Who really killed Jesus? the posters for the event had asked. At a debate last week triggered by Mel Gibson’s bloody big-screen Passion play about the final hours in the life of Jesus, Michael Brown may have been the charismatic preacher, but Rabbi Shmuley Boteach showered the crowd with fire and brimstone.
“It was the Romans, and solely the Romans, who put Jesus to death,” Boteach told the crowd at the Hilton, but “it was the Christians who crucified him. They made him the very fountain of anti-Semitism.” And it was off to the races.
Curiosity about The Passion of the Christ drew nearly 1,000 people, hungry for dish on the movie they’d been reading so much about but that none had yet seen (it opens on February 25, and so far advance screenings have been limited to a select few).
Neither Brown nor Boteach had seen it either, but that didn’t stop the rebbe from delivering two big thumbs down. Newsweek’s description of Gibson’s Pontius Pilate as a “sensitive ruler” moved Boteach—erstwhile friend of Michael Jackson and author of Kosher Sex, among other popular books that make Orthodox Judaism sound cool—to call Gibson “a rancid, anti-Semitic bigot! Pilate was the Saddam Hussein of the ancient world!” If this were a movie soft on slavery, he argued, African-Americans would shut it down—so “where are the Hollywood celebrities to condemn this film?” (Waiting to see it, perhaps?)
Brown, a foot taller and an octave lower than his colleague, gave a chilling account of the murder of Jews throughout history for the blood libel. A biblical scholar and messianic Jew who worships Jesus as the Son of God, he asserted that the charge of deicide “is not found in any verse in the New Testament.” That turned out to be a bit of sleight of hand: When Boteach parried that the New Testament contains over 100 references blaming Jews for the death of Jesus, Brown corrected him: “I said no verse saying the Jews killed God.” So there.
The duo, who are in the process of refining this act and taking it on the road, kept calling one another “my friend,” one of those debaters’ niceties that makes you want to be sure there are tasters in the greenroom. “Christians are arguably the best friends the Jews have in the U.S. today,” they finally agreed. But when Boteach challenged Brown to accept him, a nonbeliever in Jesus, as nonetheless “beloved of God,” that proved to be too much to ask of Brown. No doubt of Mel, too.