A Rabbi's Impressions of the Oberammergau Passion Play, by Joseph Krauskopf, , at sacred-texts.com
"Let all the people walk, every one in the name of his god; but as for us we will walk in the name of the Lord our God, for ever and ever."Micah iv, 5.
And one of the scribes came, and . . . asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength; . . . And the second is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.
And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but He: And to love Him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.St. Mark xii, 28-33.
ONE would never have thought that the little village of Oberammergau sheltered nigh unto five thousandA midnight reverie at Oberammergau. souls within its three hundred cottages, that August night when I was its guest, so motionless it lay, in the midnight hour, along the banks of the Ammer. Not a sound was heard save the rushing of the rapid-coursing stream and the occasional rumblings of rolling rocks in the mountains above. Long I sat at the open window, peering out into the
night,thinking, querying, prophesying. I was in a Biblical frame of mind. Saul-like, I had strayed among the prophets, and their spirit was upon me. All evening long I had mingled with Scriptural characters; had heard men and women addressed or spoken of, not by their given names, but by the names of the characters they enacted in the Passion Playhere, Peter, John, Nicodemus; there, Caiaphas, Lazarus, Nathanael; yonder, Mary, Martha, Magdalene. I seemed to breathe the very air of . Palestine; to have walked the very streets of Jerusalem; to have held converse with ancient-day dreamers and enthusiasts, one of whom I was to see, the following day, nailed to the cross, a martyr and a God.
What that scene would look like I had no difficulty to guess. I had encountered representationsInduced by the omnipresence of the cross. of it, pictured or sculptured, or reminders of it in the form of the plain cross, wherever I had turned that day. Long before I had even reached the town, I had caught sight of a gigantic cross on the towering Kofelberg, penetrating the very clouds, reaching into the very heavens, and glistening in the golden radiance of the noon-tide sun. And the very last thing I caught sight of before sinking to rest that night was a crucifix over my bed. The very mountains and the clouds overspreading
them seemed to assume cruciform shapes, and, strangest of all, even the animal on the pasture seemed to carry the emblem on its back. The Passion's Esel, the little colt that carried the Christ of the Passion Play, could be seen any day pastured with exceeding care, and treated with great consideration, because nature had distinctly traced upon its back the sign of the cross.
Peering into the night, I sought for the gigantic cross on the summit of the Kofelberg, which had extended so radiant a greetingTowering cross on the Kofelberg concealed by clouds. to me ere yet I had reached the town I found it not. Dark and heavy clouds concealed it from sight. Late that afternoon i had already surprised me by its change from dazzling gold to a leaden hue. (I learned later that its change of color was due to its being covered with tin, the metal reflecting differently at different times, in accordance with the different lights that fell upon it.)
Golden first, leaden later, clouded last! Had I beheld a symbol of the fate of the Cross? Had I read, in nature's language,Was it a prophecy of the clouding of the Cross? the story of the Cross's past and present, and the prophecy of its future? Was thus to fare the story of God's Virgin-begotten Son having come down on earth, from somewhere out of the sky, to die a voluntary death upon the cross, for the sake of human kinda story that flashed out glitteringly and far, when
the Church was in the noon-tide of her power, but which, since the Reformation, has worn a leaden hue, and which, in these days of critical research and scientific inquiry, has with very many, even of the Christian fold, become so clouded as to have passed beyond the confines of belief? Was the exclamation: "The cross is not visible from Concord!" that arose because the belief in the supernatural birth and miraculous deeds of Christ had been repudiated by the transcendental philosophers who met in the town of Concord, under the master-spirit of Emersonwas that exclamation to resound also at the banks of the Ammer? Was the invisibility, on that night, of the gigantic cross of the Kofelberg, a prophecy that a time was coming when, with respect to the supernatural Christ, the teaching even there will be: "The cross is not visible from Oberammergau"?
If that time is coming, continued I musing, what effect will the disbelief in a supernaturalElimination of Supernatural Christ will not affect some people's faith. Christ have upon those who hitherto have had implicit faith in him? I thought of the tens of thousands of Unitarians, who have discarded that belief, and who morally and intellectually are certainly none the worse for paying homage to Jesus the man, instead of worshipping Christ the God. I thought of the Jews, who have preceded the Unitarians by tens of centuries in obeying the
[paragraph continues] Sinaic Commandments that forbid having any other God besides Jehovah, or taking God's name in vain, or making any image for the purpose of bowing down to it in worship, and who, morally and spiritually and intellectually, are certainly not behind those who pay to Christ an homage that belongs to God alone. I thought of the thousands of students in high schools and universities who are becoming more and more lost, not only to Christianity, but to all religious influences, because asked to believe what critical reason pronounces irrational, what logical mind refuses to accept. Why then should fears be entertained of evil results following a repudiation of a pagan-borrowed dogma of the early Church?
But I also thought of the millions who are happy in that belief, and who are good because of it. And I asked myself: Have weBut would deprive others of their religious stay and happiness. a right to deprive them of their happiness, to rob them of the source of their goodness, by clouding their childlike faith? Has not that faith been a bridge that has enabled many a straying and erring one to pass from misery and sin and despair to penance and righteousness and hope? Had I not myself observed, in my mingling with these Oberammergauans, that what made these humble peasants so devout and sweet was largely due to their implicit faith, that what they believed
and enacted was truth, and all truth? And would it not be cruel, even but faintly to hint to them that their supernatural Christ is a mythological fiction and not an historical fact?
And so I concluded my midnight musing with the thought that, in a theological differenceBest course for each to follow his own God. as fundamental as this, the prophet Micah's advice was probably the best: Let other people walk, each in the name of his god; but, as for us, let us continue to walk in the name of the One God, for ever and ever.
But also at this conclusion did I arrive, that while people are free to believe whateverBut must not be done at expense of another's honor. they choose, that freedom does not s include the privilege of building up their faith at the expense of another people's honor; that while Christians have a perfect right to ascribe to Jesus whatever miracles and supernatural happenings they please, they have no right to do this at the cost of falsifications of Jewish history, of mistranslations of Jewish Scriptures, of misinterpretations of Jewish laws and institutions; that while it would be wrong for us even in the slightest degree to interfere with the Christian belief, or to cast the slightest aspersion upon it, it is not only our right, it is our duty, to defend ourselves from calumnies that have been heaped upon us, in the name of the Supernatural Christ.
Too long have we suffered because of such calumnies; it is time for us to tell our story, and it is time for the Christian to hearJews have too long suffered from such a wrong. that story told. I have no desire to win any one from Christianity, but I have the strongest desire to wean Christians from injustice. I have no wish to make other feet travel my people's road, but it is my resolve to keep others hands off my people's throat. I may praise as highly as any one the Christian's preachment of turning the other cheek to the smiter, but I do object to the Christian's continuing to smite my people, and for no cause at all. I will yield to none in recognizing the civilizing influence of the man of Nazareth; I am ready to bestow on him as high a tribute as any one has yet bestowed; if I cannot say that it was he who made Divinity human, I am ready to rank him among the foremost of those who have made humanity divine. With all this recognition and admiration, I am not ready to see him elevated at the cost of my people's honor, to see him turned into a God at the cost of my people being turned into demons, to see him made a suffering Christian deity at the cost of my people being made to suffer the hatreds and insults of the Christian world.
It is of this wrong done to my people in the Passion Play, or rather in the Gospels of
the New Testament, of which the PassionThis wrong reenacted in the Passion Play. Play is but an elaboration, that I shall speak to you. And whenever, in speaking of it, I touch upon Jesus, I beg of you to remember that, as George Eliot kept before her a copy of Thorwaldsen's Christ, when translating Strauss "Life of Jesus," so that, when tearing to shreds the myths and falsities spun into the life of the real Jesus, she might, by occasionally looking into the kindly face of Jesus, the man, keep herself from writing too harshly of Christ, the God, even so have I before me, when speaking of Jesus, the kindly yet suffering face of the grievously wronged Nazarene Jew, who, far from having wished to separate himself from his monotheistic people and found a trinitarian faith, gave, when asked for a statement of the chief commandments, the answer the Jew has given from the first, and gives to this day: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One. And Him shalt thou love with all thy heart and soul and might. And thy brother shalt thou love as thyself."
To this Jesus let us now turn, and follow his tragic fate from his triumphal entry into Magnificent scene of Christ's entry into Jerusalem.Jerusalem to his lamentable death upon the cross. It was a magnificent scene, one of the most memorable of the Passion Play, that which represented a throng of hundreds of people variously and picturesquely attired,
as a promiscuous Oriental crowd, gathered all the way from northern Galilee to the southern capital, would naturally have been, singing hosannahs to Jesus first public appearance in Jerusalem, accompanying him in joyous yet solemn procession to the Temple mount, throwing palm-branches along his way, and acclaiming him "Royal Son of the Royal House of David!" "King of the Jews!"
It was a scene that could not be beheld without a mingled feeling of awe and sorrow. Its picturesqueness could not be surpassed.The awe the impersonator of Christ casts upon the people. It clearly showed the work of nine years of rehearsal, of nearly three centuries of stage tradition, and of every-day orthodox faith. The love and reverence displayed by the throng of people toward their hero was not the love and reverence of a play,it was real and intense. Accustomed as they are to kneel to the lifeless image of Christ, what wonder that, when in the presence of the living impersonator of Christ, the breathing, speaking, acting image that tradition and art have pictured him to have been,what wonder that they should forget that it was but before one of their own, their fellow-peasant, the village potter, they bowed in worship, and, under the influence of their ecstasy, believe that the divine afflatus had been showered upon him, by Christ Himself,
because of his enacting His passions on earth, for the sanctification of man! What wonder that the people should have almost instinctively fallen back, and opened the way to the Christ-representing Anton Lang, as he entered a room or passed in the street! What wonder that the children should have awaited his coming at the door of the stage, at the end of each performance, and accompanied him, in a sort of triumphal procession, to his home! Hero-worshippers as we all are, it is but a small step for these humble, pious people to pass from kneeling before a Christ-image of wood and stone to worshipping an impersonator of Christ of throbbing flesh and pulsating heart and blessing hand and godly speech.
And this Anton Lang, in looks and bearing, gave every manifestation that he believed The impersonator of Christ described.himself the Christ, while impersonating him. I was told that in the early morn of the day on which the first performance of the last Passion Play decennial was given, in which he was to impersonate for the first time the part of Christus, he presented himself in the village church for mass, and bore himself while there, and when he walked away, as if in an ecstatic trance, so profoundly impressed and stirred was he by the part he was about to assume. Great things are related of the impersonation of this part by
his predecessor, Josef Mayr,and great things had been expected of Peter Rendl, last year's impersonator of St. John, who, as son-in-law of Josef Mayr, had been trained for the leading rôle, but who was prevented from enacting it by reason of being unable to raise a beard,the traditions of the village preventing any character from being in any way "made up." But I doubt whether a better Christus could have been found than in this Anton Lang, and who, being but twenty-five years of age, gives promise of still better impersonations in the decennials to come. Tall and graceful; with long, blond, flowing locks; large, fair eyes; an open, manly countenance; delicately moulded features; a kindly, yet earnest look; majestic, as he sat upon the colt, led by St. John and surrounded by his disciples, benignly dispensing his blessings upon the people to the right and left with graceful waves of the hand,it was a presence as august as it was entrancing.
If fault was to be found with his appearance at all, it was in its being a little too Teutonic and not enough Jewish. ThereOnly fault in his being more Teutonic than Jewish. were wanting in his countenance those deep lines of suffering which two thousand years of persecution, because of the proclamation of the One God, and the adherence to God's Law, had stamped upon the Jew's face, more
especially in the days of the Roman's tyranny, at the time of Christ.
But much more serious fault was to be found with what ensued. The awe, which But more fault to be found with crowd's acclamation of him as "King of the Jews!"had thus far pervaded me, changed into sorrow the moment I caught the words of the crowd's exultant acclamation: "Hosannah to the Son of David! Hail to the King of the Jews!" The moment the ear caught the sound of these words, the eye had a distinct vision of a Roman cross with a deluded Jewish martyr upon it, and over his head the Roman initials I. N. R. I. of the words IESUS NAZARENUS REX IUDAEORUM, the words meaning "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."
It was a wild shout, that of "Son of David," and must have been an unpleasant The need of the hour was father to the shout.shout in the ears of Jesus, for none knew better than he that he was of humble Nazarene birth in northern Galilee, and that his cradle had stood far from the royal city of Bethlehem in the south, whither popular belief had looked for the rise of the emancipator of Israel from the insufferable oppression of the Roman.
Wild as was that shout, the poor, deluded people were probably to be pitied more than to be blamed. The wish was father to the shout. Here was a man whose wondrous preaching and healing and magnetic power and spiritual grandeur they had heard and
seen and felt, or of which they had heard wondrous reports. And there was the Roman, crushing the tributary nation of Palestine under his iron heel, ruling the people with a pitiless hand, subjecting them to cruelest insults and humiliations, outraging not only their national honor but even their religious laws and institutions. What could have been more natural than the question:
Why may not that wicked Roman be crushed by this godly man?" "Why may not the expected Saviour of the Davidian House be this man of wondrous powers?"powers easily exaggerated, and royal ancestry easily confirmed, among an excited and credulous populace in exciting and credulous times. Why may not he be the chosen of God to rid the capital and the nation of the heathen and the stranger, and inaugurate the reign of justice and peace forever more?"
It was a beautiful dream, a pardonable hope. And one can readily see how easy it was for a crowd of such a heterogeneousBut made in the worst time and place. and inflammable nature to pass from the shout of "Hail to the Son of David!" to the acclamation of "Hail to the King of the Jews!" But, alas, it was a shout and acclamation in the worst possible place, and at the worst possible time, and in the hearing of the worst possible of all men in Palestine,
[paragraph continues] Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator of Judea. Nowhere in all Palestine, from Dan to Beersheba, could such an acclamation have sounded more treasonable than in the streets of Jerusalem, at that time, a few days before the Paschal festival, which, in obedience to the requirement of the Mosaic Law, gathered into the capital of the nation all the able-bodied adult male Israelites from far and near, and at which festivalthe Egyptian redemption having taken place on the Passoverit was popularly believed that the Roman and final emancipation would likewise take place.
Pilate's eyes and ears, always wide open, were never more so than during these days, Pilate's cruel hand had silenced such outbursts before.when he distributed his armed guards in such civilian dress among the people, to keep a sharp watch on the doings and sayings of the pilgrims, and on none more keenly than on the Galileans, who had proven themselves the most seditious of them all, a few of whose proclaimed or self-proclaiming Messiahs he had already summarily dealt with on the cross, and whose followers ardor he had believed he had cooled with the edge of the sword.
But all his cruelty, far from intimidating But people's yearning for political redemption and redeemer continued.the people, had only made them all the more seditious. The whole nation was feverish with excitement; many of them hysterical
from fear and alarm, and subject to the wildest hallucinations; many thirsting for revenge, because of past and present sufferings; all throbbing with ill-suppressed wrath against the Roman, and longing and praying for redemption and for the redeemer. The Messianic hope, nursed and tended for seven or eight centuries, burst into an intoxicating, almost deranging, bloom. Awake or asleep, they were haunted by the wildest visions of the long-awaited about to come, of the long-dreamed glory about to burst in celestial splendor upon the House of Israel. All was in readiness,the time was ready; the people were ready; the throne was ready; it wanted but the King, the Messiah, the Deliverer and Saviour, and the accursed rule of the Roman would be at an end, and the reign of the Messiah would begin, to endure forever.
And of all who had preceded him in the claim of the Messiahship, probably none had a stronger conviction that he was the divinelyJesus deluded into belief that he was the looked-for redeemer of his people. commissioned to re-establish the kingdom of Israel than this Jesus, the carpenter's son of the Galilean town of Nazareth. His marvelous power over his followers had probably deluded them into that belief, and their delusion had deluded him. Long had he fought that delusion,as may be seen from the deep concern displayed by him early in his public career in having all exclamations, rumors
and reports of his Messiahship suppressed; patients, friends, even his disciple Peter, all are carefully enjoined "not to tell any man anything" of his being the Christ. But it was an age of delusions, and he was conquered by them at last. What may have started as a mere hope, as a fond dream, became a belief, a dogma, the nearer they approached from the northern interior country to the southern capital of the nation. Rolled on by a mighty wave of credulity, in that dangerously credulous era, there was no longer any stopping till they had dashed against the rocks and had spread destruction wide. It needed but his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, was probably their belief, for God to make known His anointed unto all the nation, and to seat him as the Messiah upon the vacant throne of David, and to inaugurate, by his hand and spirit, the redemption of Israel.
But what had seemed so real and so natural in the interior country, assumed a different But the capital shared not his delusion.aspect once they were within the walls of Jerusalem. Their shout of "Hail to the King of the Jews!" was loud, yet the answer was but the echo of their shouting. The fire that well-nigh consumed them failed to kindle others. The capital was cold, freezing cold, and silent as cold, a silence that was painfully ominous. In vain these dreamers and enthusiasts
strained their ears, and peered into the skies,no Gabriel's trumpet announced the advent of the Anointed One; no Heavenly Messenger appeared to present an oriflamme to the Divinely Chosen Leader; no thunders and no lightnings, no luminous stars and no showers of meteors, welcomed the Long-Awaited One. Burning with the ardor and patriotism of the northern interior country, and ignorant of the preparedness and watchfulness and strength of the Roman, they were amazed at the irresponsiveness of the capital. They had expected Jerusalem eagerly awaiting their shout, instantly to take up its refrain, and sweep the nation with it, and sweep the country free of the cruel heathen,which might have happened, if, instead of a country-band of unarmed, barefooted fishermen and peasants and artisans, with a gentle, peaceful preacher and healer as their leader, a warrior of the David or the Maccabee type had come with an army of soldiers behind him to inaugurate the era of redemption; as really did happen, a century later, when the valiant warrior, Bar Cochba, entered upon his ill-fated rebellion against Rome, with hundreds of thousands of armed men behind him, and with some of the foremost leaders of Israel for his chief supporters.
But this band of well-meaning, yet deluded country enthusiasts awakened no such confidence
among the leaders of the people. The capital knew the fatal consequences of treasonable acclamation as king.While outwardly turning a deaf ear to their acclamations, inwardly they probably trembled at the fate awaiting the deluded leader and many another innocent one. Higher yet than the shout, "Hail to the King of the Jews!" they heard the cruel Pilate's command to the chief of his guard, as they had heard it before: "Seize the traitor! Stretch him upon the cross! Disperse the crowd with the edge of the sword! Let it be performed rigorously and speedily, before the advent of the Passover, before the city teems with pilgrims!" A cruel command, yet a natural one, in those cruel days, and in a tributary, seditious country, by a foreign governor, who ruled in mighty Cæsar's stead, with absolute power over life and death, and one very cruel and very unscrupulous besides. We Americans are certainly not as cruel as were the ancient Romans, and yet, would our chief military representative treat any leader differently who were to make a like entry into the city of Manila, and be in like manner acclaimed "King of the Filipinos "? Neither is Lord Kitchener as cruel as was Pontius Pilate, and yet would he treat differently any Boerish leader who would make a like entry into Pretoria, and in like manner be there acclaimed "President of the Boers"?
From what followed may be clearly inferred that the irresponsiveness of the capital sobered Jesus, opened his eyes wide to theRecognized at last and prepared for by disillusioned Jesus. fatal mistake he had made. What he had never realized in the country, amid the swarm of his zealous followers, he saw clearly now in the capital of the nation. The delusionswhich are so wont to overcome intensely religious and visionary characters who are otherwise profoundly intellectual, which made Martin Luther see devils and shy inkwells at them, which made Savanarola believe that he could pass unscathed through fire, which made Sir Matthew Hale hang innocent women as witches,the delusions loosened their hold on Jesus, and gave way to his old-time clear and sound judgment. Clearly he saw that he had played the foremost part in a public act of treason; he saw the fate that awaited him, and yet clearer he saw his immediate duty. There was no escape for him from the Roman cross,but he might save his disciples, he might save his followers. They had deluded him, but it was he who had been the cause of their delusion and deluding. He must speedily retreat from Jerusalem, give them his last message and the signal for their flight and dispersion. And then he must surrender himself to the Roman, so that, by his voluntary surrender and subsequent death, his disciples and followers,
they who had so intensely believed in him, might be saved from the Roman's sword of vengeance.
But not so is the truth told in the Passion Play, nor in the New Testament, whence This historic fact blurred by falsifications against Jews.the Passion Play of Oberammergau derives its text and theme. There is introduced, and realistically enacted, a mass of falsehoods, of base inventions against the Jews, that obviously never happened, never could have happened, that are flagrantly self-contradictory, that violently outrage the history and law and religion and constitution of the Jew, that had their origin, and that were forced into the gospel stories, at the time when early Christianity had established itself and had become polemical and vindictive, when the theological differences between the monotheistic Jew and the trinitarian Christian had become intense, when the Roman empire was recognized as the most fertile field for the propagation of the new faith, and when, therefore, on the theory that "the end justifies the means," it was deemed politic not only to mingle Pagan myths with Jewish history, blend Grecian gods with a Jewish martyr, but also exculpate the Roman from having crucified Jesus, and lay the guilt upon the Roman-conquered, Roman-persecuted, Roman-despised Jew.
But of this incrimination of the Jew and
exculpation of the Roman, of this blackening Which will be analyzed in our next discourse.of the Sanhedrin and whitewashing of Pontius Pilate, which follows in the Passion Play close upon Jesus entry into Jerusalem, I must speak in my next discourse. I had thought to cover to-day the part enacted in the Passion Play during the forenoon. But I find I had misjudged the time. It takes much time to exonerate a character, which to blacken, a few brief hours, a few brief words, may suffice. I shall be obliged to devote another discourse to the remainder of the part that was enacted in the forenoon. But what is one more hour, what are a dozen more hours devoted to the vindication of our name, compared with the eighteen centuries that have been devoted to the branding of it? It will take more than another hour, more than months and years, probably centuries, before our character will be cleared of the heinous accusations that have been heaped upon it. Yet cleared it will be. The Jew, who has outlived all, will yet live to see the hour of his full and final vindication. God rulesand Justice will be done.