Monday, July 14, 2008

Hellboy II: A More Jewish Demon Prince?

[Selma Blair, the most Jewish aspect of the Hellboy films]

I am an unapologetic movie lover. I see all kinds of movies. This includes much that is lowbrow, popcorn, and grindhouse quality (I just enjoyed the low-budget New Zealand camp horror film, Black Sheep). An entertaining movie is just entertaining. I even honor what I call "brilliantly stupid" cinema - films like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Dumb and Dumber. I especially love superhero films (I'm a sucker for any kind of mythology), though shockingly few are truly good films, despite the immense amounts of cash lavished on them. Indiana Jones IV, for example, continues in the stunningly mediocre tradition of IJ II. IJ III was only salvaged from the same fate by the brilliant conceit of casting Sean Connery as Indy's dad. Raiders of the Lost Ark seems to me to just have very long coattails that have managed to carry all the subsequent (with an emphasis on "sub-") films.

But I am drifting off topic. I just saw Hellboy II, which with its stunning visuals, great creatures, and refreshingly goofy humor actually excelled past its predecessor (When was the last time that happened, Alien II?). Up until now, there hasn't been much of a Jewish subtext to the character -- he's staunchly Catholic -- except that he is misunderstood and has horns (ha-maskil yavin). However, HB II took a step away from the Christian-based good vs. evil thematics that marked the first film, and took a foray into the pre-Christian traditions of fairy. Though the clear inspiration is Irish folk myth, I was struck by how the backstory (In ancient times fairies and humans struggle for control of the earth, only to settle on a truce once a super weapon is introduced, causing the spirits to retreat into the remote places of the earth) neatly resembles the medieval Jewish tradition about the conflicts between people and shedim. You can see what I'm talking about by going to my earlier entry Demon Lovers, Sword of Power: The Other Children o...

As for HB himself, sorry, no red devils with a passion for cats and big pistols for us, but for a demon lord with a good side that does appear in Jewish tradition, see:
Asmodeus, Ashmodei: King of Demons, Solomon's Alte...
Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Friday, July 04, 2008

God: Blessing and Blessed

Many Jewish prayers begin with the phrase Baruch Atah Adonai...Literally, that's "Blessed are You, O Lord..." Blessed by whom? Ever since Parmenides, western philosophic theology has hated the idea that God is not self-sufficient. Yet the God of Israel is frequently portrayed as in need of humanity's partnership. It is implicit throughout the Bible, where God's anger over humanity's disloyalty betrays an anxiety that He might, in fact, lose us.

[Forgetful Angel, by Paul Klee]

While God in Rabbinic literature places less emphasis on God's frustration, it is at times even more forthright in describing God as less than wholly autonomous. At the very least, it seems, God needs our encouragement:

It was taught as Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha says: "I once entered the innermost part of the Temple to offer incense and saw Akatriel-YaH, seated upon a high and exalted throne. God said to me: 'Ishmael, My son, bless Me [barcheini]!' I replied: 'May it beYour will that Your compassion overcome Your anger. May Your compassion prevail over Your other attributes. May You deal with Your children compassionately. May You not judge us solely with strict justice!' And God nodded to me." (Berakhot 7a).

According to the commentary that follows this maaseh, we learn from this that the blessing of an ordinary person should not be taken lightly. If God says that She wants to be blessed by "mere mortals," one might well ask, who am I to intervene on behalf of God? But on the other hand, who am I to argue with a divine request? To me, this is a great example of rabbinic Judaism's "audacious humility" (or is it "humble audacity"?) -- we recognize our own independent power to improve upon God's creation and even to "improve" God, even if it is achieved, paradoxically, by submitting ourselves to God's will.

But the theme of the interdependence of God and man is portrayed in an even more daring maaseh. In this one, Moses ascends to heaven to receive the Torah, only to find God feeling a little overwhelmed by the business of keeping up with the creation She has unleashed:

Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi also said: When Moses ascended on high, he found the Holy Blessed One tying crowns on the letters. He said to him, "Is there not 'Peace' in your town [won't people even wish me well]?" He answered, "Shall a servant offer a greeting of 'Peace!' to his master?" He said, "Yet you should help Me." Immediately he cried out to Him And now may the power of the Lord be magnified, as You have spoken (Numbers 14:17) (Shabbat 89a)

This is a particularly clever story, because the darshan builds it's startling premise around a verse from the Torah in which Moses offers his verbal encouragement to God, thereby establishing that God's need for us is actually attested to in the central revelation of our tradition. But again, it appears we can best assist God's by heeding to His will, and even more so if we deploy God's own words to sustain Him and His purpose.

Zal G'mor: To learn more, consult the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism - http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050