Friday, February 27, 2004
Go on, Leon, tell us how you really feel.
I have not seen, and do not intend to see, The Passion of the Christ, primarily for the reasons articulated here (scroll down to "BUCKETS O'BLOOD" - I assume this is an Irish joke, Derb?). Violent, gory films are not for me.
Because I haven't seen the film, I'm not going to comment on the anti-Semitism angle. I think that debate should be left to those who've seen the movie. I will say, though that Wieseltier's complaints should not be dismissed out of hand by those who assume that he's another Jewish hysteric; someone who wrote this cover story deserves a little more credit than that.
But I do want to disagree with Wiesletier about one thing. He's got a problem with the idea of martyrdom that infects the rest of his criticism of the movie, and I wish he could separate that issue out.
Wieseltier thinks that any concept of martyrdom amounts to "holy suicide." I don't think that's right at all. A martyr, properly understood, is not one who seeks death at all, but one who seeks life even in the fiery furnace; someone who, faced with the choice of a death in life or a life in death, chooses the latter. A martyr chooses to die meaningfully rather than live emptily. That is not an anti-life concept. It's not even exclusively a religious concept; you can be an existential martyr, a martyr to beliefs that have no origin outside the universe. Robert Bolt's Thomas More is portrayed as an existential martyr of this type; the substantive content of Bolt's More's beliefs are of little interest compared with the significance of the fact of those beliefs for his life, and his death. But More does not seek death. Far from it; he seeks to live by any means at his disposal that do not put his soul in jeopardy.
Nonetheless, I think there is a difference between martyrdom in the Jewish tradition and in the Christian. And this difference may, perhaps, be elucidated by the difference between the Passion (the concept and event, not the movie) and the closest Jewish equivalent, the eleh ezkerah ("these we remember") recounted on the Day of Atonement.
Once a year, on Yom Kippur, Jews recount the story of ten martyrs murdered by the Romans as part of their crushing of the Messianic revolt of 132-135 CE. The story is thoroughly as gruesome, and the suffering fully as intense, as that of the Passion. One has his skin flayed entirely off before being killed. Another is raked with iron combs before death. Another is wrapped in a Torah scroll and burnt alive, doused with water to prolong his sufferings as he burns. It's horrible to read. And in many congregations, the stories are supplemented by stories of more recent sufferings, typically stories from the Shoah.
What does this have to do with atonement? Christians recount the Passion because what Jesus, whom they understand to have been God as well as man, by means of his sufferings took upon himself the sins of the world, and thereby redeemed the world from destruction. The eleh ezkerah serves a similar and yet crucially different purpose. Judaism has no concept of Incarnation; indeed, the idea is profoundly blasphemous to Jewish ears, and always will be. And I do not believe that it is a canonical Jewish idea that suffering itself is redemptive, though there are texts that suggest this. The eleh ezkerah, though, with its place in the Yom Kippur liturgy clearly suggests that the willingness to suffer as a martyr for God has redemptive power. These ten, by their willingness to die rather than deny God's name and refuse to teach His word, played the part of the ten righteous men whom Abraham sought in Sodom; by demonstrating that God was still present on earth, in a quorum of believers, their willingness to die may have spared the earth from ultimate destruction.
We recount their story on the Day of Atonement because we pray that God will remember their z'chut, their merit, when he considers our own sins. We pray that their righteousness will prompt God to be merciful to us on a day when we stand naked before him, full in the knowledge of our sins, struggling to repent. We dwell on their sufferings not for our sake, not to make us feel guilty of our sin (which, as I understand, is part of the point of the Passion), but for God's, to remind Him of the sufferings He visited upon them, and which they accepted since there was no other choice but to deny Him, which would be a greater suffering, and a greater death.
Wieseltier would call the ten martyrs victims of a crime. He would, in other words, assign the meaning of their deaths to their persecutors; the meaning is that evil is evil. I can't go along with him there. Perhaps that is the meaning of an infant dashed to death by a Nazi stormtrooper; perhaps that is why it is so hard to contemplate a world in which such crimes occur. I do not think such an interpretation does justice to the life of a Rabbi Akivah, with which his death is inextricably bound up.
We're a week shy of the holiday of Purim. Purim celebrates the redemption of the children of Israel from the mad and absurd persecution planned by the wicked Haman the Aggagite. I could go on for a while about Purim, but one thing in particular about the holiday is significant for this discussion. Purim is the only holiday which, we are told, we will continue to observe after the Messiah comes. Why? Because on Purim the children of Israel voluntarily reaffirmed the covenant with God, without God's prompting, and without any obvious sign or miracle. (Indeed, the Book of Esther, which recounts the story of Purim, is the only book in the Hebrew Bible not to contain the name of God.) It is the most precious holiday, therefore.
It is, moreover, the holiday which commemorates the entire Jewish people signing up for martyrdom. How so? Well, when they reaffirmed their covenant, Israel had just been faced with the most comprehensive destruction ever planned, the murder of the entire people on a single day. They could have averted the destruction simply by bowing down to Haman, the king's Grand Vizier, and abandoning the faith of their fathers. But they did not do so. The whole people chose, in other words, to remain in a relationship with God that they knew might well cost them their lives, because choosing otherwise would have been the greater death. That's martyrdom. It's not seeking martyrdom, it's not seeking death, and hence it is in no sense holy suicide. But, as someone smarter than I once said, the readiness is all.