The director of the world-famous – some might say infamous – Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, was presented with the Isaiah Award for Exemplary Interreligious Leadership this week.
Director Christian Stückl received the award from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) to honor his decades-long work turning the Passion Play into “an educational tool for post-Shoah (Holocaust) Christian and German self-reflection.”
AJC’s director of Interfaith Relations, Rabbi Noam Marans, presented Stückl with the award on Wednesday in Oberammergau, where the play is performed.
Over the years, the play has been modified as Stückl continues to engage in dialogue with AJC leadership since the 1980s: examining passages of text, reviewing costumes and stage sets and contemplating any new ideas to incorporate into the play. Stückl also works with other Jewish organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, affirming his commitment to remove any existing anti-Semitism from the Passion Play and its performances.
The Passion Play has been performed in the Bavarian Alpine village of Oberammergau every 10 years since 1634. The performance puts on display the story of the New Testament, particularly the death and resurrection of Jesus. Roughly 2,000 of the 5,000 residents of the village, regardless of age, participate as actors, extras or stagehands. In addition, the play features local horses, goats, sheep, doves and camels. Approximately half a million people are expected to watch the play in Oberammergau this year.
The Passion Play is infamous for its portrayal of some of Germany’s worst and most powerful Jew-hatred. Adolf Hitler considered the Passion Play absolutely vital.
“It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans,” Hitler said when he attended the performance in the 1930s.
“Recognizing the play’s enormous propagandistic value, the Nazi leader even considered underwriting a Germany-wide tour ‘so that the whole country could be inflamed against the Jews,’” according to The Atlantic Magazine.
Today, there are no traces of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the play, even though the change reportedly came about slowly, with the town resisting “calls from prominent American and European intellectuals to tone down the play’s classic anti-Semitism. As a result, Jewish people continued to be portrayed as a bloodthirsty mob, and the high priesthood as a sinister cabal with more power over Jesus’ life than the occupying Romans,” according to the magazine.
When the Catholic Church asked Oberammergau to make changes to the play’s anti-Semitic references in the 1970s, the town still resisted. Only in 1986, when its then-young new director, Christian Stückl, came into the picture, that the play gradually began to remove instances of Jew-hatred, replacing them with an emphasis on the Jewish atmosphere and background of Jesus.
At the awards ceremony, Stückl said his greatest concern when he first became director of the play in 1990, “was to eliminate [its] anti-Judaism.” It would appear that Stückl has succeeded in this task exceedingly well.
A.J. Goldmann, an arts journalist and critic based in Germany wrote this in the Atlantic on Aug 4: “It would be hard to choose the most Jewish moment in this year’s production of Oberammergau’s Passion Play, the grand spectacle that recounts the story of Jesus Christ’s trial, suffering, and resurrection.”
“Maybe it was the scene where Jesus holds a Torah scroll aloft and leads the congregation in the ‘Shema Yisrael,’ the Jewish declaration of faith in a single God, or perhaps it was the Last Supper, where Jesus and his apostles recite the traditional prayers over the wine and bread in convincing Hebrew. For me, it would have to be the way that Mary, the Madonna, is greeted in one scene: ‘How fortunate we are to have our rabbi’s mother with us!’”
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.