, Stückl and Huber spent many hours over several days with us, discussing the stagecraft decisions relevant to historic concerns about the play.
This intense relationship-building model is the only path to fully reform the Oberammergau passion play, and to finally expunge all inflammatory portrayals of Jews and Judaism. This experience has introduced a new generation of American Jews to Christian-Jewish dialogue, a primary mission for their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
These emerging Jewish leaders can now assume the mantle of leadership so that the advances in Christian- Jewish relations epitomized by the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate are further strengthened in Oberammergau and beyond.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s associate director of interreligious and intergroup relations.