Saturday, 26 April 2014

That Jew Died For You: a reflection

A video produced by Jews for Jesus hit the national headlines yesterday. It shows Jewish holocaust victims being transported by rail to the gates of Auschwitz. Here the infamous selection takes place. Some go to the right - the ones spared to work. Others go to the left - to the showers (i.e. as the film helpfully explains in parentheses, to be gassed).

It is all tastefully done in black and white. The effect, enhanced by the musical score, recalls Stephen Spielberg's Schindler's List. That film, unforgettably, has a single person depicted in colour, the little girl in the red coat. Here too, Jews for Jesus offer hommage. But this time, the figure in colour is a man who has taken his place in the line. He carries a cross. There is a momentary pause as he comes up to the selection guards. Then he too goes to the left - voluntarily. 'Just another Jew.' The video ends with a quotation from Isaiah 53 and the strap line: 'That Jew Died For You'.

I watched it with a growing sense of unease. Surely no-one would use the Holocaust as an evangelistic tool? Perhaps I hadn't grasped what Jews for Jesus were trying to do. As I tweeted yesterday, I was trying to understand my bafflement, still wondering if the vociferous denunciation of it in the media was a trifle hysterical. But as I went on thinking about it, as a person of Jewish descent myself, I began to see it more clearly for what it is. Here are three points to consider.

First, it seems to me that the video tramples heavily over holy ground where we ought to take off our shoes and tremble. To many, it simply lacks sensitivity to the victims of the Holocaust. This place of awe demands a particular kind of silence. Words should only be spoken, if at all, with the utmost reverence and carefulness. To colonise and exploit the suffering of so many millions in this way is extraordinary. You are surprised to see it done at all, especially by people who claim the title 'Jew'. 

Secondly, the film is theologically flawed. I don't argue with the words 'That Jew Died for You', even with their calculated offensiveness: as a Christian, the belief that (however I understand this greatest of mysteries) Jesus' death was 'for me' is basic to my faith. But the idea that the Father exacts wrath on his beloved Son is one which, if I accepted it once, I can no longer make sense of, still less subscribe to. What is more, if the doctrine requires Jesus to be 'punished', the implication is that the gas chamber where he goes with his cross is a 'punishment' on all its victims, an idea which once stated is patently offensive, for it colludes in precisely the distorted mentality of the oppressor for whom Jews are punished simply for being Jews. If the film had simply intended to show that in solidarity with the pain of humanity, Christ continues to bear the marks of crucifixion in his own body, it would have been different. But the assertion of a doctrine of atonement at the gates of Auschwitz is understandably perceived as dishonouring the memory of those who perished there. To the religious instinct, it's not the statement of a doctrinal formula but articulating questions like 'Where is God in all this?' 'How can we speak any more about God's justice and love?' that demonstrate spiritual empathy and that mature faith, like the Book of Job, stays and wrestles with.

Finally, and this isn't a point I've seen discussed, there is plenty of New Testament evidence about how the first Jewish converts shared their new-found faith in Jesus. St Paul is especially articulate. He knew how his own Jewish people had suffered a couple of centuries before in an era of fierce perscution under the Hellenising Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. During the 2nd century BCE Jewry underwent a holocaust that is vividly recorded in the books of the Maccabees and testified to in apocalyptic works like Daniel. Many Jews suffered terribly for their faithfulness to the Covenant. Yet although Paul can place Jesus in the line of Jewish martyrs or 'witnesses' who suffered for the covenant, he does not elide its meaning with suffering from a different era whose own integrity must be honoured. He does not place Jesus among the Maccabean martyrs and say 'whatever was the reason they died, that Jew died for you'. His belief in the historical as well as the theological uniqueness of Jesus' crucifixion makes him careful not to overstate the precedents. We should learn from his reticence, always the mark of a responsible theologian.

So I wish those who made this film had thought better of it. Intelligent Jewish-Christian dialogue has never been more needed than now, not least in relation to the Holocaust. I can't see that this video, however well-meant, will help foster friendship and respect among the Abrahamic faiths. Neither Jews nor Jesus have been well served. 


  1. Interesting reflections and I was looking forward to your comments - we have not met but I am an old friend of Richard Briggs who has talked about you. I found your third comment somewhat surprising - it seems to me and many NT scholars that Paul's theology is deeply indebted to Jewish martyrology - see Paul and the Crucified Christ in Antioch: Maccabean Martyrdom and Galatians 1 and 2 (Society for New Testament... by Cummins, Stephen Anthony (31 Oct 1997)

  2. Subject: I do not agree with those who are attacking the video showing Jesus carrying a cross and being sent to the showers from the gates to Auschwitz

    I am the son of Holocaust survivors. Most of my family perished in the Holocaust, either in the crematorium or they were shot dead on the street. Like many children of Holocaust survivors I never had grandparents. I became a rabbi as a concept of never again. I vowed that I’d do everything in my power to stop evil and to make certain that people that are like the Nazis, demons that they are, would never succeed.

    When I viewed the film, “That Jew Died For You,” I recognized it as a movie of compassion. I am not a stranger to this subject having just authored a new book The Holocaust as Seen Through Film, one of the many books that I have written with a Holocaust theme.

    I do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah but I do believe he was a Jew. I am completely non-judgmental with regards to anyone’s religious observances. I don’t judge anybody because I did not go into the clergy for religious sake. I went into clergy for humanity’s sake. There are not too many Holocaust survivors’ kids around that think the way I do.

    I do not agree with those who are attacking the video showing Jesus carrying a cross and being sent to the showers from the gates to Auschwitz. If Jesus were at Auschwitz he would have been murdered just for being a Jew. If anything the attack on this video bolsters Jews for Jesus, which I’m sure was not the intent of those critics. I think that the purpose of the video was to show that indeed Jesus was a Jew; whether you accept him as the Messiah is up to you. LET ME STATE CLEARLY: I DO NOT ENDORSE JEWS FOR JESUS OR THEIR BELIEFS. But I think their intent was not to harm our Jewish people but to depict Jesus as the observant Jew he was. The historical Jesus was a devout Jew.

    I witnessed Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ in Manhattan when it first came out and there was an uproar—there was a fear that it would create a lot of anti-Semitism because of the way that Jesus is persecuted and victimized. The fact is Jesus, at least the spiritual Jesus, was supposed to die and be resurrected and that did happen in this film. It was not the Jews that killed Jesus; rather it was Pontius Pilate and the Romans. In fact, if you saw that picture, you would see that the Roman soldiers did the floggings. Many people do not understand history at all.

    I believe that it was the teachings of the Church, not Jesus, that allowed Hitler to spread his ideology of hatred for the Jews. I am happy that the teachings of the Church regarding the Jewish people have changed. A special thank you to the Christians who support the state of Israel.

    The bottom line is that Jesus’ message was not to hate the Jews, but to love all humanity, and he would certainly not say that one should hate his own people. Instead of hatred in the world, there should be love. And if that was the message Jesus communicated, then that was an outstanding message for all of mankind. During this period of Easter and Passover, as well as the remembrance of the Holocaust, may love conquer evil and may we together fight hatred and intolerance.

    Rabbi Dr. Bernhard H. Rosenberg

  3. There may be those who believe I am being used by Jews for Jesus or Christian groups by allowing by article to be published. My answer is simply I seek a world where I and my family, 4 children and so far 7 grandchildren can observe Torah and mitzvoth, the 5 books of Moses and the commandments. I seek a world where instead of fighting each other we can love and help each other. As an observant Jew I WILL LIVE AND DIE OBSERVING Jewish law and so will by children and grandchildren. The message of peace, shalom, is a message of comfort. That is my blessing for all of us. RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

  4. Let Us Learn To Love Each Other: Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg

    •you tube

    Bernhard Rosenberg responds to the "Jews for Jesus" Easter Campaign