Category Archives: Science Fiction

Ant-Man (2015), directed by Peyton Reed

As I was progressing in the early 1960s through Yeshiva University’s Jewish Studies Program designed for students who had not attended a Jewish day school, I asked a rabbi what would I accomplish after four years of intense Judaic studies in this new program. He told me that at the end of my academic program, I would be able to listen to a class in Bible or Talmud and understand it intelligently.

It was after that conversation that I decided to pursue ordination. I was not happy that, at the end of my studies, the rabbi’s assessment was that all I could do was understand a challenging class and not have some level of personal proficiency navigating original source material in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Little did the rabbi who spoke to me about my academic limitations realize that his comments inspired me to delve deeper into my studies in order to reach a higher level of proficiency. As the poet Robert Browning said: “man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

That desire to do more and be more than people expect energizes Scott Lang, an electrical engineer with a criminal record, to accept the challenge of saving the world. Moreover, once having saved the world, he will ultimately reunite with his beloved daughter, Cassie, who is now living with, Maggie, Scott’s ex-wife and her new husband.

Here is the backstory. Hank Pym, founder of a high tech company developing shrinking technology, resigns as head of the business when he realizes that his protégé, Darren Cross, wants to use the technology in weapons systems that are capable of destroying civilizations. The technology becomes useable through a special Ant-Man suit that enables the wearer to shrink to a tiny size and penetrate almost any obstacle.

Hank needs a thief to steal Cross’s prototype suit and chooses Scott to carry out the mission. Hank’s daughter, Hope, feels Scott is ill-equipped to execute this complicated task and shares her low estimate of Scott’s talent with him. Upon hearing it, Scott becomes more resolved to rise to the occasion and save the world from Cross’s evil plans. Hope’s negative assessment of Scott spurs him on to positive accomplishment.

Hank solidifies Scott’s determination to succeed by reminding him to take advantage of this opportunity for greatness: “Second chances don’t come around all that often. I suggest you take a really close look at it. This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter’s eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are.” Indeed, Scott realizes that no one but he can save the world at this moment and he rises to the occasion. Initially, he sees himself as inadequate; but at this moment he sees the infinite potential for good within him.

In The Ethics of the Fathers, the great sage Hillel says, “in a place where there is no man, be a man (2:6).” This means that sometimes one has to take charge when a situation calls for action. Someone has to stand up for what is right and often when catastrophe is right around the corner.

Consider, for example, the story of Moses who at first does not want to face Pharaoh to ask for the release of his Hebrew slaves. Moses claims he is a stutterer and not up to the task. God, however, reminds him not to define himself by his disability. Rather, define yourself by what your potential is, by what you could be and not by your present impediment. Scott Lang in The Ant-Man sees himself as a hero, and that mindset enables him to be heroic and save the day.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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F.R.E.D.I. (2018), directed by Sean Olson

My grandchildren recently asked me for a recommendation for a movie to watch. It took me some time to suggest a title or two since so much of what is out there is potentially corrupting.

When parents ask me for a suggestion, I invariably tell them to look at the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) website and consult the Parent Advisory section to determine if the film you are considering viewing for yourself or for your children is one which you are comfortable with from a personal and parenting perspective.

F.R.E.D.I. is one of those rare films that is kosher in the conventional sense: no foul language, no violence, no sex or nudity. Since my “Kosher Movies” website is designed for adults, my definition of a “kosher movie” is very broad. A “kosher movie” is one that has something meaningful to say about life, a film that may even help us navigate our own lives. It does not indicate whether a film is appropriate for children, so it was with pleasure that I watched F.R.E.D.I. and discovered a movie that I could endorse for teens.

The story begins in a top-secret laboratory in Bentonville, Arkansas. Dr. Andi Palmer is a scientist who created a robot, named F.R.E.D.I., in order to help people and improve their quality of life. Once she realizes that her boss, Grant, will use the robot to advance his own pecuniary concerns rather than improve life for the world, she decides to make sure that her boss has no access to her creation. Fleeing into the forest from Grant’s cohorts, she hides F.R.E.D.I. but does not have enough time to retrieve it after the chase.

A 15-year-old teenager, James Nash, discovers the robot named F.R.E.D.I. in a forest near his home. They soon learn to communicate with one another and a friendship blossoms. James decides to bring the robot home and F.R.E.D.I. gives James much attention. James needs attention because his father, a single parent, is constantly distracted by his business concerns and does not spend much time with his son. James begins to understand how important F.R.E.D.I. is when he observes the robot responding in a friendly and helpful way to human stimuli. Then he feels responsible to protect the robot from the corporate profiteers who want to exploit its powers.

Watching F.R.E.D.I. brings to mind a host of films that in my mind are “kosher“ for teens and that have something valuable to say to adults about navigating life. Here are some of my favorites with an indication of their kosher themes:

Searching for Bobby Fischer – why it is important to lead a balanced life;

Wonder – how we should treat those who are disfigured or disabled;

Toy Story 3– how anger destroys our ability to perceive truth;

It’s a Wonderful Life– why we should be grateful for what we have;

Raiders of the Lost Ark – why it is important to adjust to new realities even when things do not go our way;

E.T. – how we should respond to the stranger in our midst;

Hugo – how we should regard the contributions of the elderly who enrich our lives;

Karate Kid (1984) – how the power of concentration can turn the present moment into an eternal one;

Remember the Titans – how freeing ourselves from prejudice can enrich our lives;

Back to the Future – the value of time and how one moment can change our destinies;

October Sky – considers the question of who is more influential in the life of a child, parents or teachers;

A Little Princess –the importance of having a positive attitude and smiling in the face of adversity;

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale – a reminder for us to treasure acts of kindness.

Watch this movie on Netflix.

Divergent (2014), directed by Neil Burger

I recently had a conversation with a friend who told me how difficult it was to be the youngest brother in a family of five boys. All his siblings were clear-eyed about the future and had a career path in mind when they were teenagers. One wanted to be doctor, another a lawyer, another a college professor of English Literature, and another a high tech entrepreneur. Amazingly, four of the brothers achieved success in their chosen fields. My friend, the fifth and youngest, however, although very talented in many areas, had trouble deciding on a major in college. His indecision remained with him for many years.

Although he graduated college with a history degree, he was unable to make any career commitment until he reached 30 years of age. For most of his formative years, he felt that he did not fit in. He was divergent from the rest of his family.

Trying to fit in was important to me as a youngster as well, and this is the dilemma faced by the teenagers in Divergent, a science-fiction story that takes place in a future dystopia where kids, at age 16, have to choose which of five groups they want to join. The five factions are described by Beatrice Prior, the heroine of Divergent: “The smart ones, the ones who value knowledge and logic, are in Erudite. Amity farm the land. They’re all about kindness and harmony, always happy. Candor value honesty and order. And then there’s Dauntless. They’re our protectors, our soldiers, our police. Brave, fearless and free. My faction is Abnegation. We lead a simple life, selfless, dedicated to helping others. Because we’re public servants, we’re trusted to run the government. It all works. Everyone knows where they belong. Except for me.”

Joining a faction means committing oneself to that group for the rest of one’s life, assuming their social identity, and meeting society’s expectations for that cohort.

In order to determine what faction you are suited for, teenagers are required to take an aptitude test to see where one’s proclivities lie. Beatrice’s test results are inconclusive, suggesting she may be a good fit for Abnegation, or Erudite, or Dauntless. In brief, she does not fit only one category. She is divergent.

At the Choosing Ceremony, Beatrice opts for Dauntless and goes through an intensive training program in combat and control of fear, all the while doubting her choice. In the course of her training, she meets Four, another secret divergent, who is part of the Dauntless leadership. In the course of their training, they discover that one faction is planning to get rid of another. Will Beatrice and Four be able to stop them from attaining their nefarious goal?

Divergent is essentially about having the courage not to conform to the expectation of others, but rather being true to oneself. Jewish history is bound up with the story of non-conformists. Abraham is the most notable example. God tells him to leave his land, his birthplace, and journey to the land that God will show him. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes: “I want you, says God to Abraham, to be different. Not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of starting something new: a religion that will not worship power and the symbols of power—for that is what idols really were and are. To be a Jew is to be willing to challenge the prevailing consensus when, as so often happens, nations slip into worshipping the old gods.” Abraham was called ha-ivri, which in Hebrew means the side, because he was philosophically on one side and the entire world was on the other.

There is a folk saying that “dead fish go with the flow, but live fish swim against the current.” As it was with Abraham, so it is with Beatrice and Four, who challenge the status quo by asserting their individuality in the midst of powers that desire conformity. Their fight represents an actualization of the famous lines of poet Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled on/ And that has made all the difference.”

Purchase this movie on Amazon.com.

The Sixth Sense (1999), directed by M. Night Shyamalan

sixth senseI read chapters from Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, every day. So many of its messages resonate that no matter how many times I study it, I always find something new in it. For example, when I first read the maxim “if not now, then when,” I was a young man and the phrase encouraged me not to procrastinate when it comes to doing good deeds. When I read the same maxim as a senior citizen, the subtext of the line is mortality. The maxim reminds me that every day could be my last, so I should use every minute of life wisely preparing myself for an audience with the Divine. At the end of my life, I will have to give an accounting of my life to the Holy One, blessed be He.

The Sixth Sense is a mystery, but also a meditation on how we prepare ourselves in this world for eternal life in the next. It is a complex film that deals with death and ultimate questions such as how we should conduct ourselves in this transitory world. How do we spend our time? With whom do we spend our time? With family? With friends? With work? To what extent do we prioritize our time with family? Sometimes we are so busy doing good things that we forget to spend time with those whom we love and who want and need our attention.

Malcom Crowe, a child psychologist, is deeply concerned about his patients. Regrettably, he cannot solve everyone’s problems. One evening, an ex-patient invades his home and shoots Malcolm in front of his loving wife, Anna, and then kills himself. The film continues a year later with Malcolm in recovery mode trying to help a nine-year old boy, Cole Sear, who seems to have the same delusions as the patient who entered his home a year before.

This time Malcolm does not want to fail his patient, so he devotes all his time to trying to understand his psychosis. Why does Cole see dead people? How does he communicate with them? The more time he spends with Cole, preoccupied with the boy’s problems, the less time he spends with his wife, and their relationship suffers.

After many therapy sessions, Malcom begins to believe Cole when he tells him that he sees people who do not realize they are dead. Malcolm suggests that Cole’s ability to see ghosts may have a purpose: Cole perhaps has a mission to help the dead finish their mission on earth. This insight becomes the catalyst for Malcolm’s completing his own life’s mission.

The Sixth Sense suggests that there is a middle ground between life and death where we can still do things that affect our status in the next world. Judaism does not believe in such a middle ground. Rather, Jews are encouraged to maximize the moments in this world so that our existence in the next world is one of supreme spiritual pleasure.

The Sages in Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, maintain that one hour in the world of the living is more precious than all of life in the world to come. This world is the world in which we live and toil, and it is a world where we can do good actions. Once we leave this world, we can no longer perform good deeds.

Judaism believes that there is life after death. Our physical bodies may deteriorate over time, but our spiritual essence, our souls, which come from God, transcend the body. The fact that physical life has an end gives meaning to what we do on earth. Indeed, our spiritual existence after we die depends on the kind of life we led when we were alive.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, referring to a source in Kabbalah, writes: “As we bid farewell to the world, we are shown a film that contains scenes of our entire lives. We are witnesses to every moment of our days on Earth as they pass before us with incredible rapidity. And as we watch our own story unfold, there are times when we cringe with embarrassment; others when we smile with glee. What happens after death is that we gain the wisdom to evaluate our own life by the standards of Heaven – because we have finally glimpsed an eternal perspective.”

Moreover, he insightfully comments: “Death isn’t a destroyer; it’s a transition. As the chassidic Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk put it, death is just a matter of going from one room to another. And if we live our lives in accord with the will of God, we are certain that the place we are going to is ultimately the more beautiful area.”

The Sixth Sense deals with the transition from life to death and raises questions about how we lead our earthy lives and prepare for our spiritual lives after death. The film encourages us to leave a legacy of good deeds before we enter our eternal abode.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

For the Love of Spock (2016), directed by Adam Nimoy

for the love of spockIn the late fifties and sixties, I was a rock and roll aficionado and some of my favorite songs were what became known as “one-hit wonders.” They were great songs done by artists who basically produced only one hit song. Some examples: “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill, “Sea Cruise” by Frankie Ford, and “The Book of Love” by the Monotones. They were classics, but the vocalists had a short shelf life.

Reflecting about their careers reminded me of a line uttered by Leonard Nimoy in For the Love of Spock, a loving biography of the actor directed by his son Adam. Nimoy says that before Star Trek, the longest acting experience he had lasted only two weeks. He was a “two-week wonder,” and this created a financial uncertainty that influenced his career decisions throughout much of his life.

As a young man, he became enamored of the theatre and, against the wishes of his parents, journeyed to California to further his career goal of becoming an actor. He got parts in films, did live theatre, and, serendipitously, landed the role of Spock, the Vulcan alien who became a fixture of the celebrated Star Trek series. Although the show only lasted three seasons, it turned into a cultural phenomenon through many years of syndication, and gave Nimoy the kind of job stability that he yearned for since his early acting years.

The only downside to Nimoy’s luminous career was his performance at home as a husband and father. So immersed was he in his own career that he was scarcely available to his children. A chasm developed with his son Adam, in particular, who was going through his own adolescent crisis. For many years the two did not speak to one another. Happily, before Nimoy died, his son reconciled with him so that Nimoy’s final years were emotionally rich and rewarding. What is especially touching is hearing a letter that Leonard Nimoy wrote to his adult son in which he apologizes for not being there for him at challenging moments of Adam’s life, when he truly needed his dad to support him through addiction problems and divorce.

Dr. Miriam Adahan, a psychotherapist living in Jerusalem, encourages parents to be present in their children’s lives to help them develop ego-strengths during their formative years. How do we do this? Give children a smile, or word of praise, or express gratitude for the good things they do. Value the smallest acts of self-discipline that a child shows. Remind them of the wisdom of King Solomon who said, “No one gets even half their heart’s desires fulfilled (Ecclesiastes 1:13).” The assumption is that God gives you everything you need. It may not be all that you want, but it is all you need to grow and prosper.

The portrait of Leonard Nimoy that we see in For the Love of Spock is complex. The film is not hagiography; rather it gives us a window into the life of an artist who was multi-talented and craved success. But there was a price he paid in terms of family connections.

In truth, Nimoy did not have a close relationship with his own father, and that lack of a role model influenced his own lackadaisical attitude towards parenting. Interestingly, in spite of having little meaningful interaction with his own father, Leonard Nimoy still remembered his childhood fondly.

One memory, in particular, stands out and was the basis of one aspect of Spock’s character, Nimoy’s fictional persona; namely, the Vulcan greeting. Nimoy recalls going to the synagogue as a child and watching the descendants of priests utter their holiday blessing to the congregants while forming a “V” with the fingers of their hands. This became the Vulcan greeting that accompanied the phrase ”live long and prosper.” This phrase expresses Nimoy’s personal mantra and his life. Indeed, Leonard Nimoy lived long and did prosper.

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.

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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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