Presented at Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture
October 24, 2014
As one who has dedicated my career to the study and analysis of Jewish film, I am overwhelmed with an embarrassment of riches. Especially in recent years, where independent financing and production have become far easier than they used to be, more and more Jews have sought to put forth their vision and experience on film.
Quite frankly, it’s a task to keep up with the plethora of substantive films that record and reflect upon the nearly infinite number of ideas of what it means to be Jewish in the modern world. Many great Jewish films have focused on political/cultural issues like anti-Semitism, assimilation, the negative effects of fanaticism, the Holocaust, the Israeli-Arab conflict, quarrels within the community, historical and Biblical stories, and even childhood nostalgia.
These films can be powerful and creatively engaging as they deal with topics that are vastly important to the Jewish community; they make me proud to be a Jew.
However, I must confess a disappointment that most of these films fail to confront the issue which I consider to be one of the most important to the very essence of religion: the question of whether or not there is a God and how one should relate to his or her Maker.
A Christian might find this quite curious—how could such a vital religious issue be noticeably absent from most Jewish films? The short, easy answer to that question is, of course, that Judaism is far more than a belief in God and a series of rituals and prayers. Jews are an ethnic community with a long, 4,000 year history full of culture, discourse, politics; no one need profess any belief in any supernatural force to be a Jew. And without that, there’s still more than enough to give one a sense of identity and belonging; plenty of issues to make their way onto film.
But the more complex answer is that often Jews are afraid to confront their own faith. Many will look around the contemporary world and see plenty of evidence that reality doesn’t conform to the spiritual ideas described in ancient texts. Science and other intellectual pursuits teach that there’s a rational explanation for all phenomena. Confronting faith—even so much as trying to define faith—is uncomfortable. When a Jew turns to traditional texts, such as the Talmud, to try to find answers, he often finds more questions. And when there are answers, they are often contradictory. There’s nothing definitive; in fact Jewish history is full of unresolved debates, from Hillel and Shammi in the 1st Century BCE to the contemporary world with multiple denominations ranging from the ultra-Orthodox on the far Right to Renewal on the far Left. Ask the same question to two rabbis, you’ll get three opinions.
Some modern Jews are afraid to ask themselves, is there a God who created me, how am I supposed to relate to Him, is He responsible for the world, and can I judge Him on that? And what does He want from me? There are no easy answers. Does God want me to give a few bucks to the beggar on the street corner to help him out; or would He rather that I didn’t so he can be motivated to find a permanent job? Does God want Israel to build a wall against the West Bank to keep out terrorists; or would He rather not because walls inhibit communication and breed distrust among neighbors? Wouldn’t it be nice if a voice could boom out from the Heavens and give me direct guidance? But that doesn’t happen in today’s world.
Perhaps for these reasons, many contemporary Jews were able to relate strongly to the recent Biblical film “Noah” by Jewish filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. Fundamentalists criticized that film for failing to follow the letter of the book of Genesis. But the changes Aronofsky made are clearly a reflection of contemporary Jewish thinking as compared to the more absolutist ideas of 4,000 years ago.
For example, one of the biggest differences between Aronofsky’s Noah and Genesis’ Noah is the way Noah communicates with God. In Genesis, God speaks directly to Noah; He tells him clearly and precisely what He’s going to do (flood the Earth), why He’s going to do it (humans are wicked), and what He wants Noah to do about it (build an ark and take two of each animal), even down to the specific dimensions. But in Aronofsky’s film, God instead sends Noah dreamlike visions and it’s up to him to interpret them. For the most part, he gets them right but there is one key part of the vision Noah misunderstands: he thinks God wants the human race to end with his family. Noah therefore does not allow his sons to marry and reproduce. And so when a grandchild is actually born, Noah thinks God wants him to kill his own grandchild.
This is the question which perplexes the contemporary Jew: “How can we think we know God’s plan?” And this is perhaps the reason why so few Jewish films dare to address this issue. In fact, there are really only three exceptional Jewish films, that I am familiar with, that are willing to tackle such difficult and uncomfortable subjects. I refer to the Coen brothers’ 2009 movie “A Serious Man,” “The Believer” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, and 1989’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” written and directed by perhaps the quintessential Jewish filmmaker, Woody Allen. All three films struggle deeply with questions of Jewish faith and come up with answers—if they can indeed be called answers—that are quite unsettling.
The most recent of these, “A Serious Man,” was inspired by the book of Job. Here, Joel and Ethan Coen introduce us to Larry Gopnik whose life is unraveling. Minor problems like a student trying to bribe him for a grade, a feud with a neighbor over a property line, and increasing stress over his upcoming tenure review and his son’s Bar Mitzvah, are overshadowed by larger concerns such as his brother being arrested for gambling, the death of a family friend, and his wife asking for a divorce.
This leads Larry to question God and his role in the universe. He insists he hasn’t done anything wrong, none of it is his fault, and he needs to understand why God is letting all these bad things happen to him. He turns to the three rabbis at his synagogue—surely in the collected wisdom of 4,000 years of the Jewish people there are answers for him—but none of the rabbis are much help. The first tells him to contemplate God’s grandeur in the small things of the world, like the parking lot. The second tells him “the story of the goy’s teeth,” a longwinded, elaborate tale which basically concludes with this bit of wisdom: in time, these answerless questions won’t bother you as much. The third rabbi, supposedly a brilliant sage by reputation, has no sympathy and won’t even make time to talk to Larry. In the end, Larry is left on his own to confront his problems and guess which solution God wants him to take.
The film’s ending has left some people confused. Larry, pretty worn down by this point, is sitting at his desk looking at $1,000 in an envelope—a bribe from a student who wants him to change his grade. He also looks at the bill from his lawyer for about the same amount. This is clearly a test from God; but what’s the right answer? Should he return the bribe to the student, let him fail, and somehow manage to find another $1,000 somewhere else to pay his lawyer? But maybe this is God’s solution to his debt. Maybe God doesn’t want the student to fail. Larry takes a breath and makes his best guess. He changes the student’s grade to passing.
Unfortunately, like Aronofsky’s Noah, Larry has guessed wrong. Immediately after changing the grade, the phone rings. It’s Larry’s doctor. Although it’s not specifically spelled out, it’s clear from the doctor’s dour tone and his insistence that Larry come over right away to discuss face-to-face the results of his medical test, that he has contracted some sort of fatal disease. At the same moment, a tornado rushes toward Larry’s son’s school while the headmaster struggles in vain to open the shelter; although the screen goes black before it happens, it seems obvious that Larry’s son is about to be killed by the tornado. What’s less obvious is whether or not God is punishing him for the sins of his father, or for his own sins such as getting stoned at his own Bar Mitzvah.
Here the Coens have conjured up a vengeful Old Testament God who offers little help but is quick to punish. Since the audience has come to sympathize with Larry, when God opposes him, the audience opposes God. This is not how we want to think of God and we leave the film feeling quite uncomfortable. Yet this unease reflects how many Jews in the modern world have come to view a God that allows the downfall of relatively good people who, like everyone, have a few flaws.
This leads us into our next film, “The Believer,” about a young Jewish man who takes his hatred of the Jewish God to the ultimate extreme and becomes a Neo-Nazi. Again, wrath-of-God issues play out, like in “A Serious Man,” but more subtly and over a longer period of time. The fictional character of Danny Balint is inspired by a real Jew who actually joined the KKK and then committed suicide when his true identity was revealed in the New York Times; but writer and director Henry Bean’s fictional version, in which this self-hating Jew becomes a Neo-Nazi leader, is able to explore how criticisms of Jewish religion and philosophy can effect one’s psyche as well as the role God may play in human downfall.
Early in the film, we flashback to Danny as a young teen in religious school. While studying the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, Danny offers a non-traditional interpretation, calling God a bully for forcing Abraham to murder his son. This sets off a firestorm of debate prompting another student to ask, “Do you even believe in God?” to which Danny responds, “I’m the only one who does believe—I see Him for the power-mad dictator he is.” This then prompts Danny’s teacher to call him out and declare, “If you had come out of Egypt, you would have been destroyed along with the generation that worshiped the Golden Calf.” Danny, defiant, holds out his arms and shouts, “Then let Him destroy me now.” Danny’s no atheist; rather he hates God. Not out of anything he’s suffered in his personal life, like in “A Serious Man,” but instead theologically.
Although the film doesn’t depict how Danny goes from there, step by step, over the next decade, to become a Neo-Nazi leader, we get hints as he continues to criticize all aspects of Judaism, from the laws of kashrut to abstract philosophies to the view that, at least according to one Jewish theology, God is nothingness without end. While other Neo-Nazi leaders ask Danny to downplay his Anti-Semitic rhetoric for practical, political purposes, he continues to shout how much he hates the Jews.
In the middle of the film, Danny and his band of thugs break into a synagogue. He steals a Torah and from this point on, he slowly begins a re-awakening. He recalls his Jewish youth and attempts, in vain, to reconcile it with his violent Neo-Nazi self. He goes from cursing God to praying on the High Holy Days. Danny’s schizophrenia is at war with itself.
The film reaches its grand climax during the final moments of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. It’s the Neilah service and the Gates of Repentance are closing. Danny has chosen this moment to set off a bomb inside the synagogue in which he is praying. Like his real life counterpart, he has now been outed in the New York Times; he’s going to kill himself and take as many of God’s Chosen People with him as he can.
At the last moment, he’s had a partial change of heart and warns the congregation to evacuate the building, but he stays behind to be killed in the bomb blast. Just as the bomb goes off, a voice-over flashback reminds us of the conversation he had in class a decade before, in which he dared God to destroy him. God didn’t act instantly, like He did in “A Serious Man;” instead He gave Danny enough time to destroy himself.
But the film doesn’t end there with the explosion. There’s one more scene. Danny is now dead and he finds himself on the stairway of his old Hebrew school. And there’s his old teacher wanting to finish the discussion about Isaac. Danny ignores him and starts climbing. The teacher reappears on the next landing, urging him to stop, but Danny just keeps on going. “Where are you going? There’s nothing up there,” the teacher insists. But Danny just keeps climbing and climbing.
It’s clear that Danny is now in his private version of Hell. For all eternity he will pay for his sins, climbing and climbing, hoping to seek God, for whatever reason, but never finding him, for He is nothingness without end.
While these first two films, “A Serious Man” and “The Believer,” are quite critical of God, the third film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” questions whether or not there even is a God; at the very least it suggests He has no interest in the morality of humans. Could Woody Allen, whose films are filled with Jewish references and themes, be an atheist? Perhaps it was in jest, but he has suggested it several times. His most recent film, “Magic in the Moonlight,” which played in theaters this past summer, revisits the theme of whether there is any unseen world beyond that which we can experience directly in this life; yet it’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors” which really hammers home the moral question.
The film opens with the main character, Judah, whose very name means “Jew,” receiving an award for being an upstanding member of the community. He’s an ophthalmologist and he tells a story about how his interest in eyes began when his religious father told him that “the eyes of God are on us always.” Actually, it’s a bit evocative of “the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg” in The Great Gatsby. We are reminded of this traditional belief which most of us were taught in our youth: God sees all; He rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Both “A Serious Man” and “The Believer” accept this. They differ on exactly how God interprets the righteous from the wicked and how He rewards and punishes them, but there’s no doubt that He does.
Judah, however, does doubt. And it’s because of his doubt that he’s open to the possibility of violating the moral laws of the universe to keep his successful life from falling apart. His mistress is threatening to expose their secret relationship and ruin his marriage, his reputation, and possibly even suffer criminal charges for misappropriation of funds. Judah seeks help from his worldly brother Jack who has Mob ties and suggests that the woman “can be gotten rid of.”
There’s no subtle shade of grey here, like debating whether or not a student who failed a test should get a passing grade; we’re taking about murdering an innocent person. Her only “crime” is loving Judah more than he wants to be loved.
Judah’s subsequent moral crisis takes him down a long, dark inner path where his religious upbringing returns to haunt him. He opens up to one of his patients, a rabbi who is rapidly losing his eyesight. Judah has both real and imagined conversations with the rabbi who presents the conventional view of Jewish morality. He concludes by telling Judah that, even assuming the lack of supernatural judgment, a man could not live with himself knowing that, for selfish reasons, he murdered someone who loved him.
This rabbi comes off far better than the three rabbis in “A Serious Man,” but still his advice isn’t practical enough for Judah and he rejects it. Judah says to the rabbi, “You live in the kingdom of Heaven [while] Jack lives in the real world.” Judah decides to go ahead with the murder, assuming that it will solve all his problems.
But his conscience haunts him. After the fact, he starts to second-guess himself and fears that he’ll suffer Devine retribution even if he can evade earthly justice. In the film’s most creative scene, Judah returns to his boyhood home and there witnesses a Passover Seder from his past where his relatives, many long dead, debate whether there is a God who punishes the wicked. Judah interacts with this memory; he’s on the verge of breaking down. He considers confessing to the police.
But then we come to the film’s final chilling scene. Several months have passed; Judah and his wife are now guests at the wedding of the rabbi’s daughter. Judah has a private conversation with Cliff, a man he knows only vaguely; Cliff is a filmmaker and Judah tells him he has a great plot for a movie about a murderer. Of course Cliff doesn’t know it, but Judah’s talking about himself. He tells Cliff that ultimately the murderer has learned to live with the awful deed; he’s able to forget it, silence his conscience, and go on living a happy life.
Cliff, of course, is shocked and suggests a different ending. “In the absence of a God, he’s forced to become his own judge and turn himself in,” Cliff asserts.
Judah corrects him. “But that’s a movie. You’ve seen too many movies.” What he means is that life doesn’t have Hollywood endings. In fiction, a writer will create a moral world and manipulate it according to his own sense of right and wrong, but real life doesn’t work that way. The righteous aren’t rewarded—in fact, they are punished. The rabbi, the most moral person, goes blind. The most evil person, the murderer, goes on to live a life of wealth and privilege.
The irony, of course, is that this is all happening within a movie and Woody Allen is manipulating the characters’ rewards and punishments. However, I think he is saying that if you look around the real world, you’ll see this reflected. In real life, at least sometimes, dear, loving, ethical people get cancer and die; wicked, greedy, cunning people have huge successes.
My wife Natasha has pointed out that if the film didn’t end there but instead continued, we’d see Judah eventually die and go on to be punished in Hell. Well, that may be, but this is where Allen chose to end the film, showing Judah happy, walking out of frame arm-in-arm with his wife. Judah is in a good place and that is definitely not fair or just. But it reflects the real world and there are some Jews who see their own world revealed in this film.
“The Believer,” on the other hand, is a film that continues the story beyond death and we see the ultimate eternal punishment for the sinner now in Hell. “A Serious Man” doesn’t show the afterlife; rather death itself is the punishment for the sinner. Whether these punishments are fairly deserved is a matter for debate. Some Jews will yes and some Jews will say no, and this is part of the ongoing, never-ending struggle Jews have with their faith and their belief, or non-belief, in their God. These three films may leave one feeling uncomfortable, but it’s all fodder for deep thought.
Now this may contrasts with recent popular Christian films like “God’s Not Dead” and “Fireproof” which also explore issues of faith, but tend to leave one feeling good about their God who is portrayed as just and loving. In “Fireproof,” God is able to save a marriage from breakup; in “God’s Not Dead,” His loving grace is able to save the soul of even the atheist villain moments before his death. In both films, the religious characters are the heroes who bring the sinner to repentance; this is the opposite of the religious characters in the Jewish films whose advice proves pointless.
In the Jewish films, which honestly struggle with the real world problems of faith, there are no easy solutions. The Eyes of God may see all, but the actions of God don’t necessarily conform to our understanding of morality.
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