The Genius That Offends


"Let his blood be upon us and upon our children," the mob howled, according to Matthew's gospel, as it demanded the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Many Christians have been taught that this passage cannot be used to blame Jews or Judaism for Jesus' death. It speaks of the behavior of mobs, and of the human heart's inclination to sin and rejection of divinity. More than 400 years ago the Council of Trent drafted a catechism that declared that "Christian sinners are more responsible for the death of Christ in comparison with certain Jews who participated in it."

Nevertheless, the notion of Jews as "Christ-killers" remained in Christian consciousness and culture, stirring pogrom and inquisition, discrimination and hatred. It also suffused some of the greatest works of European art, music and literature. In recent years many Christian denominations have taken formal steps to absolve Jews of racial guilt in the crucifixion, and to apologize for the centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. Now Christians and Jews are addressing together the fact of anti-Semitism in the arts.

The occasion is the planned performance May 4 by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society of Johann Sebastian Bach's "St. Matthew Passion." The text, taken from the gospel, repeats the charge of Jewish "blood guilt." An interfaith group of religious and cultural leaders will discuss "Religious Intolerance in Western Culture" at a symposium April 25 at the College of Notre Dame. The purpose, according to the Rev. Christopher Leighton, director of the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies, is to promote "new habits of listening to music and new habits of looking at art." That surely is better than the alternative of simply cutting ourselves off from some of the greatest works of our cultural history. The Choral Arts Society's founder, Theodore Morrison, refused in 1982 on grounds of conscience to direct a performance of another Bach work, the "St. John Passion." Orson Welles declined to appear as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice."

Great art transcends even its own unworthiness. Bach's music surely has elevated the human spirit more than his texts have demeaned it. Shakespeare's grasping merchant Shylock voiced one of the greatest arguments for tolerance in the English language: "I am a Jew. . . . If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh?" Works of genius may offend, but we must deny neither the genius nor the offense. Rather, we must confront the familiar mixture of noble and base that coexists in humankind and teach ourselves to hold fast to the noble and resist the base.

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