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A Rabbi’s Impressions of the Oberammergau Passion Play
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Pages (PDF): 126
Publication Date: 1901
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Four centuries ago a village high in the Bavarian Alps, Oberammergau, promised that, if God interceded against the bubonic plague, they would stage a Passion play every ten years. A Passion play is a medieval dramatic form which depicts the life and (principally) death of Jesus. All of the actors are residents, and the entire community participates in one way or another. The pageant continues in the 21st century. This book is an American Reform Rabbi's encounter with this, at the time, insidiously anti-Semitic, production. He vividly describes his own feelings at each stage of the play. He points out many inconsistencies in the narrative. He describes how bits of folklore became attached to the story, and how the four Gospel accounts don't match up. In particular he illustrates how the legal procedures don't remotely match what was customary at the time, let alone the question of why such a trial would even be conducted during the high holy days.
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A universal question—"What think you of the Passion Play?"
WHAT think ye of Christ? This question of questions of the New Testament, that has been asked and re-asked countless times by countless people since Christianity entered this world, has had quite a rival in the past year in the question: "What think ye of the Passion Play?" Not a day in Europe last summer but that this question was asked, and answered, almost as diversely as have been the answers to its rival question of the New Testament. And the question has spanned the Atlantic, and has become almost as frequent here as across the seas. Wherever one's having been at Oberammergau becomes known, the very first question is sure to be, "What think you of the Passion Play?"
Reasons why evasively answered.
Up to this day, my answer has invariably been an evasive one. I could not praise, and I would not condemn. I could not condemn without probably giving hurt to my Christian interrogator; I could not praise without doing wrong to my own people. I felt that an intelligent and purposive answer to so complex a question as this necessitated, as a prerequisite, either an intelligent questioner, one sufficiently versed in Biblical lore, more especially in New Testament criticism, or an unprejudiced listener, one eager to know and willing to hear the truth, the whole truth, no matter whether the truth heard confirm or subvert former belief. Such questioners and listeners being very rare, I believed it wise rather to say nothing than say what, by not being understood, might make confusion yet more confused.
And why full answer given here.
Here in this pulpit, however, I do not feel this hesitancy. Here that preparatory work why And why full answer given herein Bible criticism has been done; here that faculty of listening to stern truth, however destructive it may prove of long-cherished fancies, has been cultivated so long, that one need have no dread of telling one's honest thought for fear of giving offense or meeting with fanatical opposition. Here I even regard it my duty to give full answer to the question "What think you of the Passion Play?" For ever since I have seen the play have felt that, while on the one side it is no small compliment to the Jew that a play, it which almost all the actors impersonate Jewish characters, should have attracted, within one summer, one quarter of a million of representative people from all parts of the world, on the other side I know of nothing that could have rooted deeper, among these people, the existing prejudice against the Jew, and spread wider, the world's hatred of him, than this Passion Play of Oberammergau. There were moments, when listening to the play, when seeing one gross misrepresentation of the Jewish people after the other, I felt as if I had to rise, and declare aloud to the thousands that crowded the auditorium, that what they heard and saw, was, as far as it depicted or typified the Jew, unhistoric in fact, false in interpretation, cruel in inference.
Another instance of "Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe."
But, as taught by Shakespeare, sufferance being the badge of all our tribe, I restrained my feelings, and kept my peace, as we JewsAnother instance of "Sufferance is the badge of all our tribe." have been obliged to do these past eighteen years, obliged to suffer injustice misrepresentation, contumely, in return for having given the civilized world many of its noblest characters, most of its highest ideals, all of its most sacred literature, in return for having given to Christianity its life, and all that mankind values best therein. As the train pulled out of Oberammergau, one of the last glimpses I caught of the picturesque little village was that magnificent group of statuary, representing Christ upon the cross, with the Virgin Mary and St. John at his feet, erected by the late unfortunate King Ludwig of Bavaria, on a towering eminence back of the town. That proud monument had a tragic fate. When being carted to its site up the mountain road, the wagon slipped on one of the steep inclines, the statue of St. John fell to the ground, unfortunately upon the body of the sculptor, its creator, and crushed him to death. "How symbolic the fate of the sculptor of that colossal group is of the fate of the Jew!" thought I, as I gave it a last parting look. He it was, the Jew, who was the mighty sculptor of Christianity; his creative genius it was that gave it its colossal dimensions; it was his mallet and chisel that sculptured the towering grandeur of Jesus, and, in return, Christianity fell upon him when on its ascent to eminence, when on its rise to power, and pressed him down, down, and crushed him—not to death, for the Jew is not of mortal clay—crushed him to the dregs of the earth.
Arrival in Oberammergau.
But here I am already at the end of the play, and on my way out of the town, when I have not yet had a word to say of my getting into the town, nor anything of the play itself, nor of the persons who enacted it. It was a little after the noon hour, one August day last summer, that our train reached the far-famed town of Oberammergau. It needed no conductor to tell us that we had arrived at the goal of our journey, for the bustle and excitement about the station, the crowding and rushing, the calling and shouting in a Babel of tongues, were certainly indicative that we had reached the one village in the world to which such masses of people could flock at one time, and put up contentedly with such meagre accommodations. About the first thing that caught my eye upon alighting was a large train-shed, that towered vast and high above the little cottages of the mountain-encircled town. So large a train-shed for so small a place was rather puzzling, but before an hour had passed, I knew that what I had taken for a train-shed was the theatre in which the celebrated Passion Play had been performed, twice and three times a week, since May, before more than a hundred thousand people, and in which it was to continue to be enacted, the same number of times a week, till the end of September, before another hundred thousand and more.
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