Rabbi Berk on Mel Gibson Movie

Date: March 2, 2004 6:57:36 PM Eastern Standard Time
Forwarded by Kenneth Bossewitch

Mel Gibson Movie Review

I'm going to do three things this evening I rarely do: not comment on the Torah portion of the week, give a movie review, and discuss Christianity.  I don't usually discuss Christianity because I learned from my teacher R. Yitz Greenberg that in the aftermath of the Holocaust it is forbidden to stereotype.  The way he puts it is-if you want to discuss or criticize some one else's religion make sure someone from that religion is sitting down at the same table with you when you open your mouth.  I don't really intend to criticize Christianity tonight-actually I hope to defend it against a bad movie.

As for Mel Gibson's movie-let me begin by giving away the plot. As I understand it, here's the movie.  Its two hours of a Jewish guy getting beat up by some Italians, egged on by some so-called Jewish religious leaders.  Apparently God is not upset by this beating and this death because its part of God's plan.  That's it-I've saved you $7.00.

Let me begin by giving this movie the best possible read. You want to get close with God-there's no better way than through suffering and pain.  There is a kind of holiness in pain and suffering.  I re-experienced it this winter with Ruthie in the hospital.  With my prayers and tears I felt, at times, a great closeness to God.  Our tradition recognizes this.  We have the suffering servant motif-you find it in the book of Isaiah.  You find it even in Genesis 22 where Abraham almost kills Isaac.  You find it in the Jewish martyrs of the Middle Ages who surrendered their lives al kiddush hashem, for the sanctification of God's name and you find it in the writers who glorified these people.  But I would argue that the mainstream Jewish tradition moved away from this.  We tried suffering in Egypt and we found we didn't like it.  Judaism at its best, and Christianity at its best, are religions of life, not death.  They are religions that teach comfort, healing, redemption.  They are religions that move us away from suffering and pain. Judaism warns us about getting too into pain. That's why our laws of mourning are so strict and exact.  You aren't allowed to wallow in your grief forever.  You have to walk out of shiva You have to walk out of shloshim.  You have to walk out of your year of mourning.  We have these laws because our rabbis recognized the temptation to stay there and center our religious lives in suffering. And they don't want it.  Maimonides tells us that getting close to God through pain and fear is a much lower level than getting close to God through love.

Mel Gibson has apparently made a movie totally focused on the death of Jesus and not on his life.  We don't see Jesus at his Bar Mitzvah.  We don't see hear the incredible Sermon on the Mount.  It doesn't focus on Jesus' great acts of gemilut chasadim [acts of kindness].  We don't encounter the Jesus who taught Torah and urged people to do the mitzvot.  By going this route, Mel Gibson has broken with those Christians who have tried to move Christianity back to its origins. Originally Christianity stressed the life of Jesus, not his death. It was only with Constantine in 350 that we get this huge obsession with his death.  Here's the problem-if you focus on Jesus' death, you stress a 2,000 year old murder and you imply that this was just part of God's plan.  I don't have to tell you how harmful it is to put stress on this murder.  My wife Susan spoke recently at the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce and after her short speech urging caution with regard to this movie, a Christian man came up to her and said, "The Jewish people shouldn't be so worried about this movie.  The Christian community is with you.  And hey, everybody messes up at some time or another." Susan said, "You know, the Romans killed Jesus."  He responded, "Sure but we all know the Jews encouraged them." No, we don't all know this. Let's be real clear about this.  Jesus was one of thousands of chachamim, leaders and sages, who were strung up by the Romans in order to intimidate and destroy Jewish leadership.  How did the Jews respond when fellow Jews were strung up?  They wept, they hung their heads, they prayed, they organized.  Don't stereotype the Jewish people because of what some angry Christian wrote a hundred years after Jesus about a few Jews supposedly encouraging the Romans. And what about God? Stressing the death instead of the life of Jesus implies God's approval.  This is a problem for serious thinking Christians. After the Holocaust, Christians have to face the fact that it was Christians, many religious, church attending Christians, who did the gassing, the torturing, the raping, the medical experiments, ran the slave labor camps, and all the rest.  If you ask me, having God approve Jesus' death makes it all too easy to justify and approve the death of other people.

As I understand it, the great message of Christianity isn't the death of Jesus but is the resurrection.  The resurrection sends the message that you can be born again.  That's a message we can relate to. Its very similar to our core message-you were slaves in Egypt and you got out. You've got a chance at life.  You are not trapped.  Christian thinkers are going to have to figure out which part of their story they want to stress.  I'll put my money on a different choice than the one Mel Gibson made.

Finally, and most importantly, we are living in a time when the credibility of religion is one the line. After the Holocaust, every religion is suspect. With the world shrinking it becomes more and more clear that we need the world's great religions to engage in self-criticism. The true greatness of the Hebrew Bible is the way in which later Biblical writers criticize earlier Biblical writers. The prophet Ezekiel criticizes the Book of Kings, which says that the Jewish people were punished with the destruction of the Temple because of what an evil king did a generation earlier. Ezekiel says-that's a terrible message to give people. He gets us out from under that kind of determinism and opens up the possibility of freedom and teshuvah. Or consider Maimonides in the twelfth century who critiques the Jewish tradition permitting non-Jewish slaves to be treated with less dignity than Jewish slaves. By the time Maimonides is done with the laws of slaves, it becomes impossible for a Jew to humiliate a non-Jewish slave Maimonides didn't pretend that everything was okay in Judaism. He didn't believe Judaism was perfect. He gives us an incredible model, a model taken up by liberal Jews who have argued that in our own day we have to, for example, critique the way our tradition treated women. I once asked a Christian minister in Phoenix how he handles the line in the New Testament where the Jews tell Pontius Pilate to go ahead with killing Jesus and say-may his blood be on us and on our children. The minister told me-"I never discuss that line." I was terribly disappointed. That is not the spirit of Maimonides. Maimonides would have said-you have to discuss it! You have to process it. You have to be honest about where you come from! Let me be fair, there are many rabbis who do the same thing. They want to give you a Judaism that is picture perfect. But it's a lie.

Religions that don't critique themselves are arrogant and dangerous. If Muslims don't stand up and critique the embrace of suicide bombing by their co-religionists then Islam is in danger of being hijacked. Islam could become a religion of death and not life, and we already know how dangerous that can be.

Mel Gibson didn't critique the worst part of the New Testament. He didn't critique the angriest part of the New Testament. He made it angrier. He glorified it. And in so doing, he did none of us a favor. May his co-religionists have the courage to stand up and put him in his place. And may we role model what a spiritual community should be-a community devoted to life, to love, with the courage to critique ourselves and our ancestors.

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