Sinai Synagogue, Tuesday PM, September 18, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
The talk of the entertainment season has been the movie hit Crazy Rich Asians. Not only because it is a rom-com that viewers enjoy, but because of its portrayal of Asians. In the film all the characters, the protagonists as well as side kicks are played by Asians. In the Time Cover story on the movie, the title of the article is Crazy Rich Asians Is Going to Change Hollywood. It's About Time: with the subtitle: The much-anticipated movie signals a major step forward for representation—and for the industry. The author notes that while some viewers may just see a delightful romantic comedy, others “might walk out with a deeper understanding of the class gradations even just within Singaporean society, and the collectivist vs. individualist tensions found in many Asian families. And there’s no obvious stereotyping. For decades, female Asian actors have been asked to portray stereotypes like the vindictive dragon lady, the submissive China doll, the nerdy overachiever or the inert sex worker. Crazy Rich Asians avoids all of these, instead showing the nuances of Asian women’s experiences across generations.”
There has been a tendency in our contemporary society to recognize previously stereotyped characters, stereotyped for their ethnicity or race or sexual orientation, and correct the bland, simplistic stereotypes with new representations that allow these distinctive characters to be seen in the fullness of their person. And to prefer that such stereotypes be played by individuals of that class. Scarlett Johansson was compelled to leave a role in a movie in which she would have played a transgendered man. The outcry from LGBTQ actors that an actual transgendered actor play the part encouraged the change.
[A digression –except for Jews. Somehow to this day movies in which Jews are major characters, especially Israelis, are often if not mostly played by Gentiles. In Operation Finale the majority of Jewish characters are played by non-Jews. And for some reason the character of Russian-born David Ben Gurion is always always played by a British person. Perhaps it is because so few Jews are in the entertainment industry it’s just too hard to find enough of them….]
I think this is a welcome change, it is as if in this modern era of greater sensitivity and respect for cultural distinctiveness, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks terms it “the dignity of difference”, we are seeing a movement towards teshuvah in such character portrayals.
A few weeks ago Lizzie and I and the boys went to see Othello at the DeBartolo. Shakespeare derived Othello’s plot from a short narrative in Giraldi Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi (1565), but set his play within the context of Venice’s struggle during the 1570s with the Ottoman Empire for control of Cyprus. In 1571 an alliance of Christian powers defeated the Turks and was celebrated as a battle fought ‘Betwixt the baptiz’d race, / And circumcised Turband Turkes’. References throughout Othello evoke the intermittent conflict between Europe’s Christian powers and the Islamic Ottoman Empire, which was as much an economic competition as a clash of religions. But the director of the play at the DeBartolo explained that the play was meaningful in today’s context because of the racial divisions in our society and how Othello the black Moor has to live in a society in which despite his heroic efforts on behalf of Venice, is always the outsider. In the play, Othello’s jealous rage, spurred on by the evil Iago, leads to his brutal killing of the wife he loves. But this version of the play finds sympathy for an Othello reacting to the hatred and intolerance heaped upon him as a black man and a foreigner.
Of course, Othello is not the only Shakespeare work to attempt to reimagine a complex character. The Merchant of Venice has for several generations struggled with how to portray Shylock. In the play, despite the famous soliloquy “Has not a Jew eyes” his character is cruel, vengeful and money grubbing. That’s how he was played in earlier eras. Literary critic Ann Barton points out in The Riverside Shakespeare, "Shylock has sometimes been presented as the devil incarnate, sometimes as a comic villain gabbling absurdly about ducats and daughters.” But in recent versions there have been attempts to humanize Shylock and point out the hypocrisies of his Christian antagonists. Some portrayals saw the play, far from being anti-Semitic, but as depicting the nobility of the character. The renowned Yiddish actor Jacob Adler played Shylock on Broadway in 1903 in Yiddish with an English speaking cast and went so far as to praise him as ''a patriot, a higher being''. In Joseph Papp's 1962 production starring George C. Scott, the Christian revelers who come to take Jessica away from her father's house were dressed in white robes to suggest the Ku Klux Klan. Al Pacino's famous portrayal of Shylock was sympathetic and emphasized his victimization. Here again we see an attempt to understand a character that historically had been seen as an outcast, demonic, dissimilar and transform the role into something more human, more approachable more like us despite the character’s particularity. In a word the character’s interpretation has undergone an act of teshuvah.
Jewish texts also go through an act of teshuvah, as it were, as later Jewish generations interpret and reinterpret our sacred texts in light of new situations.
In Pirke Avot, the classic rabbinic text that shares teachings of the rabbinic sages on ethics, communal welfare and the importance of Torah study, we are introduced to the great sage Hillel with this teaching of his: “Be one of the students of Aaron – loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them close to Torah.” It is a beautiful teaching that emphasizes love and our responsibility as Jews to bring peace into our interpersonal relationships as well as acknowledging that it is Torah that is the ultimate foundation for such a lifestyle.
Our model for this behavior is Aaron, Moses’ brother and the first High Priest.
However as Rabbi Gordon Tucker points out in the new Conservative movement commentary on Pirke Avot this is not the Aaron we thought we knew from our readings in Torah.
The Torah presents Aaron in his role as High Priest. He of the grand priestly vestments, who oversees the sacrificial system which only he and his descendants may preside. Because of the very strict rules of ritual purity in the Sanctuary, Aaron and his fellow priests are discouraged, except when absolutely needed, from engaging community. Not only that but Aaron did not teach those passionate and dedicated Israelites who longed for a life cloistered in the Holy precincts the art of the priesthood. It was a family business. He only handed down the esoteric arts of this sacred role to his sons and son’s sons.
Yet the beloved sage Hillel has transformed Aaron. Hillel says we should all become students of Aaron. And what would we learn from our ancient cleric? To be a person who epitomizes outreach and interpersonal excellence. To love humanity and individuals. To bring everyone, not just his descendants or the chosen few, but everyone close to Torah and its teachings. Here Hillel employs a knowing pun. The Hebrew for “to bring close” is m’karvan – we are to be m’karven laTorah, to bring people close to Torah. The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is korban, using the same root letters. As Rabbi Tucker explains, “The Aaron we thought we knew was the one who “brought sacrifices close” to the altar, while the rest of the community – the non- priests- were warned not to come close to the off limits holy space. The Aaron we are now urged to emulate is one who does not live and work within walls that keep the unauthorized out , but rather touches people everywhere in an effort to bring them closer to the real source of holiness – which not the altar, but rather a life lived in Torah”.
Let us not be modest in acknowledging what Hillel has done. Hillel has, by transforming the image of Aaron the High Priest whose authority lay in his singular role as purveyor of the Holy Sancta into a teacher of peace and Torah, re-interpreted the foundation of Judaism as acts of peace and love and Torah study.
The Talmudic expansion of Pirke Avot, called Avot d’Rabbi Natan, builds on this transvaluation of values. It tells the story of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai the most significant teacher of Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, comforting his disciple Yehoshua when the latter was grieving the loss of the Temple. The enormity of the loss of Temple was not only in its destruction, it was in the absence of a ritual for atonement. We are all here tonight and tomorrow seeking atonement for the wrongs we have done. When the Temple stood, as we will recite tomorrow, the Temple offered means of atonement. Now it was gone, how would atonement be accessed. Said Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai to Yehoshua: Don’t grieve too much for we have an alternative path to atonement that accedes even the offerings on the altar – it is acts of tzedakah and gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness. And so it remains for us today – acts of love, acts of tzedakah, acts of kindness and compassion – these are the paths we follow to atonement for our transgressions.
This revolution in Jewish thinking begins Hillel’s transformation of Aaron. And as Rabbi Tucker notes, what is particularly significant with this transformation, this teshuvah in our theology, is that while Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was responding to changed circumstances, he lived during the destruction, Hillel lived during the period when the Temple was still functional. Rabbi Tucker insists that thus his teaching cannot be construed as advice reconciling to a substitute for what has been lost but instead a deliberate shift of the paradigm.
Tonight we enter this holy space looking for atonement. Perhaps we are constrained by paradigms regarding ourselves, constructions of whom we are that we believe we cannot change. Our tradition, and our great Sage Hillel teach us that characterizations and paradigms do change. That what we think we are compelled to be, need not be so. We can transform the image of ourselves. And most importantly the transformation should be based on love of others, pursuit of peace with our fellow humans, acts of kindness and compassion and drawing closer to a lifestyle infused with Torah values that relies on a foundation of love and peace and compassion.
Hillel teaches us that if the image and character of Aaron imprinted in our Biblical text can undergo teshuvah, how much the more so can we, flesh and blood humans, do teshuvah as well.