Mel Gibson on Judah Maccabee, Christopher Hitchens, and Circumcision
The director talks about his biopic on the Jewish hero of Hannukah
The news that Mel Gibson is going to make a biopic about Judah Maccabee, the great hero of the Hannukah story, did not come as a surprise to me. Well, it is somewhat surprising that Warner Bros.—or any studio, for that matter—would sign up Gibson (not to mention Joe Eszterhas, who is writing the script) to do anything, after his serial meltdowns.
But I’ve known about Gibson’s interest in the original Hebrew Hammer for several years. I’m working on a biography of Judah Maccabee for Nextbook (don’t ask me how it’s going), and so it was brought to my attention that Gibson is preoccupied with the subject. (My preoccupation is simple: Judah Maccabee led the first revolt for religious freedom in recorded history, and he is without parallel as a guerrilla fighter and as a man of faith. And he also bequeathed us a pretty excellent holiday.)
A few years ago, I was having dinner with Christopher Hitchens, who had recently launched an excoriating attack on Judah Maccabee in his book, God Is Not Great (Hitchens blames Judah Maccabee for, essentially, his success—the Maccabean revolt helped preserve, against the force and power of Greek culture, what Hitchens might call jealous-God Judaism, and thus paved the way for the birth of Christianity, which Hitch, as I’m sure you know, regrets). I happened to mention to Hitchens news that Gibson had expressed interest in the Judah story, which prompted Hitchens to look at me gravely and issue an order: “You must go to Los Angeles and stop him.”
So I did. I went to L.A. and spent an intermittently pleasant afternoon with Gibson. Obviously, I failed in my mission, but truth be told, I didn’t actually try very hard. I was so unbelievably amused to be in the presence of Hollywood’s leading anti-Semite, as well as one of my favorite actors (The Year of Living Dangerously is a much-loved movie here at Goldblog), that I didn’t argue against the idea. In any case, we wound up having a surprisingly complicated theological and historical discussion, about which I will write in my forthcoming book. But I thought, given the news of the week, that I would share some of the more absurd, and enlightening, moments of this visit.
Let me dispense first with the famous anti-Semitic blow-up. I asked him why it happened, and he answered me directly: “I was loaded, and some stupid shit can come out of your mouth when you’re loaded.”
But from what dark corner of his soul did this terrible accusation—that Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world—emanate? He said, “That day they were marching into Lebanon. It was one of those things. It was on the news.”
The “they” in question is the Israel Defense Forces. I found this answer to be proof, of course, of Gibson’s anti-Semitic tendencies. Most drunk people, when stopped by the police, don’t launch into tirades against Jews. He was obviously preoccupied with the putative sins of Jewish people, which raised the obvious question, why would he seek to make a film about one of the great Jewish heroes of history? Money, he said, was not a motivator.
“If you’re looking to make money out of this, forget it,” he said, citing the costs of staging period spectaculars. “Even Braveheart didn’t make much money.”
His interest stemmed, he said, from the simple fact that the Book of Maccabees (I and II, he said) are “ripping good reads.”
“I just read it when I was teenager, and it’s amazing. It’s almost like”—here, he grabbed my digital recorder, held it to his mouth, and spoke in a portentous movie-announcer voice—“They profaned his Temple. They killed his father. They ... all kinds of stuff. In the face of great odds for something he believed in”—here he switched out of movie-announcer voice—“Oh, my God, the odds they faced. The armies they faced had elephants! How cinematic is this! Even Judah’s dad—what's his name? Mattathias?—you kind of get this guy who more or less is trying to avoid the whole thing, but he just gets to a place where he’d had enough, and he just snapped!”
In other words, Judah Maccabee, his father, and his brothers, are like the heroes of every Mel Gibson movie.
I mentioned to Gibson the Hitchens critique of Judah Maccabee. Hitchens argues, in essence, “No Judah, no Jesus,” that Judaism at the time (2,100 years ago or so) would simply have been swamped by assimilationist forces, and would have disappeared before the birth of Jesus. And if Jesus had not been born into a traditional Jewish household ... well, you can figure out the rest.
“I can see where Hitchens is coming from, but he’s pretty puny in his thoughts, because he left out one vital ingredient,” Gibson said, “and that is that God can do what he damn well pleases! No matter what the Greeks did! And you know, he doesn’t bring that into consideration. I think he thinks that way because he might be an atheist. He’s an atheist, right?”
I’m still reading through transcripts of our lengthy discussions, and perhaps I’ll post a few more items, but for a fuller discussion of Gibson’s theology, and his motivation, you will be able to read my still nonexistent book on the subject.
However, I would be remiss not to include our extended discussion on circumcision. One of the more brutish aspects of the Hannukah story was the decision by the Maccabees to forcibly circumcise assimilated Jews. Some Jews, who had acquiesced to assimilation before the revolt, had even attempted to “rebuild” their foreskins. In other words, the penis plays a more central role in the Hannukah story than you were told in Hebrew school.
This all seemed like fodder for a discussion with Gibson. Here is a transcript of this part of the conversation.
Jeffrey Goldberg: There are some unpleasant aspects to this story, you know. Some crazy stuff went on. Some of the people were so in love with Greek culture that they would uncircumcise themselves.
Mel Gibson: I know! I read that. That’s weird. How do you do that?
JG: You attach weights to your penis, I think. I think they pull the skin down. Some people have extra skin.
MG: Fuck, I don’t know. I don’t know how you do it.
JG: I think they attach weights. Which has to—
MG: —Damage you.
JG: Well, hurt like I don’t know what. The whole idea was to go and wrestle naked. It wasn’t just in front of your wife that you were worried about. It was in the gymnasium.
MG: With the guys!
JG: I guess they didn’t want to be embarrassed with a circumcised prick.
JG: Yeah, dick. It was a war about circumcision in some ways.
JG: I don’t know how you dramatize that.
MG: You have to mention it, but you wouldn’t want to make it a thing in the movie. “Hold them down!” Jesus.
JG: Try to convince your actors.
MG: In this scene, we’ll stay away from the disgusting aspects. We’ll stay on the guy’s face. Aaargghhh!
JG: Well, you did that before. You had them pull out your intestines in Braveheart.
MG: Disemboweled. You know, they castrated William Wallace. First they castrated him, then they dragged him through the streets behind horses.
JG. They did?
MG: I softened it a lot. They cut off his dick and his balls and they dragged him through the streets. Then they hung him up and drew and quartered him. He was a real wreck.
JG: I didn’t realize they castrated him.
MG: It was hideous. Yecchhh. You don’t put that in films. I thought, “I’m not doing that.”
JG: The interesting thing about Judah Maccabee is that he sweeps down from the hills and he takes boys, the children of hellenized Jews, boys who aren’t circumcised, and he circumcises them.
MG: Yeah, I didn’t even remember all the moves he took.
JG: That’s the one that always stuck in my mind.
MG: Hey, I was circumcised. That was more like just a medical procedure. It wasn’t for religious purposes. Cleanliness or something.
JG: Oh yeah?
MG: I don’t know what it was for. And one of the doctors made a wallet out of it.
JG: You rub it and it turns into a suitcase, right?
MG: Yes. Hey, did you know they use foreskins for replacing eyelids?
JG: No they don’t.
MG: Yeah, they do.
JG: Come on, really?
MG: You tend to look a bit cock-eyed, though.
JG: I can’t believe I just walked into that one.
MG: Me either.
UPDATE: I see that various Jewish organizations are rallying their forces against Warner Bros. and Mel Gibson over yesterday’s announcement. Their goal is to get this movie stopped. But what they will do instead is give Gibson yards of free publicity. We’ve seen this before, with Passion of the Christ. My opinion, FWIW: I don’t care if he makes this movie or not. He’s not actually important. It’s better for these Jewish organizations to spend their time focused on Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. These are things I worry about. I don’t worry about Mel Gibson.