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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Schindler’s List (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg

schindler's listWhen I taught the Holocaust to high school students, I often would show the students a documentary that would make the statistical information more vivid and meaningful. Night and Fog was a frequent choice. On occasion, I would show excerpts from Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s 11-hour documentary.

After the appearance of Schindler’s List, I would show the iconic scene in which Oskar Schindler for the first time sees the gross brutality of the Nazi regime. A ghetto is being purged of Jews and, in the midst of this chaos, we see a little girl in a red dress fleeing the horror around her. It is the only color in a black and white scene that unfolds like a newsreel. Oskar is a war profiteer, but now he sees the tragedy from a human perspective and it changes him.

The film opens with the relocation of Polish Jews from all parts of the country to Krakow in 1939, shortly after World War II began. Oskar Schindler, an entrepreneur, sees the possibility of using a cheap labor force of Jews to manufacture enamelware for mess kits and cooking utensils for the German military. To advance his business interests, he bribes army and SS personnel and develops a coterie of loyal supporters.

However, he has no real business experience and needs someone with accounting expertise to run the business. This he finds in Itzhak Stern, a member of the Judenrat, the local Jewish council. Stern has valuable connections with the underground business community in the ghetto and is an expert accountant. Schindler proposes that Jews lend him the money to open the factory, in return for which the Jews will receive enamelware that they can trade on the black market.

Stern suggests Schindler hire only Jewish workers since they are cheaper, but he has in mind the welfare of the workers. Schindler’s employees will be allowed to leave the ghetto to go to work; and if they are considered “essential” workers, they will not be sent to the death camps.

The initiative works, even when Amon Goth, a ruthless German officer, subverts Schindler’s plans by relocating his “essential” workers. Schindler convinces Goth to reconsider and this lays the groundwork for Schindler’s extraordinary effort to save Jews.

As his relationship with Stern deepens, and as Schindler sees the awful plight of the Jews, he becomes sympathetic to them and wants to help. Again, bribery and the force of his charismatic personality enable Schindler to be successful economically and rescue Jews at the same time.

What distinguishes Schindler’s List from other Holocaust films is its focus on individual stories. It is difficult to comprehend the loss of six million Jews, but it is easier to understand the tragedy through the eyes of people who saw their lives crumble before them, who suddenly went from affluence to poverty, who witnessed loved ones disappear before their eyes.

Schindler’s metamorphosis from bystander to savior is prefigured in the Bible story of Moses who does not understand the terrible situation of the Jews in Egypt until he steps out of the palace where he was raised and sees an Egyptian beating a Jew. The abstraction of slavery becomes the reality in which his brethren live, and this marks the emotional turning point for Moses.

Seeing things for yourself changes the human equation. This is what happens to Oskar Schindler when he views evil close up, when he sees how decent, law-abiding people can suffer at the hands of cruel oppressors. It is then that Schindler becomes a more sensitive human being. His empathy for the Jews and his heroism make him a hero for our times.

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Silence (2016), directed by Martin Scorsese

silenceWhen I was a teenager, I was smitten by a beautiful girl from the Bronx. I thought we were going to get married, and I prayed to God that it all would work out. Thank God, God did not answer my prayers. If He did, I would have led a very different life from the one I lead now.

Many years later, I heard a song by Garth Brooks called “Unanswered Prayers.” Its lyrics spoke to me: “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers/ Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs/ That just because He doesn’t answer doesn’t mean He don’t care/ Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”

Silence, Martin Scorsese’s personal project in which he was a writer, producer, and director, deals with the matter of unanswered prayers in a very serious film about faith and how it is tested in times of crisis. The film opens as two Jesuit priests. Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe, are discussing the fate of their mentor, Father Ferrara, who they are told renounced his faith and now lives in Japan with a wife and child. The young priests cannot comprehend this and want to find Ferrara and determine for themselves his fate and clear his name.

The setting is 17th century feudal Japan where there is a raging theological battle between ancient Japanese religions and Christianity. Christianity is viewed as a dangerous and subversive force, and it is the target of a governmental official known as the Inquisitor who wants to uproot it from Japan.

Rodrigues and Garupe arrive in Japan and witness terrible atrocities visited upon Christians who do not symbolically renounce their faith publicly by stepping on an image of Jesus.

Rodrigues’ faith in God weakens when he sees people suffering and God is seemingly silent, indifferent to their pain. The Japanese officials tell him that if he renounces his faith, the people will be spared from more afflictions. The inquisitor regards Rodrigues as the leader and role model, and if he apostatizes, then the others will follow his example.

As tortures mount, Rodrigues’ crisis of faith intensifies. He wonders how God can be so silent in face of the agony of so many sincere Christians. His eventual meeting with Ferrara is complex, revealing ambivalence about religious certainties and it does not resolve his crisis of faith.

The question of why bad things happen to good people is one of the most difficult questions for people of faith. Suffering often leads to loss of faith, and that is the overarching enigma with which Silence deals.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg writes that one way to understand the mysterious ways of God is to accept the reality of eternity. Man only has finite vision and can only see the present; only God can see past, present, and future. From the aspect of eternity, pain on earth looks different because there is more to life than life on earth.

Rodrigues experiences an epiphany when at a moment of deep despair, he exclaims to God: “I feel so tempted to despair. I’m afraid. The weight of your silence is terrible. I pray, but I’m lost. Or am I just praying to nothing? Nothing. Because you are not there.” At that moment, he hears the voice of Jesus say: “I have suffered beside you. I was never silent,” to which Rodrigues responds: “It was in the silence that I heard your voice.”

Silence is a complicated film dealing with issues of religious faith that are seldom dealt with in commercial movies. It reflects a sensitive soul trying to come to terms with unsolvable matters. The beauty of it is in its refusal to give pat answers to complex ideological questions. In that sense, Silence reveals a Jewish sensibility which says that asking the question may be more important than finding the answer.

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50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus (2013), directed by Steven Pressman

fifty childrenI recently read The Fortunate Ones, a novel by Ellen Umansky, about a child sent by her parents on a kinderstransport to England to escape the Nazi regime and its persecution of Jews. Fifty Children deals with an American couple from Philadelphia, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, who arranged for 50 children to travel from Vienna to the United States in 1939 to rescue them from almost certain death in German concentration camps.

Theirs was a mission against formidable odds. There was a wave of anti-Semitism in America, a general reluctance to allow foreigners into the country, and President Roosevelt who, while sympathetic to the cause, did not want to alter the number of immigrants allowed into the country. Even some Jews opposed the Kraus’ plan to enter Nazi Germany to extract the children, afraid that it would arouse more anti-Semitism.

What made it even more problematic was the cooperation between Austrian and German civilians, which did not auger well for the Jews of Vienna. The Nazi policy was to make Austria free of Jews, and the Austrians did not protest this decree. One child as an adult many years later hauntingly said about this particular moment in time. “ Everybody could get out. Nobody would let us in. Everyone could have been saved.”

In spite of these hurdles, Gilbert and Eleanor travel to Nazi-controlled Vienna and then to Berlin to secure safe passage for the children. The film is based upon the first person memoir of Eleanor Kraus whose granddaughter, Liz Perle, gave the manuscript to Steven Pressman, the filmmaker. The film uses archival footage as well as contemporary interviews with some of the children who were members of the 50 children group.

The Kraus’s strategy began with a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State George Messersmith, who was sympathetic to the Kraus’s request. Then they had to find a place to house the children in the United States until arrangements could be made for foster families to take them. Moreover, they had to collect 50 affidavits from American families willing to take in one of the children. Furthermore, they had to interview the children to determine to best candidates to take. This they did with the help of Dr. Robert Schless, their American physician, who spoke fluent German. Finally, they obtained 50 passports for the children to make the voyage to their new home.

50 Children raises the issue of rescue at what cost. How much risk should one take to save the life of another? In Jewish law, it is clear that one should come to the rescue of another even if it involves some minimal danger to life and spending one’s financial resources. The basic Torah source is the statement in Leviticus 19:16: “Thou shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Our Sages tell us that saving one life is tantamount to saving the world, a very meritorious deed.

Aaron Kirschenbaum, Professor of Jewish Law at Tel Aviv University, writes that, according to Jewish Law, one does not have to give up one’s life to save another. However, one should not focus only on protecting oneself when someone else’s life is at stake. Every case has to be evaluated on its singular merits. Speed is critical and to hesitate in helping may even be sinful.

Kirschenbaum cites the late Benjamin Cardozo, a legal scholar: “Danger invites rescue. The cry of distress is the summons to relief.” To help someone whose life is in danger is a manifestation of the Jewish spirit.

Furthermore, Kirschenbaum cites Maimonides who does not limit the obligation to rescue to actually finding someone in dire straits. Rather, he expands the requirement of rescue to include anyone who is simply aware of danger to somebody’s life. What is critical is determining whether one actually has the ability to successfully save another’s life.

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus assume that they can rescue the 50 children in spite of the odds. Their optimism and willingness to take risks in the face of huge obstacles serves as an example of the good that can be done in times of crisis.

Wonder Woman (2017), directed by Patty Jenkins

wonder womanIn the course of my career as a high school principal, I had many faculty meetings. I would present a list of agenda items and the staff would give me their thinking on them. On occasion, a teacher would say to me that the problem under discussion was simple. All we had to do was one thing and then things would be fine. This kind of simplistic thinking in most cases did not work. The failure to see complexity doomed the suggested solution.

In Wonder Woman, an exciting and thoughtful rendition of the famous comic book heroine’s origin, Diana as a young Amazon warrior first sees the world’s evil in a simplistic way, but through her life experiences realizes that evil is complicated and cannot be reduced to the evil of one bad man.

The movie opens when Diana is a child growing up on a remote island with Amazons, mighty female warriors. Her mother, Queen Hippolyta shares with the daughter the story of Ares, the god of war, who desires to corrupt men and encourage them to battle one another. Queen Hippolyta allows Diana to train for battle, knowing that there will be an eventual showdown between Diana and Ares at some future time.

Normal life changes for Diana when she grows up and rescues an American pilot, Steve Trevor, who has crashed into the sea. Interrogated by the Amazons, he reveals that he is an American spy gathering intelligence to fight Germany, a country at war with the United States. He has valuable information that will save lives, and this information resonates in Diana, who sees her life’s mission as saving lives and ending world conflict.

Allying herself with Steve and his noble cause, she gradually discovers that evil is not one-dimensional, residing only in one person. She understands that evil affects many people whose motivations are complex. Eradicating evil will take a lifetime, not victory in one battle.

Judaism believes in the reality of evil, and maintains that man is largely responsible for bringing it into the world. Man possesses an evil inclination, which, if left unharnessed, can lead man to do terrible things. It must be counterbalanced by a good inclination, which keeps man on the correct moral path. Man has a choice to make many times during each day to determine which inclination he will follow.

Rabbi Raymond Apple makes an interesting observation: There is a “paradoxical fact that when a person chooses to do evil, he does so not because it is evil but because he perceives it as good. We might question his judgment, regard him as having a warped view of what is good, and reject his probably subjective criteria of goodness – but he believes, nonetheless, that what he is doing is good in some sense.”

When General Erich Ludendorff, the personification of evil, shares his thinking with Diana, it reflects this notion that his destructiveness is good for the world: “You know your ancient Greeks? They understood that war is a god. A god that requires human sacrifice. And in exchange, war gives man purpose. Meaning. A chance to rise above his petty mortal little self. And be courageous. Noble. Better.”

Diana disagrees and expresses an optimistic, nuanced view of the world: “I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves.”

Wonder Woman ‘s early belief that evil is one-dimensional morphs into a mature understanding of the nature of evil, an evil that manifests itself in the world in many ways and requires more than one strategy to defeat it. Her complex vision of evil is a reminder for us not to seek simplistic solutions in the face of evil.


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Life, Animated (2016), directed by Roger Ross Williams

life animatedAs a young married man, I do not recall ever praying to have a boy or a girl, but I do remember praying for a healthy child. My parents had a Downs Syndrome child and I understood viscerally what that means to parents. It changes their lives forever. Every decision made has to factor in what the consequences are for the special needs child. Life is no longer “business as usual.”

I was reminded of this as I watched Life, Animated, a fascinating look at Owen Suskind, an autistic child, and his parents Ron and Cornelia who confront a challenge when Owen develops autism at the age of three. Owen becomes anti-social, withdraws from human connection, and ceases to talk. The symptoms are ultimately diagnosed as a form of autism.

Faced with the prospect of having a child with whom they will be unable to communicate, Ron and Cornelia begin to lose hope for the future until one day they discover that Owen is learning about life and how to speak from watching animated Disney movies. It is an “aha” moment for the parents who suddenly see light at the end of the therapeutic tunnel.

Owen begins to speak, to read, and eventually to write by learning the dialogue in all of Disney’s animated movies. Watching the films even gives him a way to interpret the behavior of other people. He can deduce appropriate human responses to social situations by reading the visual cues present in the normal conversation of cartoon characters and, by extension, in real human beings. What becomes clear through therapy is that the stories and characters of Disney cartoon features stay the same, and this gives Owen a sense of security. Watching Disney movies is not a cure for autism; rather, it is one idiosyncratic avenue of therapy that works for Owen and perhaps others.

The notion that sameness and routine can be therapeutic is one way to view Jewish ritual. Beverly Jacobson, a special needs school head in London, writes: “Jewish ritual has a beneficial role to play in treating autism sufferers. The structure of the religion itself has a very powerful positive effect on children with autism. The rituals create a huge sense of security around them.”

Benay Josselson, a parent of an autistic child, decided to send her child to a Jewish day school, and in her instance, it worked out well. Part of the reason was the school’s positive attitude towards inclusion of its special needs population. Moreover, the school’s teaching of Jewish rituals provided a stable and comfortable environment for his learning. Daily prayer and observance of Jewish holy days also served to embed religious behaviors in its special needs students who appreciated the positive results of daily routines.

Life, Animated is an unusual film, giving the viewer a taste of what it is like to have a family member with autism. There are no easy panaceas, but the movie clearly indicates that solutions of some kind may be found within the confines of a loving family willing to think out of the box for answers.

Owen’s parents, Ron and Cornelia, never give up on Owen. They obtain the necessary help to navigate Owen’s life as a young man and they continue that support as he attains manhood. Sensing their own mortality and inability to support him when they are no longer here, they try their best to enable him to live independently.

That is the endgame of parenting for all parents who want to see their children thrive and manage life on their own. In their eyes, Owen leads a meaningful life, even it is not conventional. One of characters in the film asks: “who decides what a meaningful life is?” The answer is not the same for everyone. It depends on who we are, what are our God-given talents, and the support we have from family and friends.

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Sully (2016), directed by Clint Eastwood

sullyAs principal of a high school, I would often interview teachers for positions in the school. Resumes often were superb, but the person had no teaching experience. I remember one candidate in particular who took pride in the fact that he had a perfect SAT score. I did not hire him because there was no empirical evidence that he would succeed, let alone survive, in a high school classroom.

The difference between someone who possesses sterling academic credentials and someone who possesses exceptional real world experience is at the crux of Sully, the film that depicts the famous “miracle on the Hudson,” in which the pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, landed a commercial jet, US Airways Flight 1549, carrying 155 people on the Hudson River in New York with no loss of life.

The opening scenes of the film depict the investigation of the incident by the airport authorities, who question why Sully chose to land on the Hudson River rather than simply fly back to LaGuardia Airport from which they had just departed. They argue that computer simulations of the flight that replicate the large flock of birds that flew straight into the plane’s engines indicate it was possible for it to return to LaGuardia safely.

Through flashbacks, we see the flight as it unfolded in real time. It becomes clear that the flight simulations do not consider the human factor in making the right decisions under pressure. When the group listens to the cockpit recordings, they understand how critical the human component is in making good decisions at stressful moments, when life and death are at stake. Sully reminds them: “No one warned us. No one said ‘You’re going to lose both engines at a lower altitude than any jet in history. But, be cool, just make a left turn for LaGuardia like you are going back to pick up the milk.’ This was duel engine loss at 2800 feet followed by immediate water landing with 155 souls on board. No one has ever trained for an incident like that. No one.”

Jewish tradition shows great respect for the learning that one acquires over a lifetime. The Bible exhorts us to stand up before the aged, even if the old person is not necessarily a scholarly man. We simply revere age because it tells us that a person has experienced much in life, and that experience makes him a valued and respected member of society.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg writes: “People have some idea that there’s nothing to learn outside of a university. We think: What does the average person on the street know? This attitude is destructive because it stops us from learning the many bits and pieces of wisdom that are available. Just the fact that someone survives from day-to-day, and copes with life’s obstacles, means he’s picked up valuable tips on living.” Moreover, Rabbi Weinberg observes: “We assume that unless a person is a recognized scholar, or successful business person, he lacks wisdom. But the truth is, anyone who’s had life experience possesses great wisdom. You may be shocked to find out how much your parents know about the issues you’re grappling with right now. As Mark Twain said, ‘I spent four years in university, and I was amazed at how much wiser my father got while I was away!’ “

Sully’s many years of experience as a pilot enabled him to do extraordinary things when an emergency demanded a quick response to a life or death scenario. Textbook learning alone would not have prepared him for dealing with such an unknown and unpredictable crisis. Only through the crucible of life experience, for which there is no substitute, do we acquire the practical wisdom that enables us to overcome life’s challenges.

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