THIS PAST week news arrived of a forthcoming Mel Gibson project, a Warner Brothers “biopic” concerning the life of Judah Maccabee. The announcement provoked the inevitable outrage, an example of which is Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who stated the proposed film is akin to “having a white supremacist portray Martin Luther King Jr.” The analogy however is founded, even if understandably and legitimately enough, not upon logic but rather emotion. Considered on logical grounds alone, Gibson’s fitness to portray sympathetically the life of a guerilla war hero and anti-secular reactionary religious fundamentalist is beyond question.
The story of Maccabee was for a time considered as the subject matter for the successor to Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, by which arrangement the topic may have been considered a temporal and perhaps even logical sequitur. The Maccabees were a guerrila rebel outfit engaged in struggle against the Seleucid dynasty of Syria, at a time when many Jews were themselves adopting the cultural norms of Greece as these were mediated by a Hellenized Alexandria. In his study of the cultural history of the penis, A Mind of its Own, David M. Friedman reminds us of the elaborate efforts undertaken by upwardly mobile Jews of that day to rid themselves of the mark of their covenant:
If a Jew wanted to exercise in the gymnasium, the country club of Greek society, where training was invariably done without wearing clothes, he knew his circumcised penis would offend Greek aesthetics. This was not because Greeks were uncomfortable with nudity — far from it. But the sight of the exposed glans was deemed unseemly by Greeks. For this reason, Greeks exercised naked, but with their penises “infibulated” — a process that pulled the foreskin forward over the glans, and then tied it closed with string or clasped it shut with a circular safety-pin-like instrument known as a fibula.
Without too much delving into detail, I’ll note that the desperate and likely also futile solutions pursued by Jews aspiring to assimilate included the use of the Pondus Judaeus (a weight attached to the shaft skin and designed to stretch it over the glans) and the surgical procedure epipasmos, meaning “to pull over.” Not only social aspirations but the persecution of Jews as well drove these and related practices, which as recent as the Nazi era derived from a certain practical urgency.
It is against this background of persecution, creeping secularization, assimilation, social ambition, and the general Hellenization of Judea that the work of the Maccabees is best apprehended. Judah Maccabee’s status in particular, as a hero and as a symbol of religious freedom, derives from a military triumph which restored the primacy of Judaism over its chief rival Hellenism. Each year Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple, whose capture by Seleucid forces brought the Maccabees, or “Hammers,” into being. Having achieved the necessary military gains, the Maccabees and their supporters could get on with the work of repudiating the secular world of Socrates and Aristotle and Epicurus and forcibly reversing the drift of Mediterranean Jewry away from its religious traditions.
An essentially reactionary movement, the Maccabee revolt employed its military violence for the purpose of injecting an archaic and anachronistic tribal-based Abrahamic cult into the lives not only of the urban-dwelling Jew but ultimately of all who lived within the borders of the Hasmonean Dynasty. Conservative and imperialistic, this regime was driven by an imperative to impose legalistic religious orthodoxy — a program which included forced circumcision of the gentile — and exhibited an inflexibility and absolutism which would eventually lead to a ruinous war with Rome and the absorption of Palestine into the Empire.
Even a brief sketch such as this should amply indicate the probable nature of the appeal of Judah Maccabee to the cultish Mr. Gibson. The Maccabee grievance with Hellenism in many respects mirrors the actor’s own reactionary and traditionalist cause, in particular his animosity toward the Second Vatican Council and his bitter regard for the general drift of modernity. Every now and again, a window opens and we witness the raw brutality of Gibson’s (here one must pause for the mot juste) doctrine. It is difficult not to notice that, the heretical nature of his beliefs aside, Gibson resembles in many respects the stereotypical religious extremist, whether of the Roman Catholic, the Wahhabist, or, more to the point, the antique Hasidim variety. All foment holy war against progress and science and secularism, which they reject as wicked, and look forward with enthusiasm to the collapse of human civilization, by whatever means necessary. In the case of Gibson, this mindset has been indulged through art. Nonetheless, it is a perverse affair, deserving fully the scorn we reserve for the dirty work of religious totalitarians.