Category Archives: Science Fiction

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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Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), directed by Steven Spielberg

close encounters of the third kindAt the Sabbath table here in Israel, we often invite guests, some of whom do not speak English. When we run out of words, I find that music, Sabbath melodies even without words, can sustain the conversation. We do not have to understand one another in a conventional sense. The music and its harmonies bring us together and we are communicating on another level. Music becomes the universal language. Close Encounters o the Third Kind deals with a visit of aliens from another planet. Although they share no common language with earthlings, they are able to communicate with harmonic tones. Music brings them together.

The story begins as a cohort of government representatives from the military and the space program discover a group of airplanes in the middle of the desert. The planes were reported missing in the 1940s, and now they miraculously are found. At the same time, air traffic controllers in the United States receive reports of unidentified flying objects coming perilously close to planes in the air. Surprisingly, none of the controllers wants to report that they have a seen a UFO, an unidentified flying object.

In Muncie, Indiana, there are major power outages, and two specific families experience unsettling events. Jillian Guiler wakes up in the middle of the night to find her son missing. Roy Neary sees a bizarre aircraft overhead, gets sunburned on half of his face, and begins to have visions of a mountaintop, to which he feels compelled to go.

Simultaneously, other uncommon events occur. In India, a group of people begins chanting an unusual 5-note octave that they claim came from the sky. The US military and NASA receive a message that extraterrestrial life plans to visit earth at Devil’s Tower, a small mountain in Wyoming. To protect the encounter from being disrupted, officials create a false health scare at the site of the impending touchdown. This will enable the military and NASA to rendezvous with the aliens without average people interfering with the planned meeting.

The rendezvous is accompanied by a light and sound show featuring a 5-note octave, which has already been heard by many of the principals involved in the meeting between the aliens and humans. Music, primitive as it is, becomes the vehicle that brings strangers together. The threat of an alien invasion dissipates in the face of expressions of love and connection from the strangers who want to understand the life of humans on earth and carry back that information to their own planet.

Judaism places a great importance on the power of song to unify disparate elements. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “There is an inner connection between music and the spirit. When language aspires to the transcendent, and the soul longs to break free of the gravitational pull of the earth, it modulates into song. Tolstoy called it ‘the shorthand of emotion.’ Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.”

When words cannot convey the desire to communicate, music arises to bring two worlds together in harmony. Close Encounters of the Third Kind suggests that the creature from outer space is not here to destroy the human race, but rather to build bridges of trust and friendship between two planets. Fortunately, cool heads prevail and the encounter between the aliens and earthlings is filled with beauty, love, awe, and trembling. Each group sees the opportunity to expand one’s knowledge of the self and knowledge of the universe. Egos become secondary to the desire of everyone to explore the unknown and learn from the other’s experience. Close Encounters of the Third Kind reminds us that strangers can find ways to be friends.

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Arrival (2016), directed by Denis Villeneuve

arrivalAs I get older, I reflect upon the life I have led. Although I cannot change the past, I sometimes feel that I could have made different decisions that might have led to different outcomes. For example, if I had decided to become the chief rabbi of a small synagogue instead of an assistant rabbi at a large synagogue, my career path might have been different. In Atlanta, circumstances allowed me to switch my professional direction, and I became a high school principal instead of a pulpit rabbi. The opportunity would probably never have come to me if I began my rabbinic career as the chief rabbi in a small town.

The reality is that time is linear, and we can only respond to life as it unfolds in front of us. This assumption is belied in the intriguing science-fiction movie Arrival, the premise of which is that time is not linear and we can experience life in a non-sequential order.

There is another complicating factor as well in Arrival, an intellectually compelling story of aliens mysteriously landing on earth: how we view language and how the aliens view language. In order to avoid conflict between earthlings and aliens, there must be communication. If we want to avoid conflict, we have to understand the other’s language and motives, and that is not quickly accomplished. The key player in this cosmic drama is Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist and language professor, who is recruited by the government to discover a way to talk to the aliens.

We are introduced to her through a series of scenes in which she is speaking to her daughter at different stages in her daughter’s life, from birth until her daughter dies from a fatal disease. This narrative thread is abruptly dropped and the scene shifts to the present when Louise is asked to travel to Montana where one of twelve spaceships has landed. There she tries to initiate dialogue with the aliens, large creatures with tentacles.

Louise tries her best to communicate with the aliens, but the conversation is ambiguous. For example, the aliens use the word weapon, but Louise feels the word does not refer to the word’s conventional meaning, but rather to a tool. In other words, the weapon is language, and it is not sinister. Ian Donnelly, a physicist who is a member of Louise’s team, articulates this as he reads from a book that Louise wrote: “Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.”

With tension and uncertainty mounting around the world, some governments are very nervous. China delivers an ultimatum to the aliens: either leave or you will be attacked. Louise and Ian want to understand the mission of the aliens before confronting them with a military response. They labor heroically to prevent a precipitous decision that will bring the world to catastrophe.

Ultimately, the two plots converge: (1) Louise’s personal history with the birth and death of her daughter, and (2) the aliens’ arrival on earth. The denouement of both narrative strands is both surprising and satisfying on both intellectual and emotional levels.

A seminal issue in Arrival is the ability of one species to speak to another. The fate of the world hangs in the balance. The outcome depends on what we say and how it is interpreted.

Judaism has much to say about the influence of speech in everyday life, and there are ramifications for speech in circles of power as well. What we say and how we say it can change a relationship between two people or two nations. It can cause pain or it can bring about friendship and good will.

Indeed, the Talmud tells us that oppressing someone with words is worse than oppressing someone financially because money can be returned but words cannot be retrieved, once uttered.

Arrival considers the power of words in human discourse. The film reminds us that the wise use of language can help us avoid conflict and can serve as a fortifying bond between nations and between people.

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The Giver (2014), directed by Phillip Noyce

giver-posterIn one of the Israeli schools in which I taught, the students in one particular seventh grade class were mostly interested in parroting back information. The typical question I received was “can I read the next paragraph” or “what was my grade on the last test?” It was rare to hear a question that reflected a thinking, active intellect.

At one point I even told the students that unless they began asking thoughtful questions, the class would become boring for me to teach. I told the students I needed them to respond to the literature I taught. I did not want them only to behave; I wanted them to feel the power of the poetic image or verse. I wanted them to consider the meaning of the works we read. I wanted my students not only to think but to feel.

The Giver, a story set in some future time after a nuclear war, describes a society that wants its citizens to think and not to feel. What is paramount is living in tranquility without strong emotions that potentially can corrupt society. Therefore, citizens have their memories wiped out to insure a stable and peaceful world in the future.

The narrative follows the life of teenager Jonas who, after the completion of high school, is assigned a specific vocation in the community together with other teens in the city. The matching of student and vocation takes place in a public ceremony, and Jonas’s mission is saved for last. Unlike his peers, Jonas is chosen to be the new Receiver of Memories because he possesses the four attributes of intelligence, integrity, courage, and an ability to look beyond the present moment. The person charged with instructing Jonas about the past before the cataclysmic destruction of society is the Giver, an old man who is a living repository of all past memories.

Memories of the past both enlighten Jonas and frighten him. In dreams he sees visions of happy scenes and images of violence and destruction. The Giver explains that Jonas’ confused emotional state will create problems for himself and society. In spite of this, Jonas begins to appreciate the role of emotion, which makes life a richer experience.

He shares his newfound wisdom with friends, but the Elders are worried that his actions will destroy the tranquility of their society. The conflict between the Elders’ desire to preserve the status quo and Jonas’ desire to reinsert emotion into the lives of the citizens leads to tension and conflict. Finding balance between emotion and reason in society and in one’s personal life is the theme of The Giver.

Traditional Judaism promotes balance between emotion and reason. It is good to think and it is also good to feel. For example, the Sages tell us that prayer should not only be cerebrally understood and recited; it should also express the heartfelt sentiments of the supplicant. In reciting the daily prayers, Rabbi Shimon says that one should not make his prayers routine; rather they should express the deep emotion of the person praying. One should try to feel God’s presence.

Moreover, God reveals Himself in the Book of Genesis by two Hebrew names: Elokim and Hashem. Our Sages tell us that Elokim refers to God acting as a God of stern judgment and reason; Hashem refers to a God acting with mercy and compassion. For the world to exist, there most be a combination of justice and mercy. Just as God possesses both attributes, so too should humans. Reason without emotion is unnatural and potentially harmful.

Jonas arrives at this truth as he learns from the Giver, who we discover is not simply a repository of past memories, but a person of feeling who wants future generations to be human in the fullest sense of the word. He reminds us that life is richer and more complete if we experience the agonies and ecstasies of the human experience.

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Avatar (2009), directed by James Cameron

avatar posterFor many years I would listen to inspirational tapes on my way to and from work. Most of the tapes were transcriptions of lectures from Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a contemporary Jewish ethicist, and Zig Ziglar, an icon in the field of motivational speakers. I gleaned insights from both of them, but one insight of Zig’s, in particular, resonated within me as I watched Avatar, a science-fiction tale of an exploratory expedition to Pandora, an Earth-like moon on which live the Na’vi, a human-like species, together with an incredible feast of plant life.

The film opens as Jake Sully, a crippled war veteran and ex-Marine, wakes up in a spaceship on its way to Pandora. We soon learn about the Avatar program. Although humans cannot breathe the air on Pandora, the Avatar program enables a human to connect with his own avatar, a genetically-produced hybrid of a human and a Na’vi, and function as a regular Na’vi on Pandora. On Pandora, Jake, although paralyzed on Earth, can walk and breathe in his Na’vi body.

The purpose of the expedition, run by the Resources Development Administration, is to mine for the mineral unobtanium, a powerful energy source selling for millions per kilo that can return affordable energy to Earth, which is rapidly losing all its energy resources. The strategy of the earthlings is to persuade the natives to cooperate with their planned objective by injecting avatars into Na’vi society, who will convince the local natives to cooperate with the intruders from Earth.

As Jake ingratiates himself in the Na’vi world, he slowly begins to understand their worldview, which involves possessing a reverence for nature and not exploiting it for profit. This perspective conflicts with the view of the military head of the expedition, Colonel Quaritch, who is prepared to destroy the Na’vi civilization if it does not cooperate with him.

Jake’s conflict intensifies when he bonds with Neytiri, a Na’vi girl who rescues him from fierce animal attacks. Miraculously, the spirit world in which Neytiri lives confirms Jake as a pure soul, enabling him to be fully accepted into the Na’vi society. Meanwhile, he is still giving valuable information to his human counterparts and, at the same time, trying his utmost to persuade them to give him more time to convince the natives to leave the area in which the treasured mineral unobtanium is found.

Unfortunately, time runs out without a workable resolution to the conflict. Casualties pile up on both sides as war breaks out. The humans lack the patience to seek a compromise solution in which every interest can be preserved, and so they attack ferociously. Jake leads a counter-attack to prevent destruction of the Na’vi and their way of life. The outcome of their final battle is unclear until many lives have been lost. This failure to negotiate a compromise brings about catastrophic consequences.

Let me return to Zig Ziglar. One of his strategies to obtain good outcomes whenever two parties have different opinions is to imagine yourself sitting on the same side of table as your adversary. If you sit on the same side of table, it means that you understand the perspective of the adversary even if you do not agree with him. When you sit on the same side of table, you are likely to compromise, avoid extreme positions, and find a way that works for both parties.

Judaism stresses the avoidance of extremes and seeking the golden mean. Moreover, people in positions of influence are encouraged to pursue peace. Often times in Jewish jurisprudence, people are encouraged to pursue the paths of peace, darkei sholom. Even if one thinks his opinion is the correct one, it is sometimes better to accept another’s point of view in order to avoid conflict. In Avatar, we see the terrible consequences of unmediated conflict. It is a reminder that it is sometimes important to be patient and find a way where we can create a win-win situation in which all parties to the dispute are sitting on the same side of the table.

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The Martian (2015), directed by Ridley Scott

martian posterIn the Bible and Talmud, there are descriptions of people who respond admirably to adversity. In spite of whatever happens, they do not give up; rather they find a way to continue to be optimistic and productive, no matter what the obstacle.

A classic example from the Talmud is Nachum Ish Gamzu. Whenever misfortune struck, he would say, “this too is for the good.” His unyielding optimism made him a role model for many who faced trials and tribulations.

Nachum became blind in his later years. He also lost his hands and feet, and lay in a dilapidated house where his bed was propped up on water jugs to prevent ants from reaching him. Throughout this time, Nachum responded by saying to himself and others that “this is also for the good.”

Mark Watney, the hero of the tense survival drama, The Martian, experiences adversities of a different sort, but his optimism in the face of overwhelming challenges recalls the attitude of Nachum Ish Gamzu. Mark’s story begins on Mars where he is collecting ground samples to bring back to earth. When an intense storm comes in, Hermes Commander Melissa Lewis orders the mission aborted. Regrettably, a piece of flying debris catapults Watney to a location far from the their space ship, and Mark is left behind.

Although the Director of NASA and the rest of the Hermes crew consider Mark dead, we learn that he is still alive. His first challenge is to remove a piece of antenna stuck in his abdomen. His second is to figure out how he can survive with an oxygen supply that is diminishing rapidly. His third challenge is to determine if he has enough food to last for four years since that is how long it will take to launch a rescue mission. As a botanist, he sees possibilities that the average astronaut will not, and so he begins to plant potatoes on a planet whose soil is not designed to grow earth-like vegetables.

NASA engineers soon detect some movement on Mars, and they discover that Mark is still alive. Eventually they establish communication with him, and a rescue plan is devised. Once his crew learns that he is still alive, they volunteer to be part of the rescue team. Although the plan is complicated, risky, and many obstacles need to be overcome, Mark never gives up. He looks at each problem as one solvable problem. He does not allow the complexity of the mission, which involves overcoming multiple challenges, to deter him from trying his best to survive.

Many years later we see Mark lecturing to class of budding astronauts. His words resonate with the wisdom of experience: “At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And if you solve enough problems, you get to come home.”

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, also expresses a similar perspective on confronting life’s challenges. When faced with a problem, what is important is that we begin to address it and look for ways to solve our dilemma. Indeed, all beginnings our difficult, and we are not always able to complete the task given to us. However, our job is to start with all of our strength and concentration to do the best we can. The rest is left to God. This positive approach to life is worth emulating.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), directed by Stanley Kubrick

two thousand one posterI first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. It was a landmark movie for me. Until then, I viewed movies primarily as entertainments that occasionally had a worthwhile message. 2001 was an intellectual, mind-expanding experience. I left the theatre fascinated and wondering what it was all about. The controversy over the film mushroomed over the years. Originally opening to mixed reviews, it became a cult favorite and thousands of people have written about it. I have my own view of the meaning of the film, which I will share with you; but in no way is my understanding of the film definitive. It just represents my thinking after viewing the film three times over the course of close to fifty years.

The movie is divided into three parts. Part One entitled “The Dawn of Man” depicts a serene African landscape populated mostly by apes who argue over rights to a waterhole. In the midst of their contention, a black rectangular monolith mysteriously emerges from the ground, and the apes view it with wonder. The next day one ape learns how to use a bone of a dead animal as a weapon, and he uses it to claim control over the waterhole. The sequence ends with the ape throwing the bone into the air and the bone morphing into a spaceship, which introduces the viewer to the second part of the film.

In this second part, we are introduced to Dr. Heywood Floyd, a scientist bound for Clavius, an outpost on the moon. Ostensibly traveling there to determine if there is an epidemic on the outpost, there is a veil of secrecy over the mission, suggesting another purpose for Dr. Floyd’s trip. Once on Clavius, Floyd and his team discover the same rectangular monolith that appeared before the apes in the previous sequence. The monolith seems to have emerged from the ground and been in existence for millions of years.

The third part of the film takes place eighteen months later as an American spaceship journeys to the planet Jupiter. Commanding the ship are mission pilots and scientists Drs. David Bowman and Frank Poole. Traveling with them are three other scientists in cryogenic hibernation, and the ship’s computer Hal 9000, who controls most of the ship’s operations. As they fly towards their destination, they discover that Hal is making errors and they struggle to determine the source of these apparent malfunctions.

They conclude that Hal is sabotaging the voyage and they attempt to deactivate him, which leads to a series of dire complications. In the process of disconnecting Hal, Bowman learns about the real purpose of the mission: to discover the origin and purpose of the monolith on the moon.

Bowman’s ship is then brought into a vortex of colored lights and designs, suggesting his transportation to an unknown location. When he arrives there, we find him in a tastefully furnished apartment in which he sees himself as an older man, and then as a dying man. As a man about to expire with his last breath, he sees the monolith at the end of his bed. He is then transformed to an embryo floating through space, which is the closing image of the film.

My summary of 2001 reflects the intellectual ambiguities embedded in the narrative. It is evident that the unexplained existence of the monolith is the image that unites the three sections of the film. In simple terms, the film glorifies science and technology, which enable the apes to become intelligent men and to harness technology in the service of man. The monolith, however, suggests the limitations of science. There are simply some things that cannot be known or understood.

Rabbi Nathan Cardozo does not talk about the monolith; but in a thought-provoking article on the intrinsic value of art, music, and natural beauty, he does comment on the limitations of science to explain the enigma of creation. He sees art as a vehicle to apprehend the unknowable, albeit in an intuitive way. He observes that science cannot give any insight into the mystery of existence, but natural beauty, the arts, and music can. He writes: “Real art does not reproduce the visible but rather reveals the invisible. Consequently, not even artists are able to explain the beauty that resides within their creations. In general, they cannot explain their art any more than a plant can explain horticulture. This failure of the rational mind to categorize and define puts man in direct confrontation with the ineffable, and warns him not to fall victim to the simplistic belief that science can give him any insight into the mystery of our existence.”

I do not think that 2001 has a religious agenda. However, hidden within the history of man from his origins as a half-man, half-ape, to a scientist probing the outer limits of the universe is the notion that man can never know the secrets of creation. The singular response to this cosmic mystery is to view the world with a sense of wonder. The closing image of the fetus in a sac observing the universe simultaneously reminds us of our limitations as human beings and of our ability to see the world anew each and every day just as a small child would view this amazing universe.

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