Author Archives: herbert j. cohen

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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First They Killed My Father (2017), directed by Angelina Jolie

first they killed my fatherI watched this film at a time when the US is in the midst of a major debate over its immigration program. One side views immigrants who came here illegally as potentially dangerous and argues for tighter border controls. The other side sees illegal immigrants as a positive force in the US who make important contributions to America and who simply want a better life for themselves and their children.

I have no political opinion on this very complex matter, but watching First They Killed My Father gave me a better understanding of the plight of refugee children who are caught in the crossfire of larger political currents. First They Killed My Father is a harrowing account, from a child’s perspective, of what it means to be compelled to leave your normal, comfortable family life and suddenly become a poor person seeking safety and basic human needs such as food and clothing.

The story takes place in 1975 in Cambodia, a “neutral” country geographically close to Vietnam, which is at war with the United States. When the country is taken over by the Khmer Rouge, Loung Ung’s family is at grave risk because her father served as a senior military official in the Cambodian government. He represents an ideology diametrically opposed to the fanatical communist ideology of the Khmer Rouge, who during their period of ascendency killed almost two million Cambodians by execution, starvation and forced labor.

Loung, together with her siblings, is placed in a forced labor camp and her parents are eventually separated from her. Outwardly, she learns how to be a child soldier and conforms to the rules of the camp, but inwardly she yearns to escape the oppressive soldiers and guards who are watching her constantly. It is a frightful experience for her and her entire family as we observe Loung , barely seven years old, trying to make sense of the incomprehensible happenings around her.

Jewish law and tradition emphasizes the importance of welcoming the stranger, the refugee in our midst, who has no protector. Nechama Leibowitz, a Biblical scholar, notes that the command to welcome the stranger appears in the Torah 36 times. We are frequently to remember how it felt when we were strangers in a foreign land.

Moreover, the Bible teaches us that all human beings are created in the image of God. Everyone possesses part of the Divine within and everyone has infinite potential. Rabbi Yitzchak Greenberg, a modern Orthodox thinker and educator, says that when we recognize these qualities within man, especially in a refugee population to whom we extend a helping hand, we are sanctifying God’s name.

Moses wanted to immortalize this national characteristic of helping the stranger and so he names his son Gershom, which comes from the Hebrew word for stranger, ger. The history of Moses’s people is bound up in understanding that Jews grew up as “strangers in a strange land.” Furthermore, The Ethics of the Fathers importunes us to look beyond the self: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”

Given the reality today that unrestricted entry in the United States has implications for the safety and security of our citizens, and welcoming the stranger is not so simple as it was many years ago, we still are bidden by our faith to aid the stranger whenever we can without endangering our own lives. When it is clear that the newcomer poses no threat to us, we must help. The child refugees depicted in First They Killed My Father represent that population that requires our aid without hesitation or restriction.

 

Jackie (2016), directed by Pablo Larrain

jackieEveryone my age remembers where they were when we heard the news that President Kennedy was shot and killed. I was in Mt. Vernon, New York, driving in the center of the town with my mother. The radio program to which we were listening abruptly stopped and they announced the president’s death. All the cars, including mine, halted. No one could move. My mother began crying. No one ever imagined such a tragedy happening. That fateful day and the days following are portrayed in Jackie, a thoughtful and eerie film that imagines the tragedy through the eyes and emotions of Jackie, the first lady.

The film begins with Jackie Kennedy being interviewed by a journalist a week after the assassination in late November, 1963. During the conversation, there are flashbacks to memorable moments of the Kennedy presidency, with particular focus on Jackie’s role as first lady. Her television tour of the White House, which attracted an audience of 56 million viewers, is one important highlight that reveals the public and private sides of Jackie. She is a person who does not like to be in the spotlight, but she understands her role as the president’s wife and does her best to enhance her husband’s image in the media.

The film eventually recreates the assassination in Dallas, and the scene brought back painful memories as I watched. It was the first time I experienced a sense of loss. Even though John Kennedy was not a relative, he was a father figure to many Americans, and his untimely death was embedded on our collective memory.

The tragedy prompts Jackie to think about presidents who died while in office, but she focuses on Lincoln who is remembered with great love and affection. She reads books on his funeral, which included a march through Washington, D.C., and wants to replicate the processional for her husband’s funeral. Moreover, she wants his burial plot to be at Arlington National Cemetery, a resting place befitting an American hero, rather than in the family plot.

To get through this difficult time, Jackie speaks to a priest to try to gain some understanding of God’s ways. He reminds her: “There comes a time in man’s search for meaning when one realizes that there are no answers. And when you come to that horrible, unavoidable realization, you accept it or you kill yourself. Or you simply stop searching… I have lived a blessed life. And yet every night, when I climb into bed, turn off the lights, and stare in to the dark, I wonder… Is this all there is? But then, when morning comes, we all wake up and make a pot of coffee.” It seems a simple response, but indeed it is a profound message for Jackie. We cannot understand God’s ways, but we need to endure in spite of pain and disappointment.

The priest’s words reveal a Jewish sensibility. After a relative dies, Jewish law requires shiva, a seven-day period of intense mourning in which one stays at home and is consoled by family and friends. At the end of the seven days, it is a custom to take a short walk around the block to remind ourselves that life goes on in the wake of tragedy. The memory of the loved one remains, but we continue with life.

Lori Palatnik, a Jewish educator, writes: “The concrete act of physically stepping outside, walking around the block, and coming back in, says that this house and our relationship with this house will now be renewed.” We do not remain mired in tragedy. Life beckons.

The movie affirms this notion as it concludes with the song “Camelot,” the optimistic lyrics of which personified for many the Kennedy presidency. Jackie’s struggle to come to terms with loss is palpable, but in the end she moves beyond the pain to a new life with her children, family, and friends.

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The Wizard of Lies (2017), directed by Barry Levinson

wizard of liesA number of years ago, I engaged a contractor to build an addition onto my home. Over the course of several months, he would ask me for an advance on his fee because he needed to buy supplies and pay his workers. I had no experience dealing with contractors and assumed everyone was honest, so whenever he asked for money I gave it to him.

And then one day when the addition was only half-completed, he disappeared. The shock of finding out that the man whom I had hired and trusted was a sociopath who, in essence, stole my money was deeply unsettling. It took some time before my wife and I came to terms with this financial debacle. It was an unnerving experience; and it forever changed the way I did business with home improvement contractors.

The moment of discovering that I lost a large amount of money that could not be recovered, when I felt an emptiness in the pit of my stomach, is a feeling shared by the victims of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, which is the subject of The Wizard of Lies. The film chronicles the events that led to the incarceration of Madoff after bilking billions of dollars from trusting investors.

What strikes the viewer is that Madoff never blames himself for destroying the lives of so many investors who trusted him. Among those investors were Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel and former LA Dodger pitching great Sandy Koufax.

The film plays like a Shakespearean tragedy. Madoff’s tragic flaw was his lack of moral conscience, which led to his hurting not only innocent investors but his own family as well. One son committed suicide and the other died of cancer several years after Madoff’s sentencing. His wife, Ruth, did not just lose her sons. She also lost her affluent lifestyle and now lives in Florida with only her social security check supporting her.

Although Madoff pleaded guilty to all charges against him, he never seems to grasp the gravity of his crimes. He thinks that his investors should have diversified their financial portfolios rather than place their entire savings with him. He considers them foolish and greedy.

I write this review during the Ten Days of Repentance before the holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In Hebrew, the word for repentance is teshuva, which literally means return. It is the day when we return to God and to our best selves. The Sages tell us that the day of Yom Kippur atones for sins between man and God, but not for sins between man and man. Gaining atonement for those sins requires mending the past, asking for forgiveness from one’s fellow man and restoring fractured relationships.

Repentance in its classic Jewish understanding specifically mandates acknowledging one’s mistake and truly regretting it, confessing it before God, and resolving not to commit the same mistake in the future. It is not a perfunctory ritual. It requires asking for forgiveness more than once if that is what is needed to restore a broken relationship. Jewish law even mentions the procedure to ask for forgiveness from someone no longer alive. It involves going to the cemetery with a group of men and asking for forgiveness at the gravesite.

Bernie Madoff is a sociopath, lacking empathy for those he wronged. In the traditional Jewish sense, he has not “returned” from his life of crime because he blames others for allowing the consequences of his unethical behavior to go undetected for so long a time. Indeed, the failure of federal and state oversight institutions did contribute to his crimes.

In the final analysis, the wizard of lies, Bernie Madoff, believed his own charisma and magical manipulation of money would keep him immune to discovery. His insincere repentance and lack of wholehearted recognition of his sins provides a negative role model for modern times.

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