This morning we had a nice crowd at Agudas Achim for Shabbat services. I spoke about the movie Borat and how Sacha Baron Cohen is guilty of g’neivat da’at (literally, the theft of knowledge) when he deceives people into thinking he is an anti-Semitic Kazakh journalist and gets them to reveal their actual anti-Semitic feelings (or apathy).
I drew on the examples of g’neivat da’at that occur in the Book of Genesis:
- Jacob deceives his father Isaac into thinking he is Esau in order to receive the birthright that was intended for his older brother;
- Laban deceives Jacob by having him marry his older daughter Leah even though Jacob worked seven long years for the right to marry his beloved Rachel;
- Jacob deceives Laban by sneaking off from Lavan’s home in the middle of the night with his family.
I also handed out a source sheet with other examples of g’neivat da’at from other texts including II Samuel and rabbinic sources such as the Tosefta and the Talmud. We studied these texts and I also gave the example of Laura Blumenfeld’s g’neivat da’at in the book Revenge when she deceived the Palestinian family of the jailed man who shot her father, Conservative rabbi David Blumenfeld, into thinking she was just an American journalist interested in interviewing them.
Using the Rolling Stone interview of Sacha Baron Cohen and the Charles Krauthammer article critical of Baron Cohen’s explanation for his deception in the movie, I came to the conclusion in my sermon that:
- The movie “Borat” is very funny… outrageously funny;
- The movie is a sad commentary on anti-Semitism in America;
- The movie is dangerous because so many people just “won’t get it”;
- Sacha Baron Cohen clearly deceives people (g’neivat da’at) and that is not fair;
- Even though there are examples of where g’neivat da’at is acceptable (e.g., Jacob deceiving Lavan because otherwise Jacob’s family would have been in grave danger), in the case of “Borat,” the comedian Baron Cohen’s g’neivat da’at is not permissable.
The reactions to the sermon and text study were all very positive and of course they generated much discussion following services. Many people who didn’t see the movie said they were going to go soon. Some told me that based on my comments they realize they either don’t want to see the movie or feel they would be too upset by the anti-Semitism in the movie.
Overall, I’ve realized that most Jews are not upset by the anti-Semitism in the movie “Borat.” This is probably because Jews “get it.” My concern is for those who don’t “get it.”
The Anti-Defamation League came out with a statement that this is humor and to not take it too seriously. But also noticed that it has the potential to be dangerous:
We are concerned, however, that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.
While Mr. Cohen’s brand of humor may be tasteless and even offensive to some, we understand that the intent is to dash stereotypes, not to perpetuate them. It is our hope that everyone in the audience will come away with an understanding that some types of comedy that work well on screen do not necessarily translate well in the real world — especially when attempted on others through retelling or mimicry.
Regardless of the comedian’s intent, people’s reaction to the anti-Semitism in the film, or people’s outrage or disgust at some of the “gross-out” gags in the film, there is no denying that Sacha Baron Cohen has introduced a new form of humor even different than that of Mel Brooks (“Springtime for Hitler”).