Centuries-Old German Play of Christ's Last Days Softens Anti-Semitic Tone Passionate about Sensitivity

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OBERAMMERGAU, Germany -- When enraged temple leaders shouted "Crucify him! Crucify him!" during a climactic scene at the premiere Sunday of the world's most famous Passion play, dissenters defended Jesus for the first time: "Set him free!"

The revision is among a series of thoughtfully scripted changes introduced for the millennial production of the Oberammergau Passion play, acted roughly every decade since 1634. Many of the story's most ardent critics now declare this version a milestone in decades-long efforts to expunge negative images of Jews.

"I can say positively that it is a turning point," said Irving Levine, an interfaith expert for the American Jewish Committee, which has been working with the Anti-Defamation League since the 1960s to remove Jewish stereotypes from the Oberammergau play.

Jesus' Jewishness is emphasized for the first time in this play about the last five days of his life. He is called "rabbi" and gives a Hebrew blessing at the Last Supper, depicted as a Passover seder held around a menorah.

Most important, the blood oath that assigned Jews collective guilt for Jesus' death was removed.

"I've been working on it for 23 years. They have made huge progress," said Leonard Swidler, a professor of Catholic theology at Temple University who has worked to recommend changes. "Academics can always argue about anything, but I see no substantive difficulties at all."

The question of how Jews are depicted at Oberammergau, the oldest continually acted Passion play in Europe, has been an issue since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s reversed nearly 2,000 years of church teachings about the collective responsibility of the Jews for Jesus' death.

"Oberammergau is the battleground for these issues," said James Shapiro, a director of the theater program at Columbia University in New York who has written a new history of Oberammergau.

"One reason is there's some leverage that can be brought on the village after Vatican II. And two, it's Germany. There's both some increased sensitivity and enormous sense of responsibility for death with Jewish questions."

Acted against an idyllic Alpine backdrop, the Oberammergau Passion play so perfectly served Adolf Hitler's ends that he praised it as a tool "that convincingly portrayed the menace of Jewry" after seeing a 300th anniversary staging in 1934.

The most virulent stereotype perpetuated in the Passion story, predating Oberammergau, is the notion of Jewish collective guilt for Jesus' death -- often seen as a primary source of anti-Semitic thought through the centuries. In 15th-century Frankfurt, city officials protected the Jewish ghetto during performances. …