Perhaps tangential to this month’s topic, I have nonetheless been thinking about how Julie and I recently went to see the film of Les Miserables, the musical/opera based on Victor Hugo’s magnificent novel. Though the film was flawed in some key ways, we both enjoyed it very much– I’ve seen the musical five times, and introducing it to Julie was one of my great successes.
I love the musical, and I love the book on which it was based. Hugo’s novel is deeply religious and deeply populist, both of which speak to my heart quite a bit. He wrote it in no small part as a paean to Paris and the French People, but for my part, what is most compelling are the interwoven three themes of faith and salvation, love and sacrifice, law and justice.
As most know, the story follows Jean Valjean, a peasant who steals some bread to feed his starving nieces and nephews, is sentenced to five years in prison for it, and, after trying to escape from the hell that was French prison in the nineteenth century, ends up serving nineteen years for his “crime.” After his release, he is bitter and filled with hate, but upon being shown mercy and kindness by the Bishop of Digne, he breaks parole, assumes a new identity, and establishes a good life as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and mayor of a small city, Montreuil-sur-mer. He is tracked through his life by the relentless Inspector Javert, whose fanatical devotion to the law brooks no mercy for escaped convicts and parole-breakers. Valjean is forced to flee his life in Montreuil in order to bring up the orphaned daughter of a woman named Fantine, for whose death Valjean feels responsible. Javert tracks him and the girl to Paris, where they disappear for many years, as Valjean assumes the identity of a gardener at a nunnery. Eventually, during the failed uprising of 1848, Valjean encounters Javert again at the barricades, frees Javert from the revolutionary students, and ultimately offers to surrender himself, demanding only to save the life of a student called Marius, beloved of Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosette. Javert, unable to reconcile these good actions with Valjean being a parole-breaking ex-convict and therefore “evil,” commits suicide. Marius and Cosette marry, but Valjean disassociates himself from their lives and ultimately dies of a broken heart, in no small part driven by his shame at his own past.
It’s a beautiful story, and though profoundly Christian in many ways– especially in its fervent embrace of martyrdom as symbolic of righteousness– it also has some deeply Jewish aspects.
Perhaps first and foremost, Jean Valjean is importantly Jewishly because he exemplifies the value of teshuvah (repentance). Our tradition values teshuvah greatly, and holds that one who has sinned and truly repented is even greater than one who has been innocent of wrongdoing his whole life. I have always thought that this attitude is rooted in our origins as former slaves. Who better to understand the value of casting off shame to do what is right than a bunch of escaped slaves who turned to the worship of the One God? In this way, Valjean is a deeply Jewish character: he also is an escaped slave who turns to the worship of the One God. He has been mistreated by the greater society around him, yet shows he has the potential to excel in that society and be respectable, and does not yearn for success and power: his greatest joy comes from raising his daughter with love, in a convent, where she knows only the comfort and safety of family and the worship of God. The framing may be Christian, but the values are very typical of the Jewish tradition: Valjean is the baal teshuvah (repenter) who truly commits himself to kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name).
But to my mind, even more important is the theme of law and justice. Javert, who was born in a prison and redeems himself by becoming first a prison guard and then a police officer, absolutizes good and evil, and does not make any distinctions between the law, moral good, and God (or, vice versa: lawbreaking, moral evil, and sin). He hunts Valjean through decades and over hundreds of miles, unable to truly conceive of the notion of teshuvah. For Javert, the law is by definition not only good, but Good. Criminals are, by definition, evil. Lawbreaking is to be addressed summarily and swiftly with the harsh punishments of prison: near-starvation, forced labor, filthy conditions, followed by eternal parole that formally stigmatizes the felon, and condemns them to lives of persecution and poverty.
This is an excellent example of how we do not deal with law and justice in Judaism– perhaps ironic, considering that Christians, historically, have often rebuked Judaism for being a religion of laws, constraining and harsh. But though we may be a religion of laws, those laws are neither constraining nor harsh, and, at least according to our Rabbinic tradition, they have never been so.
We often quote the Rabbinic maxim, dina d’malchuta dina he (“the law of the land is binding law,” attributed to the great third-century sage Shmuel) to justify following secular law in those areas where we have allowed the secular courts and government jurisdiction originally covered in halachah. The full context of the maxim, however, is that the law of the land is binding law, to the degree that it seeks for the same kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) as Torah law.
In other words, this isn’t just a statement regarding the jurisdictional supremacy of Torah law over secular law or vice versa: it is a recognition that Torah law exists to foster moral and compassionately just society, and when it fails to do so, the halachic system demands reinterpretation of the law l’shem tikkun ha’olam (for the purposes of correcting the way the world works). And while secular law should ideally be the same, we recognize that it is not always designed in this fashion, or used in that way.
We basically trust that secular governments are trying to do the right thing, and we respect them as vital social instruments for that purpose (as it says in Pirkei Avot 3:2 “Rabbi Chanina, the Assistant High Priest, said, ‘Pray for the well-being of the government, because without the fear of its authority, people would eat each other alive.'”). But we retain the overriding moral authority of Torah law because we have faith that it is designed to create a moral environment balancing justice and compassion– and that when it fails to do this, it is designed to be self-correcting via rabbinic interpretive jurisdiction.
Also, from a Kabbalistic standpoint, din (judgment) must balance with rachamim (mercy) because din is an aspect of the Sefirah of Gevurah, and rachamim is an aspect of the Sefirah of Chesed, and those two Sefirot are paired along the Etz Chayim, and together represent a specific kind of harmony in the flow of shefa (divine energy) into the universe. We foster justice in our society, sure, but we have to temper it with mercy and lovingkindness because untempered, justice very soon becomes unjust– in fact, unrestrained din is understood to be a major component of the yetzer ha-ra (the urge to do evil, or the chaotic impulse). Evil very seldom, if ever, arises from a desire to do bad: rather, it most frequently arises from a misguided or excessive desire for good.
We in our own lives have to use this understanding of the flows of shefa and their balances to harmonize our existences here: leavening Gevurah with Chesed by opening ourselves to those kinds of shefa, and passing on in behavior, emotion, and kavanah (intention) what we take in to ourselves.
From our spiritual standpoint, Jean Valjean– who ordinarily we would say is too self-sacrificing, as we embrace martyrdom far less enthusiastically than do Christians– becomes necessary not just as an exemplar of the value of teshuvah (though he certainly is that), but because his existence creates a balance for the existence of Javert. Javert is unrestrained din. Valjean after his “teshuvah” inculcated by the Bishop of Digne is nearly unrestrained rachamim, and in this way Gevurah and Chesed balance one another out. And both serve as a cautionary tale to us all, since if we are not careful to have a society of laws where din is well-balanced with rachamim, what we end up producing are Javerts and Valjeans, neither of which, ideally, we want. We see aspects of this play out throughout the story: Fantine counterbalances out the Thenardiers; Cosette counterbalances out Eponine; Monsieur Gillenormand, Marius’ socially conservative grandfather, is counterbalanced out by Enjolras and the Societe des ABC; and so on. They all exemplify how French society was grossly dysfunctional because, in its inability to both establish justice and enact justice with mercy, it created people who lived at extremes: either criminals, uncaring rich, and the vast mass of les miserables, or (far fewer and less often) selfless martyrs and idealistic revolutionaries. None of that is balance, though it makes for excellent reading and opera.
A truly successful society, both in the pragmatic terms of cultural functionality and basic average happiness, and in the metaphysical terms of spiritual health and harmony, is one that seeks balance, and values people. Valjeans and Javerts are not created in societies that do not stigmatize, that teach balance and harmony, where people take care of one another, where human beings are recognized as tzalmei elohim (images of God). Revolutions do not happen in such societies, because they grow progressively in healthy (and essentially bloodless) ways, by giving people a voice in the way they run their lives, by giving the poor ways out of poverty, and by having systems of laws that are flexible, compassionate, applied with care, and subject to self-correction.
Victor Hugo loved the French People, and it grieved him very much to see French society plagued by poverty, uncaring, violence, and war. He never dreamed, when he wrote Les Miserables, that he was also writing a midrash about what a society looks like that ignores the lessons of Torah and halachah. But we can recognize it. And sing along.