Mel Gibson’s Toughest Role

Mel Gibson’s powerful and on-target apology to the Jewish community for his anti-Semitic tirade was infinitely better than his weak and unsatisfying first statement. It would be a mistake for the Jewish community to reciprocate with a let’s-kiss-and-make-up response. Jewish tradition demands something more, and Mr. Gibson deserves something better.

Like Christians, Jews see repentance as a supremely important principle. There are key differences, however, in our understanding of how one achieves this goal. According to many Jewish thinkers over hundreds of years, at least four components are crucial. The first is verbal confession. Declaring one’s guilt, slowly and deliberately, makes it just a bit harder — but not impossible — to continue the error with equanimity. This must be accompanied, however, by complete cessation of the offending behavior, as well as sincere regret for the misdeed. The fourth is perhaps the most difficult element: there has to be a game plan for the future, an acceptance of a way to change that is real, not self-delusional. As a play in four acts, Mr. Gibson gets favorable reviews for the first. Perhaps Jewish thought can help him with the other three.

If Mr. Gibson asked us, this is what we would tell him:

Anti-Semitism and prejudice are no less a problem than alcohol abuse. They should be dealt with similarly. You can’t deal with an alcohol problem through a photo-op with the head of the local detox program. Twelve step programs — the programs that really work — require slow change, 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.

We would first show you what you already seem to know — that words can hurt, and words can kill. Naveed Haq, who shot up the Jewish Community Center in Seattle a few days ago, believed that Jews have too much power, the same idea that you expressed at your arrest. More importantly, while you were telling the world how Jews are behind all world conflict, two million Israelis were sitting in bomb shelters, shielding themselves from thousands of missiles, each equipped with tiny ball-bearings meant to tear into human flesh. These came compliments of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and his Hezbollah proxy Nasrallah, both of whom have incited their masses to regard Jews as the source of all evil and described as the highest value martyrdom in the course of ridding the world of them.

Words uttered by powerful people can’t be easily undone. A great Jewish rabbi once likened them to feathers from a torn pillow, scattered by the wind. There is just no way to stuff them all back in again.

That is not to say that we will spurn you. Far from it. We would point you in the direction of the next steps. We would look with empathy and support as you explored the reasons for your feelings. Frankly, growing up with the father you did, it would be difficult for some of his hatred of Jews not to rub off in some manner or form. In a word, what you need to do is confront every negative stereotype you own, and understand what is wrong with them. You need to study some Jewish history, and learn about who Jews are at the core. You need to explode the myth of Jewish power by learning about two thousand years of Jewish powerlessness. You need to hear the personal stories of Holocaust survivors, and then stand in silence — alone — at Auschwitz and contemplate the natural trajectory of hatred. You need to visit Israel, to understand the miracle of her existence, and why those who wish to destroy her will come after Christians next. You need to meet Jews who devoted their lives to making this a better world for all its citizens.

In Jewish thought, repentance is a gift from G-d. But G-d withholds that gift as long as the penitent has not done all that he or she could to undo the damage. Contrition, even heartfelt contrition, is insufficient if not coupled with action. (Christians call a casual approach to contrition “cheap grace.”) When you thoroughly understand the groundlessness of anti-Semitism, you will actually be in a better position than most to start stuffing the feathers back into the pillow. Precisely because you are an accomplished film star, you can become a powerful example and articulate teaching force, teaching others why hating Jews is both unwarranted and potentially lethal.

This, too, is part of Jewish teaching about repentance. When you do it the right way, you wind up not just erasing past errors, but actually ahead of where you were before the crime. The unfortunate incident this week could become the impetus for great moral achievement. It is not an easy script to follow, and it cannot be read or rehearsed. It has to be written from scratch by no one but yourself. It many be the most important role you have ever played.

We are not prepared to squander such an opportunity. We appreciate your apology, and wait to see it turned into a fuller repentance. We will cheer you on — but only from the sidelines. If and when you get there, you can be certain that we will welcome you. You will not find a better fan club than the Jewish community warming up to a foe turned friend. We will be watching hopefully for your next steps. If you take them, we will not let you down.

Also published in the Jewish World Review.

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14 Responses

  1. Ezra says:

    Very well done.

  2. HILLEL says:

    “BeYoDua SheEsav Sonei es YaaKov.”–Anti-Semitism, latent or overt is a common condition in Golus.

    So, why are we making such a big deal about this drunken outburst of latent anti-semitic feelings. Mel Gibson never laid a hand on anybody.

    I think that we are annoying a tremendous number of people who admire Mel Gibson for his religious and conservative views.

    We are pushing our luck by beating this entertainment icon over the head, especially after he asked for forgiveness–What’s he supposed to do, fall on his knees and kiss our feet?

    If we continue to take our marching orders from the likes of ADL’s Abraham Foxman, we will soon find that we are Personna Non-Grata in America, c’v!

  3. Yirmeyahu says:

    I’ll believe his apology when he says it under the influence.

    But I think beating him up about it would be as counterproductive as the protest about that movie of his.

  4. Yisroel Koznitzer says:

    With a war on, a savage hate crime in Seattle and Tisha Be-Av, the rantings of one addled, pampered actor seem insignificant. The interesting thing will be what figures line up to provide exoneration and redemption, fee unknown. Surely there will be no lack of demagogues presenting themselves for that unseemly job.

  5. kar says:

    Yiten l’makeyhu lechi yisba b’cherpa.

    I think it’s important to point out that gibson obviously is antisemitic, that the movie drew on the writings of a nun and not just the NT, and that he denies the scale of the Holocaust.

    Beyond that, I think we should shrug, accept his apology and move on. Hollywood figures are not that important.

    We should be grateful that in the US, such statements are unacceptable, and he’s hurt himself.

    We don’t need people saying that Jewish Hollywood ruins the career of anyone who ever offends.

    I don’t think we should be lecturing or touting the Jewish view of repentance. There is such a thing as overreaching.

  6. Nachum Lamm says:

    Hmm. R’ Adlerstein’s employer, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is notorious for giving out “hechsherim” to prominent entertainment figures with shady pasts- for a tidy sum, of course. It happened with Arnold Schwarzenegger; with this post, I see it happening to Mel Gibson.

    Personally, I couldn’t care less about Gibson, considering that Jews are actually being killed elsewhere in the world- one just two states over.

  7. EV says:

    Nachum–Arnie has a “shady past”? What has Arnie (Arnie himself, the sins of his father don’t count unless Arnie’s demonstrated a history of accepting these as his own) done wrong vis-a-vis Jews? I am ignorant in this regard. Since you invoke the plural, name another “prominent entertainment figure with a shady past” who has paid the Smon Wiesenthal Center for “a hechsher”?

  8. Nachum says:

    Schwarzenegger does not have a shady past, which makes the fact that he had to pay millions to the Center to clear his father even worse.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    Since when does it fall on us to nurse Mel Gibson back to sobriety, sanity, or sensitivity? It’s enough that, after his arrest episode, he will now think twice before dissing us in public.

    Considering how much of the Eastern and Western world is now expressing antisemitism through violence, I would say that the Simon Wiesenthal Center has more urgent things to do than re-engineering Mel Gibson.

  10. Eliyahu says:

    Nachum, essentially you accused R’ Adlerstein of corruption/taking a bribe. To back up that serious charge you referred to one example (Scharzeneger), which by your own later admission wasn’t even true (according to you he does not have a shady past). I don’t at all get the logic of “the fact that he had to pay millions ..” makes it even worse. Scharzenger wanted to show that he did not in fact have a shady past, and is not following in his father’s footsteps and did it by donating money to the institution which combats the kind of things that his father promoted. Sounds like pretty normal and may be even laudable behavior for a public figure. R’ Adlerstein post merely said that Gibson’s apology is a first step and he will have to back up his words with deeds. So even if your charge of bad past behavior was true, it is not applicable to this case. So either provide the evidence to back your statements up, or apologize.

  11. Nachum says:

    Eliyahu, you’ve made my case. But ten Israeli soldiers have been killed, and I don’t know why Mel Gibson deserves one more second of the Jewish people’s attention.

  12. EV says:

    Nachum asks “why Mel Gibson deserves one more second of the Jewish people’s attention.” Maybe, Nachum, because you need to hear how someone makes a proper t’shuvah when he has denigrated another, whether that other be an individual or a whole peoplehood. Gibson was actually able to make an explicit apology, and Rabbi Adlerstein is pointing the way to completing his t’shuvah. The best you can do in getting to step one in apologizing for having intimated the good rabbi has ulterior motives having to do with bribery is to say, “Eliyahu, you’ve made my case.”

    There are larger issues than Mel’s antisemitism being explored here in both the rabbi’s posting and in our comments. Can someone who has sinned like Gibson has be forgiven? What does someone who has denigrated someone else (nudge, nudge) have to do to receive forgiveness? How does t’shuvah among Jews work? This sounds like rabbinic territory to me. Read the article, Nachum.

  13. Steve Brizel says:

    Perhaps, instead of casting all sorts of conspiracy theories at the author, we might be all slightly more productive if we thought that Mr. Gibson’s well documented anti Semitism, anger management and alcoholism might be bettter “treated” within our own tradition of teshuvah which even accepted the teshuvah of Nevuzaradan as opposed to letting Mr Gibson be “cured” of his demons with the spa and press conference variety of Hollywood-style kaparah and taharah.

  14. Yisroel Koznitzer says:

    I believe that the Wiesenthal center offered absolution to MIchael Jackson after he recorded the perjorative “Jew me” in a song. Sadly, it did not stick.

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