Rabbi Bernstein's Weekly Message
Summer blockbusters traditionally feature a lot of action, flashy violence and not too much to think about. But this summer, which has been anything but light, two very different movies have veered from the formula by exploring a timely and timeless question: can someone who is bent on evil be changed?
This is the question that drives both Hiccup, the pacifist Viking at the center of the How to Train Your Dragon series and the protagonists in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
For Hiccup the challenge is straightforward: having convinced his own atavistic society to embrace dragons as friends rather than mortal enemies, Hiccup now finds himself insisting that it is possible to turn the heart of a man set on using dragons to brutalize and dominate the rest of the Viking world. Once more, he champions pacifism over barbarism. But can pacifism be justified when others are threatened by relentless evil?
X-Men, on the other hand, is anything but straightforward. Pulling out every possible comic book arrow in the quiver, the movie sets up a desperate fight for survival that jumps between two time periods. In the near apocalyptic future all mutants and their allies are mercilessly targeted by artificially intelligent robots called Sentinels that adapt themselves to become progressively more deadly in their task of extinguishing all of mutant-kind. However, using a combination of particular powers, ingenious creativity, and unwieldy plot exposition, Charles Xavier and his erstwhile archenemy Magneto help send the practically indestructible Wolverine back to the seventies to prevent an assassination of a prominent anti-mutant figure they believe triggered the current dystopia. The assassin is also a mutant, Mystique, a shapeshifting woman who had been a friend of Charles Xavier, but became a protege and lover of Magneto and adherent to his extreme anti-human ideology. But beyond the superpowers and colorful sobriquets, Days of Future Past is a story about whether to face evil with fear or with hope. Even more specifically, with fear that there is no limit to what bad people left unchecked can do or with hope that even the worst enemies can be “shown a better a way.”
As Summer gives way to fall and the Preparation for the Days of Awe, can Jewish wisdom shed light on these questions? First of all, it is worth noting that Professor Xavier’s antagonist Magneto, born Eric Lenscherr is not only Jewish but a very unusual survivor of the Holocaust. Part of his origin story is how he experienced the worst that humanity has been capable of and used his power of controlling magnetism to not only escape the camps, but wreak vengeance on the Nazi commandant who tortured him and killed his family. So built into the story is a nod to a certain core element of Jewish history: choosing how to live with power after facing the abyss of being victims of mass murder.
Still, while Eric Lenscherr bears the marks of a particular Jewish experience, his actions are not the totality of Jewish Wisdom reflected in the X-Men story. While the young Magneto insists that mutantkind can only be saved by superior strength and willingness to use it, Wolverine must convince a young Charles Xavier to remember his faith that it is never too late to change the future. In this, the two are advocating the doctrine of teshuva, the teaching that we are always capable and in fact responsible to turn away from wrongdoing and malice to embrace a path of kindness and justice.
Of course this past Summer has been a very real story of fighting evil and at the writing of this message, our attention has been on one of israel’s most intense battles with those who have no compunction against doing the most damage they can against soldiers and civilians alike.
Still, from a Jewish point of view, the challenge is in responding to these threats seriously while still having faith that even those who have been influenced by hate can find a new path.
And this challenge plays out not only in the ultimate battles waged with weapons of war, but in all of the decisions each of us make and how we think about our own actions and relationships with others
After all, when it comes to Rosh Hashana, each of us becomes the protagonist in the story yet to be told.