I am the darshan, or preacher, this Saturday morning at the Beth Tzedec synagogue, the very week Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ is being released. How will I respond? Having read parts of Gibson's script, I am prepared for the ensuing damage. Yet much of my own spiritual awakening is born from two riveting, albeit controversial films on the life of Jesus - Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According To St. Matthew and Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ. During my days as a filmmaker anxious to explore the nature of faith and sacrifice, these unorthodox movies remained a major inspiration. Did it matter that I was a Jew?
My cinematic project was based on the elliptic story in Genesis 22 known as The Binding Of Isaac. What could be more natural for me than to associate this narrative of sacrifice read in synagogue every Jewish New Year with memories of fly-fishing excursions with my father and brother at the Credit River and Nahani Valley?
After a near-death experience wading through the waters on one such voyage, I wondered what my mother would say if I did not return home. If a woman were to retell the terrifying Genesis 22 tale, much like Sarah had recounted her experience after Isaac survived the sacrifice and returned with Abraham, how would it look, how would it sound? This was my challenge as a neophyte guerrilla filmmaker.
I was searching for a paradigm and found myself returning to those intoxicating spiritual quests on film. In Pasolini's The Gospel According To St. Matthew, Christ is a Marxist provocateur. It intrigued me how Pasolini had personalized the text of Matthew, with a brusque and demanding Jesus who attracted and repelled disciples with his penchant for truth. Those traces of neo-realism melding with homoerotic fantasy allowed this film to become an urgent call to activism and passion for redeeming the mundane through sexuality and politics.
For Scorsese, Jesus is tempted to forgo his sacrifice in favour of an alluring image of family life with Mary Magdalene. Tormented by temptations, this Jesus of Nazareth is the colluding carpenter making crosses for the Romans while having compassion for humanity and seeking out the will of God in all his ways. As his mission nears fulfilment, Jesus faces his greatest temptation - becoming human.
With my just-completed short film, Fire On The Water, I found myself conflicted over the final negotiations to air the piece with the producer of the CBC's Canadian Reflections series. She demanded I alter my three-to-five-seconds of blackout with voice-over used throughout the experimental narrative. This aesthetic choice had been deliberate, influenced by the luscious experimental filmmaking of local auteur Phil Hoffman, who made ingenious use of negative space. These hollow spaces impel the viewer to fill the void with our own images. This is what film theorist Christian Metz calls the "passion for perceiving."
This was my opportunity of a lifetime. How far was I willing to compromise on my aesthetic?
The crossroads: I had to decide where to go from here. To dedicate myself to the film industry or to enter rabbinical school? I chose six years at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City. And part of that journey included an extended exploration of the same passage in Genessis 22. From film to text I was seeing no disjuncture, rather experiencing what critic Roland Barthes meant by the holy trinity of image-music-text.
In this sense, I truly grasp what Christian leaders mean when they declare their spiritual lives indelibly marked by Gibson's cinematic experience. Of all art forms, cinema can be the moststirring vehicle for revelation of the spirit. And yet....
I question Gibson's responsibility as an inspired artist and Catholic whose creative vision could eradicate the progress of Vatican II over the past 50 years since the Holocaust. No matter how mystical (and arguably anti-Semitic) the revelations of a 19th-century Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, from which Gibson was inspired to weave this Gospel According To Mel, the fully realizing spiritual life demands ethics. It demands checks and balances, or as Rabbi Shaul Magid, a teacher of mine at the seminary, put it, "Piety before ecstasy."
Everyone is searching for such ecstatic or "peak experiences" and oftentimes some will encounter it in religion, skydiving, mosh pits, yoga, drugs or cinema. But living in a culture so bent on getting to the next "peak," we too often lose clarity in the process.
So, as I'm collecting my thoughts for this Sabbath's derasha, I find myself back in the books that birthed so much of my spiritual identity. I leaf through a worn film theory text and return to Metz's "passion for perceiving." The cinema, writes Metz, only offers reality "in effigy, inaccessible from the outset, in a primordial elsewhere, infinitely desirable (i.e. never possessible), on another scene which is that of absence and which nonetheless represents the absent in detail, thus making it very present, but by a very different itinerary."
In our "passion to perceive," whether through cinema or the spiritual life, we often try to contain, possess and represent the absence that necessarily eludes us. As one Hasidic master warns, be wary of your "peak experience' and clarify it, whether through intimacy or distance, through the gold of the cherubim of the Ark who frame the hollow of holiness (the tabernacle) or the gold of the Calf ridden by Ba'al. Return to ethical clarity, whether through textual or cinematic ecstasy.
In the case of the latter, I feel obligated to expose the fallaciousness of Gibson's claim that this is "the most historically accurate film" to date. My community wants to be informed. I have a duty to tell them the extent to which Gibson's initial script relied on the Synoptic Gospels and their distortion by Sister Emmerich's anti-Semitic mystical visions. Is it Mel, Emmerich or the Church who got it wrong?
Catholic theologian John C. Meagher argues it most persuasively in The Truing Of Christianity, "Christian accountability must face some deeply unsettling questions more honestly - and honesty is bound to lead to more modest answers, and sometimes the admission that some of what Christianity has been is wrong." Or as Elaine Pagels sugggests in her work Beyond Belief, the true teachings of Jesus have yet to be read, recovered and put into practice.
I want to inspire my 3,000-member congregation that if Christianity is going to evolve, so must we. This film may inspire an awakening to the sufferings of Jesus on the cross. It may paradoxically inspire the Jewish community to see how the true teachings of Jesus the Pharisee or Yeshu ben Patera (his Hebrew name), were amplifications of the school of Hillel, the source of his Pharisaic roots.
But if "com/passion" means suffering together with another, then perhaps those Christians who believe their tradition can be "trued" will dedicate themselves to alleviating the suffering that will no doubt flow from this film upon the Jewish community. This is the com/passion for the "Passion for perceiving" that we all pray for.
Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto presents a forum on March 9, The Passion: Should Jews And Christians Be Concerned? at Beth Tzedec Synagogue (1700 Bathurst), 7:30 pm. See Fire on the Water at www.vtape.org