Jewish Journal

Cracking a Controversial ‘Code’

by Wendy J. Madnick

Posted on Apr. 8, 2004 at 8:00 pm

When Rabbi Rachel Bovitz sat down a few months ago to read the novel, "The Da Vinci Code," she was curious about the buzz surrounding the controversial best-seller. But what she wasn't prepared for was how profoundly disturbing she would find the book.

"The book was a fun read; it kept me entertained. But my concerns as a religious person tainted it for me," Bovitz said. "Parts of the book upset me because of the claims it made about Judaism which were not true, and because of its general undermining of religion and faith."

"The Da Vinci Code," written by novelist Dan Brown, has topped the best-seller lists since April 2003, prompting numerous articles and discussions about the book's popularity and its explorations of radical Christian theology.

With its dramatic cover art and heavy promotion among booksellers, "The Da Vinci Code" seems like yet another pulp-fiction thriller, a fast-moving mystery about an art historian who gets mixed up in a murder with international, religious and historical implications.

What makes the book stand out from the average Grisham or Kellerman novel is its exploration of controversial issues and the author's uninhibited way of making assertions that, while certainly fictitious, come off easily as fact.

Brown bases the book on the assumption that there exists a battle between secret societies inside and outside the Catholic church. The author also explores the premise that the early church fathers buried information about Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene, and that the artist Leonardo da Vinci knew of this conspiracy and hid clues about it within his paintings.

Professor J. Shawn Landres, who teaches a class on Christianity at the University of Judaism and is co-writing a book titled, "After the Passion Is Gone: American Religious Consequences," sees Brown's novel as part of a triumvirate of cultural icons emerging within the last several years -- the other two are the evangelical "Left Behind" book series and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

"'The Da Vinci Code' finds fans among some members of the Christian community because of its negative take on the Catholic church and for giving an expanded role for women via Mary Magdalene," he said, "but for Jewish readers there is a different appeal."

"What grabs Jews is the return to history," Landres said. "If you look at the adult education classes being offered all over town, you see people in the Jewish community are very hungry for history, for learning." That is where "The Da Vinci Code" is the most dangerous, Landres noted. "On the one hand, it resonates with a deep desire for education; on the other hand, you're satisfying that desire with inaccurate information. It's like watching 'CSI' and taking it all as scientific fact, or watching 'ER' and trying to practice medicine."

Brown writes in "Da Vinci Code": "Langdon's Jewish students always looked flabbergasted when he first told them that the early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex. In the Temple, no less [sic].... Men seeking spiritual wholeness came to the temple to visit priestesses with whom they made love and experienced the divine through physical union."

While Brown's book offers some interesting insights into radical Christian thought and belief, Bovitz, the assistant rabbi at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, found the way it twists Jewish history to be offensive. When she began to get questions from congregants bothered by passages in the book, she decided this was an excellent opportunity to promote both Jewish education and ecumenicism, so organized a panel discussion with the Rev. Robert McNamara of the neighboring St. Bernardine of Siena Catholic Church, on the book.


"We love the story of some conspiracy, don't we?" McNamara told the crowd of 850 who came to Temple Aliyah on March 2. McNamara said that "The Da Vinci Code" comes at a time when people distrust authority.

Although mostly centered on Catholicism, in terms of Jewish content "The Da Vinci Code" makes several explosive claims, including the above idea that ritualistic sex took place within the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Bovitz said the concept is simply untrue, but that Brown may have picked up the idea from reading talmudic writings about cherubic motifs within the Temple or from references in the Book of Kings to purifying the Temple after it had been misused.

The rabbi did say that Brown's claim that Jesus, as a Jewish man living in the ancient world, would likely have been married, was not without basis but marriage "was not a legal mandate." And while the Star of David -- a "clue" used throughout the last half of the book -- is now associated with the Jewish people, in ancient times it was claimed by many religions as a holy symbol. The idea posited in "The Da Vinci Code" of two triangles coming together representing male and female was "what we might call Dan Brown's Midrash," Bovitz said, using the Hebrew word for explanation.

Art historian Robin Trento, one of the J. Paul Getty Museum's gallery teachers and an expert in Italian art, has made it her quest since reading "The Da Vinci Code" to debunk the book's mythology surrounding Leonardo and his artwork. As part of the panel discussion, she noted that only about 12 paintings have been attributed to Leonardo (his actual name, Da Vinci, means only that he was from the city of Vinci); that only one of those paintings may have been commissioned by the Vatican, not the hundreds claimed by Brown, and that the author's declaration that the artist's paganism was "well-documented" was completely false.

Trento said that she enjoyed the book but as a historian felt obligated to speak out about the various inaccuracies Brown presented as factual. She said she felt especially protective of Leonardo, a man who was not just multitalented but well liked and respected in his time.

"I think it's not fair to misrepresent someone about whom we have historical documentation," Trento said.

The main point experts emphasize is that this is a work of fiction. Parts may be presented as historical fact, but even those portions may have been twisted to fit the author's story.

Asked if there was anything positive they could say about "The Da Vinci Code," experts said the book has increased interest in exploring questions of faith.

"It's a good news, bad news thing," Landres said. "The danger of the book is most Jews don't know enough about Christianity to make a judgment about 'The Da Vinci Code' or even 'The Passion of the Christ.' The good that is coming out of it is more Jews are admitting to themselves and to others that there is much they don't know. The next step is to sit down and study these documents, like the New Testament, and then to build relationships to non-Jews to make that study meaningful."

On May 10, from 7:30-9:30 p.m., the University of Judaism will hold a panel discussion on "The Da Vinci Code," called "Unraveling Fact From Fiction." Tickets are $20. For information, call (310) 440-1246.  

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