The Kabbalists tell us that holiness is to be found even in the basest things, and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is undoubtedly base, but it also contains sparks of holiness. For example, I can’t help but notice the uncanny parallels between Borat’s mission and that given to Abraham in our current Torah reading.
God tells Abraham “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Borat, who has been languishing in a Kazakh prison for the humiliation he has heaped on Kazakhstan, is also sent on a mission far from home. In this case, not by God but by Kazakhstan’s Premier. The mission is to deliver the Kazakh Minister of Culture, Johnny the Monkey, to President Donald Trump so that the reputation of the Kazakh nation can be restored.
Neither protagonist fully understands the nature of their mission, which is of greater significance than either of them can imagine. But they go all the same, Abraham travelling by camel, Borat by cargo ship, Abraham led by faith, Borat misled by his leader, but I won’t spoil the ending.
Abraham and Borat also both face the ultimate test as their mission develops. Abraham is called upon to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. Borat ultimately feels compelled to sacrifice his only daughter, Tutar, a feral teenager of 15 who has spent her life living in a filthy cage. After she ate Jonny the Monkey on her way to America (Don’t ask), Borat decided that he needed to gift her to VP Mike Pence to save the plan (As you would). According to one commentator, Isaac was close to age 13 at the time of his binding (Ibn Ezra Genesis 22:5) – so just a few years younger than Tutar (Don’t even go there. They would have made a terrible Shiduch.)
I imagine the fathers, Borat and Abraham, comparing notes in perfect Hebrew over a glass of spirit after their respective ordeals. Borat may have observed that while Isaac seemed content to be the sacrificial lamb (Genesis 22:7-8; Rashi Genesis 22:8), Tutar refused to allow herself to be abused and stood up to her father. Borat and Abraham would also acknowledge to one another the lesson that life requires self-sacrifice, not human sacrifice, and that children are sacred.
But the real thing these two figures – the religious hero and the fictional imbecile- have in common is their ability to smash idols, to hold up a mirror to the world and show it the error of its ways, to reveal to us that our cherished certainties are mere mirages, irrational, vain, and sometimes downright dangerous. And it is here where we feel most uncomfortable.
Because both Abraham and Borat (through his creator Sasha Baron Cohen) use apparent deception and subterfuge to make their point. Baron Cohen, particularly, seems to enjoy confirming people in their mistaken beliefs, to bring them low, to show up their weaknesses. Abraham, the iconoclast, is capable of similar behavior (although not to the same degree as Baron Cohen). The Midrashic depiction of Abraham smashing his father’s idols and placing a stick in the hand of one of them is a case in point (Genesis Rabbah 38.13). But we don’t need to rely on Midrash.
In Genesis 12:13 and Genesis 20:2, we see Abraham encouraging rich and powerful men (Pharaoh and Abimelech respectively) to believe that Sarah (his wife) was in fact his sister. Abraham claims to have skewed the truth for fear of his own life- these men might have killed him if they had taken a shine to Sarah knowing her to be his Mrs. But is it not possible that Abraham wanted, subconsciously at least, to demonstrate to the world- Baron Cohen style- how powerful men treat women they imagine to be ‘available’? Was this Pharaoh’s and Abimelech’s make-your own-mind-up Giuliani moment that never happened?
And yet there is something in this method which is unfair and troubling. When people are tricked, they may be unmasked as stupid, wrongheaded, and flawed but what we also come to understand is their vulnerability, lack of omniscience, and mortality. The danger is that we are too busy laughing to see that. The risk also is that everything becomes an object of mockery.
Abraham is the original iconoclast. Baron Cohen a mere mimic. We too must continue Abraham’s work, smashing all idols, our own and everyone else’s, lest we mistake our deeply held fantasies for truth, but we also need to live Abraham’s other mission, still unfolding, to uphold our humanity, the message of what we now call the “Abraham Accords”: “respect for human dignity and freedom”, “peace among the three Abrahamic religions and all humanity”, and “tolerance and respect for every person in order to make this world a place where all can enjoy a life of dignity and hope, no matter their race, faith or ethnicity”.