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Mel Gibson And Judah Maccabee? Not A Good Mix
Mon, 05/21/2012 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Daniel Libenson
Daniel Libenson

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.

Macabees, Mel Gibson

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Mel Gibson doesn't hate Jews. People are basically good people. They need to be raised in a loving trusting environment to let them grow up to be good people. Harping on hate is counterproductive. Mel Gibson is a decent person. He got drunk and said some things he shouldn't but anybody can do that and not have everybody go after them like they were a mass murderer. Mel Gibson is a good guy. The people going after him are heinous despicable people with a political agenda that is bad for everybody. When you assign hateful topics to your writers think about making the world a better place, not angrily looking for hate where it isn't

When I heard he was making a Hanukkah movie, I naturally presumed it was to be from the Greeks' point of view.

You're wrong about the translation as "hammer". Just wrong.

Ranting about Mel Gibson has become a collossal bore. It's not news that someone who gets drunk might mouth off their silliest comments'and or prejudices about any ethnic group, be they Irish, Black, Pakistanis ,etc- that they'd never say when in their right mind.
Heaven knows that we are ALL guilty of saying something unkind and saying
something mindless- that upon reflection we wish we had never said.
Time to stop chewing on Mel Gibson.

Boring article, Mel Gibson would not worry for a second whether he did this nonsense or not ,stop spreading hate

Stilll doing your 'best' to spread hate, I see.Shame on you.

Libenson brilliant analysis of Gibson's limitations should be mailed to Gibson prior to Gibson's next hysterical tirade against the Jews.
But that is a minor issue in this insightful article. What is of greater interest is Libenson's examination of Matityahu's right wing mentality. If non orthodox Judaism is to survive in the modern world, it will only do so because young leaders like Libenson are willing to speak out and take personal risks in their struggle against a decaying Jewish bureaucracy such as was witnessed recently in Chicago.
Libenson's insights and style should be added regularly to the columns of the Jewish Week.

You need to differentiate between Dr.Mel Jekyll the sane philanthropist and
drunk bipolar Mr.Gibson-Hyde who makes you want to head for the hills.

But while were considering bigots as incapable of sensitive portrayals, and
sane and sober ones as worse, didn't those ancient Jewish people like the
Maccabees or Barabbas want the ethical and theological dilemma of religion
as law of the land, such as by a Messiah who'd provide that or by war with
Romans, where they could happily murder homosexuals (Lev.18)? And they
were sane and sober.

I'd say you could let Mel play a Maccabee, just get him good and juiced up
first because that's when he talks like a jerk. (Although, even at his nut-
tiest, the worst he did was slap someone--he didn't kill anyone.)

I disagree about the Maccabees, they were committed to their own faith and the law of Moses and refused to let it be corrupted by decadent Hellenized pagans. They were not killers or extremists.
The presentation of Barabbas is directly out of the Gospels and not complicated by local intrigue. Further there were many sects and ethnicities who followed the law of Moses in Judea at the time of Jesus, and many who were not monotheistic at all, but worshiped Hebrew agricultural or Greek gods. Judea had become Hellenized, just as the Maccabees fought against.
There was no such thing as a Jewish faith, in the Gospel of John the references to Jews were only to Judeans, not to a race of people who are called the Jews today.
The pharisees or priestly sect crucified Jesus, they were wiped out when the Temple was destroyed a couple of decades later.

Someone needs to make religious films.Mel Gibson was the first one to think of this project, let him film it.