Achrei Mot Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30 20.04.13
Review: God`s Neighbours/Ha`Mashgichim
This blog is a double header. I will focus as usual on this week’s Torah portion, Achrei Mot Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30. I will also review writer-director Meni Yaesh’s fantastic film, Ha`Mashgichim, translated best as God’s Kosher Monitors as in the Agudas Hamashgichim, the Kashrut Supervisors Union, but, in English, has the innocuous and misleading title, God’s Neighbours. I saw the film the night before last at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. The film won the Society of Authors, Directors and Composers award at Cannes “Critics Week” in 2012, no mean achievement to be judged so highly by one’s peers for a first film. The parasha and the film are connected, but first the parasha.
Achrei Mot has three chapters and three subject matters respectively: 1) Aaron’s atonement and purification after his two sons die (see last week’s portion; we are now in the aftermath of those deaths, achrei mot); 2) prohibitions against consuming blood; 3) sexual prohibitions. Ch. 16, Verse 2 reads: “the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat.” God just killed Aaron’s two sons because they made a ritual error and now God talks of mercy! It is no longer the turn of the harsh judgment of the pillar of fire but of God as a cloud, of God the merciful, of God expressing Himself through the High Priest who is the embodiment of mercy, Aaron. Moses, God’s political agent who deals with power, must deliver the message to his brother Aaron.
But one gets no sense of mercy, only more rigid laws and judgments. The process of purification involves many steps, but only three essential elements: the sacrifice of a bull for a sin offering, the sacrifice of a ram for a burnt offering and one new element, a scapegoat, (לַעֲזָאזֵֽל) la-aza’zeyl, exiled from the community into the wilderness as part of the atonement ceremonies. The sin offering and the burnt offering are insufficient; the scapegoat must be sent into the wilderness “by the hand of one who is ready,” a scapegoat that will carry all of their iniquities to a wilderness remote area. (16:21-22) Only then can Aaron return to resume his role as High Priest in the Holy of Holies. In the process, the very same person, the one whose hand is ready and who sent the goat into the wilderness, shall wash Aaron’s clothes and bathe his body so Aaron can return as a renewed man. (16:26) The rules for the Day of Atonement are then set down.
Chapter 17 is about bloodguilt, the failure to understand that the sacrifice and consumption of meat must first be regarded as a gift to the Lord, in whose gifts humankind is allowed to share, and the cutting off from the community of the one carrying that bloodguilt. The symbol of bloodguilt is the consumption of blood; the Hebrews were commanded not to consume blood.
Chapter 17 is about sexual prohibitions. You can’t sleep with your mother, your father’s wife even if she is not your mother, your sister or your father’s daughter even if she is not a blood relative, your step-mother’s daughter even if she is no blood relative at all, your daughter, your daughter-in-law, your granddaughter, your aunt by blood or by marriage, your sister-in-law, or the sister of your wife, or your female cousins. Just to be safe, don’t sleep with relatives or, for that matter, a menstruating woman or a neighbour’s wife.
Further, just to be contemporary in a time of legalization of gay marriage, “22You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The opposition to our liberal attitudes comes via orders from a harsh and judgmental God. The consequences are not just individual; your whole nation shall be vomited out for disobeying such an injunction.
Well not much sign of mercy in all that. Just harsh commands!
The Haftorah deals with the depiction of the results of that iniquity, the city of blood rather than the city of god, the city of murder and mayhem, the city of lewdness, the city from which one profited and “greedily gained of thy neighbours by oppression”. (12) If the Hebrews sink into such iniquity, if (29) “The people of the land have used oppression, and exercised robbery, and have wronged the poor and needy, and have oppressed the stranger unlawfully,” if there is not found among the people one man to stand as a hedge against the tide of evil, then God’s wrath will scatter the people to the four corners of the world. (27) “Her princes in the midst thereof are like wolves ravening the prey: to shed blood, and to destroy souls, so as to get dishonest gain.”
Avi (Roy Assaf), Kobi (Gal Friedman) and Yaniv (Itzik Golan) are the princes of Bat Yam. Their prey are noisy drinking Russians playing loud techno music, a secular Mizrachi (Sephardi) selling purloined pornographic DVDs, and, the regular Israeli victims, Arabs, in this case from Jaffa rather than the Arabs in the Occupied Territories whom they used to beat up when they were in the border police. Avi is the leader. They are Mizrachi thugs, but religious thugs. They do not act for profit but as servants of God’s wrath. And some of that wrath is directed at Miri (Rotem Zussman) for dressing immodestly.
Roy Assaf as Avi
Gal Friedman as Kobi
Itzik Golan as Yaniv Lugassi
Rotem Ziesman-Cohen as Miri
The trio live in Bat Yam, a city just south of Jaffa with which I became somewhat familiar when I visited members of its Vietnamese population there back in 1980, for Israel had taken in about 800 Indochinese Boat people and they largely settled in Bat Yam. Bat Yam, originally known as Bayit VaGan (בית וגן), a city named after a home and garden, was resettled in 1930 after it was destroyed by Palestinian thugs from Jaffa in the 1929 Palestine riots. The city retained in its bones an antipathy to Arabs. At the time of independence, the town of 4000 received an influx of Jews from Turkey and Morocco, form Iraq and Yemen, later to be joined by Ethiopian Jews who were not in view in the movie. The town is now a city of 130,000 and a hotbed of right wing revisionism where Shas and Liberman’s party get a great deal of support since many Soviet Jews settled there in the nineties. Bat Yam is not the liberal and cultured Tel Aviv located just north on the other side of Jaffa.
The city is also known for one other group of residents, the Bobover Hasidim who arrived in 1959. But this movie is focused on the Breslev Hasidim who have developed a following among Mizrachi Jews who constitute the majority of Bat Yam’s residents. Bat Yam, like Haifa, is also a mixed city in another sense. It has a significant population of Palestinians who overflowed the confines of Jaffa. The Bat Yam beaches are also popular with Israeli and Palestinian youth who despise the tourist-ridden beaches of Tel Aviv, something I learned from one of my sons when he played trumpet for a year in the Rishon LeZion orchestra years ago, but my grandson in Israel says this is still true today.
The film does not begin with a pillar of fire but with Avi reading Psalm 136 (or it could be the first lines of Psalms 106 and 107). “Give thanks to the Lord for his mercy endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord for his mercy endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord for his mercy endures forever.” Over and over again the words are repeated and constitute a hypnotic spell, akin to the way Avi composes his lyrics and songs so popular in sending the followers of the Bratslav rebbe into delirious trances as they dance hystrionically to the beat and the music heavily influenced by Moroccan and Turkish music and driven to greater intensity with the use of drums and a bass beat. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who lived in the eighteenth century, was the direct descendent and great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism. God’s mercy never changes. That mercy is never exhausted, never used up. All God’s dealings with man – and every one of His creatures – will be infused with mercy; it is found in all his dealings. It will be thus forever.
The Breslov, or Breslev Hasidm, to pick up the emphasis on “the heart” (lev) emphasized so much by this group of Hasidim, try to develop an intense, joyous relationship with God. The only real instructor is God and his teachings must come through your heart, not the sharpness of your mind. Ezekial’s message as conveyed in the film instructs: “I [God] will take away your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26) That is the story of the movie, how God takes away Avi’s heart of stone and gives him a heart of flesh. Life must be lived joyously, and though the film is full of brutality, it is also suffused with ecstatic singing and dancing and clapping and smiling and laughter. For these Hasidim, “Always be happy” is the 614th commandment. Jews must constantly live longing to return to unity with God, the rebbe in the movie teaches, for that it is the core expression of faith and the way to achieve repentance or teshuvah. That faith, as the rebbe says at the movie’s start, begins with observation, not judgment, a lesson the viewer must hear if the film is not to be simply misinterpreted as a rant against thuggish Mizrachi. The director helps with his extreme close-ups and his raw and rough footage.
However, in the movie, the trio not only drink, smoke pot and dance ecstatically, laugh and play backgammon endlessly, but are also merciless bullies using baseball bats and their fists in enforcing store closings for shabat and insisting the neighbourhood remain free of immodesty and loud noise on Friday night. Arabs (Palestinians) must be kept off its streets. The world is not united by God but divided into the higher force above and their use of force on earth. These are a trio of racist, homophobic, petty self-appointed vigilantes yet, ironically, driven by total loyalty to their mystical rabbi who insists that God’s word comes, not from their head, but through their heart. Through ecstatic joy! As the second half of verse 8 reads in Psalm 138, after repeating that God’s mercy endures forever, “do not abandon the works of the hands.” They are not scholars, though they study with the rabbi every afternoon. They go from their petty bourgeois jobs as grocers or sales clerks in a pet store or mechanics to study with the rabbi daily, but study does not mean developing critical skills. At one point the rabbi begins a Socratic mantra: “I know nothing. Uni yodeah cloomb.” And the short sentence is repeated and repeated and the group of students, including the trio, rise up and dance frenetically, clapping and repeating over and over again: “Uni yodeah cloomb.”
Until these Breslev fanatics try to intimidate Miri living in the neighbourhood from dressing immodestly. She stands up to their intimidation. Avi is enchanted by her spirit. He becomes her protector. She prudently dresses more modestly. Avi learns from his rabbi and his ecstatic religious hippie devotee of his lyrics who runs beach parties to Avi’s songs. Mostly Avi learns from Miri what atonement and mercy really mean. He is conflicted. He certainly can no longer lead the brutal pack in their vigilante enforcement code. The standard struggle of this genre, when the sensitive one tries to break with the code of the hood and its unquestioning brutality, then ensues.
Avi has a falling out with his closest friend, the hothead, Kobi, and, in a rumble, Kobi is stabbed and rushed to the hospital. I never anticipated that Kobi would be the scapegoat for the bloodguilt of the gang. The wilderness is the hospital, but it is also the barren beach of Bat Yam at night. Avi goes down to the beach, opens his conflicted soul to God, and prays openly and without any self-consciousness. The Breslev are taught that to become a true tzaddik, a just man, the followers must retreat, go into the wilderness, look into their own souls, and open their hearts totally to God. This true prayer in contrast to the everyday repetitions in synagogue, this total exposure of all your thoughts and fears, your self-doubts and hopes, to the only personal friend that you ultimately have in the world, the only way to redemption, God. Avi then strips to walk into the largest mikvah around, the Mediterranean Sea. A new Avi is reborn.
Some may see the ending as mushy and out of keeping with the rest of the movie. But it is necessary to allow the mystical circle of God’s utter ruthlessness and His kind loving side to be closed and for Avi to become at one with God. Where is the one whose hand is ready, the one who sent the goat into the wilderness, who will wash Aaron’s clothes and bathe his body so Aaron can return as a renewed man? Avi goes into his huge Mikvah alone. Until I recognized my blindness, I expected the redeemer to be his rabbi or his mystical ecstatic hippie friend in his psychedelic painted van. But, of course, it is neither. It is a woman. Miri, who has infused Avi’s soul, the one first taken as a Jezebel, is the one through whom Avi is redeemed from his thuggery. God appears in the cloud of love over the mercy seat through a woman. Avi finally comes to some understanding of what purification means, what the prohibition against consuming blood means. He did not shoot the Palestinian youth lying fearful at his feet on the streets of Jaffa.