When I served as a synagogue rabbi, I was often asked by congregants to listen to a dilemma they were facing and then to offer some guidance. As they explained their situation to me, I often felt I needed more information to give them sound advice. Sometimes the problem was straightforward; other times I counseled congregants to wait until more information was available before making a decision. I rarely regretted telling them to wait a little longer before adopting a particular course of action, but I would regret offering advice prematurely before all the facts were in. This is one of the challenges faced by the protagonists in Crimson Tide, a tense and absorbing naval thriller dealing with the possibility of nuclear war.
The film begins with rebels commandeering nuclear missile launching sites in Russia. When the rebel leader threatens to launch the missiles, the United States sends its own nuclear submarine to patrol the waters off Russia and, if necessary, to launch a pre-emptive attack against Russia. The tension escalates when Frank Ramsey, the captain of the submarine Alabama, and Ron Hunter, the new executive officer of the ship, clash over the protocols for preparing for a possible nuclear strike.
When the submarine receives news that the rebels are about to break the codes for the missile launch, the Alabama goes into a state of high alert. A hostile sub sends torpedoes towards the Alabama, which miss their target; but the explosion nearby causes the ship to lose its radio transmission. Herein lies the problem: the last completed message received is for the Alabama to launch its missiles, but there is a subsequent message that is incomplete. Does it confirm the previous order or does it cancel it? Ramsey argues that it does; Hunter says it does not. Both men operate out of pure motives, but one approach may lead to a worldwide nuclear holocaust and the other to the annihilation of the United States. Each passing moment without a decision puts America at risk, but a quick decision that is wrong is catastrophic for the world.
Jewish tradition encourages debate when the way forward is unclear. The Talmud is the quintessential text embodying the argumentative spirit searching for truth. The classic examples are the debates between Hillel and Shammai, two giants of Torah scholarship. They provide a model to emulate. They both want is best for the community and they are devoid of personal agenda,l so their disagreements are viewed positively. They may arrive at different conclusions, but both are animated by the same quest for truth.
When Ramsey is looking for a new executive officer, he confides to one of his senior officers that he wants someone who will be an independent thinker, someone who will not be afraid to challenge him. Inwardly, he values the perspective of others. This is a lesson that emerges from the Creation narrative. There, God says “Let us make man.” The commentators ask: to whom is God talking? Who did God have to consult with before creating the world? In truth, God did not have to consult with anyone, but the Bible here is teaching us an important life lesson; namely, that before embarking on any important task, we should always consult others. God wanted to teach us that no matter how important and knowledgeable we think we are, we should seek counsel with others to make better decisions.
As I get older, I realize how little I know. As a young man, I thought there were only two ways to see things: the right way and the wrong way. With the benefit of life experience, I have learned that there are a variety of different approaches to life’s challenges. Crimson Tide reminds us that the more informed we are and the more we glean the wisdom of others, the better decisions we will make.