“Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
This Torah verse from Deuteronomy 16:20 is the inspiration for the name of the synagogue that I am honored to lead through the High Holidays starting tonight. They chose the name Congregation B’nai Tzedek (Children of Justice) inspired by that verse noting, “Our sages pointed out that the word tzedek is repeated in the verse to show us that justice must be our goal and that our means of achieving that goal must also be just.”
The United States is certainly no stranger to the challenge of doing justly while seeking justice. The amazing George Takei’s musical Allegiance, which premiers this month in San Diego, tells the shameful story of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Abu Ghraib torture, Guantanamo, and even the arguments to enter in the war in Iraq are all examples of the striving to balance justice, the challenge of the end justifying the means. America – who has rightly been a champion and model of justice in its history – is also confronted by the huge lapses in it to this day – our dealings with people unlike those in power – race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, country of origin, etc. – are littered with attempts to make a difference, but often fall short of doing so justly.
Such is the theme, obvious or underlying, of most every courtroom drama ever made. I cannot type these words without hearing Al Pacino shout, “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!” from …And Justice for All. But outside the court and its structure, justice gets even murkier.
Vigilante justice is the most challenging. Working for a higher good, but outside the legal system – which is typically ineffective and corrupt in the movies reflecting truths about our world. Sometimes I watch cop movies where they pursue some criminal or try to save an individual and I am horrified by the collateral damage that fills the film in the pursuit of specific justice. A single minded desire ignores the double “justice” of the Deuteronomy quote – just in our goals and just in our actions.
Superhero movies, one of my favorite genres, are especially rich in possibilities. Take the financial and critical blockbuster The Dark Knight. Batman is the epitome of vigilante justice. He works with very select members of the establishment (James Gordon), but on his terms and methods. As a fan we revel in watching him drop a mobster of a roof to break his legs (who oddly heals them remarkably quickly later in the film). But such justice only works because we trust Batman to only harm those who are deserving.
Harvey Dent, the District Attorney, represents the better way in the film – the “White Knight.” He represents the good way to achieve these goals while Batman is the flip of the coin, the necessary evil. With such intense expectation on him by Gotham City and by himself, he flips to madness and becomes Two-Face when his moral center is murdered and his moral self-sacrifice is ruined.
A partial aside/rant: While Katie Holmes was merely okay as Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins, I found the talented Maggie Gyllenhaal rather dull and not compelling in a much more important plot point. Batman’s entire morality has been based in the trilogy on Rachel’s goodness and his love for her. Harvey Dent’s entire character arc is based on his true love for her. But she was boring and did not convince me in any way that Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent were both that taken by her. In The Dark Knight Rises this was compounded as the entire set up of the film was based on these points. It reminded me of The Godfather: Part III. Winona Ryder, at the height of her talent and appeal, was set to play Mary Corleone. But she dropped out at the last minute to check into a clinic for depression and exhaustion. Sofia Coppola was hastily cast. Her looks and lack of an on-screen personality made it impossible to believe the Andy Garcia and Al Pacino (2x in one blog!) based their entire movie journey on their love for her. I thought The Dark Knight was brilliant. But Gyllenhaal’s weakness in a cast of genius stood as a stumbling block. Aside/Rant complete.
The Joker, of course, is a wild card. He does whatever he wants, however he wants, with no actual regard for good, evil, justice. He isn’t in it for money or power. He’ll kill a mobster, burn a pile of money, and blow up a ferry of criminals or civilians without any moral issue at play. In fact, we never learn his history or motivations (“Wanna know how I got these scars?”), which makes him all the scarier.
The intersection of Dark, White, and Wild Card gives the film its incredible tension and challenge. At the end of the film, with Harvey Dent now Two-Face and having killed several people include (corrupt) police offices, Batman decides the symbol of the White Knight is needed. He, the figure shrouded in dark, will take the fall for the murders preserving Dent’s legacy and setting up the plot of the sequel. I wondered then and I wonder now: Why not just blame the Joker? He is already a murdering sociopath. He is up on so many other charges, it’d be easy to add these to his docket. But that would violate the double notion of justice – ways and means – and be unacceptable to Batman’s moral code, but my own sense of justice is tempted. What about yours?
For another take on justice and the superhero, look for Dredd coming out next week. The ultimate bringing of judgment with means that might challenge your sense of justice, he abides by strict adherence to the law and believes “justice has no soul.” Check out this article for more.
We all seek justice. In the real world we live in, how we achieve and what we are achieving are both challenges we must struggle with and there are few easier answers.
As this is the final #BlogElul post, I’ll return to occasional posting on a variety of subjects especially Judaism and Movies soon. Thank you to all of you who read some or even all 29 of the posts. Thanks especially to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer who both organized #BlogElul and gave me the idea and encouragement to do it via the movies.
For those who start Rosh Hashanah tonight, may it be a time of great reflection, inspiration, and renewal. And if things get slow during services, think about any movie and try to figure out how it relates to the process of Teshuvah and change.