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Deciphering 'The Da Vinci Code' Jewishly
Just why is Mona Lisa smiling?
Probably because she didn't have to stand in line to get good seats at this Friday's opening of "The Da Vinci Code."
Or maybe, she's glad she wasn't invited to "The Last Supper." After all, look at the tzuris it meant for Mary Magdalene?
Whatever she's smiling about, there are others frowning on this weekend's opening of the film version of the mega-successful Dan Brown novel - code for big bucks - that has crossed fact and fiction, and come up with some startling assertions, notably that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and sired a lineage that exists in modern times.
Who knew that Vatican City was a hotbed of film critics?
The movie has been slammed as much as "The Passion of the Christ" was given hosannas by the hierarchy there, thorns thrown in its path rather than flowers as the film that challenges the very catechism of Catholicism - and draws protests from Protestants - gets ready to mix popcorn and pop psychology with some wafer-thin arguments.
It hasn't helped that some feel Brown blackens all of Christianity by saying the story is based in fact if still fiction.
Guess he should cross himself off the invited list at any screening by the Cardinals.
Fact or fiction? What's real is the reel's potential for a mass box-office weekend take of close to $100 million B.C. - before concessions.
As for its take on a contemporary Jesus heir existing: So what's wrong with a child wanting to grow up to be like his father? Everything, according to devout Catholics, who have attacked the book/ film as heretical and blasphemous, making Hollywood look over its shoulder this week.
What has been overlooked, however, is the "Jewishness" of the novel, the assertions made that are based on Jewish law and the use of Jewish iconography to make points.
Is it more than symbolic that Hebrew symbols are alluded to throughout the book, or would you have to be delusional to think there's anything remotely Jewish about "Da Vinci."
Jujifruits and Judaism at a movie about Jesus: Ultimately, is "Da Vinci" good for da Jews?
"What strikes me, as a rabbi, is the remarkable irony that the very theories about Jesus presented by Brown that make the book blasphemous to Christians are concepts that make Jesus far more comprehensible to Jews," writes Rabbi Benjamin Blech, author of The Da Vinci Code and the Jews.
"So Jesus was married! Well, why shouldn't he have been? Reared as a Jew, celibacy would have almost certainly been an idea totally foreign to him. 'Be fruitful and multiply' was the biblical creed that all Jews considered sacred. Celibacy as a Christian ideal wouldn't become law until the Council of Elvira (300-306) decreed (Canon 33): It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests and deacons or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this, shall be deprived of the honor of clerical office."
So Jesus married just under the wire? As the old joke goes, he was a nice Jewish boy who just tried to make his mother happy.
But there are more serious ramifications, of course, which Blech blends into his commentary, noting that what is really at the crux of Christian argument here is that "a married Jesus is far too much a human figure of a god to be worshiped," making him more a Moses-like figure than messianic spirit: "Jews spared no effort to ensure that their greatest leader never be confused with God; Moses was always to be viewed as human, mortal, less than divine, even capable of sin for which he was punished and denied entry into the Promised Land."
But the book has so many trying to piece together the puzzle of what can only be called Code Read: "The book is making 40 million people question what Jews have long recognized about Christianity's founder: Jesus was not God; he was human."
Oy, this promises to be a Promised Land of problems if the movie further enhances this argument. But is the flick's image as pop culture as innocuous as the fizzed-out soda pop purchased at the movies?
Bursting the bubble on pop as pablum is the prominent Eric Michael Mazur, Ph.D., associate professor, religion department coordinator, American studies, Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, Pa., and book-review editor of the online "Journal of Religion & Popular Culture."
"The movie should not be dismissed as mere pop media, regardless of its 'truth' - if it has a real effect on how people think or act, it cannot be dismissed," contends Mazur. "That is its connection to reality."
Connect the dots and spot an anti-Semite? "As for any harm it might do to Jewish/Christian relations, I don't know if any audience will be persuaded that isn't already inclined to be so. Conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites will find what they wish here, while others will remember that it is a Ron Howard/Tom Hanks project, but not 'Apollo 13.' "
If fans have been over the moon for the book, does that mean Jews better seek out a crater to hide in come Friday? Step back a bit, and dust the sands off your sandals: "This is not really about us," contends Dr. Rebecca T. Alpert, chair of the religious department at Temple University. This is a movie of the Christian world, and Jews are just interested observers on the sidelines.
Not that they can't be called in for some action plays. In fact, adds Alpert, the film can be "good for the Jews": "It reminds people that Jesus was a Jew; our Christian friends realize that they owe Jews a lot. That is really a good thing."
Days of awe, rather than daze and oys? "We are not the bad guys here; the book is not anti-Semitic," she says. "It's a good thing that people see the good - that Judaism is the root of Christianity."
Not everyone is rooting for Brown's film to succeed. In fact, there are those who fear an anti-Semitic backlash. David Klinghoffer, author of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History, turned his concern in recent writing to the conspiracy theories espoused in the film: The Priory of Sion - Da Vinci was reportedly a member of the group purported ready to publish the findings of a Jesus/Mary marriage - and the Opus Dei - depicted as a harsh secret religious sect - battled each other on the importance of keeping the Jesus-Mary union a secret.
Klinghoffer's issue is that this conspiracy contretemps - and the church's reported role in controlling the news - is reminiscent of arguments anti-Semites use in their joust with Jews, depicting the chosen people as choosing their talents as tools to control the world.
Can a movie pro-semiotics prove anti-Semitic? For anyone asking, "Is it good for the Jews?" the retort comes back that it may not be good for anybody, according to Klinghoffer, claiming that "to the cause of conspiracy theorizing, [Brown] has done a wonderful favor, training his readers in the habits of paranoia and gullibility. For people committed to finding the truth through investigation and argumentation, that's depressing."
A motion picture doling out Prozac to audience members? A box-office hit with potential for religious backlash?
"As for Jews," believes Klinghoffer, "we haven't fared well when the culture we live in turns to entertaining fantasies and delusions at the expense of an unfashionable religion. The success of Brown's book, now transformed into a movie blockbuster, is bad news."
According to others, no news is good news. Indeed, had Shakespeare gone Hollywood, he would have written a script about all this fanfare: "Much Ado About Nothing."
Or at the very least - very little. "Nothing in Brown's book nor in the teachings of the Gospel of Judas are new at all," writes Marty Fields, minister of Westminster Presbyterian Church, in Laurel, Miss.
"They are positions that are well-known, and have been thoroughly refuted as bogus history and as doctrinal heresy by great minds, past and present."
But, then anti-Semitism may be considered "old hat," too, albeit one with enough power to knock a Jew's yarmulke off his head. Klinghoffer is not about to dismiss that impact so easily.
"The possibility of a backlash is certainly more serious than with 'The Passion of the Christ' to which Jewish organizations responded so hysterically," he said, corresponding through e-mail.
"Think about it. It's been a long time since the old charge that Jews are 'Christ-killers' had any serious traction among anti-Semites. Jew-haters today just don't find it that exciting. So the danger of Mel Gibson's film reviving that ancient slur was very minor. By contrast, the charge that Judaism is a conspiracy bent on world domination is one that gets a lot of traction today. To many Muslims it seems entirely plausible, and not only to Muslims."
'New Face on an Old Thesis'
"Da Vinci Code" as code for hate?
It serves a role, said Klinghoffer, "in encouraging people to think in terms of religious conspiracies," and "is playing with fire in a way that Mel Gibson wasn't."
The fire next time may be heating up now: "Jews should be more sensitive to that than we are."
According to Minister Fields, it's the same old field - just with a more technicolor playing space. "All the Da Vinci Code does is put a new face on an old erroneous thesis."
But when that face is that of movie star Tom Hanks, won't people take a second look? For those with creative imaginations, the image may become more concrete with stars assigned the roles of the book's characters.
After all, the New Testament doesn't reject - or promulgate - anything about Jesus being married. As William E. Phipps pointed out in his book, Was Jesus Married? The Distortion of Sexuality in the Christian Tradition, many of Jesus' contemporaries - notably those alluded to as rabbis - were indeed married men.
But as Mark Rathel, author of Jesus Revealed, recently revealed in his writings, "One major problem with this argument, among several, is that it makes no room for an exception. … And, though he was in many ways a normal Jewish man, in other ways he was utterly unusual," and may have been a celebrant of celibacy.
Jesus as rebel? Fits with scholarly descriptions, such as Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century who claimed that Jewish men married, albeit not those who were considered of the holy order.
Perhaps roiling the religious rivers even more so is author Brown's description of Jewish holy men using sex as holistic therapy. As Brown wrote of the protagonist:
"Langdon's Jewish students always looked flabbergasted when he first told them that the early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex. In the Temple, no less. Early Jews believed that the Holy of Holies in Solomon's Temple housed not only God but also His Powerful female equal, Shekinah. Men seeking spiritual wholeness came to Temple to visit priestesses - or hierodules - with whom they made love and experienced the divine through physical union."
Whoa! What would Jesus say?
Who knows, but Klinghoffer, also a senior fellow at the Discover Institute in Seattle, certainly knows the difference between fact and fiction. When contacted on this issue, he responded that "the idea is ludicrous and without basis in any serious scholarship."
Further proof, he pointed out, that "once Dan Brown began entertaining fantasies about Christianity as a massive 'cover up,' why not entertain fantasies about Judaism?"
We're not talking images of Madonna dressed only in a red Kabbalah string; this is a serious matter here.
But will Jews reading this just say no to its truthfulness? Does every fan of Brown's work tote a reading light that prevents fiction from overshadowing fact?
"As a reader of fiction, I knew these parts" about the sacred feminine "had no basis in fact," says Rabbi Andrea Merow of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.
But will other Jews - even learned ones who should know better - take the author's reading on the sacred feminine in Judaism and accept it as gospel?
Certainly, all the news that's fit to print may actually not be news at all - but fiction. "There is a danger," acknowledges the rabbi, of not reading between the lines and understanding this is not factual. "People need to be careful readers."
They may also need to be careful navigating their bookstore aisles these days, not to be overwhelmed with all the "faction" about Jesus and Mary on display; it is a subject so incredibly popular that every other author seems to be nailing the topic for his or her own.
And if novels are coming out on a literary factory line, will not the passions of the Christ accounts be factored into a future Hollywood product, too?
As the "hits" go on, yet another pertinent voice is heard from: Michael Baigent, co-author of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, who unsuccessfully sued Brown for plagiarism, but is hoping for a triumph with his sequel, The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History.
Cover your eyes if you don't want to find out the "truths" now; according to Baigent, Jesus thought all this divinity debate of his life was a divine mess, and in Jesus' papers - which are now owned by an Israeli - he talked of himself not as God but of God, a man of godliness as much as every man has a divine interior spirit.
God is in the details of all the hype and hoopla surrounding this weekend's release of "The Da Vinci Code," and when the day of reckoning comes - and the box office is counted - it is obvious why Mona Lisa is smiling.
She knows, better than most, not how dark the con of man, but how illuminating a good controversy. And, more than anything, Mona bemoans that others don't know what she knows about decoding this Hollywood sign of the "Da Vinci" phenomenon:
And what is that?
That, after all is said and done - and seen - it's only a movie.