The recent exchange of accusations between Mel Gibson and Joe Eszterhas, the screenwriter hired to write a Judah Maccabee biopic that Gibson would direct, brings renewed attention to the very fact that Gibson has been planning to make such a movie in the first place. Let’s ask him not to.
While there is some appeal to the idea of a “Jewish Braveheart,” this film will not end up giving Gibson the expiation he seeks from the Jewish community. The real Judah Maccabee — the one that would be depicted in a serious biopic, as opposed to the mythic version Jewish kids might think of as a freedom-fighting Santa Claus — is not really a Jewish hero, and Mel Gibson is not an artist capable of exploring whether he ought to be.
As long as we don’t get into the details of who Judah Maccabee was, we can imagine him getting caught in a time warp and arriving in modern America to light candles, eat latkes, play dreidel, and exchange presents with Jewish kids. But the real Judah Maccabee would be more likely to want to kill most of these kids’ parents (not kidding) for trying to harmonize being Jewish and being American, for violating the purity and separateness of Judaism as he understood it.
Judah Maccabee and his followers were what we would call today religious extremists. They did indeed fight the corrupt and oppressive Seleucid regime, but they also did plenty of damage among fellow Jews whom they deemed to have gone too far in embracing Greek ideas and practices. Most scholars see the period as a civil war among Jews as much as a battle against an evil oppressor.
The word “Maccabee” derives from the Hebrew word for “hammer,” which is appropriate because everything the Maccabees didn’t like — whether actual oppression by the evil Antiochus Epiphanes or legitimate debates among different Jews about what Judaism should be — looked like a nail to them.
It is no accident that the ancient rabbis chose not to include the books of Maccabees in the Hebrew Bible. The rabbis were moderates. It was their genius after the destruction of the Second Temple to have rebuilt a Judaism that could harmonize seemingly contradictory positions and ideas, emphasizing what unites us over what divides us, and to develop a way to be Jewish while also embracing the best of the world around us.
The rabbis inherited a holiday that celebrated the establishment of Judah Maccabee’s theocracy, but they reimagined it around a miraculous light that simply would not burn out, a metaphor for the new Judaism that emerged from the collapse of the old.
One can imagine a subtle and sensitive filmmaker exploring the life of a religious zealot in a way that shows how the impulse to zealotry makes him both brave enough to shake off foreign oppression and unable to embrace different paths taken by people of good will among his own nation — how it may be difficult to have one without the other.
But Mel Gibson is not that filmmaker.
While it can reasonably be debated whether “The Passion of the Christ” is an anti-Jewish work, it certainly shows no sign that Gibson can embrace complexity, especially when it comes to Jews.
One scene in particular shows how artistic choices can tell a story behind the story. The Gospels all agree that Pontius Pilate allowed the Jews of Jerusalem to choose to pardon either Jesus or Barabbas, and they chose Barabbas. Matthew and John indicate that Barabbas was a common criminal, which suggests that the Jews were morally degenerate in choosing to free him over Jesus. But Mark and Luke say Barabbas’ crime stemmed from his leadership of a Jerusalem rebellion against the Romans, making the local Jerusalemites’ decision to pardon him over the visiting Galilean Jesus quite a bit more understandable.
Which interpretation does Mel Gibson choose? Gibson’s Barabbas is a deranged, grunting Charles Manson look alike — an artistic choice that goes beyond even the worst description of any of the Gospels, losing all the complexity and ambiguity of the stories, and putting the Jews’ choice in the worst light imaginable.
Can anyone seriously imagine that the man who told a police officer that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” is capable of portraying a Jewish warrior in a sensitive way that carries any hint of the nuance and concern with which Jews have seen him since the time of the ancient rabbis?
If Mel Gibson insists on creating biopics of Jewish heroes that might provide some real value to Jews today, make for an exciting cinematic experience, and perhaps lead to some kind of absolution, I would suggest a few other options.
How about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin just before the city’s destruction and went on to recruit the surviving sages to reimagine a new version of Judaism? Or Maimonides, who fled the Muslim conquest of his native Spain, traveled in Morocco, the Holy Land, and Egypt, and became one of the foremost medical doctors of his time, all the while insisting that ancient Greek philosophy could be harmonized with Judaism and writing some of the most influential Jewish works of all time?
Or with a bit of artistic license, perhaps Gibson could pull off a “Lethal Weapon”-style buddy movie in which the ancient rabbis Hillel and Shammai — think of them as the Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia of their time — go on an adventure together and discover that they have more in common than they thought, which is exactly what their rabbinic inheritors discovered and which has formed the foundation of Judaism ever since.
Mel Gibson may or may not have the best of intentions in making the Judah Maccabee movie, but when it comes to Jews, nothing in his past — ranging from his artistic choices to his choice of conversation topics during DUI stops — suggests that we should look to him to understand our past and who we are today.
I suppose we can take some comfort in that he is not doing a remake of “The Merchant of Venice,” but I’d be grateful if he’d also leave Judah Maccabee alone.
Daniel Libenson is president of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future.