Neo-Hasidic New Age Necromancy

In The Offering, earnest and well-meaning Jewish filmmakers Hank Hoffman and Jonathan Yunger conjure up a demon in order to show that Hasidic communities are more relatable than most Jews and non-Jews think. Director Oliver Park offers predictable horror movie jumps and special effects.

Unfortunately, they lost control of their demon, and the Hasidic community as they depict it comes across as ill-equipped to face both death and life, let alone to live a life of joy in observing the ethical and ritual mitzvot (commandments) that bring one closer to God. 

In this film, Art Feinberg (Nick Blood) returns to his old Hasidic neighborhood with his pregnant non-Jewish wife, Claire (Emily Wiseman). Ostensibly, Art is seeking to reconcile with his father, Saul (Allan Corduner), who owns the local Jewish funeral home and lives in a spooky home over the morgue. 

Wouldn’t such a living arrangement preclude as house guests or Sabbath guests the descendants of priestly families, kohanim, who are not allowed by biblically rooted Jewish law to be near dead bodies?  After fifteen minutes into this movie, one wishes that the priestly prohibition extended to obsessing over dead bodies, and that all Jews were kohanim.

Art is hoping that the prospect of becoming a grandfather will soften Dad’s opposition to the choices of his “prodigal son.” Yes, Saul appropriates that expression from the New Testament even though the film is intended to show Christians that Judaism has unique resources to draw upon. And yes, Art is “prodigal” in the sense that he has failed in the real estate business and wants his father to sign the mortuary residence over as collateral lest Art, who has lied to everyone including his pregnant wife, lose his house.  Even worse, Art is irresponsible when he offers to help his dad in the mortuary, breaking and then sweeping essential personal effects under the rug, or rather, into the drainpipe.

The filmmakers also claim to have broken from “Christian themes” in the horror genre so as to “dispel anti-Semitism by creating Hasidic characters whose deaths would elicit sympathy and care for Hasidic men whom [sic], in the media landscape up to now, have been depicted as chauvinists and tyrants devoid of humanity and love,” as Shiryn Ghermezian writes in The Algemeiner.

Yet the film begins with an elderly Jewish man, a kabbalist, committing suicide with a knife linked to the “binding” (akedah) of Isaac, a biblical story understood by Jews as a protest against human sacrifice and by Christians as prefiguring the vicarious atonement of Christ.  In effect, the writers suggest that demon-infested people must appoint themselves Christ figures and die by their own hands in order to seal up the evil spirit. Such a notion is offensive to both Jewish and Christian theology.

Religious Jews and Christians are appalled at the glorification of suicide for any reason, as the monotheistic faiths regard the giving and taking of life as the Divine prerogative, with few exceptions. But the filmmakers render suicide a sacred ritual in order to lock in, as it were, a demon improperly invoked -- in this case, by a supposedly pious Jew who wants to communicate with his deceased wife, in violation of a strong and clear biblical prohibition against consulting with familiar spirits (Deut. 18:11) Surely pious Christians would also be respectful of biblical teachings and values with regard both to conjuring spirits and committing suicide. The altars built in this film in Jewish homes in order to fight the demon violate biblical concerns that there be but one altar even for God (Deut. 12:5), lest pagan (and demon?) worship proliferate. The film’s characters are admonished to “stay” in such altar “circles,” staples of horror movies in general.

Hoffman and Yunger have declared that they wanted to show that there is “holiness in the women and…in the men.” 

But none of the male characters is particularly likable, even those with baby blue eyes. There are sibling rivalries even when the adversaries are not siblings. Saul does not come across as a very principled Hasid.  No Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) father would say what he tells Art: “I should have gone to your wedding. When you see the world a certain way, it’s not easy to accept change.” Would such concessions be put into the mouth of a member of the Amish community, which is still respected enough in film to be spared from such disclaimers?

Papa Saul goes even further, apologizing for Jewish particularity: “We’re a very misunderstood people. It’s the burden of investing so much in internal meaning. It’s hard for outsiders to see.” An Hasidic plea for intersectionality?

The Hasidic women here are way in the background, except for an old woman and a young girl who are spectral and demonic. The little girl suggests finding a child to sacrifice to the demon (“a life for a life,” she says). Even though that would likely be a Jewish child, the overtones are those of the medieval blood libel that Jews use the blood of Christian children for making matzah -- here, for staving off demons -- despite the biblical prohibition against using or consuming even animal blood (Genesis 9:4), let alone human blood.

For a religious man who runs a funeral home, Saul seems to be very awkward about death. Indeed, the widowers in this movie cannot let go of their deceased wives. Years after his loss, Saul continues, in front of a photograph, the traditional Friday night custom of serenading one’s wife with Proverbs 31.  Despite their stated desire to teach about Jewish customs and beliefs, the writers do not identify the verses from Proverbs nor do they indicate that Psalm 23 is chanted (albeit badly) toward the end of the movie.

Hoffman and Yunger regard the chanting to the photograph as romantic rather than morbid.

In an actual Hasidic community, a widower would have been encouraged to remarry as soon as possible. Art offers as his excuse for leaving the Hasidic community that his father could not comfort him at the loss of his mother, telling him to go to the synagogue to pray, leaving him to conclude that “God, love and holiness is a lie” [grammar, anyone?]. By this point in the film, we don’t trust Art’s judgment, anyway. He can be counted on to be unreliable. But like all the others he is obsessed with death. Little wonder that biblical law did not want the priestly families to be death-oriented like the Egyptian rites in the pyramids.

In various interviews, Hoffman and Yunger state that their goal was to demonstrate that “Jewish” demons are different from Christian ones because Jews emphasize “freedom of choice” and that “only we determine how much good and evil enter the world.”  

In the film a young Kabbalist preaches: “Only we determine how much good and evil enter our lives. We must trap it [the demonic].” 

Yet Christians also believe in freedom of choice (within the context of the dogma of original sin) and Classical Judaism has understood that the evil forces in the human psyche and in society are not so easily controlled, and are ultimately in need of Divine redemption. Why such evil exists in God’s creation is a question long asked by sacred texts in Judaism. Kabbalists have regarded the demonic as a byproduct of the divine qualities of strict justice and judgment in a world that cannot be perfect because it is not God. Evil, they have taught, will ultimately be vanquished by divine grace in response to human embrace of God’s commandments, thereby making the world worthy of divine redemption.

The Holocaust and other historical evils challenge any platitudes about the capacity of human decision alone to set limits on horrors. Indeed, the filmmakers themselves don’t seem to trust the effectiveness of their own bumbling kabbalist(s). The movie would have been more gripping had the demonic realm found its own way to harass a community that did not invoke it but then had to overcome it, with God’s help, through the unique spiritual resources available to them.

The filmmakers choose to represent the demon as a goaty/sheepy-faced monster. While probably not deliberately intending to offend, they therefore (mis)appropriate some of the biblical sacrificial offerings in the ancient Temple (for the restoration of which Orthodox Jews still pray) and the Christian concept of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” and ultimate sacrificial offering. The Offering therefore puts demonic “spirituality” in direct competition with ancient Jewish and Christian rituals. Ironically, the Passover offering, a lamb, was intended to show the ancient Israelites that the God of Israel was the Source of life and freedom, transcending the sacredness of the lamb in ancient paganism. In this film, the lamby/goaty-headed demon definitely gets the last laugh.

This movie goes out of its way to suggest that rituals common to Hasidic and other Jews are not comforting or redemptive and that they actually enable the demonic to prevail. The tefillin (straps worn in morning prayer to affix Scriptural verses to the head and biceps in fulfillment of Exodus 13:16 and Deut.6:8) are featured only to have Art slough them off. A mezuzah on the doorpost (see Deut. 6:9) is cracked by the demon, even though an authentic Kabbalistic passage teaches that, regarding demons, God tells the Jewish People: “Occupy yourselves with serving Me and I shall protect you outside [with the mezuzah], and you shall be safe in your houses inside.” (Zohar III, 266a)

At the beginning of the film, the writers pontificate that they extensively researched certain cross-cultural legends about a female child-stealing or miscarriage-inducing demon. But instead of focusing on Talmudic and Kabbalistic legends which speak of such a demon named Lilith, they suggest that their demon is more authoritative precisely because its name, Abyzou, was more global and multicultural, known in the Middle East and in Europe. In any case, Abyzou was never depicted as goat or sheep like. So why glorify New Age mixing and matching of demons and spirits in such a way as to compete with biblical concepts of sacrifice and offering? Maybe their demon made them do it.

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