Mad Mel and the Talmud

Police-beat reporters -- even in Hollywood -- rarely get to quote the Babylonian Talmud.

However, there is a passage in this Jewish text that is relevant right now. The crucial Hebrew words are in tractate Eruvin, page 65b, and they are "be'kiso, be'koso, u've'kaso." This rabbinical text says a person's true essence is found in "his cup," "his pocket" and "his anger."

Witness the rich and powerful Mel Gibson and his roadside rant about the "blanking" Jews who are "responsible for all the wars in the world." His cup was too full and his anger spilled over.

"Ancient Jewish wisdom informs us that one way we can know what a person is really like is by how he behaves when he is drunk. From this we can safely assume that Mel Gibson doesn't think much of Jews," noted Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition, which has received some financial support from Gibson.

"However there is another nugget of ancient Jewish wisdom emphasizing that we owe atonement for that which lies in our hearts only to God. ... We humans are morally obliged to make good to other people only for those things we do."

But what should Gibson do now?

After the superstar's hellish meltdown, many of his critics -- Jewish and otherwise -- called for him to be excommunicated from Hollywood.

Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham H. Foxman slammed his early apology and wrote online: "We would hope that Hollywood now would realize the bigot in their midst and that they will distance themselves from this anti-Semite." Superstar agent Ari Emanuel of the Endeavor Agency went even further, stating that Jews and gentiles alike must "demonstrate that they understand how much is at stake in this by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him."

Is repentance irrelevant? In his second apology, Gibson tried to discuss his failure in religious terms. The Catholic traditionalist also opened a door to meeting with conservative Jews who have talked with him in the past.

"The tenets of what I profess to believe necessitate that I exercise charity and tolerance as a way of life," he said. "Every human being is God's child, and if I wish to honor my God I have to honor his children. ... I'm not just asking for forgiveness. I would like to take it one step further and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one-on-one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing."

If Gibson desires more than what Christians call "cheap grace," he needs more than a few holy day media events, according to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. In Judaism, repentance is "a play in four acts" and the first is verbal confession. This must be followed by "complete cessation of the offending behavior" and sincere regret.

The tough fourth act, he said, requires long-range planning and an "acceptance of a way to change that is real, not self-delusional." In a way, fighting anti-Semitism will be similar to fighting the bottle.

"You can't deal with an alcohol problem through a photo-op with the head of the local detox program," said Adlerstein, writing for Jewish World Review. Recovery programs that work, demand "growing self-awareness and lots of time. Not coincidentally, they require the privacy of secure surroundings, far from public scrutiny.

"We will help you understand your personal demons, but only away from the cameras and the mikes. Redemption will come through the small, still voice of conscience, not at a press conference."

This will be hard, in the hot Hollywood spotlight.

Reporters cannot follow Gibson into the confession booth or interview his priest afterwards. But they can ask questions about his work and his recovery.

While filming "The Passion of the Christ," Gibson told the Eternal Word Television Network that he asked priests to hear daily confessions, including his own, and to celebrate daily Mass. It would be interesting to ask if he seeks similar spiritual disciplines in the future.

Still, Gibson has said that he "disgraced myself and my family." That's a realistic place to start, said film critic Michael Medved, an Orthodox Jew.

"When a long-married, 50-year-old father of seven gets arrested for drunk driving at nearly twice the speed limit at 2:30 in the morning," noted Medved, "it's safe to assume that he faces even more serious problems than exposing his anti-Semitic attitudes."

The Passion and the Talmud

The ancient rabbinic text is clear about the punishment for those who twisted sacred law and misled the people of Israel.

Offenders would be stoned and then hung by their hands from two pieces of wood connected to form a "T." The Talmud once included this example from the Sanhedrin.

"On the eve of Passover they hung Jesus of Nazareth," said the passage, which was censored in the 16th century to evade the wrath of Christians. "The herald went out before him for 40 days saying, 'Jesus goes forth to be stoned, because he has practiced magic, enticed and led astray Israel. Anyone who knows anything in his favor, let him come and declare concerning him.' And they found nothing in his favor."

If armies of Jewish and Christian scholars insist on arguing about Mel Gibson's explosive movie "The Passion of the Christ," it would help if they were candid and started dealing with the hard passages in Jewish texts as well as the Christian scriptures.

At least, that's what David Klinghoffer thinks.

The Orthodox Jewish writer -- whose forthcoming book is entitled "Why the Jews Rejected Christ" -- believes these lines from the Talmud are as troubling as any included in the Christian Gospels. They are as disturbing as any image Gibson might include in his controversial epic.

The Talmudic text seems clear. Jesus clashed with Jewish leaders, debating them on the meaning of their laws. They hated him. Many wanted him dead.

It is possible, said Klinghoffer, to interpret these documents as saying that Jesus' fate rested entirely with the Jewish court. The use of language such as "enticed and led astray" indicated that Jesus may have been charged with leading his fellow Jews to worship false gods.

There are more details in this confusing drama. Writing in 12th-century Egypt, the great Jewish sage Maimonides summed up the ancient texts.

"Jesus of Nazareth," he proclaims, in his Letter to Yemen, " ... impelled people to believe that he was a prophet sent by God to clarify perplexities in the Torah, and that he was the Messiah that was predicted by each and every seer. He interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment, to the abolition of all its commandments and to the violation of its prohibitions.

"The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him."

Is that it? What role did the Romans play?

In terms of historic fact, stressed Klinghoffer, it's almost impossible to find definitive answers for such questions. But the purpose of the Jewish oral traditions that led to the Talmud was to convey religious belief, not necessarily historical facts.

"If you really must ask, 'Who is responsible for the death of Jesus?', then you can only conclude that both the Gospels and the Talmud agree that the Jewish leaders did not have the power to execute him," he said.

"Did they influence the event? The religious texts suggest that they did, the historic texts suggest that they did not. It's hard to know. ... But if Gibson is an anti-Semite, then to be consistent you would have to say that so was Maimonides."

Obviously, Klinghoffer is not spreading this information in order to fan the flames of hatred. His goal, he said, is to provoke Jewish leaders in cities such as New York and Los Angeles to strive harder to understand the views of traditional Protestants and Catholics. And it's time for liberal Christians to spend as much time talking with Orthodox Jews as with liberal Jews.

It's time to everyone to be more honest, he said.

"I don't see anything that is to be gained for Judaism by going out of our way to antagonize a Mel Gibson or to antagonize as many traditional Christians as we possibly can. I think we have been yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater," said Klinghoffer.

"To put it another way, I don't think it's very wise for a few Jewish leaders to try to tell millions of Christians what they are supposed to believe. Would we want some Christians to try to edit our scriptures and to tell us what we should believe?"

The passion of old words and symbols

Jesuits rarely receive frantic calls from Hollywood megastars rushing to finish movies that are causing media firestorms.

But Father William Fulco is getting used to it, as Mel Gibson completes his cathartic epic "The Passion of the Christ."

While mixing dialogue the other day, Gibson hit a scene in which a man standing at a door lacked something to say. The director needed a line -- right now. Fulco's first question was unique to this project: Was this character supposed to speak Latin or first-century Aramaic?

"Mel said the camera was not on the speaker's face, so we did not need to synchronize what he said with his the movements of his mouth," said Fulco, who translated the screenplay into the two ancient languages, with English subtitles.

"The character needed to say something in Aramaic in the ballpark of, 'What do you want?' So I had him say in rather colloquial early Aramaic, 'MAH? MAH BA'EH?' That is literally, 'What? What wanting?' "

That worked.

It has been nearly two years since Fulco answered the telephone and heard a strange voice blurt out: "Hey Padre! It's Mel!"

Gibson's proposal was unusual, but fit the Jesuit's skills as a professor of ancient Mediterranean studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Fulco began digging into Hebrew texts seeking the roots of the now-dead Aramaic language, while simultaneously exploring dialects such as Syriac spoken today in tiny Christian enclaves in Iran, Syria and Turkey. He also stepped into heated academic debates between those who favor a more Italian-friendly Latin and those who reject this approach.

"I'm getting hate mail about Latin pronunciations," said Fulco. "On guy wrote who was angry about what he called 'these ecclesiastical bastardizations' of the Latin. Not only was he going to boycott the movie, he said he was going to call his high school Latin teacher and tell her to boycott the movie as well. ...

"I have to keep reminding people: This is not a documentary. We had to make artistic choices."

Legions of critics, of course, oppose the film for other reasons. Liberal Catholics and some Jewish leaders claim the script is tainted by anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, Gibson -- who has invested $25 million in the project -- has previewed early versions to rapt audiences of traditional Catholics, evangelicals and others. The film opens on 2,000 U.S. screens on Feb. 25, which is Ash Wednesday.

It is crucial to realize that the images and language at the heart of "The Passion of the Christ" flow directly out of Gibson's personal dedication to Catholicism in one of its most traditional and mysterious forms -- the 16th century Latin Mass.

"I don't go to any other services," the director told the Eternal Word Television Network. "I go to the old Tridentine Rite. That's the way that I first saw it when I was a kid. So I think that that informs one's understanding of how to transcend language. Now, initially, I didn't understand the Latin. ... But I understood the meaning and the message and what they were doing. I understood it very fully and it was very moving and emotional and efficacious, if I may say so."

The goal of the movie is to shake modern audiences by brashly juxtaposing the "sacrifice of the cross with the sacrifice of the altar -- which is the same thing," said Gibson. This ancient union of symbols and sounds has never lost its hold on him. There is, he stressed, "a lot of power in these dead languages."

Thus, the seemingly bizarre choice of Latin and Aramaic was actually part of the message. The goal of Gibson's multicultural, multilingual team was to make a statement that transcended any one time, culture and tongue.

"We didn't want another movie with Jesus as some kind of Aryan superman or Jesus as a surfer," said Fulco. "We saw one movie in which Jesus was almost this Michael Jackson kind of character. Try to imagine that. ...

"We didn't want an American Jesus, or a Japanese Jesus or a French Jesus. What we wanted was a language that allowed Jesus to be none of these nationalities, so that he can be all of them at the same time. This is a universal story."