The leader of the Ukrainian Catholics in America has panned Mel Gibson’s "The Passion" as a shallow, violent work that could incite hostility toward Jews.
Archbishop Stefan Soroka of the Ukrainian Archdiocese of Philadelphia said he would not recommend it to friends, true believers or children.
"Having had the opportunity to view an unedited version of Mel Gibson’s film ‘The Passion,’ I can begin to understand the developing hype and controversy regarding this soon-to-be-released movie," declared Archbishop Soroka in The Way, his archdiocesan newspaper.
His remarks follow positive reviews offered by several Roman Catholic officials in the U.S. and Rome.
"Although one or two U.S. bishops have spoken publicly about their favorable reactions, and others have expressed reservations privately, this is to our knowledge the first detailed analysis of the film by a member of the Catholic hierarchy," according to Boston University’s Center for Christian Jewish Learning.
Sounding like an ordained Roger Ebert, Archbishop Soroka declared, "If you want to see over two hours of cruelty, intense torture and lots of blood, with tidbits of informing scenes of who this Jesus is, you might want to sacrifice your time and money to see this movie.
"I would not recommend the movie to my friends nor to the faithful (and particularly the young) because the film … lacks content to really engage my interest," he wrote in The Way.
Gibson, who directed and financed the $25 million film set for release next spring, defends his film as a work of love and forgiveness. He has disputed concerns that it is anti-Semitic in its presentation of Jews as being behind Jesus’ crucifixion.
But Archbishop Soroka said he is "particularly troubled" by the way Gibson portrays Caiphas, the Jewish high priest, and some members of the "Sanhedrin," which scholar Ellis Rivkin says was a political body convened by the high priest to deal with issues of law and order.
The archbishop says the film makes it look like Caiphas controlled Roman Gov. Pontius Pilate, which some historians say was not the case. (He mistakenly refers to Caiphas as "the chief rabbi."
"What left me very uneasy was the close personification of evil with Caiphas," he wrote. "Such scenes offer great injustice to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and has significant potential to incite hostility to Jews and Judaism."
The cleric wrote that at the screening, Gibson responded to concerns about offending Jews by saying that "the books" were even harsher, referring to the Gospels.
"I would have preferred to hear a more genuine desire on the part of Mel Gibson and his producers to be more historically correct in the depiction of the role of the Jewish leadership and crowd," Archbishop Soroka said. "Rather, he chose to emphasize his intentions to add even more detail and dramatic effect to already cruel and painful scenes of the suffering of Jesus."
Archbishop Soroka cited the movie’s "potentially divisive effects on interfaith understanding and dialogue."
"The shallow presentation … will give viewers an inaccurate and unjust portrayal of Jews and Judaism, and may contribute to fuel the ugly passion of anti-Semitism," he said.
At the same time, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, a conservative Jewish-Christian group, composed a long and vigorous defense of "The Passion," blasting Jewish leaders who are criticizing the film.
"These protests against ëPassion’ are not only morally indefensible, but they are also stupid," he said in a release.
Rabbi Lapin said the greater danger to Jews today comes from Muslims, not Christians.
"I believe those who publicly protest Mel Gibson’s film lack moral legitimacy," said the Washington State-based Orthodox rabbi. "What is more, I believe their actions are not only wrong but even recklessly ill-advised and shockingly imprudent."
Rabbi Lapin criticized Gibson critics "who raise money with the specter of anti-Semitism," and "Jewish journalists at The New York Times and elsewhere who are trying to boost their careers."
To make his point, he is appearing on television and radio talk shows, in the process boosting his own.
In his release, Rabbi Lapin ticked off a laundry list of Jews he says brought dishonor to the Jewish community by either participating in artistic events that offended Christians or failing to "publicly support our Catholic friends in their time of their pain."
Rabbi Lapin skewers Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman for the infamous "Sensation" exhibition featuring a Madonna painting created partly with elephant dung, and his supporters, "Norman Siegel and Arthur Eisenberg of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Steven R. Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union, and lawyer Floyd Abrams."
Also on the list is Lew Wasserman, whose Universal pictures released Martin Scorsese’s controversial 1988 "The Last Temptation of Christ," and Harvey Weinstein, whose Miramax distributed "Priest" in 1994.
"It is ignoble to ignore the wrongs done to others while loudly deploring those done to us," Rabbi Lapin wrote.
"In truth, however, even though Catholics did kill Jews in Europe, I do not believe that the often sad history of Jews in Europe is relevant now," he stated, arguing that in America today, no clergyman has the political clout that Church officials wielded in Europe to incite illiterate mobs to acts of anti-Jewish violence.
"Quite frankly, if it is appropriate to blame today’s American Christians for the sins of past Europeans, why isn’t it okay to blame today’s Jews for things that our ancestors may have done?"
But in the end, Gibson is not the real threat, Rabbi Lapin said. "The most serious peril threatening Jews, and indeed perhaps all of Western civilization," he contends, "is Islamic fundamentalism."
And Jews and Christians must be allies, he said.
"In this titanic 21st century struggle that links Washington, D.C., with Jerusalem, our only steadfast allies have been Christians," Rabbi Lapin maintained. "Jewish interests are best served by fostering friendship with Christians rather than cynically eroding them."