Near the end came an incredibly powerful and moving moment of the film. All that had come before was mesmerizing, beautiful, and terrible. But this moment will remain branded in my mind.
Just as the judges sit to deliver their verdict one final man stands to speak. He has been silent. He is a rabbi. He begins by asking questions about the history of the Jews, posing them mostly to the other rabbi, who is also a judge. The questions begin with the Exodus and each one challenges the motives of God. What is so powerful is that this rabbi, who knows his Torah in and out, asks questions that require the listener to question, not what God did, but why he did it. This rabbi, named Akiba, accepts that God sent the plagues on Egypt and gave the Promised Land over to the Jews. What he questions, however, is whether this demonstrates God’s goodness. “What of the Egyptian children?” he asks. “Was the Promised Land empty?” Then comes the climax of his speech. He inverts the usual Jewish (and Christian, and Muslim) proclamation that “God is Good!”
“God is not good!” he cries. “God was never good! He was only on our side.”
That last phrase should be branded onto the hearts and into the minds of every believing person in the entire world. It reminds us of our great sin. The belief that because we are on top, because we are winners, because we are prosperous and happy and rich and comfortable, that God must be on our side. What an evil that sentiment is. What it requires, as Akiba saw so clearly, is a God who is a son of a bitch. It requries a vindictive, feckless, hateful, cruel, and wicked diety who’s morality is far surpassed by his creation.
God is convicted of breach of covenant.
Then the Germans come. Half of the men are taken and half left. As the selected men are taken one of them, a quivering, whimpering man, cries out to Akiba, “What now? What do we do now that we’ve convicted God?” Akiba answers, “Now we pray.” And so the half that are taken and the half that remain are shown praying. They each hold one hand over their heads because they have no headcoverings. They pray a liturgical prayer together, witnessing the greatness and mercy of God, and the half that were taken are led naked into a chamber that looks like a shower-room but, of course, is not.
So often artistic attempts to deal with issues like suffering, election, and the nature of God are either reductionist or just stupid. This, thankfully, is not. The film takes seriously the problems associated with true evil and suffering, as well as the sometimes paradoxical and even hypocritical nature of faith in God. For all of that I still felt a sense of hope in the end. I didn’t feel distant from God but drawn to him. The sense of horror at the sight of those men in that stark “shower” room was balanced with an equal sense of love for their nobility and their faith.