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Jewish Journal

The Torah of Les Misérables

by Danielle Berrin

January 9, 2013 | 1:16 pm

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Photo by Laurie Sparham/Universal Pictures

So what if the Les Mis cast of characers are thoroughly Christian and utterly French -- there's still Torah to be found in Victor Hugo's epic tale of redemption, writes Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, a liberal-minded Orthodox rabbi in West Los Angeles. "[A]lthough Jean Valjean’s fall and rise is a great Christian drama of grace and self-sacrifice, Jews can easily enough transpose it into a story of profound teshuva, repentance. The sort of teshuva that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik described as 'redemptive,'" Kanefsky writes.

After tackling Hugo's epic novel and seeing its latest incarnation on screen, Kanefsky penned a lovely note on the Jewish lesson he encountered in the Christian tale, but alas, one that didn't make the Oscar-hopeful's final cut. He writes of a scene early in the story when a bishop treats Jean Valjean with incredible grace, allowing him to keep candlesticks he had stolen before being caught by the French police. Instead of prosecuting the desperate man, the bishop sends him on his way, telling him he is good and that his soul belongs to God. But moments later, Valjean finds himself torn between good and evil yet again, when a destitute child drops a coin and Valjean stomps upon the lucre, ignoring the child's pleas to have it back. Soon enough, remorse overwhelms him...

Kanefsky writes

Jean Valjean searches frantically for the child, screaming his name like a wildman and asking every passer-by if they had seen him. But all this proves futile, and the child is nowhere to be found.

[Hugo writes:]

"…his legs suddenly gave way beneath him as if an invisible power had suddenly bowled him over with the weight of his guilty conscience. He dropped, exhausted, onto a big slab of rock, his hands balled into fists and buried in his hair, his head propped on his knees, And he cried, “I am a miserable bastard”.
He burst into tears. It was the first time he had cried in nineteen years."

And the story of course pivots right there. This is teshuva’s primal essence.
All of us have felt regret over particular deeds that we’ve done. But how often do we part the clouds and see that it’s not the deeds, but the doer that is twisted and corrupt. How often does our introspection and reflection bore through the layer of specific actions we wish we could retrieve, and touch the heart the matter, the person who we are?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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