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.