Robert Downey Jr. used his acceptance speech at this weekend’s Cinematheque awards to invite Hollywood to forgive Mel Gibson -- to allow him to work like any other actor, despite his past problems with everything from anti-Semitic rants to spousal abuse. From a Jewish perspective at least, his timing could not have been better. From an ethical perspective he may also be right.
Speaking to his audience just a week after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement --a day which promises that all sins can be forgiven and that we really can get passed our past, and still finding ourselves within the Jewish “season of forgiveness” which continues through the end of Sukkot later this week, Mr. Downey, however unintentionally, challenged those listening to take seriously the message of Jewish tradition at this time of year. But that was not the only religious tradition in play when he spoke. Paraphrasing the New Testament (John 8:7), he told the crowd that “unless you are without sin…you should forgive him (Mr. Gibson) and let him work.”
While I don’t share the view that one must be without sin in order to demand justice from others, I do think that Downey’s insistence that people look at themselves as part of the process is the right way to go. Why is it that people became so obsessed with Mel Gibson’s bad behavior? Were any Jews actually threatened, let alone harmed, by his drunken rant?
Could it be that particular communities, in this case Hollywood, are particularly hostile to the sins which they do not commit, because it deflects attention from those they do? Is Mel Gibson so much worse than all of his peers that he should be singled out among them? The scapegoat is also an ancient Yom Kippur tradition, but not one most people are eager to bring back - certainly not by using people instead of animals!
Furthermore, Downey explained that his desire to see Gibson rehabilitated by Hollywood was directly related to Gibson having played a pivotal role in Downey’s rehabilitation following his own problems with addiction and subsequent unemployment. Gibson believed in Downey when he was down, and now Downey wanted to return the favor. Right or wrong about his conclusion regarding Gibson, it seems like a decision to live out a teaching found in Leviticus 19:18, with parallels in many other traditions, that we should love our neighbor as our self. Rarely, if ever, bad advice to follow.
Finally, according to Jewish tradition, bans are typically set for specific periods of time, and are put in place with an accompanying clear path to communal re-integration. To the extent that Gibson is being punished for sins against the Jewish people, it would be appropriate to use that people’s experience not only to heighten sensitivities about slights against them, but also as a source of wisdom regarding dispensing justice and offering forgiveness.
How long is long enough for Gibson to be out in the cold? I am not sure. But I am certain that nobody would be worse off for taking Robert Downey Jr.’s words to heart -- they reflect some of the wisest insights I know regarding seeking atonement and offering forgiveness without giving up on the importance of justice.