Category Archives: Science Fiction

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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The Nutty Professor (1963), directed by Jerry Lewis

nutty professor posterIn high school, I was not a very serious student, so it was unsettling for me when I entered Yeshiva University as a freshman and found myself in a class with very bright students who masterfully controlled the ebb and flow of class discussion. Because of my low opinion of my own academic background, I rarely raised my hand when I had a question and rarely contributed to class discussion. It was a case of low self-esteem that had ripple effects. Because I thought little of my own intellect, some of my professors thought the same of me. Because of my non-participation, they thought I was not capable of adding to the discussion, and so they didn’t call on me. It took me a couple of years to overcome this feeling of intellectual inferiority; but when I did, things changed for me and in my teachers’ evaluation of me as well.

Self-esteem is what The Nutty Professor is all about. Professor Julius Kelp is a shy, socially inept teacher, whose classroom experiments often end in disaster. When a bully humiliates him, he is motivated to join a fitness club in the hopes of overcoming his lack of style and poise. It does not work. However, in the recesses of his chemistry lab, he is able to concoct a potion that transforms him, albeit for a short time, into the suave lady’s man known as Buddy Love.

As Buddy Love, he has the confidence to pursue a relationship with Stella Purdy, an attractive student of his. Stella is repelled by Buddy’s arrogance but finds him attractive in a strange sort of way, suspecting that beneath his pompous and crude persona rests a person of genuine worth.

Complications ensue when the mystery concoction wears off at inopportune times, leaving Julius conflicted and confused. Eventually Julius comes to the realization that he has to be himself in order to become a whole human being.

Accepting himself as he is, he finally declares: “ I don’t want to be something that I’m not. I didn’t like being someone else. You might as well like yourself. Just think about all the time you’re going to have to spend with you. And if you don’t think too much of yourself, how do you expect others to?” It is a simple statement, but full of wisdom as Julius embarks on a new stage of his life with Stella, who now sees him as a genuine and likeable human being.

Self-esteem is a major focus of the works of Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a psychiatrist specializing in problems of addiction. He defines self-esteem as “a true and accurate awareness of one’s skills, capabilities and limitations.” If the awareness is not rooted in reality, then one is living a delusion. Twerski believes that a great many psychological problems are due to low self-esteem in which a person devalues himself. He possesses a negative self-image, which leads him to accomplish little and feel downcast most of the time.

A positive self-image grows where a person feels he has value. The Bible tells man he is created in God’s image, which implicitly means he has value. God does not command us to succeed in everything we do; rather He simply wants us to live a life of godliness as prescribed by the commandments in the Bible.

The Jewish institution of the minyan, the required ten men needed for public prayer, drives this point home. Nine great wise men cannot enable public prayer. You need a tenth, and how much wisdom he possesses is not part of the equation. Everyone counts. No matter how low on the status scale, you are still capable of making things happen, of enabling the community to thrive. The Nutty Professor reminds us to be ourselves, to understand that everyone matters, and to continually nurture our self-esteem.

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Aliens (1986), directed by James Cameron

aliens posterWhen I was in ninth grade, I went to a Jewish day high school on the outskirts of Harlem. One evening, my friend Max and I went to a jazz concert featuring the celebrated xylophonist Terry Gibbs. Returning to the dorm late at night, we were accosted by a group of unsavory teenagers, one of whom was on roller skates. They wanted our money. One, in particular, threatened me with a brass ring that he provocatively thrust in my face. I was petrified, but my friend Max was not. Apparently he had been in similar situations before, and he suddenly grabbed hold of the fellow on roller skates and threw him to the ground. Then Max shouted, “run,” and we ran close to a four-minute mile back to our dorm. Max knew how to confront fear; I did not.

Aliens is all about confronting fear. Ripley, the only survivor of a space mission that discovered a hostile alien species, is serendipitously found after drifting in space in a hypersleep for 57 years. Because of her experience with the aliens, she is recruited to be an advisor on an expedition to find out why the colony that settled on the space station where the aliens were discovered has ceased transmitting to earth. At first, she refuses the request, but her continuous nightmares motivate her to join the mission with the goal of destroying the aliens. In this way, she hopes to find inner peace.

Her cohorts on the mission are a group of tough but arrogant Marines. They are so full of themselves and their weaponry that they do not pay much attention to Ripley’s warnings. Soon, however, they come in direct contact with the hostile aliens and a life and death battle with them rages. After a number of Marines, including the commanding officer, are killed or wounded, Ripley has to take charge of the spaceship and the mission. The situation continues to deteriorate as the Marines are confronted by an enemy vastly superior to them in strength and number. Furthermore, in the midst of all the fireworks, their transport back to the mother ship is damaged, leaving them with a limited supply of weapons and ammunition.

The situation is desperate and calls for innovative thinking. Some team members want to give up, but Ripley insists upon trying to survive in spite of the superior strength of the hostiles. She is fearful but she does not allow fear to paralyze her.

Judaism acknowledges the reality of fear in our lives. When the Jews were about to enter the holy land, they decided to send spies to check out the feasibility of conquering the land. Ten of the twelve spies saw not the good of the land, but rather the imposing giants who lived there. In comparison, they saw themselves as grasshoppers, ill-equipped to vanquish them. Attempting to battle them would only bring loss of life and disaster to the people as a whole.

However, two spies saw the same things but came to opposite conclusions. They also feared the giants living there, but they were imbued with a deep faith.

Judaism’s approach to life-threatening situations is not to ignore the reality of a danger, but rather to do one’s best to overcome the threat and to trust that God will be with you to carry you to victory. Facing the challenge, seeing it as an opportunity for growth, can transform fear into courage. Thus, the impending disaster can be changed into a divinely-ordained victory.

Aliens reminds us that in the midst of crisis are the harbingers of redemption and safety. Ripley, when confronted with almost certain death, overcomes her fear and finds a way to assert life over death to insure the survival of subsequent generations.

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