The Sunken Synagogue
pa vezer o vageal e kreiz e klever a-wechoù un trouz iskis:
kleier ur sinagogenn a zo o seniñ dindan ar mor...

Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Jesus Christ Superstar and Israel's Existential Crisis

When I look at Israel today, it appears nothing less than vibrant: green trees; flowers; new homes going up; busy, talkative people. I may complain about the lousy architecture and poor urban planning, lack of manners, etc., but I know that's just the result of this country and its culture being put together too fast to attend to all the details. It's easy to overlook the negatives, and just appreciate the beauty, the movement, and the sheer excitement of being in a land reborn.

But it's not my purpose today to write about how great Israel is. I'm writing today about the 1973 film Jesus Christ Superstar.

I recognize that I may be at odds, on the one hand, with most other Jews in the world who have no interest in watching it, and on the other, with the Christians who love it and are moved by it to greater faith; but even as a religious Jew, this film is as near and dear to me as Fiddler On the Roof.

Why? Let me first disclaim that I find no Christian message in the film; on the contrary, it demonstrates just how unqualified Jesus was to be the messiah, and the irrational, vacillating devotion of his followers. At its core, J. C. Superstar is a story about Jews living and dying in Judea in the confused and troubled early decades of the first millenium CE, and about one messianic movement in particular that got out of hand. It's set and filmed in the same Jewish land where I now live, and save for a few Romans, the characters are all Jews, as are many of the actors. And the musical numbers are great.

This is not your average religious film—it's flamboyant, experimental, humorous, and shocking. Despite the time and the place, the cast is White, Black, Asian, and Hawaiian. Gun-toting Roman soldiers wear metal helmets and royal purple tank tops. The Jewish masses are groovin' hippies. Timeless shepherds guide their flocks as modern planes fly overhead.

But, in my view, the most significant cinematic departure is the settings. The characters walk, talk and dance through ruins, surrounded by the awesome Negev desert. [I've tried to upload pictures, but Blogger seems to be malfunctioning. Maybe later.] They inhabit real-world structures that 2000 years ago may have been whole and functional buildings, but we see them as they are today. The characters don't seem to notice that the columns have no heads and support no ceiling, or that the walls, with their upper halves missing, offer little protection. The scenes are deficient from a human standpoint as well. There are nowhere near as many extras as there should be. Simon the Zealot gleefully intones to Jesus, "There must be over fifty thousand!" but there are plainly no more than fifty in the crowd. We watch all this, and wonder, can't they see?

They cannot, for the simple reason that the ruination of their world has not yet occurred. It's still decades before the revolt(s) against Rome and the destruction of the Temple, and all the accompanying violence, starvation, exile, and slavery. Only we, living in the future, can know what misery lies ahead for our hapless, pathetic ancestors, who undulate and scream as if the messiah were on their very doorstep. And only we, with our precious hindsight, can see that the seeds of tragedy are already planted. The population is fragmented, squabbling, desperate and restless under a foreign yoke. How long can such a situation go on before it explodes?

In Fiddler too, the theme of Jewish religious and societal breakdown that shakes the characters later in the film, and reaches devastating proportions only after the film closes, in real-life Europe, America, and Israel, is portended already in Tevye's opening lines. Here's a man who can cover his head and put on a tallis and rail about "tradition," but if you ask him, "How did this tradition get started?" his answer is "I don't know." A society of Tevyes can survive only as long as it remains insulated from other societies, and from questioning. Even when the townsfolk are all smiles and song, there's a great hollowness only waiting to be exposed.

Our problems in modern-day Israel are similar to those in Superstar and Fiddler. Like the Jews in Roman times, we are divided and squabbling, and like Tevye, we no longer know how to justify our enterprise. Our values have been turned upside down and inside out, and those charged with leading us are in a deeper dark than anyone else (cf. MK Yuli Tamir's recent outrageous statement that Rabin Memorial Day is as important as Holocaust Day, and the presumptions that must have informed it). We're surrounded by enemies gearing up for an assault, and we're complacent at best; at worst we actively aid them by gifting them weapons, or bringing in international forces to give them cover from ourselves (UNIFIL in Lebanon). Caroline Glick has a good summary of the current goings-on here.

In such circumstances, how long can Israel last? We didn't win our last war with Lebanon, but we didn't exactly lose completely either. Things may be different next time. For now, our buildings are intact, town squares are filled with noisy crowds, and the countrysides are still mostly full of color. Is it all an elaborate house of cards though? Muslims seem to think so. If my power of vision were more accurate, I wonder, would the buildings be crumbling? Would the crowds be decimated? Would the Galilee be bleak and barren as the Negev?

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Name: Sabzi Aash
Location: Jerusalem, Israel

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