Monday The Rabbi Saw “Basterds”

Rabbi Mark Diamond is Executive Vice President of the Southern California Board of Rabbis.

On Monday the rabbi went to the movies.  More accurately, a large group of rabbis and Jewish leaders attended a private screening of Inglourious Basterds sponsored by the Jewish Journal, the Israeli Consulate and the Board of Rabbis.  Following the film, Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman led a discussion with producer Lawrence Bender and actor Christoph Waltz (“Col. Hans Landa”).  They were joined from the audience by actor Eli Roth (“Sgt. Donny Donowitz,” a.k.a. “The Bear Jew”) and director and writer Quentin Tarantino (an unexpected bonus). 

This was not your typical rabbis’ gathering.  Then again, Inglourious Basterds is not your typical World War II movie.  The film is set in Nazi-occupied France and tells the fictional story of a squad of Jewish-American soldiers (“the Basterds”) who foment fear throughout the Third Reich by killing and scalping Nazis.  Inglourious Basterds is replete with graphic violence, inspired performances (especially Waltz and Mélanie Laurent, who portrays French-Jewish refugee “Shoshanna Dreyfuss”), a rollercoaster ride of comical and terror-filled scenes, and enough provocative dialogue and action to keep moviegoers talking for weeks.

That’s what I appreciated most about the film – it generates strong feelings in viewers.  My informal survey of colleagues who attended the screening reveals a wide range of reactions, from positive comments (e.g. “I loved the film”) to negative ones (e.g. “Revenge is not a valid Jewish response”).  During the question and answer period after the screening, Christoph Waltz discouraged the audience from worrying about what others might say or think about Inglorious Basterds.  Instead, he encouraged viewers to form their own opinions of the film. 

I agree, for this is what a work of art is supposed to do.  For me, Inglourious Basterds is a modern-day Midrash on the Purim story.  With apologies to my traditional friends, I see the Biblical Book of Esther as an ancient Jewish fable of justice and revenge.  To wit, what would happen if the tables were turned and we had power over our enemies?  With all the merrymaking and child-centered focus of the Purim holiday, we tend to forget that the Jews of Shushan kill 75,000 of their foes toward the end of the narrative (Esther 9:16).  Then they go out and have a big party to celebrate their success. 

Put in stark terms, was this too good to be true?  Or too bad to be true?  No one I respect would disagree with the premise that it would have been glorious had a band of Jewish soldiers killed Hitler and his top henchmen.  But what do we make of scalping the heads of enemy combatants?  Or of killing innocent people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (a.k.a. “collateral damage”)?  Is violent revenge the victim’s only legitimate response to terror and brutality?

These are among the difficult questions that emerge from the film.  We hear echoes of a similar debate in this week’s parasha.  As the Torah portion opens, Jacob is frightened and alone.  He has not seen Esau in twenty years, and fears that his estranged brother intends to settle old scores.  Jacob’s anxiety is heightened by the messengers’ report that Esau is approaching with an escort of four hundred men. 

The Hebrew text of the Torah captures the true extent of Jacob’s fear.  Vayira Yaakov me’od vayeitzer lo.  Literally, “Jacob was very frightened and upset.” (Gen. 32:8).  According to Jewish tradition, no word in the Torah is redundant.  Why then does the text state that Jacob was both frightened and upset.  A Midrash answers that Jacob was doubly fearful.  He was afraid that Esau and his retinue might harm him and his family.  And Jacob was upset that he might lash out in acts of hatred and revenge against his brother.  He was fearful of what it would mean for the hunted to become the hunter.

Seeing and setting Inglourious Basterds in the context of this week’s Torah portion and the Book of Esther frame my understanding of this fascinating film.  They help me to appreciate why the movie evokes such strong feelings in viewers, especially an audience of rabbis and Jewish leaders. I encourage you to see the film if you have not already done so, and to probe the disturbing issues it raises for all of us.