Sunday, March 30, 2008

Gibson's 'Midrash'

The Jewish Week, March 2, 2004

The day after “The Passion” was released; I received an e-mail from one of my college students, and it occurred to me that this movie might actually be good for the Jews. She wrote of her confusion after seeing the film, how her nine years of day school education did not prepare her for the avalanche of accusations, questions and emotions evoked by it. She then added, “I’ve been too disconnected lately from my religion and I thought you should know that this movie may have worked to reconnect me to my Judaism; oh the irony!”

As rabbis and others have discovered these past few weeks, Mel Gibson’s Midrash on the Gospels might be the best stimulus for Jewish education since Santa first donned a red suit. The more that Jews want to learn about the chaotic 1st century, the more they will learn about a crucial formative stage of their own tradition. Ask me about Jesus and Paul and I’ll throw in Hillel and Shammai, free of charge. And they also can learn about Midrash itself – that uniquely Jewish form of interpreting a sacred text, often through embellishment.

Not that I liked the film – I found it infuriating. Gibson went to great lengths to paint – literally – the Jewish leaders of that time in the most sinister possible light. The use of menacing make-up contributed to the facial expressions that make the arched-browed High Priest Caiaphas look downright diabolical. The devil, by comparison, looks like a girl scout, and Pontius Pilate, a notorious psychopath according to contemporary historians, comes across like a wimpy Jimmy Carter unable to face down the priestly Ayatollah. In addition to this make-up-as-Midrash, Gibson’s embellishment of New Testament dialogue has been well documented.

If anyone comes off looking worse than Caiaphas, it’s God. I tried to imagine how a believing Christian would feel watching a film in which Father inflicts upon Son the Mother of all beatings. This is God as Rambo; the kindly grandfather-in-the-sky transformed into the Zeydeh of Sadism. There is no love here, no compassion – from God or from Jesus. Even the occasional miracle healings are performed more as David Copperfield stunts than divine caresses. In an instant, all those old anti-Semitic stereotypes about the kinder, gentler New Testament God are wiped away.

The genius of “Shindler’s List” was that the Nazis’ sadism never got beyond the Nazis, as the camera always turned away at the appropriate moment. Here, the brutality of the Roman soldiers seems to have infected the director. The camera seems enamored of the gore, treating us to torture in Super-Slo motion. And since “The Passion” forces us to take a God’s eye view of these events, right to that hokey divine teardrop at the end, we are left with no alternative but to believe that God is the ultimate voyeur, no better than that rubbernecker drawn to car crashes on the Cross Bronx. If I were a Christian watching this film, I’d be irate.

Despite all of this, Mel Gibson has as much right to create Midrash as Cecil B. DeMille did. I do not foresee anti-Semitic rioting resulting from this release. For mainstream Christians not predisposed to Jew-hatred, i.e., the vast majority, the film will stir up some genuine piety. The innocent Christian observer will focus far more on the familiar Sunday School touchstones than the make-up on Caiaphas, and will see it all as the unfolding of God’s plan rather than a malicious Jewish conspiracy. But they will miss the subtle deviations from the text and incorporate some into their imagination of these mythic events, and that is where the danger lies.

That’s what happens when powerful visual media incorporate Midrash, when one filmmaker’s vision of sacred scripture itself becomes a sacred tableau. Generations have grown up thinking that Moses looked like Charlton Heston. We confuse the revolt of Dathan and his hoard with the Golden Calf incident because DeMille synthesized them in “The Ten Commandments,” and we visualize a fraternal rivalry between Moses and Pharaoh that is never discussed in the Torah. Similarly, Christian viewers of “The Passion” will assimilate into their personal belief system the indelible image of Jewish leaders in their prayer shawls enjoying a good flaying.

If we all could distinguish text from commentary and sacred narrative from historical reality, movies as Midrash would pose little danger. But movies simply look too real. The screen is too literal, freezing and confining our perceptions, while the page is quite literally an open book. Midrash was meant for that literary environment, where it can breathe on its own. The power of the filmmaker is far too great because his graven images are so easily confused with truth.

Add to this the worldwide growth of fundamentalism, the religious equivalent of psychosis, best defined as the inability to differentiate between text and Midrash. Fundamentalism has infected all faiths, including Judaism, and in film it has found the ideal medium to feed its literalist frenzy.

The pope was said to have commented that Gibson’s film, “Is as it was.” The pope evidently never said that, but his non-statement brings us to the very heart of the problem. No film is as it really was, and no Midrash is what the text really meant to say. No one knows exactly what took place in Jerusalem those many centuries ago. No one, that is, but the One on High who is beyond all celluloid illusion (and Mr. Spielberg ‘aint telling).

The filmmaker’s freedom of speech should never be questioned. But Mel Gibson was – at best – irresponsible to add a new element of bigotry to the most dangerous story ever told. To revive the passion that launched a thousand pogroms is almost the equivalent of shouting “Midrash” in a crowded theater. We should be increasingly wary of this combustible amalgamation of visual image and inflated commentary.

In this medium, the Midrash becomes the message.

No comments: