In 1862 a reviewer wrote the following about Victor Hugo’s publication of Les Miserables: “One cannot read without unconquerable disgust all the details Monsieur Hugo gives regarding the successful planning of riots.” And yet most people describe the Broadway production of “Les Miserables” to be among their favorites. It is a remarkable show. 150 years after the Paris Uprising of 1832, or depending on your perspective the June Rebellion, with no allegiances to either side in that struggle standing among us, we are afforded the luxury of historical perspective. We can more easily judge the artist’s work.
This is among the challenges confronting us when evaluating the production of John Adam’s opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer.” Not only is thirty years insufficient time to grant us an objective, historical view, but the struggle continues. Palestinian terrorists remain our enemies. The memory of a painful summer of war still haunts us. We do not see a death, but murder.
And yet I decided to evaluate the opera. Although I am not an opera aficionado, I remain committed to the arts and the creative enterprise. The charge of antisemitism is a serious charge and I wished to evaluate the opera and make a judgment for myself. I downloaded the libretto and listened to the work on Spotify. I could decide without patronizing the Met. And so I spent the better part of an afternoon listening to the music and reading the opera’s words in order to make an informed and educated decision.
Here is my judgment. The opera is not antisemitic. The portrayal of antisemitic characters (one characterization would certainly fit that description) does not automatically make the work or its composers antisemitic. Moreover, the portrayal of our enemies (even a forgiving and understanding one) and our struggle with these foes, does not make the opera antisemitic. Antisemitism is a real danger, but I did not hear it in the “The Death of Klinghoffer.” I found the work evocative and even haunting. The captain sings about the power of the sea: “Which sharpens all one’s senses. Good and evil are not abstract there.” Isn’t that what our times require: a sharpening of the distinction between good and evil?
Even humanizing terrorists, and seeking to understand murderers, does not make art blasphemous. It might make us uncomfortable as one of the greatest works of literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, does, but discomfort is not reason enough to reject and dismiss. I believe art is supposed to raise difficult, and even painful, questions. The poet Denise Levertov writes of the prophetic quality of art: “They don’t bring about change in themselves, but they can contribute to it simply by stimulating the imagination and thus making empathy and compassion more possible.” (“Poetry, Prophecy, Survival”) Art is supposed to push boundaries. Our Bible testifies to this fact. There the prophetic voice is merged with the poetic. Prophetic inspiration is equivalent to art. Levertov observes that this voice help us to “reveal that unity, that trembling web of being.” The prophet’s voice trembles and elucidates.
For Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer, the daughters of Leon and Marilyn, this is an impossible thing to ask. (Here is their statement about the Met’s production.) Who wants their murdered father to become a symbol, to be reimagined by an artist rather than held in their arms? For them the opera is insensitive. Their eyes are clouded by tears. Their vision is obscured. It is supposed to be dimmed. They remain mourners. They should only see the father who was a good man, who so loved their mother, who held them and played with them. They are too intimate to stand at a distance and evaluate the history of this struggle. They are now a part of history. Nothing but pain is revealed. I tremble before their grief.
I trembled: would I too be so pained and appalled by the opera’s reported sympathizing with terrorists and apologizing for murderers? I was on guard to what many Jewish critics had offered.
When I listened to the opera I did not hear such sympathy. I heard the music become angry when the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians sang. A terrorist sings that he does not want peace, only death. I heard Leon Klinghoffer rebuke the terrorists. I heard a Swiss Grandmother turn aside from the suffering of Jews. I heard the opera conclude with the anguished pain of Marilyn Klinghoffer’s aria. She condemns the captain: “You embraced them!” I am sympathetic to Lisa and Ilsa’s tragedy. I mourn, again and again, and now yet one more time over yesterday’s terror victims. May little Chaya rest in peace.
We are seemingly trapped in this same history. We are so pained, we are so aggrieved, we are so beaten down that we hear even understanding notes of our enemies’ plight as apology for their evil acts. One can deplore and condemn such acts while seeking to understand, and imagine, their causes. That is what art is supposed to do. That is what the prophet and the poet offer. I do not wish to live forever in what the Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai calls the “Had Gadya machine,” the wheel of death that eats both Palestinians and Jews. I wish to do my part to alleviate suffering.
As a Jew my empathy is first and foremost to the pain of other Jews. And yet I wonder. When does the pain of my tragedies blind me to the travail of others? Have all Jewish tragedies become so personal that we see ourselves, that we view each and everyone of us, as mourners? The tradition advises: when the dead lie before the mourner we ask nothing of them. Are there so many dead that we can no longer even see the questions that must be asked?
We are not all Klinghoffers.
Following the destruction visited on the world by God in this week’s portion, the surviving Noah not only builds an altar to give thanks, but also plants a vineyard to make wine. And what does he do with this wine? “He drank of the wine and became drunk…” (Genesis 9:21) His scars too are real. Is it possible that such proximity with catastrophe can lead to madness? Death and destruction are so near, so ever present, so personal that we are unable to see clearly.
Are we so intimate with demonic hate and tragedies that we have become as if intoxicated? Are we then unable to distinguish between real and imagined threats?
Antisemitism is real and dangerous. It is not to be found at the Met. Remain forever vigilant. Open your ears to music.
Empathy and healing begin by listening.
The prophet declares: “Incline your ear and come to Me; Hearken, and you shall be revived.” (Isaiah 55:3)