Pikuach Nefesh

I haven’t been a particularly devout Jew since the day after my bar mitzvah (and possibly not then, either).  However, if there’s one argument I’d still make in favor of Judaism over any other faith, it would be how it places the preservation of human life above all other Earthly considerations.

 To be sure, Jewish law contains more intricately-detailed directives about how to conduct one’s private affairs than the Republican Party platform on acid.  To be a fully observant Jew is to be overwhelmed by minutiae about everything from which foods to eat—and on what plates and with which silverware—to which activities may—and may not—be performed on the Sabbath.  (Going for a short walk?  Yes.  Riding a bike?  No.)

However, overriding all of this is the concept of Pikuach Nefesh, which stipulates that if a person’s life is in jeopardy, you are compelled to violate every Jewish law and custom in the book to ensure that that person does not die.

In our secular American society, we like to think that this basic moral imperative goes more or less without saying (e.g., if a man is drowning in a river, you don’t ask what day of the week it is before jumping in to save him), but religion does not always make things so simple—particularly when it comes to faith itself.

Reading the Old Testament, we find that God values his own supremacy above all else, demanding nothing so much as total trust and submission from his human creations, up to and including when such blind faith might result in the deliberate taking of another person’s life.  What other lesson can we draw from the story of Abraham, after all, than that Abraham’s love for the Lord was so great that he would rather murder his own son than wonder if God, in asking him to do so, hadn’t gone a little bit crazy?

Is that the take-home lesson for Abraham’s descendants?  “If a voice in your head tells you to kill the people you love, you’d better listen”?

In a manner of speaking:  Yes.  For the truly devout—those who take God seriously and the Bible literally—faith is a virtue greater than life itself.

As a nonbeliever, I do not (and probably cannot) appreciate the immense burden of negotiating the word of God—supposedly the source of all absolute truth in the universe—with certain instincts that might contradict it.  I do not know what it feels like to have a long, dark night of the soul.

What I can appreciate, however, is the passion of those who have experienced the crucible of doubt firsthand and have spent a lifetime wrestling with its deathly implications.

One such person is Martin Scorsese, a lapsed Catholic with a new film that examines the nature of religious (Christian) faith with a depth and seriousness that—in the world of cinema, at least—only comes around once in a blue moon.

His movie is called Silence.  Based on a 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō, it follows a pair of young Jesuit priests (played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who sneak into Japan in 1639 to bear witness to a society officially cleansed of Christianity.  Ostensibly, their “mission” is to track down a fellow cleric, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who disappeared into Japan several years earlier and allegedly renounced his faith as a way to save his own skin.

(Warning:  Spoilers ahead.)

Rodrigues—the more zealous of the two men—refuses to believe that Father Ferreira has apostatized merely to get along easier in a foreign, Buddhist culture.  What Rodrigues does not yet comprehend—and what he will spend the remainder of his journey discovering—is the profound cruelty inflicted by Japanese officials upon Christians—Japanese and non-Japanese alike—who publicly affirm their fealty to Jesus Christ.

Because Christianity was formally banned by the Japanese government throughout the 17th century and beyond, those who practiced it had to do so in secret and at great personal risk.  As with communism in 1950s America or homosexuality throughout Africa and the Middle East today, to be a Christian in Edo-era Japan required a network of interdependence amongst its practitioners, each of whom lived with a perpetual fear that someone would eventually rat them all out, with consequences almost too horrible to contemplate.  Surely, to carry on like this is the very definition of courage.

On their way to Father Ferreira, Rodrigues and his companion, Garupe, spend a great deal of time in remote mountain hideaways simply performing their clerical duties—lighting candles, hearing confessions, etc.—and we are shown how, in a repressive, closed-off society, even the smallest of religious rituals becomes a dignified act of defiance, as well as a means of salvation and solace in the face of an otherwise hopeless political reality.

In the end, the real challenge for Rodrigues—as it was for Ferreira before him—is whether his steadfast fidelity to Christian teaching is worth losing everything for, including not just his own life, but the lives of others.  His captors’ ultimate brutality, it turns out, is not simply to kill or torture him, but to force him into an impossible ethical dilemma whereby he must decide what God really wants from him without being given any indication of what the correct answer might be.

As much as one might defend martyring oneself for a religious ideal, does the same argument extend to martyring others against their will?  How many lives are you willing to extinguish in order to remain spiritually pure?  And if the cost of that purity is so very steep, how can you be so sure that you’re acting morally at all?

You can’t.  Without a direct hotline to God himself (if even then), you simply cannot know for certain what the so-called “right thing” is.  Scorsese understands this as well as any filmmaker working today, and Rodrigues’s torment over this question is what makes Silence so compelling:  Here is a man questioning the nature of his own heart for the first time in his adult life, fearful that everything he’s been taught might be wrong, yet stubbornly clinging to the hope that his work has not been in vain.

If you think Scorsese is going to give you a clean, final answer on this, you’re barking up the wrong film.  The movie’s (and novel’s) title refers to the chasm between the absolutism of dogma and the ambiguity of real life, and that gap is where all great drama resides.

To witness how single-mindedly and unsparingly Scorsese has tackled this subject is to understand why it took nearly 30 years for a studio to give him the green light.  As with all so-called “passion projects,” it is very clear that Scorsese made this movie for the benefit of exactly one person:  himself.  As a commercial product, Silence is risky at best and crazy at worst.  As a window into how a serious Catholic has come to regard the human soul during his 74 years on Earth, it is something close to a triumph.


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