There is a statement in The Ethics of the Fathers that resonates with me every time I read it: “civility (or good behavior) comes before Torah.” What is the takeaway? That for the Torah to reside in a person, he first has to conduct himself like a mentsch.
Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, of sainted memory, addresses this complex issue in part in an essay that he wrote in 1975 entitled “Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halacha (Jewish law)?” He concludes that it does. Citing examples of great non-Jewish writers who behaved in exemplary ways, he shows how, outside of the Jewish framework of Torah and Jewish law, these people were paragons of virtue and righteous living. He bases this insight on the passage in the Torah that speaks of all men being created in God’s image. Being a good person means recognizing the divinity in other people and treating them accordingly.
Pilgrimage is film that deals with religious faith and raises an important question. Is the true man of faith one who carries out the behest of the Pope in Rome or one who treats his fellow man with respect? Where does one see divinity? In the face of one’s neighbor, in the unpredictable acts of nature, or in the religious establishments of the time? There are no simple answers, but Pilgrimage puts a human face on the questions.
The narrative begins on a remote island in Ireland in 1209. A cadre of monks, at the request of the Pope, commits to transporting to Rome a holy relic that has been in their charge for many years. The relic is reputed to have special power and the Pope wants it in his hands before launching the upcoming Crusade.
However, the journey to bring it to him is fraught with peril. The key players in this cosmic drama are Brother Geraldus who represents the Pope’s interest, Brother Diarmuid, a young boy sent so that he can experience a holy quest, the Mute, a strong and faithful Christian who has made himself available as a servant to the brotherhood of monks, veteran Brother Claren, and Raymond De Merville, son of one of the monks who is charged with protecting the monks on their journey.
As they progress to their destination, their guards leave them, and they become vulnerable to hostile heathens who attack and kill some of them. The relic is lost, but the monks do not give up. They look for a way to retrieve the relic, putting their own lives at increased risk.
Rabbi Eliyahu Safran cites an interesting case from the Talmud that illustrates the conflicting claims of organized religion against respect for human life. The Torah, for example, tells us about the priests attending to the task of removing the ashes that had built up on the altar overnight. Rabbi Safran writes; “The Talmud describes how the priests would quite literally do battle for the privilege of attending to this task. They would race one another up the ramp in order to attend to this job to see who would get to the ashes first. The competition to perform this small but holy task grew so heated that, on one occasion, one priest shoved another off the ramp, causing him to fall and break his leg. Rather than end the competition, this seemed only to spur it on resulting in even more injury. Finally, a lottery system was enacted, bringing peace to this daily ritual.”
In this Talmudic example, the fervor to do a religious act resulted in tragic consequences. So too does the task of bringing the relic to the pope in The Pilgrimage, a film that serves as an object lesson in the negative outcome of religious zeal at the expense of human life. Implicit in Pilgrimage is the idea that religious faith must co-exist with righteous action. One cannot truly love God if he does not love man.