During the last few months our country has seen a number of protests by tens of thousands of women and men marching against the murder of unarmed innocent men and women of color killed by members of our police force. Acts of such egregious discrimination against folk of color bring back memories of the past and the ethical inequities and horrors of American slavery. As far as I know, the question of how to dispose of the many post-civil war monuments celebrating confederate personalities who owned slaves imported like cattle from Africa and sold to slaveholders in this country, has not been solved so far.

This said, the sad and regrettable historical chapter of American slavery has once again been exposed center stage. Once again the unjust treatment of people of color in this country points to a criminal justice system that stands in need of thorough reform. Sadly, these racist events point to the fact that Dr. Martin Luther Jr.’s great “dream” of racial equality in the US, after all these years following his assassination, still waits and cries for fulfillment.

Slavery is an ugly word and concept. It is especially so to those of us who once were slaves ourselves. You must understand that as a biblical scholar and because of my past existential involvement in slavery as a victim of the Holocaust, I thought it meaningful to explore what place it occupied in ancient Israelite history and how past ancient slave systems may have influenced the American experience.

Biblical Palestine, for a period of thousands of years was economically and socially an integral part of the ancient Near Eastern world. Slavery was an economic institution there. In order to evaluate biblical slavery in its proper perspective, we must take a quick look at slavery as it existed in neighboring parts of the Fertile Crescent, the crescent-like geographical area stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia.

There is extant literature on the subject of slavery in the ancient Near East. This literature contains a number of law codes, the names of which are generally unknown to non-professionals. This documentation covers a period stretching from about 2050 B.C.E (Before the Common Era), the Ur-Namu Code of Sumer to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, ca. 1700 B.C.E. and on down to court documents from Babylonia and Assyria from the 14th to the 12th cent BCE.

All these codes contain legislation dealing with slavery. This being the case, it is not surprising that our Torah, whose written reminiscences, historical and pseudo-historical, fall into the latter part of the above period of documentation, also contains legislation covering the phenomenon of slavery.

Before continuing with this inquiry, a word of caution. The biblical Hebrew term for a male slave is eved, for a female slave shifchah. In dealing with these terms, it is important to pay attention to the literary context in which they occur, because eved, slave, can also mean servant, bondsman, serf while the word’s female counterpart shifchah, female slave, can also mean maidservant.

This said, what comes to mind is the question: was the ancient Near Eastern and Israelite slave system racist and therefore similar to the American system, begun here in 1619 when the first slave ship, the White Lion, arrived at Point Comfort in the English settlement that would become Virginia, and when after landing, the ship’s captain immediately proceeded to sell the Africans kidnapped from their villages in what is now Angola. Regarding the above date, it should be mentioned that documentation exists that African Blacks had been imported as slaves in the English colony of Bermuda already before 1619.

Before we try to respond to the questions as to whether the biblical Israelite slave system was based on racist ideology, let us define race and racism. Race. Britannica. com: “Contemporary scientists hold that human physical variations, especially in those traits that are normally used to classify people racially – skin color, hair texture, facial features, and to some extent bodily structure – must be understood in terms of evolution processes and the long-range adaptation of human groups… Racism, according to the Oxford English dictionary is “the theory that distinctive human characteristics and abilities are determined by race; belief in the superiority of a particular race.”

These preliminary remarks having been presented, let us now go to one of the more important biblical texts that deals with slavery.

“Now these are the ordinances which you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bear him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.”

Exodus 21:1-6

This ordinance is one of great many legal references to slavery in Israel. Notice that this ordinance deals with Hebrew slaves explicitly. This explicitness is not found in many legislative texts dealing with slavery where the slave is designated by the term eved. Given this problem, scholars disagree in their interpretation with regard to which slave is meant: Jewish or foreign. Furthermore, slavery is a broad concept that must be broken down into a number of categories: captives of war; Israelite or foreign slaves; minors sold into slavery; people’s self-sale into slavery; insolvency caused slavery; female slavery; marriage between free men and slaves; manumission; Temple slavery; and the important economic role of slavery.

Obviously, it is impossible to deal here with all the references to slaves enumerated above. What can be said, however, is that while the Bible considers slaves to be a chattel of their master, there are regulations which the master must respect. Here is one such text. Deut. 21.10-14: “When you go out to war against your enemies and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her.”      

There are many other similar legislative stipulations in the Bible. Lev. 25:44 allows the people of Israel to buy and sell slaves; Ex. 21:16 and Deut. 24:7 legislates against kidnapping, stealing and selling a person which carries the death penalty. In Israel, the master/owner was not allowed to harm his slaves. In case this happened, the slave had to be set free (Ex.21:26-27). On the other hand, Ex.21:20-21 seems to me contradictory: “And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he died under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.”

Clearly, the Israelite law, based on Torah and thus considered to have come from God, is not all that clear about master-slave relationship. To me it is puzzling that nowhere in the Torah God, the master legislator, forbids slavery. Interestingly, this holds true for the New Testament and thus also for Jesus of Nazareth. What can be stated with certainty, on the other hand, is that in the Hebrew Bible the slave has certain rights that protect him from being abused, maltreated, injured or killed. The slave is not hated. He is, rather like a useful machine, to be kept in a good workable state.

While the biblical concept of slavery is nothing to be praised it is a system of slavery seen fit for the economy then in place. Sadly, there is no voice raised, not even that of God, condemning it. It is curious to me that none of the great prophets of Israel, staunch advocates for justice, have anything to say about it. Slavery is a concept accepted and used in the Ancient Middle East and thus Israel accepted it and seemingly also practiced it.

My writing the word “seemingly” above in bold suggests that considering the history of ancient Israel I have a problem accepting the fact that slavery was actually in use there. Why so?

Israel as a geopolitical entity begins with King David, if we accept the biblical Davidic kingship stories as historically accurate. Seen from an archaeological viewpoint questions about the grandiose narratives concerning King David and the Davidic empire leaves many questions unanswered.

It is highly probable that if slavery in ancient Israel existed, the slaves were not prisoners of war but rather fellow Israelites. This is substantiated in I K 5:27-32 where we read that “King Solomon [David’s son] raised a levy of forced labor (Hebrew mas) out of all Israel and the level numbered thirty thousand men. The so-called United Kingdom of David (ca. 1,000 BCE) fell apart with the fiasco of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, against whom the ten northern tribes revolted under the leadership of one Jeroboam in protest against the harsh treatment of the people by Solomon (931 BCE) and Rehoboam’s boasting that his future leadership would be even harsher. This led to the subsequent breakup of the United Kingdom into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The northern kingdom ended in 722 BCE when Sargon II, king of Assyria, defeated the ten northern tribes. Judah in the south fell to Babylonia in 586 BCE when Zedekiah, its last king, was defeated.        From then on the geopolitical state of Israel no longer existed. A relatively short resurrection of Israel occurred under Hasmonean/Maccabean rule from 165 BCE to 63 BCE at which time the land became a Roman province. Summarizing the above we conclude that an independent Israel existed for a total of 512 years. After the fall of Israel to Rome, 1,085 years went by with Israel being dispersed and without a homeland until 1948 when Israel was resurrected again and became Eretz Yisrael, the modern state of Israel.

Given the relatively short periods of Israel’s independent existence it is highly unlikely that slavery ever played an important role in Israel. This said, I wonder whether the biblical slavery legislation is little more than wishful thinking of what slavery should look like in a future reconstructed kingdom of Israel, which once again will have become a geopolitical independent entity. Whatever the actual reality of ancient Israel’s approach to slavery was, lived or optimistically envisioned for the future, it seems certain that Israel’s legislation provided rules of law regulating the slave owner- slave relationship. In most cases, these rules provided the slave protection against slave owners’ possible cruelty. There is no display of hatred for slaves to be found in Israel’s slavery legislation. The biblical picture of slavery is not founded on racist ideology.

Remains to be shown where certain Americans, primarily southern clergy and their followers, found justification for slavery in the Bible.

The biblical story of Noah and the Flood is well known to all of us. After Noah’s family survived the worldwide flood in the famous floating ark, Noah planted a vineyard. The story tells how Noah overindulged in his wine and fell fast asleep in his tent in the nude.

Noah had three sons named Shem, Ham and Japheth (Gen.9:18-19, 27). A literal interpretation of this Genesis story suggests that the population of the world descended from these three sons and their wives.

The story has it that Ham, the father of Canaan, entered the tent, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers about it. These two, Shem and Japheth, entered the tent and covered their father walking backwards so that they did not see his nakedness. When Noah found out what Ham, his son, had done, he curses Canaan, Ham’s son and his progeny to the effect that Canaan and his progeny will be servants to Shem and Japheth. In the popular version of this bizarre story, known as “the curse of Ham,” Canaan, Ham’s son, disappears and Ham was made black and his descendants, all black, were Africans. This is how the perversion took place.

The Canaanites, throughout Israel’s biblical history, were demonized and their land, Canaan, was occupied under the leadership of Joshua and the Judges and became the “homeland” of the People Israel.

Finally, where does God’s curse of blackness of the people come from? Nothing in the biblical story suggests or refers to the world populations’ skin colors! In Genesis chapter 10, the sequel to the Flood Story, we read, “These are the generations of the sons of Noah,…” with enumerations of their populations and lands. In Genesis 10:6 this reads, “The sons of Ham: Kush, Egypt, Put …” (Don’t be confused by the fact that countries and populations were named after Ham’s sons.) Ham, the perpetrator of the sin of having seen his father’s nakedness is here identified with Kush, the area south of Egypt, today known as the Sudan and Ethiopia, in which the population has pitch black skin color. Also Egypt, the archenemy of ancient Israel falls under God’s curse of Ham.

To the white southern slaveholders it was clear that Ham must have been black and thus right along with him all black skinned people had been cursed by God and destined to serve Shem’s and Japheth’s people who in the southern preachers’ opinion were white.

Here then we find the birth of white supremacism. Interestingly, the human skin color scheme is nowhere mentioned in the Bible story.

Such are the vagaries of biblical interpretation. This one served as the justification for the slavery of about 600,000 American slaves or 5% of the 12 million slaves hunted down and taken from Africa. This, in turn, resulted between 1882 and 1968 in 4,743 documented lynchings with 3,446 of these done to Black People in America.

Clearly, racism and white supremacism are not found in the Bible. What can be found there is religious supremacism which is regrettable. More about that some other time.        Let me end this mini-study of slavery in the Bible with a reminder. One of the Haggadah’s texts we sing at the Pesach (Passover) seder begins with the words avadim hayiynu… or “we were slaves.” Let us never forget our people’s sufferings as slaves in Egypt and the Holocaust and our liberation to become an am chofshi, “a free people.” May these lived experiences of our people, the Jewish people, provide for us the spiritual compass and mandate to stand with all people of color who continue to be threatened by white racists and supremacists.

Please send comments by emailing me here. Thanks.

Empty-ness is not a good history teacher: Musings on the removal of Confederate monuments

by Walter Ziffer (Holocaust prisoner # 64,757) 

As a Holocaust survivor, the recent huge anti-slavery protests sparked by the brutal police murder of George Floyd, have deeply impressed and concerned me. One of the consequences of the protests has been the public’s demand that monuments honoring important Confederate personalities who were slaveholders should be removed from public places. As a result of these requests, officially sanctioned removal of such monuments has taken place in various localities leaving the pedestals on which these men were mounted, empty.

As a survivor of three years of daily death threatening slavery, I fully understand public outcries for the removal of these monuments. I would be shocked and scandalized seeing men like Hitler, Goering or Himmler and many other Nazi leaders publicly honored and memorialized by statuary on Germany’s streets and plazas. Fortunately this is not the case. But seeing the removal of Confederate leader statues being done by people under the influence of what seems to be a kind of mass hysteria and in a fashion akin to vandalism strikes me as unfortunate, short sighted and counterproductive.

With future generations in mind, I submit that an empty pedestal or the disappearance of a statue just is not educational. Furthermore, the removals should not only express protest about the past but also convey anti-racism education for the future.

This said, I would suggest that the statues of Confederate slave holders and advocates of this kind of systemic racism be dethroned from their physically elevated position and placed next to the pedestal that had previously supported them. This procedure would not only convey to the public how we today think about the shamefulness of supporting the institution of slavery and how we today regret attitudes held in the past.

History should not and cannot not be erased, because it happened. Trying to erase it by silencing it means engaging in dishonesty. Some of our past history was shameful and therefore must not be glorified, By proceeding as I suggest, the empty pedestal and lowered statue next to it on ground level would not only attract the eyes of the passerby and invite her or him to read the brief explanation of what happened here, engraved on the now empty pedestal, but would also provide a much needed lesson about a part of United States history then, which now we regret and condemn.

If you have any responses or comments, please email me here.

Covid-19: A Message from God?

I just read an article in the prestigious bi-weekly journal “The Christian Century” (June 17, 2020) under the title “New poll finds majority of Americans who believe in God see corona virus as divine message” by authors Elana Schor and Hannah Fingerhut. This does not come as a surprise, similar pieces having appeared in other publications.

With over hundred thousand people having lost their lives to the virus in our country alone, it is no wonder that folks speculate. The piece in the journal I am referring to above is based on a poll by the University Chicago Divinity School and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It suggests that many people wonder whether there is a deeper meaning to the deadly outbreak that has become global.

Why bring God into the conundrum of why this catastrophe? This question is easy enough to answer. It is clear that any genuine believer in the ultimate and literal truth of the Bible cannot help but make the connection between what these days is happening to the global population and a text like for instance Deuteronomy 11:13-17 that teaches that if we accept God’s laws his blessings will flow to us, but if we reject God’s laws and thus disobey him, all kinds of punishments will be dumped upon us like illness, famine, military defeat, etc.

The above Deuteronomy text and other similar ones are found in the Hebrew scriptures, a.k.a. the Old Testament and are addressed to ancient Israel or, as the Jews understand it, to them. The Old Testament’s teachings are, however, also part of the holy scriptures of the Christian Church. There is no reason to think that Jesus the Jew rejected the above cited instruction. Not only does Jesus nowhere question it but everything in Jesus’ life and teaching points to the fact that he accepted it. His healing miracles performed on persons who suffered from various diseases and disabilities are often prefaced by Jesus’ words of forgiveness of these persons’ sins.

No wonder then that modern day genuine believers in God and God-related stories in the Bible, often called fundamentalists, see connections between the present day pandemic of Covid-19 and the biblical theology of punishment responses to human sin by God. Since these folks accept theodicy, i.e., the teaching that God’s judgment is always righteous and just, their response to catastrophe is humility and submission. They bow their heads, acknowledge their sin and pray for God’s forgiveness and healing .

For just a moment I will now focus elsewhere. I agree with what many other contemporary writers have noticed, namely the increased frequency of nature-related catastrophes. While it is true that communication-related technical improvements have shrunk the world, as it were, so that we know much more than our ancestors ever did about what is going on elsewhere on our globe, it is undeniable that vast natural catastrophes have been occurring in our times much more frequently than ever before. Hundreds of thousands have been killed by earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts and fire.

Have all these nature phenomena been divine signs and messages within God’s alleged sin/punishment arrangement, as some fundamentalist Bible believers suggest?

Enter into our discussion Martin Buber with his philosophy of “I and Thou.” Martin Buber (1878 to 1965) was a famous German Jewish philosopher. He is best known for teaching the I-Thou and I-It philosophical concepts. He explored these concepts in his German book, titled Ich und Du or I and Thou. His view was that in order for human beings to relate to each other in a truly humane and constructive way it is necessary they do so on the basis of an I-Thou rather than an I- It relationship.

According to Buber it is these two philosophies of radical difference that rule all human relationships. The I-Thou relationship is the relationship between subject and subject. It is a relationship of reciprocity and mutuality. It is a relationship between equals who respect each other. The I-It relationship, on the other hand, is a relationship between subject and object which involves some form of utilization and control of the other. In this relationship the role of the object is passive.

As I read Buber, he applies this philosophy primarily to human social and political intercourse so as to show how inter-human relationships can be improved. Only as we see and treat each other as equals, both as individuals, as religious and social groups, will hostility and  conflict disappear to make room for peace.

It seems that Buber, in his discussion of relationships relegates nature which is a constant vis-a-vis to humanity, into the I-It category. This does not surprise me be cause in doing so, he follows the creation account in the Old Testament in the book of Genesis. In the first biblical account of creation the Hebrew text reads: “And God said, let us make a human, in our image according to our likeness and let them dominate [Hebr. veyirdu] the fish of the sea and the birds of the skies…” (Gen. 1:26). Two verses later, we read, “And God blessed them [Adam and Eve] and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and dominate (Hebrew: vekhivshuha uredu) the fish and the birds of the skies…(Gen.1:28) This is followed by, “And God said, “Behold, I have placed all the vegetation that produces seed that is on the face of all the earth for you and every tree….(Gen. 1:29)

While this wholesale generosity clearly suggests that God’s created nature is a gift to humanity, it does NOT imply that humans are free to abuse the earth, the flora and fauna that are given to them. The above texts are a command of God to the first male and female to rule over the Garden of Eden in a sensitive and conscientious manner as any good gardener worth the title would understand.

Nonetheless, it is the human who falls into Buber’s category of subject, while the garden, given to Adam and Eve, is seen by him as the object or the It. It would be foolish to suggest that the authors of this portion of Genesis had the same understanding of ecological responsibility we have today.

Given the above discussion, I raise the question whether Buber’s relegation of nature into the It category makes sense. I venture to say that nature, while not speaking the language of humans, has its own language by which to communicate with us. When our gardening is irresponsible in that we fail to protect the earth from uninvited invaders; when we neglect to properly feed/fertilize the earth, there will be consequences; when we do not see to it that the earth is properly irrigated, the lack of growth and possible death of seed and seedlings will communicate to us where we have failed. It is no accident that the earth’s epithet is Mother Earth. All this to suggest that Buber by seeing nature as an It might just be wrong. I submit that the earth and all of nature deserves to be recognized not as an object to be used but as a subject and that it should be treated as such.

Now to a bit of theology. I believe that those who suggest that the increase of natural disasters, including perhaps Covid-19, might not be all wrong in considering them as messages and warnings. This said, let me, however, hasten to say that by no means do I consider the message and warning coming from some kind of supernatural divinity. It is at this point of our discussion that I call upon the great Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza to enlighten us.

Baruch Spinoza, his Latin name Benedictus Spinoza, of Portuguese background, was born in 1632 in Amsterdam. He died in 1677 in The Hague. He was a Dutch Jewish philosopher, a rationalist and a seminal figure, some would go so far as to say, the founder of the Enlightenment.

Spinoza is best know from his Latin statement, deus sive natura, meaning  “God or Nature.” The word “or” in this statement does not suggest choice as it often does and therefore has been misunderstood. For Spinoza the “or” meant equality or better, identical-ness. In other words, where in spoken or written discourse the word God is being used, one could just as well use the term nature. Let us keep that in mind.

In Jewish worship we attest to God’s ultimate uniqueness, sacredness, and set-apartness in every area of being by singing kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, adonay tseva’ot; melo kol ha’aretz kevodo, meaning “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is filled with his glory,” (Isaiah 6:3) With this statement, in my opinion, we come close to identify the biblical God with all that exists, i.e., nature. Paul Tillich (20th cent. famous German anti-Nazi theologian) held the view that God is the “Ground of all Being.” This view can be understood as being virtually the same as that of Spinoza. Many modern day non-fundamentalist Jewish and Christian theologians make no secret about their understanding of the concept of God as being a metaphor for all that transcends our understanding, of a power beyond us, a kind of elan vital (expression originating with the French Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson) that drives our planet and the whole universe we are a part of.

If then we accept Spinoza’s teaching of deus sive natura, does it not make sense to suggest that the severe catastrophes we have been experiencing might just be nature’s message and warnings that if we do not reform our ways relating to nature, the latter will have no other choice than to visit upon us suffering and destruction This down to earth concept is expressed by our sages in the Talmud (Av.Z. 54b)) in the sentence haolam keminhago noheg or “the world [or nature] pursues its natural way of functioning.”

In other words, it is nature that tells us in its own language that our rape of natural resources will have to stop. Our pollution of earth’s space by our poisonous gas emissions must be halted. Our proliferation of space junk circling the earth must come to an end. Our mindless exploitation of the earth below our feet by destructive methods of mining must be ended. Fracking methods that extract fossil fuel from under the earth by drilling into great depths and replacing the extracted materials with polluted water will have to be stopped. Defilement of our waterways and oceans with debris and all kinds of human discards such as plastics that resist decomposition will have to be cleaned up and banned. Fishing methods will have to be modified so that the heavily impacted global fish population may recover. The list of such needed actions by humanity is very long.

My impression is that the individuals and business groups who are responsible for the irresponsible activities outlined above have no idea of the damage they are doing to our holistically interrelated ecosystems. Driven by greed, the major motivation for their damaging activities, we are drawing ever closer to a point of no return in the process of ruination of our beautiful life sustaining nature on planet earth which, on second thought, is not an It but a Thou to be respected and loved.

Summarizing, let me suggest that it is nature and not some divinity that sends us messages of warning. The time for us has come to carefully listen to the message nature is sending to us, albeit not in the language of humans but in its own language, a language that is accessible to us if we but choose to listen. The message to us is simple enough: change the way you treat me before it is too late.


Chazah, chazak v’nitchazek!

You have guessed right! This is what we say in unison in synagogue after having finished the reading and study of one of the books of Torah.

What does it mean? Something like, “Be strong, Be strong, Let us be strengthened!

This is what we all need to say to each other right now, as we confront and fight the coronavirus and as we have begun living in uncharted times and uncharted historical territory.

Yet, in some ways it is not all that uncharted! As Jews we have confronted similar times and territory before and have not only been able to cope for long stretches of time but in the end have been successful. So, this time, too, we, like our African-American sisters and bothers must sing, we shall overcome! And we shall!

But simple optimism is not enough. Hope is a double edged sword. Hope based on optimism without a healthy dose of realism is dangerous. We have seen that this kind of onesided optimism on the part of our government has not been helpful. Finally, finally, we all have come to grips with the real dangers that the coronavirus represents and how we must fight it as if it were a human enemy. How do we go about it?

Our biblical tradition can be helpful in placing us on the right path.

Pesach – Passover will soon be here. The Israelites are in the desert and they face an unknown future. Although we live at a different time and under different conditions, we too, are presently in a desert, not knowing what the future holds. We haven’t got a Moses to safely lead us through this difficult and dangerous time, but we have Dr. Fauce, the director of NIH’s dept. of infectious diseases, a modern day Moses to advise us how to be safe and, most of all, how NOT to panic. And we have our local organizations, religious and secular, who try to guide us through this time. Thank you, friends!

One of the great biblical teachings from that time that is applicable now and should correctly orient us with regard to what everyone of us needs to be and to do, is this: when Moses comes down the second time from Mount Sinai to prepare for the building of the mishkan – also called the desert Tabernacle, he requests the people to volunteer in the building of the sanctuary. And they magnificently respond. Each individual participates with his and her capacity and the work is completed. Yes, it takes a village to accomplish great things.

Once again we are in the desert, this time not alone but with all of global humanity. The exact future is unknown to us but we can say with certainty that together. and only together WE SHALL OVERCOME.

Gail and I are deeply grateful to be part of the Asheville area Jewish village. We are pleased to have received a number of calls from fellow-villagers, with offers of assistance. Old folks that we are, the support we are able to offer cannot be material or physical, for obvious reasons. But we are able to help by participating with one another in intellectual and spiritual ways, via phone and internet and, last but not least, by washing our hands in unison with you, our friends, as Dr. Fauce orders…chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek!

When History, Art and Antisemitism Clash.

Gail and I enjoy watching the excellent performances offered by the PBS TV series Great Performances. On December 1, 2019 their program was the remake of the Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” and I watched it for two reasons: I had seen its original production in New York many years ago and was interested as to how the remake of the show affected it. Second reason: Andrew Lloyd Weber having also produced “The Phantom of the Opera” in which our son-in-law Matt Goodman of NYC has been the clarinet chair from its very beginning. Thus my special interest in Weber’s works and the evolution in staging of “Jesus Christ Superstar,”.

You might wonder why any Jew would be interested in watching this kind of Christian show altogether? This Jew, and I mean myself, loves music and JCS. (from here on for the name of the rock opera) has, just like the Phantom, some very catching and pleasing melodies. This Jew, and I mean myself, holds one of two M.A. degrees in New Testament studies whose central object of study is the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a.k.a. Jesus Christ, within Christendom. I wanted to know how Jeshua haNotzriy, (his Hebrew historical name) and the other personages in the opera come across in the remake of the opera.

Almost all the Jews in the new version of the drama of Jesus’ passion week leading up to his crucifixion, are African-Americans. This includes Jesus, played brilliantly by John Legend. Pontius Pilate, the nasty Roman governor is a white man as is also Herod, the repugnant Jewish puppet king of Judea. Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ disciple and lover from the village of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee, as also a number of nameless male and female dancers, is a white woman.

Inevitably, the opera follows closely the New Testament text describing both the eventful prelude to and the actual crucifixion of Jesus/Yeshua.

One of the scenes describes the prisoner Jesus before the Jewish high council in Jerusalem. According to the gospel text, the chief priest and the council make an effort to incriminate innocent Jesus by accusing him of having spoken of himself as the messiah and son of God. This was considered a sacrilege deserving maximum punishment.

In this scene the high priest Caiaphas and the elders, because of their vestments and authoritative behavior, come across as a scheming group of men who are seeking Jesus’ death. In this portrayal the opera conveys rather closely the New Testament text.

While this is not the place to discuss the actual historicity of these proceedings and events as described in the New Testament which have been discussed by numerous scholars with different outcomes dependent on the scholars’ theological orientation, liberal or conservative, it seems to me that the lyrics of the opera, as also the pictorial representations, basically agree with the New Testament’s narrative.

The Christian bible’s passion narrative presents the Jewish population’s side of the informal exchange between them and Pilate as extremely hostile toward Jesus, their fellow Jew. Pilate, the historically proven scoundrel even in Roman eyes, finds no guilt or evil in Jesus and wishes to release him to the Jewish crowd. He purportedly asks the crowd assembled before hims what they wish should be done with their messiah: should he free him or should he condemn him to death. Needless to say, the historicity of this proceeding is highly questionable and hardly attributable to the almighty governor of Jerusalem and the province of Judea. According to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) the crowd responds to his offer with shouts of “Crucify him, crucify him…”

Without doubt this is one of two most disturbing pictures painted of the Jews both by the New Testament text and the opera lyrics. The shouters’ faces exude disdain, loathing, malevolence and hatred for the accused. To the onlooker these faces cannot help but convey to the audience the Jews as a highly repulsive group. Here also, the gospel words, horrible as they are, are amplified by the vivid visual portrayal of the crowd identified as belonging to Jews.

Jesus’ flagellation that precedes his crucifixion is not explicitly shown as it was in Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ.” In this opera, fleeting personages float through the air disappearing behind the suspended Jesus whose face, as these floating bodies pass behind him, cringes from the lashes he receives. The crescendo of the music accompanying this action, conveys to the audience the horrible pain and lacerations inflicted.

Jesus, hanging on the cross, is then graphically shown but his view gradually recedes while merging into a massive white cross which, becoming ever smaller, eventually disappears.

My description of what the screen showed, is very inadequate but will have to suffice for the reader. My attempts to find suitable words for the audio-visually powerful material in this case do not do justice to how well the movie of the rock opera succeeds in drawing the observer into the drama. In my opinion, this is a movie well done and to the best of my knowledge faithful to the New Testament narrative.

This said, I must raise a question that bothered me while watching the movie and has continued to do so many days after.

Does the movie we watched, i.e., the filming of the remake of the original Broadway show “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, brilliant as the performance of the actors and its staging are, incite the audience to antisemitism?

The question brings up the conundrum as to whether great art, known to have incited antisemitism in people in the past, continues to incite audiences to be antisemitic to this day and therefore should not be performed. The classical example of this issue are Wagner performances in Israel.

Wagner, an outspoken antisemite, wrote in 1850 an article Das Judentum in der Music or “Jews in Music.” In it he attacked the Jewish composers Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn and the character of Jewish music in general as shallow and spiritless. This article has been generally regarded as a major landmark in the history of German antisemitism. It should be added that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer. Concerts presenting Wagner’s music were unofficially banned but when performed, vehemently boycotted a number of times in Israel.

Jesus, allegedly betrayed by his own people and delivered into the hands of Rome that crucified him remains to this day the very cornerstone of Christian antisemitism. The above said, is not the revival of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” like pouring oil on a fire that unfortunately has continued burning for twenty centuries?

And so we are looking, in this case, at a clash between the performing arts, be it a Wagner opera or a modern rock opera based on the passion of Jesus Christ which, potentially and in all probability, incites audiences to Jew hatred, better known as antisemitism, even today.

Finally, let me admit that I enjoyed watching the rock opera on TV and was sucked into its plot. To have this happen to a Holocaust survivor suggests the danger inherent in its brilliant remake performance.