Nun and Rabbi in HUC-JIR's Doctor of Ministry Program Critique "The Passion"

Monday, March 1, 2004

(03/19/2004) - The Jewish Week, New York 
The Nun, The Rabbi And Mel

They are two friends from different faiths, 
but they have a similar critique of 'The Passion.'

Julie Wiener - Staff Writer

As a scarred and battered Jesus stumbles under the weight of his cross, relentlessly whipped by soldiers, Myrna Matsa turns to her friend in the movie theater seat beside her.

"Are all these beatings in the Gospels?"

"No," replies Donna Conroy, whose arms have been folded guardedly across her chest for most of the film. "This isn't Scripture. It's Mel Gibson."

It is an exchange - Matsa leaning over to check facts with Conroy - that has been repeated several times this evening. The two friends - a rabbi and a nun - are watching "The Passion of the Christ" together at a threadbare theater in a Bronx strip mall.

Rabbi Matsa and Sister Conroy are colleagues at Calvary Hospital and classmates at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Counseling Program. At Rabbi Matsa's urging, the two saw the controversial movie together last week (accompanied by a Jewish Week reporter).

While the two clearly enjoy each other's company, and are roughly the same age (Sister Conroy is 57, Rabbi Matsa preferred to keep quiet on the age question), they have strikingly different personalities: Sister Conroy seems down-to-earth and has a good sense of humor, while Rabbi Matsa is sweet and dreamy.

Wary of the violence and anti-Semitism, Sister Conroy initially planned to avoid the film altogether. Rabbi Matsa, however, felt it was too important to miss.

"But the only way I would go would be with Donna," she says.

Waiting for the film to begin, the two brace themselves for gore. Asked if she expects the film to move her spiritually, the nun says, "I will be surprised if it does. Twenty-five or 30 years ago maybe I would have thought it would touch me spiritually. Now I'll have to see."

The Church has changed a great deal in three decades, she says. "Thirty years ago, Catholics were still very spiritually attuned to aspects of the Passion and death of Jesus, more so than his life and resurrection. Now, although we still acknowledge that Jesus was a historical figure who died through crucifixion, a lot of the emphasis really is on his teaching and his life and his resurrection."

The movie begins and the clergy friends watch attentively, although Rabbi Matsa, the more timid of the pair, spends much of the film wincing and covering her eyes. Neither is shy in commenting - quietly - throughout. Sister Conroy notes when the movie deviates from the religious text, while Rabbi Matsa critiques it from a historical perspective.

As the Roman leader Pontius Pilate throws his hands up in the air and tells the Jews, "It is you who want to crucify him, not I. I am innocent of this man's blood," Rabbi Matsa grumbles that in reality, the Jewish high priest Caiaphas "had no power over Pilate.

"This version of the Gospel was written when the Romans were still in power," Rabbi Matsa says, noting that rather than alienating the Roman leadership, the Christian writers found it easier to simply lay the blame on the Jews.

By the time the credits roll, the nun and rabbi are both exhausted. Walking out of the theater, Rabbi Matsa says, "I feel nauseous. I don't want to trespass on your theology, but this is such a new experience for me."

"This is not my theology!" Sister Conroy says, a little defensively. Then, breaking the tension a little, she exclaims, "Oh, man, that was brutal."

The two part ways for a few minutes - each hopping into her car to drive to Applebee's, on the other side of the mall - where they will reconnect to discuss the film. In her Subaru with a reporter, Sister Conroy says, that although some Catholic friends have told her the movie was not that anti-Semitic, "I think it is."

"It provokes strong emotions in anyone who is attached to this," she says, noting that it makes it look like the Romans "tried to wash their hands of complicity but were egged on by the [Jewish] priests."

Later, she elaborates on the film's anti-Semitism, saying it is often nuanced and "insidious" rather than overt: Pilate's obvious disdain for the mob of Jews, frequent camera panning over the lavishly ornate robes of the Jewish leaders.

"If you didn't have anti-Semitic proclivities, I don't think you would get them from going to the movie," she said. "But if you had them, they would be reinforced."

Waiting at the Applebee's entrance, where a large sign promotes the restaurant's Lenten Menu, Rabbi Matsa has a big question for her friend. "I want to ask about the meaning of suffering in Catholicism," she announces, as the hostess ushers them past the tables packed with young black and Latino families.

"I don't even know how to begin to answer that," Sister Conroy says. "It's a 1,200-year history. I can't do that tonight."

But as they sit down, glossy menus unopened in their hands, Sister Conroy says there is a "whole tradition that says it's suffering that brings us close to God."

The two discuss the creative license Mel Gibson has taken with the story and how it is out of synch with the current theology of the Church. Rabbi Matsa complains at the way the priests were characterized as bloodthirsty, when in fact contemporary Jewish law was highly reluctant to impose the death penalty, and the two agree that the film's sympathetic depiction of Pontius Pilate makes no sense historically.

"That's part of the anti-Semitic flavor of it," Sister Conroy says. "I don't think it was Mel Gibson's intention. I think it was his ignorance."

Rabbi Matsa, who has been nervously diplomatic, appears relieved to hear Sister Conroy describe the movie as anti-Semitic. The rabbi says she is worried about what reactions the movie will spur. "My fear is someone walking out and saying, this is what you did. I'm going to show you what it felt like. This has happened for centuries."

Sister Conroy acknowledges that it has the potential for "undoing any Jewish-Christian relationship that's been built up. But people who are involved in dialogue already are not going to be influenced by this."

The heavy focus on suffering troubles Rabbi Matsa. "[Jesus'] suffering didn't stop sin in the world. It didn't stop terrible things from happening. ... I would be very interested in knowing what is sacred about watching this."

"For me there was nothing sacred about watching this," Sister Conroy says emphatically. "It was a lot of horror."

Nonetheless, she says Mel Gibson's approach to the theology is not unfamiliar to her.

"In a sense that's how I grew up. At a time when the sisters told me Jesus died for my sins. I personally was responsible. I remember saying to my mother I don't understand, was what I did that bad?"

Growing up in upstate New York in the 1950s, Sister Conroy says, "You did not question anything. Questions weren't welcome. What the Church taught was what you believed. If you questioned you weren't a good Catholic."

Like the Church, Sister Conroy has become more sensitive to anti-Semitism over the years, although she credits her sensitivity less to official Church documents and more to studying in an interdenominational program and to working with Jewish families at Calvary Hospital.

So, in the end was there anything redeeming about the film?

Both Rabbi Matsa and Sister Conroy said they were moved by the depiction of Mary - played by a Jewish actress, Maia Morgenstern.

"In my work I see a lot of mothers whose sons are dying, and mothers are very strong people and courageous," Sister Conroy said. "That was the only time in the movie I had any sort of feeling. The scenes with Jesus were so brutal I kind of shut down. I don't think a psyche can sustain watching that."


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu