The Lost City of Z (2016), directed by James Gray

lost city of zA friend of mine was recently given the opportunity to move to a better paying position in his company if he would relocate to the West Coast. He had just bought a home in Westchester and had planned to stay in the Northeast for the foreseeable future. But then this “once-in-a-lifetime” chance at improving his financial bottom line presented itself and for a few moments he was in a quandary.

His confused state did not last long. He told me that he decided to stay in his current job because it would give him more time with his wife and kids. Money and professional advancement were not his only goals. He wanted to be a good father and husband and those were his priorities. Percy Fawcett, the explorer hero of The Lost City of Z, does not see as clearly as my friend.

The story begins in 1905. Percy Fawcett, a young British officer, wants to advance himself as a soldier. When the Royal Geographic Society of England asks him to travel to Brazil and Bolivia to survey and map the country’s contiguous borders, he accepts the challenge. What drives him is a desire to restore the family’s good name, which has been blemished by his alcoholic father.

On his way to the Amazon forests, he is told to abort his mission, but Fawcett insists on continuing to advance his reputation as an explorer. He succeeds in this task and coincidently learns of a city in the jungle replete with riches and a high level of culture.

During his long explorations, he leaves his wife, Nina, who supports his exploration efforts, and his children as well. Regrettably he is not there when his second child is born. Upon his return, Fawcett is greeted as a hero, and he is challenged to return to Amazonia to further explore it. The trip is only partially successful and Fawcett returns to England where he lives in obscurity.

In 1923, interest in exploring the Amazon is high and John D. Rockefeller and a consortium of American newspapers fund an expedition to find the lost city of which Fawcett spoke. This expedition is led by Fawcett and his son Jack, who encounter hostile natives on this return trip. Their fate is unclear.

All during Fawcett’s career of exploration, his wife supports him. She even quotes the classic line of the poet, Robert Browning, who encouraged people to dream big: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Yet in spite of her outward support, she is inwardly lonely and longs for her husband’s companionship. Furthermore, his children resent their father’s prolonged absences from home.

Judaism encourages a balance between life and home, between spirituality and a quest for material success. The institution of the Sabbath epitomizes this: “six days shall you labor and do all your work and the seventh day is Sabbath unto the Lord your God on which you shall not do any work.” If one is devoted exclusively to work, it becomes a form of idolatry.

Moreover, Rabbi Elliot Dorff writes that one’s family should take precedence of one’s vocation. His proof text is the conversation that Moses has with the tribes of Reuven and Gad who stay on the eastern side of the Jordan rather than cross to the west with the other tribes. Their rationale: so that “we might build sheep pens for flocks and cities for our children.: The Rabbis comment that this statement, in which the flocks are mentioned before the children, reveals that these specific tribes were more worried about their possessions than they were about their children.

The Lost City of Z reminds us of the high cost of achieving one’s personal goals when one has a young family. Judaism wants us to strike a balance between personal aspirations and family responsibilities, always placing the latter first.

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Maudie (2016), directed by Aisling Walsh

maudieMy wife is an artist. She has perfected a technique called fabric fusion. She starts off with a gray scale photograph and then overlays it with acrylic paints and hand-dyed silks. She has had exhibits of her work at the Tel Aviv Opera House and at the Jerusalem Theatre, both prestigious locations to show art. She sells her work, but she primarily paints because it satisfies her creative urge.

What is important is not the money she earns through her art, but the creative experience of producing art that people can enjoy. She regards her artistic work as part of her divine mission.

Occasionally, she asks me to critique a painting, but I feel inadequate to the task. I very much feel that art is in the eye of the beholder. I cannot predict what someone will like.

In the final analysis, enduring art can spring from anywhere, even from a remote country village in Nova Scotia. This is what happens in Maudie, the true story of Maudie Dowley, a woman with severe arthritis who develops an iconic ability to paint flowers and birds that appeal to a broad cross-section of people that appreciate her simple but powerful expressions of nature’s beauty.

Rather than live with her highly judgmental Aunt Ida, Maudie decides to strike out on her own and find a job that will enable her to support herself and live independently. Serendipitously, she meets Everett Lewis, a coarse and laconic fish peddler who is seeking a cleaning lady for his home in return for providing room and board and a meager salary. Maudie applies for the job and Everett agrees to try her out.

While employed at his home, Maudie begins to paint parts of the house including shelves, walls, and windows with decorations of flowers and birds. One of Everett’s customers, Sandra, who lives in New York City, is fascinated by Maudie’s art and offers to pay her money for her cards and paintings. Her patronage of Maudie’s art leads to more and more commissions, eventually reaching the eyes of Richard Nixon, who purchases one of her works.

Eventually, Everett and Maudie marry and learn to love one another even though they have totally different temperaments and worldviews. Their marriage is stormy, but in the end it is satisfying to both. Maudie’s ability to see beauty in the ordinary cycle of nature sustains her as she manages her tumultuous relationship with Everett.

In the daily Jewish liturgy, God is described as renewing the creation every day. The message of the prayer is to understand that the beauty of nature manifests itself in ordinary days. It is not a special event. Each day is an opportunity to proclaim the significance of daily miracles, which inform our lives all day long. The challenge is to view nature with fresh eyes. Maudie is able to do this especially when she sees nature through a window. She reflects: “How I love a window. It’s always different. The whole of life. The whole of life already framed. Right there.”

The great medieval sage Maimonides viewed the natural world as a testament to God’s grandeur. In discussing the foundational principles of the Jewish faith, he writes that we can get close to God not only by studying holy words, but also by observing holy works, the everyday miracles that present themselves through natural phenomena. A mountain, a flower, a river, a tree can remind us of the inherent beauty in the world and bring us close to God.

Maudie, a simple soul, is able to transcend her physical limitations when she sees nature in a multi-faceted way. Nature for her is never random or chaotic. Rather it reflects a divine beauty hidden in the flora around us.

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The Village (2004), directed by M. Night Shyamalan

villageI live in a city in Israel where there are many charedim, ultra-Orthodox Jews. I do not wear the same clothes as they do. They wear mostly black coats and white shirts and live in a different neighborhood. But occasionally I meet them in the local synagogue since both of us are obligated to pray with a quorum of ten men, a minyan, three times a day.

Although we pray to the same God, observe the same commandments, and study the same Torah, we do not have a lot in common outside of a synagogue setting. I engage the outside world and study secular texts. They fear the outside world and stay away from it to maintain the purity and integrity of their way of life. They have no televisions and very limited access to the Internet. They see the outside world and secular studies as corrupting their faith and family values and want to remain as far away from it as possible.

This attitude is similar to the attitude of the inhabitants of a 19th century community in Pennsylvania depicted in The Village, a film that explores the consequences of leading an isolated life without interactions with the larger world around it. The surrounding woods are forbidden to the villagers because they are populated by harmful demons.

One day, however, a young man dies because of a lack of medicine to treat him. This motivates Lucius Hunt, a sincere and kind member of the community, to offer to travel to the “towns” to bring back medicine to prevent another tragedy. The elders reject his request.

Lucius is troubled by the lack of openness of the elders and their secretive ways. In particular, he is interested in knowing the origins of their isolated community, but the elders do not respond positively to his desire to explore the world beyond the village.

Lucius, reticent and shy, forms a friendship with Ivy Walker, an attractive girl who has been blind since a very young age. Their relationship becomes romantic and Lucius and Ivy decide to marry. Tragedy strikes when Lucius is mortally wounded. The only remedies that can possibly save him are medicines from the ominous towns that threaten the existence of the village. Furthermore, it is only Ivy who volunteers to make the treacherous journey to secure the needed medicine for Lucius to survive.

There is a community dilemma. If Ivy goes, there is a possibility that the secret of the community’s existence will be discovered and the community’s way of life will cease to exist. If she does not go to get medicine, Lucius will probably die of his wound.

Herein lies the dilemma facing the ultra-Orthodox Jews as well. Isolation is a positive value because it enables them to maintain their unique lifestyle in a world where moral rudders are absent. However, isolation makes them vulnerable because they never learn how to function in the modern world or how to take advantage of the good things the modern world offers. Either option presents risks. The question is which risk do you prefer. Or is there a balance to be struck between the two?

Footsteps, an organization founded in 2004, attempts to help the ultra-orthodox who have left the fold to adjust to the modern world without necessarily abandoning the old one. For the first time, these people are discovering themselves anew and wrestling with new freedoms. These new freedoms sometimes are corrupting and lead to further estrangement from family and friends. At other times, they enable people to enter the modern workplace, obtain jobs, and learn skills that enable them to survive in an unfamiliar world. Footsteps tries to be a bridge between those two worlds.

The Village illustrates the perils of isolation, even when it is understandably motivated for good reasons. The best answer, reflected in the response of the inhabitants of the village to Lucius’s grave condition, is to find a balance between the ideal and real worlds.

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The Adjustment Bureau (2011), directed by George Nolfi

adjustment bureauAs a rabbi, I have often been asked questions relating to destiny versus free will. Can we change our destiny by exercising our free will? It is a complicated question and, from a theological perspective, not easily answered. It seems, however, that Judaism has an approach to looking at the problem. Let me explain. I have been involved in cases where congregants have someone in their family facing death. One traditional response to such a dire situation is to change the name of the person in a life-threatening situation. By doing so, we create an alternative ending, namely, life instead of death. I asked one of my Torah teachers how this works, and this is what he told me.

In the divine scheme of things, John Doe is destined to die at a certain time. However, John and his friends and relatives want him to live. Therefore, they change his name to John Raphael (Raphael means “God heals” in Hebrew), to change his fate. No longer is he John Doe. He is now John Raphael Doe, a new man with a new name and, hence, a different destiny. Obviously, it is not a failsafe ritual. Only God is in charge of life and death matters, but there is a suggestion that free will can intervene to change one’s destiny. This is the premise of The Adjustment Bureau, a romantic thriller with a clever take on destiny versus free choice in the choice of a marriage partner.

Congressman David Norris, a Brooklyn Congressman running for the New York Senate in 2006, loses the race, but in the process meets Elise Sellas, who captures his attention and imagination. She gives him her phone number but he loses it, and for three years afterwards he tries to find her. Meanwhile, he launches his campaign for the 2010 Senate race. Then he serendipitously discovers her as she is walking along a downtown street, and emotion takes over.

But fate again intervenes through a group of men in suits known as the Adjustment Bureau. They confront David and inform him that his destiny to not to pursue a relationship with Elise according to the plans of the “chairman,” a person whose identity is ambiguous. They warn him that failure to abide by their suggestion or revealing the existence of the Adjustment Bureau will result in catastrophic consequences.

David resists their threats, deciding he has a right to choose his own destiny. He, therefore, continues pursuing Elise with whom he feels a natural rapport. The narrative details his attempts to connect with her in the face of obstacles placed in their way by the supernatural Adjustment Bureau, an entity which has the power to change the respective schedules of David and Elise, such as the time and places of their rendezvous, to prevent them from meeting.

Because of David’s erratic behavior and mysterious absences, Elise feels that the relationship is doomed and so she accepts a marriage proposal from an ex-boyfriend. When David hears of this, he is determined to intervene. Desperate to marry her, he frantically contacts her and reveals to her the intentions of the Adjustment Bureau. He begs her to trust him and follow him as he tries to elude the Bureau, which is pursuing him in light of his rejection of its pre-ordained plan.

Jewish wisdom clearly states that man has free will. Several times in the Bible, there is a reaffirmation of this notion. The Bible directly commands man to “choose life” because implicitly man has free choice. However, free choice does not mean that we can understand the divine intention or the divine plan. The Ethics of the Fathers openly remarks “Everything is forseen, yet freedom of choice is given.” The Adjustment Bureau reminds us that even though destiny plays a role in our lives, it is not the final arbiter.

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Jaws (1975), directed by Steven Spielberg

jawsA number of years ago, drugs were discovered in the locker of a student in our high school. The school had a zero tolerance policy, which mandated immediate expulsion for the offending student. The parents appealed for a second chance, arguing that their child would be lost Jewishly if she were to leave a Jewish day school. I understood what was at stake, but I could not sacrifice the wellbeing of the many for the good of one.

It was a painful decision. I tried to be very helpful in finding another school for the student, but it was clear to me that the parents in the school wanted their kids to be in a safe environment above all, and I could not equivocate on this issue. The good of the many had to prevail over the good of the one.

A similar dilemma presents itself in Jaws, the classic film about a killer shark that invades Amity Island, a New England tourist town that depends on vacationer dollars during the summer season. When a body is washed up on shore, Martin Brody, the local police chief, knows that it was the victim of a shark attack and wants to close the beaches. The mayor, however, fearing a major loss of tourist revenue, does not want the beaches closed and prevails on the authorities to list the fatality as a result of a boating accident. For the mayor, the good of the few, the local businessmen, outweighs the good of the many. It is not until two more people are killed does the mayor acknowledge the real threat of the shark.

Once the beaches are closed, Brody hires Quint, a local fisherman with experience killing sharks, to hunt the shark. Matt Hooper, a scientist from the Oceanographic Institute, joins the crew, bringing along an array of high-tech equipment including tracking devices, harpoons, scuba gear and tanks, and a supposed shark-proof steel cage.

Once out in the open waters in Quint’s vessel, the Orca, they lure the shark by tossing fish guts and blood around the boat. Eventually this attracts the great white shark. Quint harpoons it with a rope attached to a flotation barrel, but the shark pulls the barrel under the water and disappears under the boat, displaying an uncanny intelligence, which separates it from other sharks that Quint has hunted. There is an eerie suggestion that the shark knows the intention of the Orca’s crew and is determined to destroy them. A hair-raising finale ensues pitting brute force against skill, technology, and courage.

The debate between Martin Brody and the mayor about when to publicize the shark attack relates to the larger philosophic question of when to reveal potentially life-threatening information, a matter discussed in the codes of Jewish law. Generally, the determining factor is whether health and safety are at stake. If the information is needed to preserve life, then clearly it must be revealed immediately. If, however, the revealing of such information will possibly lead to the shortening of life, then it should be withheld. The classic example is the doctor telling a depressed patient that he has only a very brief time to live, and thus increasing his sense of despondency and decreasing his will to live.

In Jaws, the mayor has no such reasons to avoid telling the truth other than an economic one. In order to insure that the townspeople make great profits during the tourist season, he puts lives as risk. Such a financial motive is no justification for falsehoods. Jaws, indeed, is a cautionary tale about the folly of placing monetary gain over the absolute good of saving lives.

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One of Us (2017), directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

one of usIn 1976, I considered taking a rabbinic post in a Modern Orthodox synagogue that was located in a Hasidic community in New York. It would mean that my kids would attend a Hasidic Jewish day school with a minimalist curriculum of secular studies. Ultimately the job was not offered to me, but I had no hesitation about taking the position even if it meant my kids would attend a school that was not necessarily in sync with the way I practiced my Judaism. I reasoned that whatever the approach of the school, I would balance my children’s education with my own parental perspective on things and my kids would turn out fine. Of course, it was only a hypothesis, but it made sense to me at the time. Watching One of Us made me wonder if in 1976 I was overly naïve about the consequences of an education devoid of serious secular studies.

One of Us is a scary movie on one level. It describes the journey of three people who left their Hasidic community to lead a more open, independent life. They are Ari, Luzer, and Etty, all of whom were considered outcasts by their community and even by their own families, which once embraced them. Their narratives are not simple. They touch on topics such as domestic abuse, religious doubt, and preparation for work in the marketplace. A humorous but telling comment by Ari sums it up: ”I couldn’t google how to google because I didn’t know how to google.”

Behind the insularity of the Hasidic community is the desire to protect their way of life. Secularism poses a serious spiritual threat to the religious life. Going to college exposes the devout to things that corrupt the religious. Therefore, the general approach is to erect walls between the religious world and the secular world, and never the twain shall meet.

Conscientious Jews living outside of the Hasidic orbit have a different approach. They embrace modernity as long as it does not compromise their religious practice, and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two worlds of the sacred and the secular.

Johnny Solomon, a Jewish educator, observes that the film highlights three areas of dissonance between the world of the Hasid and the world of the Modern Orthodox Jew, both of whom are faced with the challenge of being true to one’s faith in morally chaotic times. The three areas include secular knowledge, modernity, and the approach towards questioning the status quo.

Solomon argues that secular knowledge is a must if one wants to be successful at earning a living. Its absence limits people occupationally. Modernity does not necessarily mean that one takes one’s faith less seriously than the Hasid. In the Hasidic world, the word “modern” is often used pejoratively. In Solomon’s view, being modern does not mean compromising one’s religious principles.

Perhaps the most egregious difference between the modern Jew and the Hasid is their approach to questioning. The subjects of the movie, Ari, Luzer, and Etty, all implicitly say that to question authority leads to rejection by the community. The questioner finds himself alone with no communal support system. Solomon quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a Modern Orthodox theologian, who reminds us that “questioning is at the heart of Jewish spirituality, and in Judaism, to be without questions is not a sign of faith, but a lack of depth.”

One of Us tries to be balanced. On the one hand, it depicts the dark side of the Hasidic life through its stories of three Hasidic Jews who left the fold. On the other hand, it demonstrates the tremendous sense of family that permeates the Hasidic community. Watching the film reminds us the need to lead a balanced life, embracing the positive aspects of modernity while remaining faithful to one’s religious principles.

Baby Driver (2017), directed by Edgar Wright

 baby driverI remember hearing about the incident. I learned that two young boys were playing around with each other and one of them had a stick with a nail on the end of it. In the course of their “playing around,” the boy with the stick hit the other child in the eye. Blood gushed out and the boy was in great pain.

It was an accident. The boy with the stick never meant to do harm, but he did. The victim lost one of his eyes; but, thankfully, he was a boy of great inner strength and he went on to lead a relatively normal life and had professional success as a dentist as an adult.

From the Jewish perspective, the act of taking out the eye of another child may have been unintentional, but there is culpability. The fact that one does not intend to do harm does not free him from Divine accountability.

Baby, the central character in Baby Driver, an over-the-top heist film with an adrenalin rush and a strong musical motif, does some terrible things. Although he does not intend to hurt people either physically or financially, he does, and that makes him accountable to law enforcement authorities.

The story begins as Baby drives a getaway car for three robbers who rob a bank. His driving is extraordinary and he is able to evade the police chasing them. As he drives, he listens to loud music on his iPod. We learn that as a child he had an accident that left him with tinnitus, a constant humming in his ear, and listening to loud music drowns out the humming. Moreover, it inspires his driving skills.

Baby is a getaway driver because he owes money to Doc, a crime boss. It is Baby’s intention to quit the life of crime as soon as his debt to Doc is paid. The problem is that Doc needs Baby to continue driving for other heists he has planned.

When Doc threatens Baby with possible harm to Debora, Baby’s girlfriend, he is compelled to drive even though he knows that the thieves he is working with have no scruples and will murder anyone who gets in their way.

The next heist goes south when Bats, one of the robbers, kills a security guard. Baby, unnerved by Bat’s brutal behavior, figures out a way to leave his unsavory cohorts, but an intense cat and mouse game ensues between them and Baby, ending in explosive violence.

The police also pursue Baby and there is a moment of reckoning. Will Baby surrender to them in the hope that the authorities will understand that his sins were unintentional or will he continue to run?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes the traditional Jewish approach to unintentional sin: “Unintentional sins stand midway between intentional sins (where you knew what you were doing was wrong) and involuntary action (ones, where you were not acting freely at all: it was a reflex action, or someone was pointing a gun at your head).” Such is the dilemma of Baby.

Yet, in Jewish law, even unintentional sins require atonement. Why? Rabbi Sacks, quoting several Jewish sages offers some answers. For example, Nachmanides, a medieval scholar, opines: “Sin, even without intention, defiles.” Moreover, “sins committed unwittingly produce a stain on our souls and constitute a blemish in it, and the soul is only worthy to be received by its Creator when it is pure of all sin.” A person cannot simply say, “I did not mean it” and expect God to forgive him. There has to be genuine contrition if there is to be forgiveness from on High.

Once he is apprehended, Baby’s response reflects his mature understanding that there must be consequences for a life of crime, even if all the bad stuff was not his fault. This recognition of past mistakes and accepting responsibility for them paves the way for a bright future in which his mistakes are forgiven. Baby Driver’s denouement is a reminder of the power of atonement and the corresponding power of forgiveness.

 

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