Archive for ‘Culture & Society’

June 8, 2012

The Dark Knight’s Allegory for Terrorism

by Gedalyah Reback

The Dark Knight rises back next month. His arrival is significant for a number of reasons, and they all deserve to be quantified. But what’s socially important about The Dark Knight Rises is it’s attitude toward modern problems. The first two movies have been culturally significant. The Dark Knight was called “the first great post-9/11 film.” They’ve incorporated the political atmosphere of the times into the plot lines, with Ras al-Ghul’s League of Shadows organizing a massive chemical attack on an American city and the Joker’s tactical threats against landmarks and transportation effectively besieging a modern Gotham. The third film seems to be building on economic divisions and plans to round off the latent theme of terrorism, a tremendous combination of themes. But I felt it was important to describe in detail what Nolan was able to do with his modern Caped Crusader to match him to the spirit of the times.

Batman Begins’ Allegory for Al-Qaeda

The movie is about fear. That is the essential thing to understand. In Batman Begins, the story is indisputably is about Bruce Wayne. Everything revolves around his experience, but that’s an invested experience. He grows into the idea he has to be the guardian angel where no one else will be. Becoming a source of good that literally fights crime necessitates overcoming fear, whether one is training to be a Marine or run for office in a country known for its assassinations.

Along the journey he’s acquainted with Ras al-Ghul. In the comics, he is more science fiction, a hundreds-year-old noble who’s keeps himself living by means of a completely fictitious chemical pit. He’s experienced wars and pain over his lifetime, but has also had time to amass great wealth and build a network of global assassins. He is a man of principle, making him a mirror for Bruce Wayne’s morality throughout the comics. It’s no different in the film.

But his name makes the reason behind choosing to use his character much more obvious. His name is Arabic. Ras al-Ghul literally means “demon head” (related to “rosh” in Hebrew and “ghoul” in English), symbolizing the dread he can instill. In my mind, he and the themes of the movie have always made this the first real attempt to incorporate the epic problems of international terrorism a plot device in a movie that has nothing to do with Islam or the Middle East.

Adapted for the movie, the scifi is eliminated while maintaining his personality. He serves as the ideal model for today’s Islamic fundamentalism, motivated by an ingrained religious ideal to cleanse evil from the world by launching full-scale war against it. There is no concern for collateral damage. Their plan in Begins is to hit Gotham with a weapon that would tear at the sullied fabric of its society.

Challenging the Validity of Terrorism

Channeling the power of fear is a sub-element of the overarching theme. The secondary villain, The Scarecrow, makes that obvious. His background as a psychiatrist informs him how to design a chemical weapon that would induce panic and insanity. The weapon would literally make Gotham City’s citizens kill each other. Ras wants to use it to strike terror in the hearts of Gothamites, while Wayne wants to turn that strategy on the criminals who count on it. In al-Ghul’s words, “Gotham will tear itself apart through fear.” But Wayne wants to “turn fear against those who prey on the fearful.” His struggle to overcome fear is a model he wants to project for those Gothamites, and consequently their future is not lost, much less are they deserving of being punished for others’ sins.

What is lost here is Batman can’t deny the corrupt nature of the city. Wayne takes a stand that “there are good people” in the city and that the only strategy to save the city is to take the fight to criminals and go through the court system to establish the rule of law, perhaps its own statement about modern politics. It is a message as applicable to the Islamic fundamentalism of our age than the prisons of Guantanomo Bay.

Wayne is trained by al-Ghul’s League of Shadows, and has to complete his journey by executing a known murderer. But this criminal hasn’t gone through a trial nor been proven guilty. His execution has no justice connected to it. The scene here nestles the idea of what a stable society looks like squarely in the face of the terrorists who aim to destroy it. Al-Ghul says “no one can save Gotham,” denying that anything can challenge a belief he follows religiously – the only way to wipe evil away is to stab it in the heart in one massive blow.

Batman challenges an international organization motivated by an infallible ideology. He squares off with people whose answer to criminality, selfishness, and moral decay is destruction instead of redemption. Begins, not just the character, invests stock in the notion that people can change, but it will not be overnight. Begins is a classical comedy with a happy ending, firmly establishing someone whose challenged the norms of human failure and stood up to people’s nature to bully or to run; their nature to give into their desires or give up on the world; their nature to turn on each other rather than on the real problem.

Batman Begins challenges the idea of terrorism by instructing us how not to be terrified, and goes further by tearing into its own self-justifications. It takes a dramatic adventure to deliver the point, but it’s difficult not to see it. And like all great teachers, the writers and director don’t give just one lesson. A deeper inspection of these themes continues in The Dark Knight.

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May 23, 2012

Are Orthodox Jews Diluting the Debate on Homosexuality and Judaism?

by Gedalyah Reback

Orthodox Jews are well aware of the issues homosexuals face, thank God. At least in Modern Orthodox circles, sympathy has become the main theme of the discourse on gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgendered Jews. Sympathy has picked up momentum in my short time living in the community. Without being able to relate, and only really being able to speak for myself though I think it applies across the community, there is an appreciation for the conflict so many people go through trying to balance religiosity with the way they are. Few think people are choosing to create personal conflict within themselves. The community has finally gotten the point.

Living as a gay man while trying to adhere to the constitution that is the body of Jewish Law is a dramatic and possibly a traumatic task. The experience is emotionally grueling and testing. The Jewish community, now indisputably among much of Orthodoxy, understands that, even if they have not reconciled this reality entirely with the religion they practice.

Dovetailing into another issue, speaking only on the intellectual side of things I’ve wondered how my generation is handling it theologically. The mere idea that thousands of people are gay, lesbian or otherwise through no choice of their own runs counter to the spirit of law. If a law can be legislated regulating its practice, that implies there is choice in the matter. But conventional wisdom right now states there is no choice in the matter of sexual orientation. Gay men have no option, so either they are exceptions to the rule or the rule is void. Personally, I don’t think my generation appreciates the dichotomy. My age demographic, maybe one among others, is ignoring this issue.

There has been a lot of talk about gay marriage in just the last month in the Jewish community, both because of Barack Obama’s public support for the idea and the sudden coming out of the closet by Jewish rapper Y-Love. The outpouring of support for Jordan has been immense. He dared to declare very publicly in a community which is going through a quiet crisis over the issue, and people down all the community’s corridors have remained there to support him for who he is. And here the road diverges. Does the support for gay Jews necessarily mean Orthodox Jews will have to recognize gay marriage and gay sexual relations as legitimate, simply because of the existence of gay Jews in the community’s midst? There are few ways to ask this question without provoking some sort of emotional reaction, and I’m not sure I’ve asked it in the best way. But this is indeed where things have become murky for me.

Orthodox Jews my age are frequently coming out in support of gay marriage. Certainly there must be a reasoning to support it given that the Torah is quite explicit regarding gay sex, the necessary corollary to gay nuptials. I don’t see much of the reasoning being based on some in-depth consideration of Jewish law. Instead, I see Jews dancing around the issue entirely.

In the US, it seems like there is a tremendously hefty amount of opinions that since the US is a ‘separation of religion and state’ country. It certainly isn’t a Jewish country and it is not located in the Promised Land, the Land of Israel. There is no concern to get involved in the political affairs of the ‘goyishe medineh’ if there is no need to.

But in Israel, the argument is similar. Last week I read a posting in the Times of Israel arguing that since Israel isn’t a Halachic state, there should be no concern about the issue. Though coming from a Dati Leumi Jew, that seemed to be going way beyond to dance around the issue.

I think both views are sort of cop-outs to the larger theological implications of the entire inyan. On rare occasions have I read a genuine grappling of the reality with the Halacha, which is seldom the approach being taken in the Jewish blogosphere.

I feel like every time I try to write this it always stings at least one person that I’m even putting it out there, as if I’m taking away from the emotional gravity of the issue. I’m fully aware of it and I don’t diminish the weight these issues have. But the discourse from the intellectual side seems to be substantially lacking in my personal opinion. Perhaps there is more literature than I am aware of, but I’m not seeing it as a factor in the Jewish world.

Orthodox Jews, thankfully, recognize the emotional weight of what’s happening. But importantly, there is an intellectual discourse accompanying what is nothing short of a crisis for Orthodox Judaism. As I mentioned earlier, there are massive implications for the religion itself based on the existence of homosexuals. For some reason, this period of history is choosing to mark a dichotomy more than previous ones. Homosexuality has been acknowledged throughout human history. For whatever reason, this debate on how to grapple with homosexuals’ existence is challenging Judaism now.

The most compelling opinion I’ve read has been that of Rabbi Zev Farber. He offers both an important point and an important answer to my question. First, he clarifies homosexual relationships aren’t immoral. They are indeed a problem for Jewish law but not because they create some sort of moral dilemma. Gays don’t perform an immoral act when and if they get together. But more relevant to what I mention above, he states homosexuality is something that might be “beyond the person’s control.” More specifically, he refers to a concept called in Aramaic, “oness rahmana patrei.” Loosely translated, it’s “compulsion God mercifully exempts.” That brings up precedent in Jewish Law that Rabbi Farber says serves to justify the principle’s application here, including emotionally distressing situations involving sex. I urge you the reader to visit this paragraph’s link to get more insight into the idea.

Whether or not Rabbi Farber’s approach is actually correct, it certainly adds to a discourse I feel is lacking. Orthodox Jews are emotionally in the right place, but should invest more consideration into how discourse on the religious side of things and the religious law’s side of things is developing. It is hardly a closed discussion in the world of Jewish Law – the world of Halachah. Certainly, if today’s social developments are to occur in tandem with Orthodox Judaism’s prosperity, appreciating both the situation of devout gay Jews and the foundational laws of Judaism simultaneously is going to have to take place.

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