Category Archives: Action/Adventure

Pilgrimage (2017), directed by Brendan Muldowney

pilgrimageThere is a statement in The Ethics of the Fathers that resonates with me every time I read it: “civility (or good behavior) comes before Torah.” What is the takeaway? That for the Torah to reside in a person, he first has to conduct himself like a mentsch.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, of sainted memory, addresses this complex issue in part in an essay that he wrote in 1975 entitled “Does Judaism Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halacha (Jewish law)?” He concludes that it does. Citing examples of great non-Jewish writers who behaved in exemplary ways, he shows how, outside of the Jewish framework of Torah and Jewish law, these people were paragons of virtue and righteous living. He bases this insight on the passage in the Torah that speaks of all men being created in God’s image. Being a good person means recognizing the divinity in other people and treating them accordingly.

Pilgrimage is film that deals with religious faith and raises an important question. Is the true man of faith one who carries out the behest of the Pope in Rome or one who treats his fellow man with respect? Where does one see divinity? In the face of one’s neighbor, in the unpredictable acts of nature, or in the religious establishments of the time? There are no simple answers, but Pilgrimage puts a human face on the questions.

The narrative begins on a remote island in Ireland in 1209. A cadre of monks, at the request of the Pope, commits to transporting to Rome a holy relic that has been in their charge for many years. The relic is reputed to have special power and the Pope wants it in his hands before launching the upcoming Crusade.

However, the journey to bring it to him is fraught with peril. The key players in this cosmic drama are Brother Geraldus who represents the Pope’s interest, Brother Diarmuid, a young boy sent so that he can experience a holy quest, the Mute, a strong and faithful Christian who has made himself available as a servant to the brotherhood of monks, veteran Brother Claren, and Raymond De Merville, son of one of the monks who is charged with protecting the monks on their journey.

As they progress to their destination, their guards leave them, and they become vulnerable to hostile heathens who attack and kill some of them. The relic is lost, but the monks do not give up. They look for a way to retrieve the relic, putting their own lives at increased risk.

Rabbi Eliyahu Safran cites an interesting case from the Talmud that illustrates the conflicting claims of organized religion against respect for human life. The Torah, for example, tells us about the priests attending to the task of removing the ashes that had built up on the altar overnight. Rabbi Safran writes; “The Talmud describes how the priests would quite literally do battle for the privilege of attending to this task. They would race one another up the ramp in order to attend to this job to see who would get to the ashes first. The competition to perform this small but holy task grew so heated that, on one occasion, one priest shoved another off the ramp, causing him to fall and break his leg. Rather than end the competition, this seemed only to spur it on resulting in even more injury. Finally, a lottery system was enacted, bringing peace to this daily ritual.”

In this Talmudic example, the fervor to do a religious act resulted in tragic consequences. So too does the task of bringing the relic to the pope in The Pilgrimage, a film that serves as an object lesson in the negative outcome of religious zeal at the expense of human life. Implicit in Pilgrimage is the idea that religious faith must co-exist with righteous action. One cannot truly love God if he does not love man.

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War Machine (2017), directed by David Michod

war machineAfter serving in Jewish education for many years in America and teaching in two schools in Israel, I am no longer active in the field of education. However, I continue to read articles about the latest trends in Jewish education, particularly at the high school level where I spent most of my career.

What I find interesting is that while outwardly things change, especially due to technology, many things still remain the same. One example: Year in and year out, the subject of how to make prayer meaningful is discussed in Jewish schools.

Dr. Beth Hait, former assistant dean of students at Yeshiva University’s Stern College, in 2016 discusses three issues pertaining to prayer in Jewish day schools: attendance, decorum, and participation. These issues are the same ones I dealt with in the 1970s when I began my tenure as a high school principal. Hait insightfully writes: “If part of the goal of Jewish education is not only to impart knowledge but to build the foundation for a lifelong relationship with God, then understanding prayer should be a priority, and God should be an integral part of classroom conversation.”

Indeed, there are no easy answers to perennial questions. Nonetheless, we try our best to solve the problem. This essentially is what four-star General Glen McMahon does when he is called in 2009 to deal with the war in Afghanistan, a war that has been going on for many years without a successful resolution. No previous general has been able to deal effectively with the diplomatic quagmire in Afghanistan, and so McMahan is brought in; but the same problems that plagued his predecessor plague him. The realities on the ground have not changed.

McMahan wants President Obama to authorize a troop surge of 40,000 soldiers to end the war, but he runs into political opposition. Things get worse when Sean Cullen, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, pens an article critical of the general and his staff.

Cullen provides the voiceover narration for the film. He views McMahan with skeptical eyes, appreciating his energy and patriotism but questioning his judgment in matters where the general’s ego is involved. Cullen observes: “You could argue that the main reason certain generals like war so much is because only in war do they feel truly relevant. It’s only in war that they feel close to the center of power. Only in war do they feel the warm glow of other people’s attention.”

The problem depicted in War Machine is that America is involved in a war it cannot win. The locals don’t trust the Americans who may not be there to help them in the long run. At a press conference with McMahan, a German politician articulates the dilemma: “Your analysis of the insurgency there suggests to me that there is no monolithic Taliban. You are spread over the entire country. You are fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village, and that, General, you must know, is a war you will never win.”

Jewish law considers the reasons why a nation has to go to war. Obviously, it can go to war to defend itself. Beyond that, things get complicated. Reuven Kimelman of Brandeis University, in an article on warfare and its restrictions in Judaism, tells us that the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court in ancient times, is the body that can authorize a discretionary war. Kimelman quotes Rabbi David Bleich: “Before granting authorization to wage war, the Sanhedrin must weigh the probable losses, consider the chances of success, and assess the will of the people. The Sanhedrin is charged with assessing the military, political and economic reality and determining whether a proposed war is indeed necessary and whether it will be successful in achieving its objectives.”

The Sanhedrin was composed of wise men, not politically motivated but concerned about the long term wellbeing of the people. The egos of generals were not part of their consideration. War Machine reminds us of the complexity of military decisions that affect not only soldiers, but also the locals who are affected by what nations do on the battlefield.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962), directed by David Lean

lawrence of arabiaI first saw Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. It was a cinematic event, panoramic in scope and intellectually engaging. The central character, T. E. Lawrence, a brave and psychologically complex British lieutenant, was not a conventional movie hero and the story was complicated. I remember being impressed by the dramatic visuals, but I was not touched emotionally by the narrative.

The film begins with Lawrence dying in a motorcycle accident in 1935. At his funeral, mourners debate his greatness, and the viewer is taken back to his early years as an intelligence officer in Cairo in 1916 to observe the arc of his military career.

Because of his knowledge of Arab ways, he is sent to assess the efficacy of the Arab revolt against the Turks, who are allied with the Germans in World War I. Once in the desert, he does not follow his orders to simply obtain information. Instead, he decides to organize an army among the many disparate Arab tribes that will harass the Turks with raids, train explosions, and camel attacks. Indeed, Lawrence and his cohorts have military success and help the British destroy the Ottoman Empire.

Throughout his exploits, Lawrence is a conflicted man. At times he sees himself as a demi-god, at other times a mere mortal at the whim of fate. His sense of personal destiny enables him to accomplish the near impossible. It is his goal to give the Arabs freedom from the Turks and an opportunity to determine their own destiny.

Regrettably, the Arabs have no experience with setting up the rudiments of a conventional government. They cannot unify their often adversarial points of view; and, in the end, the Arabs surrender the cities they have conquered to the British. In spite of Lawrence’s military success, his dream of Arab unity is never realized.

Jewish tradition stresses the importance of unity whenever there is an important mission to be achieved. At the giving of the Torah at Sinai, Jews were of one heart and mind. Their unity is based on the notion that people should genuinely love one another and care for each other. The implication of that unity is that any action by one Jew affects another Jew. When one Jew does something good, it benefits the entire people; when a Jew does something bad, he hurts the body politic of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg provides an unusual description of unity from the biological realm, but which has implications for relationships between humans as well: “If you are slicing a carrot and accidentally cut your finger, do you respond by taking the knife and deliberately slicing into your other hand in revenge? Of course not. Because your other hand is a part of you, too. Humanity is one unit. If we’re united, the Almighty’s with us. If we’re divided, we’re on our own.”

As I watched this cinema classic from the 1960s, before the Six Day War, I began to think about why the Arab population of the Middle East has not been able to move forward to establish a state. They are still functioning as tribal communities, unable to see beyond the present and unable to develop a cohesive world view that triumphs over sectarian interests.

Lawrence of Arabia may deal with a specific incident of the past, but it demonstrates the disastrous consequences of being unable to unify peoples who still hold tribal loyalties as more important than national goals. When people are enmeshed in their own personal worlds, they do not consider the negative results that mitigate against the greater good.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Dr. Strange (2016), directed by Scott Derrickson

dr. strangeA friend of mine scheduled hip replacement surgery. He and his wife visited the surgeon who had been recommended by many. After the meeting, my friend and his wife came away with different impressions. While both felt the surgeon was highly competent, the wife detected a streak of arrogance in the doctor, and it bothered her. She preferred a surgeon who radiated humility, not pride. The husband felt that, at the end of the day, God is the healer, not the surgeon, and the surgeon’s arrogant attitude was not a reason to choose another doctor.

An extremely competent but prideful physician is the main character in Dr. Strange, the origin story of Marvel comic book hero Stephen Strange, a gifted doctor who sees himself as a mini-god. The opening segment of the film depicts a tragic car accident that results in catastrophic injury to his hands. He can no longer work as a surgeon and feels life is over.

One day, however, he hears about a fellow who was paralyzed and who, without medical intervention, regained the use of his limbs. To do this, the man journeyed to a faraway place in Katmandu, Nepal, called Kamar-tal, where he learned to use his mind to overcome his physical paralysis.

Strange decides to travel to Kamar-tal. There he meets people proficient in the mystic arts including The Ancient One, and Mordo, a sorcerer. These practitioners of magic exist in an alternate reality, which strives to rescue the world from enemies existing in other dimensions.

Under their tutelage, Strange moves from being a self-centered egotist to a person genuinely concerned about the fate of others. Moreover, he now believes not only in science but accepts other sources of knowledge that do not function according to the rules of science. At the outset of his psychological journey, he states: “I do not believe in fairy tales about chakras or energy or the power of belief. There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. You’re just another tiny, momentary speck within an indifferent universe.” At journey’s end, he comprehends that he is not the center of the universe; but, rather, some spiritual power is. Furthermore, his brush with death has made him value life more. The Ancient One tells him: “ Death is what gives life meaning.” That piece of wisdom resonates within Strange; life’s brevity makes him treasure each moment more.

These valuable life lessons are part of Jewish tradition. The Jewish belief system is built on the notion there is both a spiritual and material world and that what we do on this earth transcends the physical. Indeed, our earthly lives eventually morph into a purely spiritual existence on another plane where we are held accountable for the good and bad things we have done.

Moreover, the Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers remind us to repent one day before we die. Since we do not know when they day will arrive, we are to live with an awareness that each day might be our last. Therefore, each day should be filled with good deeds. Thinking about mortality is good because that thought will spur us on to a life of greater accomplishment.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange does not suddenly become a paragon of humility, but he does learn that life has other dimensions than the physical. Moreover, he learns that a mission-driven life can involve more than one mission, and that a person’s mission can change depending on the turnabouts in one’s own life. Indeed, Dr. Strange, a fictional comic book story, offers one model for cultivating humility and discovering our true destiny.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Tombstone (1993), directed by George Cosmatos

tombstoneMy parents were not social butterflies. They had many friends because they were good friends to others. They were people who always kept their word and always were there to help relatives and friends during the hard times. For me, they were role models of reliability and champions of kindness. They were the friends upon whom you could count, and that notion of friendship was absorbed by me.

I remember one particular incident when I was in my teens that reflected my view of friendship. The rabbi of our local synagogue in Mt. Vernon, New York, would regularly invite people to his home for Friday night dinner and Torah study. We looked forward to it because we enjoyed the learning and the great meal that the rabbi’s wife prepared for us, especially the tasty desserts.

I made up with a friend of mine who lived in a different section of the city to meet him at a specific street and then we would walk together to the rabbi’s house. Early Friday evening it began to snow. I paid no attention to it because I was focused on meeting my friend. When I arrived at the designated meeting point, my friend was not there. I waited an hour for him expecting him to appear, but he didn’t. I eventually went to the rabbi’s home alone. It never occurred to me that the inclement weather would keep my friend away from dinner with the rabbi.

After the Sabbath, I contacted my friend and found out that he assumed that the bad weather meant our meeting was off. I told him that bad weather never influenced me to break my word to a friend. In a short time, I got over my disappointment and I understood my friend’s perspective. Our friendship survived this bump in the road. The incident, however, did reveal to me that people often have different definitions of friendship.

In Tombstone, there is a powerful example of a solid friendship in the relationship between lawman Wyatt Earp and his friend, Doc Holliday. The story begins after Wyatt has successfully cleaned up Dodge City and has relocated to Tombstone, Arizona, to quietly live as a regular citizen. However, a gang of outlaws, known as “the cowboys,” is terrorizing the community with random acts of violence. This eventually leads to the famous gunfight at the OK Corral. Doc Holliday joins Wyatt in the fight because Wyatt is his friend.

The gunfight on the OK Corral does not end the tyranny of the “cowboys.” There are more shoot-outs to come; and at each one, Doc stands by his friend Wyatt. Wyatt’s ultimate challenge comes from gunslinger Johnny Ringo who is faster on the draw than Wyatt. Here again, it is Doc Holliday who places himself in harm’s way to rescue his friend.

In Doc’s conversation with a friend, Jack Johnson, Jack wonders why Doc puts his own life on the line for Wyatt. Doc responds: “Wyatt Earp is my friend.” Jack then remarks:” Hell, I got lots of friends,” to which Doc answers: “I don’t.” Although this interchange reveals the existential loneliness of Holliday and his desire of human connection, the dialogue always indicates a Talmudic idea of friendship.

The Sages in The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic work of Jewish wisdom literature, tell us to “acquire a friend.” The commentators understand this to mean that we should acquire a friend by helping him, by doing things that make him feel indebted to us. It is not something based only on emotion. We should think of ways to concretize the friendship by doing things for one another that obligate one to the other.

On a purely visceral level, Tombstone is a violent example of the western movie genre. More important, through its depiction of the relationship of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, it provides an example of deep friendship, an illustration of how far friends should go to help one another.

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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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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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