Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Les Miserables Film is Infused with Faith


LIKE MANY OF MY COLLEAGUES, I too was moved to write about Les Misérables after I saw the movie. This was published in Temple Beth Emeth's newsletter, The Truth, as the Rabbi's Message for the January 2013 edition:

I recently saw the new movie adaptation of the musical Les Misérables. I have loved this musical for years and it was the first show I ever saw on Broadway, on a theater club field trip to New York when I was about 16-years-old. It has been a long time since I’ve seen it, though. Watching the movie, I was struck by the extent to which the story -- which is largely bleak -- and the movie are infused with religious faith.

There is significant use of the imagery of crosses and crucifixes, and faith in God plays an explicit role in the transformation of the hero, Jean Valjean. I can’t think of any other movies or television shows aimed at a popular audience with such a clear, strong, and positive portrayal of religion, including other works that are also set in time periods when religion would have played a major role in daily life (I’m looking at you, Downton Abbey).


Religion in Les Mis is not portrayed as communal—you don’t see any church services or anyone going to church (though many people certainly would have in early-19th-century France). Rather, faith is shown as something intimate and deeply relevant to the daily decisions one makes about how to live. It is faith that leads to an act of mercy that changes Valjean’s life. The bishop who helps him sees himself as God’s agent, and tells Valjean that any sense of indebtedness or gratitude he may feel should not be toward another human being but toward God. From then on Valjean does see himself as belonging to God, and because of that he feels a duty to act compassionately toward others. In doing so, he saves lives as his life was saved.

This all happens in the context of Catholicism, but it is certainly not foreign to Judaism. We, too, have as part of our theology the responsibility to care for others through tzedakah (giving to the poor), g’milut chasadim (acts of compassion or lovingkindness), bikur cholim (visiting the sick), and more. The great 20th-century philosopher Martin Buber wrote that God is in the relationships between people in those moments when they truly connect with one another. We recognize that we are all created in the Divine image.

It is easy to point to all the damage people have done in our world in the name of religion. And it is certainly true that religion is not required to live a moral life and be an upstanding person. The story in Les Misérables, however, shows the impact faith can have when it infuses a person’s life—not in a dogmatic way, and not necessarily in a way that would be obvious to another, but as a way to remain conscious at all times of a powerful reason to be honest, to live ethically, and to strive to be a force for good in the world. Religion provides a moral anchor. The reason that religious people practice tikkun olam (repair of the world) is because we are acting as God’s agents, doing God’s work. It’s not about feeling good about yourself (though you might), it’s about serving something larger than yourself, feeling responsible to do good even when it’s hard, even when it hurts, even when it’s not in our immediate self-interest. This is religion at its most beautiful, and this is, I believe, why faith is worthwhile.

As expressed in a lyric in Les Misérables, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” In this new secular year, let us show lovingkindness and compassion to our fellow human beings, and may we see the face of God everywhere we look.

Rabbi Heidi Hoover is rabbi at Temple Beth Emeth v'Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek, a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, NY. She is member of Rabbis Without Borders. Follow her on Twitter at @HeidiHoover.