In the course of a discussion about the controversial Mel Gibson movie, “The Passion”, a churchman told me he regarded the film as a moving experience of faith, and added, “Some of your people have been stirring things up again”. “Some of your people” means “You Jews”, and “stirring things up again” means “You always think the world is not treating you properly”, i.e. “You should lie low at all times and not be seen or heard”.
In this particular instance the problem is that there are fears that because of the depiction of Jews in Mel Gibson’s film, there may be an outbreak of antisemitism. Not just because people can see the Jews in a bad light and revive the old, discredited allegations that the Jews killed Jesus, but because the canard has metaphorically crucified countless millions of Jews over the course of the centuries. Writing in The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier has said, “‘Jesus on the cross’ is not a repugnant symbol to me. But the sight of it does not warm my heart either. It is the symbol of a great faith and a great culture whose affiliation with power almost destroyed my family and my people”.
Jews do not ask Christians to cease being Christians. They do expect that a so-called religion of love will love its central figure enough to acknowledge that he was a Jew and that his own faith and people ought to be treated with respect and allowed to be themselves. They also expect that Christians will listen when scholars argue against primitive, distorted presentations of ancient material and ask for it to be seen in context.
But this is not the only issue on which Jews feel impelled to “stir things up”, to use the churchman’s words. Stirring things up has been the prophetic role of Judaism from time immemorial. Did Isaiah not stir things up, and Jeremiah, and all the prophets great and small? Did not Kohelet say, “The words of the wise are as goads” (Eccl. 12:11)? What does a goad do if not to prod and provoke and enable progress?
Judaism has often been an inconvenient goad to societies that forgot about justice, compassion, peace and truth. In ages of hedonism and self-indulgence, Judaism always stirred things up and sought to stand for spiritual and ethical goals. Jews often emerged with broken bodies and tear-filled eyes from persecution and pogroms towards which, I am afraid, Christianity made its contribution, but their suffering taught them to speak out in order to make the bodies and lives of others whole, and their tears taught them to seek to mend the world to make it fit for children and grandchildren to have laughter in their own eyes.
“Jews always stir things up,” do they? Guilty, Your Honour, guilty as charged. Accuse us if you must, but give us a vote of thanks on behalf of all mankind at the same time.