Tuesday, April 10, 2018

the panel report

And here it is, my writeup of the panel discussion of anti-Semitism and Bach's St. John Passion.

When doing a writeup like this, I see my job as conveying the sense of the panel rather than giving my own thoughts on the subject, since that would be a personalized rather than a reportorial view in a very limited word space.

Here, however, I can say what I actually think of all this.

I've never actually heard the St. John Passion performed. I have, however, heard its surviving companion, the St. Matthew Passion. Bearing in mind what the moderator said about music enhancing the meaning of the words it sets, I consider that experience essential.

The panelists compared John with Matthew a lot. John, they said, is by far the more vehemently anti-Semitic Gospel. That's interesting, because one of my reactions to the St. Matthew Passion was to find it just full of libel against the Jews. John would probably be worse.

Nor did I find myself very impressed with the panelists' argument that Bach mitigates against the anti-Semitism by emphasizing the theological view that all are sinners, all are responsible for the death of Christ. That's only mitigating if you are yourself a Christian, ready to throw yourself on God's mercy and seek forgiveness. If you're not, it's pretty hollow.

I've often heard before that Luther expected his reformed version of Christianity to attract the Jews to convert en masse, that when they didn't it really pissed him off, and from then on he was far more anti-Semitic than he'd been before. This story turns out to be true, and speaks to Luther's lack of understanding that whatever Jesus may have been, he was not the Jewish Messiah. Jews not prepared to accept a new covenant that cancels and replaces theirs will find nothing here for them.

I kind of doubt I'd feel comfortable sitting through the St. John Passion, mitigated or no, especially because Bach's religious music is not my aesthetic idol anyway, but I did expect what I got from the St. Matthew, and I was willing to be there. The reason for that is essentially that this music is 300 years old. It's not speaking to current issues; and, having heard from one of the panelists about the squalor and disdain in which Jews of the time lived, I'd be surprised to find a Christian of that time and place who wasn't anti-Semitic.

(Even today, we have people who seriously argue that Blacks are somehow responsible for their socio-economic handicaps, without considering the conditions in which they're forced to live. If that belief can exist with all of today's enlightenment, and the less vehement ghettoization of Blacks, of course it'd be universal back then about Jews.)

To my mind, it's a far different thing than dealing with the anti-Semitism in, say, The Death of Klinghoffer, which is current and insidious - the more so as there are people who insist it is not anti-Semitic, a position only made tenable by defining anti-Semitism down so that nothing less than the genocidal qualifies. That denial makes me angry in a way that excusing Bach does not.

So in general I would rather avoid Bach's Passions than not. But it doesn't bother me that they exist and are performed, especially if the performers are willing to acknowledge that the texts are problematic. They took an honest look at it here.

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