Producers take advice to remove antisemitic themes from passion plays

Image credit: Stephen Craven CCLicense2.0

By Catherine Pepinster

Organisers of passion plays being performed across Britain in the run-up to Easter have been urged to be vigilant about antisemitism in the content.

The Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) has warned that in the wake of the Israel-Gaza conflict and growing antisemitism in Britain over the past five months, passion play producers and performers must take extra care as they recount the events leading up to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.

According to the Rev Nathan Eddy, co-director of the CCJ, “This atmosphere of tension should concern Christians. Ordinary Christians recoil at antisemitism as they would at any racism, but negative stereotypes of pharisees, temple priests, scribes, and the Old Testament in general still persist.”

Passion plays were first produced in the Middle Ages and included scenes that showed Jews as to blame for the death of Christ — an interpretation that has been criticised and rejected by Christian theologians only since the 20th century.

“There is a connection between passion plays and antisemitism and people can be forgetful of that,” he said. A line from the Gospel of St Matthew — which says the crowd said of the death of Jesus: “His blood be upon us” — has been interpreted as Jews being to blame for the crucifixion.

“The charge of deicide against the Jews was only addressed after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s,” Mr Eddy said, “and it is shocking to think of that. In the current context these matters are highly sensitive and should be addressed.”

Last year a writer in The Jewish Chronicle condemned one of the most popular passion plays — produced by the Wintershall charity and performed in Trafalgar Square, central London — as “religious hatred as public entertainment, supported by the authorities”. It complained that it included a scene where Jesus put a tallit, or prayer shawl, directly on Judas, the man who betrayed him to the Roman authorities. This, the writer said, was “highlighting the Jewishness of the traitor”.

According to Mr Eddy, play producers should not use sacred prayer shawls and they should also “take kippahs [skullcaps worn by Jewish boys and men] out of the costume box”.

This year Wintershall will again be performing its passion play, written by Peter Hutley, founder of the charity. The script is regularly updated, the charity says and, according to a Wintershall spokesman, the producers have this year asked a rabbi to study it. They have also taken advice from the CCJ.

Other organisers have also taken steps to ensure that their productions do not exacerbate an already difficult situation by calling on experts in Judaism, including rabbis, to advise them.

The Passion Trust, which supports communities to produce free, live passion plays, says up to 17 are being produced this year, with the vast majority being staged on Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

In Oxford, And a Sword Shall Pierce Your Soul, tells the story from the perspective of Jesus’s mother, Mary, and will be performed on Saturday 30 March, involving 51 volunteers from across the city.

Producer Carolyn Lloyd-Davies said: “The director, Marion Bloice Smith, my co-producer Jo Hutchence and I, forensically trawled through the script to check the wording and sentiments displayed could not be misconstrued as antisemitic. I also passed it by a Jewish friend to check for unintentional anti-racist/antisemitic comments. And, of course, it is the Roman governor who gives the final order for Jesus’s flogging and execution.”

A similar approach has been taken by the organisers of the Cheltenham Passion Play which involves more than 140 people from the community and is being performed on Good Friday. It has taken advice from a representative of the Orthodox Jewish community in Cheltenham, discussing wording and costumes.

According to spokeswoman Janice Hamilton, the chief concern was how the play represented Passover, which was marked by the meal celebrated by Jesus and his followers the night before his death — the meal known to Christians as the Last Supper.

The producers, Ms Hamilton said, wanted to ensure that the production depicted “Jesus himself was a Jew as were his followers. The script shows a lot of contrast between priests who call for his execution and Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who are less sure, so making it clear that Jewish people were split over the call for Jesus’s execution.”

The play’s Jewish adviser has also lent the play a shofar, or Jewish ram’s horn, to blow, indicating the start of each scene and an article on Jewish worship for the programme.

Among other passion play productions that have taken special measures are:

  • Dudley, where on Good Friday and Saturday, the Saltmine theatre company has devised a play set in a contemporary setting with the leaders portrayed as multi-denominational church leaders
  • Edinburgh, with a mixed cast of 75 people, performing a newly written play that never mentions the word Jew in the script
  • Havant, where 45 Christians will perform the passion play on Holy Saturday. Spokesman the Rev Bill Stillwell said: “Our text remains truthful to the essence of the Bible record but has been adapted to avoid distress to our Jewish communities or to appear to encourage antisemitism. In the trial before Pilate, for example, Pilate asks Jesus simply ‘Are you a king?’ If religious authorities are mentioned they are simply religious authorities — their ethnicity is irrelevant and is not mentioned. The Havant Passion Play board was extremely mindful of this issue and has specifically addressed it with the writer/director.”

The Passion Trust has been awarded a grant by the MB Reckitt Trust to study passion plays to examine how productions involving large numbers of people and mostly amateur actors can be performed effectively.

According to the Passion Trust, work has been done now on performing passion plays in a multi-faith country, and they have Jewish people providing advice. It “actively condemns any form of antisemitism in passion plays” and provides resources to help producers avoid antisemitism.

In 1579, Elizabeth I banned all mystery plays — including passion plays — in England for being too Catholic. They were restored in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. However, they continued being performed abroad despite concerns about their antisemitism. The most famous, at Oberammergau, in Bavaria, is still performed every 10 years and now has Jewish advisers.


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