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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

A very different take on Gibson's movie

by Rabbi Joel David Bakst

I watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (twice so far) and I believe it has an important and challenging message for the world, a message that is, well, messianic. This observation may not be unusual for most Christians who have viewed this cinema-graphic passion play; however, it is unusual coming from me, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who studied Talmud, Bible and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in Jerusalem for 20 years. What is even more unusual, is how I am using the term “messianic.”

According to a Jewish mystical tradition, first written down in the 13th century, as humanity would enter the final stages of Divinely orchestrated global evolution, we would experience an unprecedented influx and accessibility to the “Wisdom from Above” (previously hidden mystical teachings) and an unprecedented acceleration of the “Wisdom from Below” (science and technology). These are the signs and wonders that would appear at the beginning of a new era synergistically working together to help usher in messianic consciousness. The rabbis teach that the individual Messiah is simply the vortex of this consciousness—the resurrecting body of all humanity. Aspects of technology are destined to play an important messianic role.

The technological, magical mastery of the big screen that has evolved out of Hollywood is, from one perspective, the most mind-altering and emotionally impacting medium since prophecy. In an uncanny fashion, movies have become watered down, “black and white” versions of prophetic visions for many of our generation. From both a moral and a spiritual perspective, it is obvious that more is lost than gained by what comes out of Hollywood, but then again, the Jewish tradition teaches that in the ancient period of prophesy there were over one million prophets with only a handful making it into the Bible - those “inner technological” visions that would have lasting value. Sometimes an entire movie’s only value is in one challenging and thought provoking idea or simply in an amazing computer generated visual image that can be used as an important tool to grasp certain messianic transitions taking place in our society and world at large.

Whether The Passion is anti-Semitic or not is not the focus of my attention and it is, in fact, begging the issue because the same question can (and should) be asked of the New Testament itself. For many Christians throughout history the Gospels are certainly anti-Jewish and should be since they believe that anyone born from Jewish parents is intrinsically different from the rest of humanity and “evil” to varying degrees. Other Christians, although also sensing that Jews are somehow “different” choose to look past those NT passages and emphasize Jesus’ teachings of brotherhood, love and redemption.

Rather, Mel Gibson’s Passion Play, has simply utilized Hollywood technology (with his own embellishments) to increase the resolution of that which is already hardwired into the 2 billion cells of the present collective mind of Christendom. His movie is mirroring back to us how half the world, intellectually and viscerally experiences those responsible for the humiliation, torture and death of Jesus, whether they view him as a mere prophet or as God incarnate.

Yet, God works in strange and often circuitous ways, as the Jewish prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways.” Mr. Gibson, regardless of his own agenda, can also be a tool in the hands of the Divine Mind, but not in the way obvious to viewers. For me the key that unlocks the hidden messianic message in the movie is contained in the big screen’s opening preface, “He is wounded because of our transgressions.” This is also a verse from the prophet Isaiah that has been made famous by Christians as the essence of their “Suffering Servant.” Yet, before Christianity utilized this passage to apply to only one Jew, the rabbinical tradition, going back to Isaiah himself, has always known this passage to be referring to all Jews, the collective soul of the Nation of Israel. Jesus, as a Jew on a mission from God, is but one drop in a much larger ocean. That this fact is obvious in the Jewish tradition but not so to others is not unusual. As the great British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “It takes an unusual mind to perceive the obvious.”

Over the last few generations the image of Jesus has been undergoing a transformation. Beginning as a blond, blue-eyed “Christian,” he has been slowly recognized as actually being Jewish, then also as a Jewish miracle worker, then as an educated rabbi, and now even as a kabbalist, a Jewish sage-mystic (as were also hundreds of his contemporaries). But the ultimate transformation of Jesus that would truly be of messianic proportions would be to also recognize him as a microcosm of the collective body and soul of the Jewish Nation. Isaiah’s depiction of the Messiah as a universal suffering servant is but one role in the totality of the Jewish mission’s centrality in the fabric of history and in the unification of all humanity back into one Adam, the higher-dimensional soul from which all life has sprung.

The passionate final 12 hours of humiliation, torture and death of the Jesus in Gibson’s rendition are but a “movie trailer” for the 20 centuries of ceaseless humiliation, torture and death of millions of innocent Jewish men, women and children at the hands of the rest of humanity, only because they were Jewish. Along with Jesus, the Romans crucified a quarter of a million additional Jews. Not long after the time of Jesus the famous Rabbi Akiva, the virtual Moses of his generation, was slowly tortured to death by having all his skin scraped off with iron combs. His colleagues – also great masters of wisdom and lovers of God -- were also tortured and executed. For four thousand years, going back to Abraham and Sarah, it has been an endless experience of bloodbaths, domination and exile from their home in the Land of Israel followed by torture and murder at the hands of the Crusades, pogroms, blood libels, inquisitions, expulsions and the Holocaust. Yet, according to Biblical tradition, it is precisely these wounds that have been heaped upon the heart of Judaism that carry the cosmic burden of the world’s imperfections, yet paradoxically, help guide it towards its final rectification.

Many years ago, when I was a young rabbinical student in Jerusalem, I met a Christian minister who was passionately reconnecting with the “Jewishness” of his savior Jesus (he even had sent his young son to a Jewish summer camp so he would have some sense of Jewish culture). He told me an amazing thing that I have never forgotten. He became a born again Christian at the age of 16. Growing up in the American South he had, literally, never encountered any Jewish people. In retrospect, my Christian friend told me that Jesus was the first Jew he ever met. Jesus the Jew is, for most of the world, simply the first Jew they have ever known.

Upon experiencing The Passion it is challenging to view it through a set of very different messianic eyes. Not only is Jesus a Jew, but Jesus is also a microcosm of the entire Jewish nation. As a believing Christian or as a righteous gentile, Jesus may well have been the first real Jew you have truly begun to know and to have an intimate relationship with, but he should not be the last. Jesus can be the truth, the light and the way for all righteous gentiles to begin to have a relationship with not only the collective soul of the Nation of Israel but also with the sacred teachings of the Torah –- the vast spiritual technology and wisdom of Judaism -- which are also applicable to all humanity.

In Harper’s Magazine in 1898, Mark Twain concluded an essay, saying that from a historical perspective,
“The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then ... passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts. … All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
With credit to Mel Gibson, to this I would add, “And what is also the secret of his suffering?” In other words, both secrets must be viewed as simply two sides of the same enigmatic cosmic coin. To feel the passionate suffering of the Christ can open the door to the suffering of his own people, for together it is they, in the mystery of the immortal Jewish soul, who are wounded for our transgressions. Moreover, Jesus is only one gift that Judaism has given to the world. The Torah (The “Old Testament”) as the foundation for the Christian Bible is only a small part of what it has to offer. Within the revelatory teachings of the Oral traditions of the Torah, there lies a virtual treasure house of universal keys to creation. This is especially true with its esoteric teachings, the Kabbalah, which is only just now, in our generation, beginning the fulfillment of the ancient prophesy of also being made accessible to righteous gentiles as we prepare for the imminent quantum jump of all humanity and life.

Another Jewish prophet Zechariah also peered into the messianic future and witnessed that, “In those days it shall come to pass, that ten people from every language shall take hold, and shall seize the corner of him that is a Jew, saying, ‘We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’” Jesus may be the first Jew a Christian has come to know, but he shouldn’t be the last.

I told you this was very different.

My friend Rabbi Bakst teaches at Chazon HaTorah, a yeshiva of visionary Torah, in Colorado Springs. You can write to him at yoel@chazonhatorah.org