Anyone who took offense at Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ", with its depiction of Jewish leaders condemning Jesus, should get ready soon to be offended all over again. Gibson, it is reported, has his heart set on doing a movie version of the story commemorated by Hanukkah. His text will be the novel "My Glorious Brothers" by Howard Fast. Ironically, this book is a sentimental favorite with the older-generation Jewish audience that also tends to be the main financial supporter of Gibson's primary antagonist, the Anti-Defamation League, which led the drive to condemn "The Passion" as anti-Semitic. The Fast novel tells the story of Jewish heroes, circa 167 B.C.E., who defeat Greek oppressors of the Jewish people, retake the Jerusalem Temple, and relight the great menorah.
So what's so offensive? If this sounds, on the contrary, like a mollifying gesture to ADL national director Abraham Foxman, you might want to look a little more closely at what Hanukkah is actually about.
Many Jews grew up thinking of Hanukkah (which in 2004 falls on December 8-15) as an innocuous children's festival. Actually the Maccabean revolt was deadly serious business, and it recalls one of the great tensions in our own modern American society: the conflict was between what today one might call religious fundamentalists and the secular elite.
Here's what happened. Jewish Palestine had fallen into the clutches of the Greek kingdom of the Seleucids, with their tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes, headquartered in Syria.
While the Greeks were not anti-Jewish per se, they had little patience with the perceived particularism and parochialism of Judaism. (I say "perceived" because Judaism's vision, when properly understood, is in fact highly universal.) The Greek vision was one of mutual theological acceptance. They were relativists, in the sense we know today, believing that not only the God of Israel but all the gods should be worshipped at the Jerusalem Temple--and believing that dissenters from their "tolerance" deserved to be suppressed.Religiously committed Jews, however, were less troubled by the Greek Syrians themselves than by Jewish "Hellenists" in Palestine, and in the holy city itself, who had thrown in their lot with the Greeks. This was a way of social climbing. By embracing Greek culture, with its aggressive relativism, ambitious Jewish elites hoped to improve their own social standing in Greek eyes. They embraced Greek customs that religious Jews found disturbing - exercising naked in the gymnasium, with an emphasis on discus-throwing in the nude, or (far worse) effacing their circumcisions through a surgical operation involving cutting a flap of skin around the penis and letting it hang by weights. In his standard history of the period, "Alexander to Actium," Professor Peter Green calls this "select club of progressive Hellenizers" a "specially favored cosmopolitan class dedicated to social and political self-advancement," seeking "sociological privilege and status."
It all starts to sound like a Tom Wolfe novel. The secular elite were so determined to drive their religious fellow countrymen, whom they regarded as socially inferior, from the capital that finally they took the step of outlawing Jewish practice in Jerusalem itself. The Hellenized Jews burned books of the Torah, made circumcision a capital offense, and sacrificed a pig on the Temple altar.
This drove the religiously faithful--the "fundamentalists," as the Hellenizers would have called them if they had spoken modern American English--to revolt. Pitting Jew against Jew, the resulting civil war was led by the Maccabee brothers, who whupped the forces of "liberal polytheism," as Green puts it. The conservatives, he continues, "were stronger, and more numerous, and the more passionate in their beliefs: they stood firm in the face of odds, and were prepared to make sacrifices, indeed to die, for what they held most dear."
Shades of the 2004 presidential election? Maybe so. And this conservative victory is what Jews for 2000 years have celebrated at Hanukkah.
The same conflict reflected in the Hanukkah story is still being enacted down to our own time. Though every Jewish festival has its unique relevance to our contemporary lives, Hanukkah's relevance is especially provocative and especially political.
When the news of Gibson's interest in Howard Fast's novel was picked up in the media, Foxman reportedly told Fast's widow he would "feel more comfortable putting it in the hands of Mr. [Harvey] Weinstein than Mr. Gibson." The irony is delicious. Weinstein is the Hollywood producer who co-founded Miramax and made X-rated art movies like "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" as well as, more recently, "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Kill Bill: Vol. 2." If Harvey Weinstein and motion pictures had been around in 167 B.C.E., Weinstein would have been the guy making "controversial" films about naked discus-throwing.
How secular liberals, Jewish and otherwise, will respond to the new Gibson effort is an interesting question. "The Passion" proved to be an embarrassment for the ADL and others who predicted that the film's supposed anti-Semitism would expose America's Jewish community to medieval-style perils. Of course, no such thing came to pass. All that the protests succeeded in doing was to ensure that many, many more people would see Gibson's film than would have done so had there (without the ADL's efforts) been no controversy to begin with.
For the folks who made such an aggressive and pointless fuss about "The Passion," there would seem to be two choices. The first is, once again, to raise a ruckus about how Gibson again casts Jews (in this case the secular liberal Hellenizers) as bad guys, and accomplish nothing positive.
The other is to let Gibson alone. Personally, not myself being a big fan of the overlong, gratuitously violent "Passion," I would like to see him get back to the kind of spiritual thriller that caught his imagination when he starred in M. Night Shyamalan's fabulously gripping "Signs."
Letting Gibson alone would maximize the chances of our avoiding a whole string of heavy-handed, biblically-inspired historical dramas with contemporary relevance. Undoubtedly the controversy sparked by the release of "The Passion" pumped up ticket sales, with many viewers feeling, not without reason, that Gibson had been persecuted just like Jesus was. Without the aura of martyrdom around the new film, perhaps it will be recognized for what "The Passion" actually was--a kind of film that doesn't put Gibson's considerable gifts to their best use. This, all around, seems the best strategy.