The December release of “The Golden Compass,” based on the first novel in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Material” trilogy, is drawing the ire of Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and atheists alike. The latter complain that the book’s anti-religious theme is muted in the film, while the former are upset because even this muted version is an insult to their faith. Shades of Sudanese teddy bears!
Actually I sympathize with groups complaining about movies. Year’s ago I started a campaign against “It’s a Wonderful Life” arguing that no real angel would ever be named Clarence. But there is a twist in the whining about “The Golden Compass” that makes this instance of movie madness all the more interesting. Where most authors and filmmakers deny any attack on religion, Philip Pullman admits his trilogy recasts the Fall from the Garden of Eden not as “the source of all woe and misery, as in the traditional Christian teaching, but as the beginning of true human freedom, something to be celebrated not lamented.” Amen!
We Jews wrote the story and we never called it the Fall. Eve is the Hebrew Prometheus stealing wisdom from God, and, if you follow the midrash (commentary) that says the serpent is the Messiah in disguise, this is exactly what God had in mind.
The Garden of Eden is a metaphor for childhood. God, like any good parent, wants her children to grow up and leave home. Since they aren’t prone to do that on their own, God baits them into eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and places a cherub with a flaming sword to keep them from returning home after college.
God doesn’t want a pliant and fearful Adam but an argumentative and fearless Abraham (the Abraham of the Sodom story not the Abraham of the Isaac story). God wants rebels, freethinkers, and people who will stand up to him and, like Job, demand that he explain himself.
Christianity and Islam focus largely on the next life, and hence have strong cultures of martyrdom and death attached to them. Judaism has its martyrs but we created the Kol Nidre prayer to help erase the guilt of those Jews who chose to convert to Catholicism rather than die at the hand of the Inquisition. The rabbis taught that God gave us his commandments that we might live by them not die because of them. Heaven and Hell are footnotes in Judaism. It is this world and the transformation of this world through justice and compassion that is the focus of Judaism. Where Christians and Muslims worry about getting into heaven, Jews worry about making heaven here on earth. This was Jesus’ very Jewish message of the kingdom of God being within you and around you, as opposed to the obsession with the afterlife that overwhelms so many of his worshippers.
Jews are called Yisrael, Godwrestlers. We are expected to challenge, argue, and struggle with God and what it means to live godly lives. Yes there are wimps among us who don’t take up the challenge, and we too decry films we find anti-Semitic, but at our best we are Godwrestlers eager to test ourselves against God and smash the idols the pass for God in order to push both the human and the divine toward something greater. This is what it means to be a Jew, and this is why I am proud to be one.