Robert Downey Jr.: Forgive Mel Gibson

Chris Pizzello AP Actor Robert Downey Jr., left, accepts the 25th American Cinematheque Award from presenter Mel Gibson during a … Continued

Chris Pizzello


Actor Robert Downey Jr., left, accepts the 25th American Cinematheque Award from presenter Mel Gibson during a benefit gala honoring Downey, Friday, Oct. 14, 2011, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Robert Downey Jr. used his acceptance speech at this weekend’s Cinematheque awards to invite Hollywood to forgive Mel Gibson –– to allow him to work like any other actor, despite his past problems with everything from anti-Semitic rants to spousal abuse. From a Jewish perspective at least, his timing could not have been better. From an ethical perspective he may also be right.

Speaking to his audience just a week after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement –a day which promises that all sins can be forgiven and that we really can get passed our past, and still finding ourselves within the Jewish “season of forgiveness” which continues through the end of Sukkot later this week, Mr. Downey, however unintentionally, challenged those listening to take seriously the message of Jewish tradition at this time of year. But that was not the only religious tradition in play when he spoke. Paraphrasing the New Testament (John 8:7), he told the crowd that “unless you are without sin…you should forgive him (Mr. Gibson) and let him work.”

While I don’t share the view that one must be without sin in order to demand justice from others, I do think that Downey’s insistence that people look at themselves as part of the process is the right way to go. Why is it that people became so obsessed with Mel Gibson’s bad behavior? Were any Jews actually threatened, let alone harmed, by his drunken rant?

Could it be that particular communities, in this case Hollywood, are particularly hostile to the sins which they do not commit, because it deflects attention from those they do? Is Mel Gibson so much worse than all of his peers that he should be singled out among them? The scapegoat is also an ancient Yom Kippur tradition, but not one most people are eager to bring back – certainly not by using people instead of animals!

Furthermore, Downey explained that his desire to see Gibson rehabilitated by Hollywood was directly related to Gibson having played a pivotal role in Downey’s rehabilitation following his own problems with addiction and subsequent unemployment. Gibson believed in Downey when he was down, and now Downey wanted to return the favor. Right or wrong about his conclusion regarding Gibson, it seems like a decision to live out a teaching found in Leviticus 19:18, with parallels in many other traditions, that we should love our neighbor as our self. Rarely, if ever, bad advice to follow.

Finally, according to Jewish tradition, bans are typically set for specific periods of time, and are put in place with an accompanying clear path to communal re-integration. To the extent that Gibson is being punished for sins against the Jewish people, it would be appropriate to use that people’s experience not only to heighten sensitivities about slights against them, but also as a source of wisdom regarding dispensing justice and offering forgiveness.

How long is long enough for Gibson to be out in the cold? I am not sure. But I am certain that nobody would be worse off for taking Robert Downey Jr.’s words to heart — they reflect some of the wisest insights I know regarding seeking atonement and offering forgiveness without giving up on the importance of justice.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • jessicafriedman64

    Mel Gibson’s drunken rant may not have threatened or harmed any Jews, but Passion of the Christ did. That movie was very anti-Semitic, and was seen in massive numbers by people all around the world.

  • Sajanas

    Its not just his anti-Jewish rants and movies that has people shunning him, its the verbal and physical abuse he gave to the mother of his youngest child. You can’t just forgive someone because Ironman told you to… he has to apologize and try to make amends to the people he hurt. And its always hard to tell the difference between PR apologize and the genuine article.

    Besides, it takes more than forgiveness. I could forgive a repentant Mel Gibson, but I would never respect him in the same way, I wouldn’t find a movie appealing just because he was in it, and it has changed the way I look at his old movies. Why was he always so angry and vengeful? Was it because he was trying to make things right, or was it because he seethed with rage already, and he just needed an excuse?

  • dmzuniga


    Good, seasoned words. All of us know at least one person who has said and done some very bad things more than once. We see that person first thing every morning, in the mirror.

    I’m Mel Gibson’s age; in my life, no actor has impressed the world more with that rare principle of fighting for liberty against tyranny even against the odds. In ‘Braveheart’ and again in ‘The Patriot’, Mel Gibson embodied that spirit for those of us of Scots background, and those of us who are Americans.

    As actor, director, and producer Mel Gibson has much yet to offer if only the puerile prima donnas in Hollywood will grow up, look in the mirror, and take your sage and biblical advice. Well said.

  • rbdryd

    Why would anyone want to forgive one of the most intolerant, outspoken bigots of our age. Mel has condemned most of the world, including his own wife to hell, because they aren’t in agreement with his beliefs. Let’s just set the time for his communal re-integration to one second for every person he has offended with his hateful talk. That ought to be good for about a hundred years.

  • haveaheart

    Robert Downey Jr. is someone I’ve always admired as an actor and a very decent human being. And, while I often disagree with the conclusions Rabbi Hirschfield makes, I respect him.

    That said, I have to point out that both of them are wrong. Not so much about the forgiveness part, but about who the victims are and what the crimes were.

    To be sure, Gibson spoke disparagingly about the Jewish people. But the anti-Semitism he expressed was far less threatening to any group of people than the vitriol he spewed at and about women. His anti-Jewish comments were of the canned variety, probably learned from his famously anti-Semitic father, but his rants against women were violent, hate-filled, and out of control.

    In the voice recordings that became public, we heard a man verbally abusing a woman in terms that were bonechilling. The brutality he threatened her with was fearsome, and the accusations he flung sounded like the ravings of a psychotic person. Reportedly (and I don’t believe he has denied this), Gibson also was physically violent with this woman, and other women have made similar claims against him. Certainly, he has spoken disparagingly of women quite publicly in the past, so we’re not looking at an isolated instance of rage.

    This is a guy who is genuinely dangerous to females, but all actor and the rabbi are focusing on is whether he should be forgiven for his anti-Semitic rants. Chalk this ludicrous oversight up to their being male? Well, that’s probably the explanation. But it’s not an acceptable excuse.

    Those boys should be ashamed.

  • haveaheart

    Oh, please.

    So Mel played historical characters who fought against the odds. Name one actor of note who hasn’t done that. Playing those roles is the meat and potatoes of most headlining actors’ careers.

    And, frankly, he was never all that good an actor. When young, he had chiseled looks, muscles, and good hair. But like Tom Cruise, an even bigger imposter, he’s pretty much an empty vessel when you look inside.

    If you find much to admire in that, then you’re as shallow as they are.

  • northernharrier

    Yes, Mr. Hirschfield, Jewish people have been hurt by Mel Gibson’s anti-Jewish comments, because whenever a celebrity promotes bigotry, it encourages all of the people in the world with bigoted impulses to indulge their hatreds, however irrational and mean. And, yes, Mel’s comments were unusual in their blunt viciousness.

    Now that we know that Mel has no respect for Jewish people and imbues them with negative stereotypes, why would I want to unfairly insult Jewish people by willingly associating with a bigot? I would not., as it would be insulting to them and a poor reflection on me. I do not favor punishing him forever, but that doesn’t obligate anyone to ignore his bigotry, either.

  • ccnl1

    Some 21st century reality:

    Actually, Jesus was a bit “touched”. After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today’s world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J’s gospels being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today’s followers of Paul et al’s “magic-man” are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and “magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher man would do or say?