Woody’s Midnight

More so than any other film by Woody Allen in a very long time, I really enjoyed Midnight in Paris. I am a sucker for any movie that delves into the joys and frustrations of writing, and the way Allen explores inspiration, nostalgia, and the way many of us feel like anachronisms all touched a deep chord.

Yet something saddened me about Allen’s selection of Owen Wilson to play the “Woody” role. Wilson himself was not the issue. On the contrary, Owen is likable, sympathetic, and totally believable in the role. It was a bravura performance.

What disturbed me was that Wilson’s role represents the apotheosis of a gradual, film-by-film whitewashing that Allen has conducted on himself since the 1970s. Having his character played by an blonde-maned WASP hints at something disturbing: the possibility that Woody no longer sees himself as Jewish.

If that is the case, it would be sad for two reasons. First, it is always upsetting to see a Jew leave the enfolding wings of the Tribe of his or her own volition. But in Woody’s case specifically, he was in many way a model for an entire generation of Jews who identified themselves as “culturally Jewish.” If he is still that icon, is he aught but a beacon for others into the rocky shore of assimilation?

The sages teach us that it is never too late to begin the path of return. I pray for the day to come when Woody turns about to see what the Rebbe called the “pintela Yid” inside himself, and follows that light.

Jews in the High Castle

“I don’t plan on dying Frank, but I can’t live in fear.”

“I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy. I struggled with it for a while. But this is who I am, this is who my ancestors were. I’m not going to let them take that away from me.”

“One thing I realized about my people is that we have a different sense of time. These may be dark years, but we’ll survive. We always do. You’ve just got to find something to hold onto.”

Mark Sampson
“The Man in the High Castle.”

Five Reasons that Stephen Fry is a Bad Atheist

Mr. Stephen Fry is an educated, erudite, intelligent and well-spoken man who has spent much of his time and treasure in the effort to better the world. He is also an atheist, one who proves by his deeds that one does not need to be religious in order to do good.

As Fry advances in years, though, he is becoming an increasingly prolific polemicist on the “evils” of religion. No person of faith – and especially no Jew – should fear or hate the atheist: they play an essential role in forcing us to see and acknowledge the problems with our beliefs, and in the case of Judaism, to dig deeper to find the source of those problems.

But there are good atheists and there are bad atheists, and when I study Fry’s words I find five glaring failings that reveal that, while he is without doubt a good man, he is a fairly awful atheist.

  1. His understanding of the reasons to believe in G-d are at best simplistic, if not intentionally reductionist
  2. His attempt to critique religion as an undifferentiated whole completely ignores the distinctions between them.
  3. His understanding of the nature of the religious quest is incomplete at best.
  4. His constant use of the ad hominem fallacy in defending his beliefs undermines his best arguments.
  5. His apparent belief that to justify his ethos he must tear down en masse the entire edifice of theism makes him less an atheist than a crusading anti-theist.

This is someone whom I would have expected to have take the time to understand the belief systems (note the plural) that he opposes and to address them in detail. The fact that he has not speaks well neither for him nor for atheism generally.

It falls upon him to explain these failings, or at least to address them. Until then, his arguments invite not debate, but scorn, and not least from fellow atheists.

Joss Whedon, Serenity, and Torah

An amusement that is occupying a growing portion of my time is finding Jewish thinking in the works of non-Jews, or, even more amusing, in the work of atheists.

Joss Whedon is a remarkable artist, and as a science fiction fan it is hard not to place him among the best directors of the genre. I loved Firefly, consider myself a Browncoat, and was sad to see such a smart series disappear before Fox gave it the chance it deserved.

I disagree with Whedon’s Humanism, but unlike many other Humanists, he does not arrive at a conclusion and say “okay, I have the truth, and my job is to rid the world of religion.” Instead, he makes the exploration of the meaning of life a core part of his work. I find his approach refreshing, even as I cheerfully disagree with his outlook.

He won me over with the way he had Ron Glass portray Shepherd Derrial Book, the itinerant preacher, in Firefly. It would have been too easy for Whedon to turn Book into a caricature: instead, Whedon gives honest voice to the “other side,” demonstrating in the portrayal a belief in the value of the dialogue between believers and non-believers. He apparently thinks, as do I, that there is value for both sides, and humanity as a whole, in that discussion.

But one moment in the Firefly film Serenity will always stand out and forever endear Whedon to me, because in its clarity Whedon (probably unintentionally) gave life to the Jewish understanding of the balance between good and evil.

The Firefly shipmates discover that the government’s secret introduction into the planet’s ecosystem of the drug “Pax,” a compound designed to remove the inclination for violence and evil, resulted in the vast majority of the population of the planet Miranda laying down and doing nothing, unto death. As the hologram of a government scientist explains:

“And you can see, it wasn’t what we thought. There’s been no war here and no terraforming event. The environment is stable. It’s the Pax. The G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate that we added to the air processors. It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression. Well, it works. The people here stopped fighting. And then they stopped everything else. They stopped going to work, they stopped breeding, talking, eating. There’s 30 million people here, and they all just let themselves die.”

Almost all, anyway. She forgot to mention that a tiny percentage went the other way. Their reaction: to become super aggressive, to the point of cannibalism.

I remembered this moment on a flight across the Pacific while reading the first volume of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s magisterial A Code of Jewish Ethics. He encapsulated the Jewish idea of the roles of good and evil as such:

“Human nature, as the Talmud understands it, consists both of a yetzer hatov, a good inclination, and a yetzer hara, an evil inclination. However, the Rabbis did not believe that the goal of a good person should be to fully eradicate the ‘evil inclination,’ for within it resides the aggressive instincts that prompt so much creativity and achievement. The Rabbis speculate that without a yetzer hara, we would not engage in business, build homes, marry, or have children. (Genesis Rabbah 9:7).”

That’s provocative. But as R. Telushkin notes, the Rabbis took it further.

“The Talmud relates that Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly wanted to destroy the evil inclination but were warned that doing so would have catastrophic consequences. They therefore chose to experiment by imprisoning the yetzer hara for thee days; they then searched for a new-laid egg and could find none (Yoma 69b). In other words, all human and animal life will cease if the evil, i.e., aggressive, inclination is eliminated.”

For Judaism and for Whedon, the quandary is the same. Take away the evil inclination, and we die. Give into it, and we become less than human, lurching ourselves over a precipice into a bottomless abyss. The challenge we all face is the eternal battle to balance both within ourselves. And the subtext to Whedon’s story is that the balancing should be left to each of us, not to some outside force acting in loco parentis.

Torah and the Force

“A Nerd Reconsiders Star Wars Philosophy”
Liel Leibovitz

Tablet Magazine
January 24, 2012

It is far too easy to dismiss Tablet as a publication of cultural Judaism as opposed to one of Torah Judaism, but that is hardly true. While the topics covered are primarily arts, culture, news, and politics, there is a healthy debate about religion in the publication, and this more than anything else draws me time and again to its pages.

Leil Leibovitz’s essay on the ethos of George Lucas was the most recent payoff for my effort to catch up on my RSS feeds. I absorbed Jedi culture before I knew exactly what the Talmud was, and while I never took it quite seriously as a faith, I appreciated the imagination that went into its creation.

Leibovitz points out that George Lucas’ ethos (or, more exactly, Joseph Campbell’s worldview as interpreted by George Lucas), has wormed its way into the popular consciousness over the past 35 years, and that is troublesome. Campbell’s work, interpreted generously, offers an opportunity to unite peoples and mitigate conflicts by showing how, beneath the specifics, we all share similar hopes and dreams. Leibovitz calls this “the monomyth.” Interpreted less generously, however, Campbell offers fodder for moral relativists. This is part of what appears to bother Leibovitz.

Campbell certainly had his dazzling strengths as an erudite and engaging scholar of comparative cultures, but his lack of understanding of faith and its machinations is astounding. In an 1985 interview he gave to In Context, a humanist journal, he called the Bible “the most over-advertised book in the world,” dismissed its claim to moral authority, and argued that the violence the Israelites visited on the peoples of Canaan precludes their scriptures from shining an ethical light unto the nations. Any religion, Campbell argued, is nothing more than an invitation to sectarianism and hate.

Campbell’s mistake is that he seeks the similarities and dismisses the nuances and differences that set the faiths apart. Too many atheists, particularly the recent crop of radical secularists, make this error as well. Few bother to dive into the specifics of each faith, choosing either to condemn faiths based on the behavior of outlying extremists, or to assume that if one religion is bad, the whole lot are.

Lucas’ fault is that he builds from Campbell a world where the good are really good, the evil are really evil, and moral ambiguity evaporates. That’s nice for mythology, but it has no attachment to the real world, and it perhaps suggests why the cultures built on mythologies either tossed them in favor of religions that addressed moral ambiguity, or were subsumed by cultures that did.

How many people out there, though, profess themselves atheists yet believe some version of, in Leibovitz’s words, “if we only open our hearts and understand people are all the same and all good we’d be enlightened enough to lift rocks with a tilt of our heads.”

I think this is why I never became the kind of hard-core Star Wars fan my demographic profile and personal interests suggested I should be. Lucas makes beautiful movies, but the philosophies that lie beneath them, like their dialogue, leave much to be desired.

Though Leibovitz goes no further, I will.

The truly great filmmakers of the past century have been those who have eschewed monochromatic morality and presented us with stories and characters designed to make us uncomfortable. One of the best films of the past decade, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, for all of its eye-candy, grabbed moral ambiguity by the throat, shook it in our faces, and demanded that we confront choices that test the principles by which we think we lived. One wonders how long the world will remember a director who chose to serve us moral pabulum rather than confront us with human nature.

Or maybe I’m giving film as a craft too much credit. Maybe the moving pictures we watch in the dark, however impressive, should never be tasked with confronting these issues. Maybe the hard questions should be left for the synagogue, the schiur, the schmuss, and literature, thus kept out of the cinema entirely. After all, the goal of the rabbi or the bar teshuvah is to draw himself/herself and the world closer to Hashem. The goal of the auteur, however, is to draw closer to Mammon.