Paul Haggis, two rabbis and “Million Dollar Baby”

Strange things happen when you’re sitting alone, at your laptop, at Clementine’s in West Los Angeles. Like a brief conversation I just had, that went like this:

A tall man wearing a French beret approaches. “Have we met before? Or have I just seen you here?”

“We haven’t met,” I say.

“Oh, well, hi. I’m Paul Haggis.”

He said it like it was nothing. Like it was just another name in this town, and not: “I’m Paul Haggis, as in, I wrote ‘Casino Royale’ and ‘Million Dollar Baby’ Paul Haggis. I have Oscars on my mantle.”

He quickly headed off, drove past on the way out and waved from his Lotus. Goodbye Paul Haggis.

I contemplated chasing after him for an email address but then I thought, ‘He’s not Jewish! Whatever will I use it for?’ And then I realized I had made a terrible mistake: everybody is a little bit Jewish.

But not everybody is the subject of deep Shabbes lunch conversation—with two rabbis, I might add—as was the case with Paul Haggis this past weekend.

Over lunch, Rabbi Penina Podwol, a teacher of the professorial kind at New Community Jewish High School (aka New Jew), was reflecting back on the school year that just ended and mentioned one of its highlights: discussing the film “Million Dollar Baby” with teenage students. Podwol used the film’s euthanasia plot as a launch pad for discussing Jewish medical ethics. The kids really liked that, she said, but they were disturbed that Clint Eastwood kills Hillary Swank in the end.

“But she was completely paralyzed from the neck down,” I objected.

At which point, Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Associate Dean of the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies at AJU as well as Rabbi Podwol’s husband, asked: “Was she conscious? Or was she a vegetable?”

“She was conscious,” Rabbi Podwol answered.

“Oh, well that’s a different story,” Rabbi Alexander said. “Someone who is conscious can still love.”

Rabbi Podwol pointed out that she had asked a loved one (Clint Eastwood, her sort of surrogate father) to help her die. He had presented her with options for what she might do with her life—post glorious boxing career—but none appealed. And besides, were her avenues for love the same now that she was so limited in the world?

“Her whole identity was wrapped up in her physicality,” I added, “her place in the world was as a boxer.”

“Well did she have a living will?” Rabbi Alexander asked. No, she didn’t, but if she had, it was decided, perhaps they would not have saved her in the first place.

“Technology complicates things,” the rabbis agreed.

But technology is a modern reality, and in a world where technology can be life sustaining, what does it mean to end your life by removing it?

The conversation turned to assisted suicide; and how it would have been really great if Rabbi Elliot Dorff, one of the country’s leading thinkers on Jewish bioethics, were there to enlighten us.

So Paul Haggis, if you’re reading this, now you know your very own importance to the Jewish people. And since you dramatically defected from Scientology and, oh I don’t know, might be looking for another religious enterprise to cathect to—you should know you are always welcome to join our Shabbat lunch conversations about your movies.