A Rabbi Reflects on Good Friday


(With special thanks to my good friend, Rev. Dr. John H Danner for his review and critique of this essay)

Many years ago, my family vacationed in the Ozarks, and I took my nine-year-old son Leo to see the Passion Play performed on the estate of the late Gerald L.K. Smith.

What a magnificent and costly production! Live horses, camels, even elephants cavorted across the huge amphitheater stage. When Pontius Pilate protested to the Jewish masses that he found no fault with Jesus, the Jewish leaders shouted, “Crucify him!”

Then Pilate washed his hands and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”

“Crucify him,” the Jewish leaders screamed again. “His blood be upon us and upon our children!”

As we left the vast and magnificently kept grounds of the estate, Leo turned to me and asked, “Did we really crucify Jesus, Daddy?”

“No, my son,” I answered,” we did not.”

“If we didn’t,” he responded, “who did?”

Crucifixion, I pointed out, was a Roman, not a Jewish, method of execution, and I do not believe that the Roman governor would allow his subject Jews to convince him to do anything that he did not wish to do.

“More important,” I said to my son, “neither you, I nor any of the Jewish people who have lived for the past 2,000 years were there, let alone involved.”

Times have changed

The anti-Semitic Passion Play, after years of diminishing attendance, saw its last performance in 2012. I continue to cherish the invitation of my good friend, Rev. Steve Hancock in 1996 to speak from the pulpit of the Second Presbyterian Church of Nashville on Good Friday. And this year Rev. Dr. John Danner and Rev. Deborah Kunkel will spend part of their Good Friday, after their own services at Sanibel Congregational UCC, as welcome guests and participants in the Passover Seder of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands.

These wonderful realities of Good Fridays present stand in stark contrast to Jewish memories of Good Fridays past. Good Friday was once a day when Jews hid for fear that Christians would attack them. In some places Christian authorities compelled Jews to attend Good Friday worship to listen to readings and preaching about their guilt and stubbornness for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

On Good Friday I feel the weight of Jewish history as at no other time. I close my eyes and see the victims of Good Friday pogroms. I hear voices of those killed over the years for no reason except that they clung to their Jewish faith. I hear their voices crying out to me, “Do not betray us!”

On one of my trips to Jerusalem, I walked slowly along the Via Dolorosa with a Palestinian Christian Guide who explained the 14 Stations of the Cross and that on Good Friday 40,000 pilgrims jam the road to Golgotha to identify with the significance of the crucifixion.

Although I am not a Christian, I am moved by Luke’s** account of Jesus’ utterances from the cross. Beaten, mocked, scourged, crucified and near death, Jesus exclaims, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:24) Would that we all could display such compassion to those who have wronged us.

What I find most remarkable about Luke’s account of Jesus on the cross is his absolute immunity to public opinion. Whether the crowds were with him or against him, Jesus did not alter his course.

A week before his death, Jesus threw the crowds into a frenzy of ecstasy. The next week his own disciples denied knowing him. Such abandonment would devastate an ordinary person, but Jesus remained unshaken. Would that we all had that kind of courage of our convictions.

Make no mistake. Jesus is not the messiah for Jews that his is for Christians.

There are profound theological differences between our faiths. I have no desire for us to become one religion, but I have an intense desire that we learn to accept and respect our religious differences and appreciate the values we can learn from one another.

Years of history have blinded Jews to the meaning and inspiration even non-believers can find in Christian Scripture. Years of history have blinded Christians to the richness of the Jewish heritage from which Christianity sprang. If we have not yet done so, let us, as Good Friday moves into Passover, remove our cataracts and behold the beauty and wisdom we can find in another’s faith.

**I recall with gratitude the learning I gleaned from the Seminar I audited on Luke at Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1996, with the permission of Professor Amy Jill-Levine,