Entry #3: Tinsel Town does Morality

Last time, we discussed movies as a medium; now it's time to turn our attention to the examination of the world which is responsible for the production of this medium. Although many countries, including Israel, have their own movie studios and production companies, the definitive home of the moving picture is
still today, and has been for over a century, Hollywood, California. In the Halachic realm this becomes a crucial factor in assessing the permissibility of movies.
Since the days of Avraham Avinu, Jews have been faced with the difficult question: To what extent should we interact with the secular world? Although the issue is multifaceted and extremely complex, for the purposes of our investigation, we need primarily concern ourselves with the dilemmas of "Torah Umadda" and the prohibition against "walk[ing] in their practices. (Vayikra 18:3)"
Let us first examine the philosophy of "Torah Umadda." In the most basic terms this view in Jewish philosophy proposes that there is a necessity for, or at the very least benefit from, the integration of Jewish thought with the knowledge available in the secular (i.e. Gentile) world. This approach to non-Jewish knowledge is the most likely to support the proposal that movies may provide the viewer with important information which makes movies somehow useful to the Jew.
[At this point it might be prudent to briefly examine a non-Torah Umadda argument for the permissibility of movies. Poskim who, perhaps, do not see any educational value in movies might still permit certain film for the sake of entertainment. Of course, this line of thinking calls into question the value of entertainment, which is beyond the scope of this article. One should just be aware that the argument of "wisdom among the nations" is not the only angle one could use to assess movies in regard to their status as a product of "the nation."]
Still, it is important to recognize that, while perhaps the most famous and devoted proponents of this philosophical approach would be Maimonides, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and, in most recent years, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, of Yeshiva University, the philosophical foundation of Torah Umadda is not as localized as one might think. The debate among Jewish scholars concerning non-Jewish sources of knowledge often centers on a question of quantity in regard to secular knowledge rather than a debate over such knowledge's qualitative potential; there remains a traditional theme in Jewish Orthodoxy which professes that there is "wisdom among the nations." Even in regard to the extreme believers in Torah Umadda, a list which is headed by the aforementioned trio of Torah giants, the details of each scholar's approach differs.
Maimonides, especially, is known for his belief that secular knowledge was necessary to properly study Torah. In his book, "Torah Umadda: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition," Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm expresses Maimonides' approach as more than just a co-existence of two intellectual movements; Maimonides defined the study of secular science and philosophy as Torah study. According to Maimonides, one could not be a learned Jew without this knowledge.
Still, if we return for a moment to the debate of the previous entry, would Maimonides consider movies as capsules of secular wisdom, the modern equivalent of Aristotelian manuscripts and scientific treatises on biology and astronomy? This question is extremely difficult to answer, but, to initiate the approach, we should start by asking what the significance of secular thought was for Maimonides, or other supporters of Torah Umadda. Rabbi Lamm addresses this issue from many angles but, each conclusion returns to a similar first premise: Torah is meant for this world.

Jewish tradition is filled with the theoretical belief that God created this world for Torah and by Torah. The Jewish people are meant to live their lives in this world and Torah is meant to assist this process. Maimonides faith in the power of science could be more accurately seen as a faith in the power of Torah to be consistent with science. Torah Umadda, as a way of thinking, challenges its
followers to have such faith in the clarity of Truth as to believe that this Truth can be found outside the scope of revelation, in Plato and Ptolemy. But can it be found in Hollywood?
Although this may not appear to be a rigorous proof, ask yourself if you've ever quoted a line from a movie in order to strengthen a philosophical argument or if you've ever heard a rabbi or scholar do this. Most of you who move in Torah Umadda circles will answer in the affirmative to one or both of these questions. There is something to be said for the message in a good movie. Hollywood is only successful because it knows how to find the best of the best and then sell them. Not everything in movies is of this caliber - by far, many people would argue, most is not - but there might be "wisdom among the celluloid" and, if there is, Maimonides would probably say we have an obligation to find it and use it.
Of course, this raises two problems. First of all, most people would respond that Maimonides might be able to find a diamond among garbage but the average North American Jew is no Maimonides. Rabbi Lamm tackles this issue in "Torah Umadda" in relation to secular thought in general; however, suffice it to say, this is a valid concern. Still, when voicing this concern one must bear in mind that we might have a responsibility to strive to be as close to Maimonides as we can and, furthermore, if we fail and are forced to give up, we must be aware that we have lost out. In no way can this first problem lead to the conclusion that movies are worthless, although it does suggest that the excavation of Truth in movies might be an unwarranted effort.
This leads us to the second problem, which will, in turn, steer us into the second Halachic topic concerning Hollywood; how do we extract the good from movies? To answer this question it is important to note that this is not a simple matter of sorting and our own personal judgment may not be fine tuned enough to do the job.
Perhaps you think that's a bit harsh. After all, most people have a general sense of what are quality television shows and movies and what are not. However, the Halachic yardstick is much more particular. For example, consider the movie "Drop Dead Fred." This movie tells the story of a young woman who, through the help of her imaginary friend, learns to find her own voice and break free of her mother's oppressive hold on her. Although the movie might match up with certain Hashkafic thoughts concerning individuality and autonomy (it might even coincide with views regarding the limits of one's
obligations to one's parents), underlying the movie's theme is a humorous disregard for property. At one point in the movie, the imaginary friend sinks a person's houseboat. Halacha does not support this philosophical foundation which Hollywood, much more readily, (at the very least to illicit laughter or manipulate sympathy) advocates.
Yet, the problem goes much deeper than a mere disagreement concerning houseboats. In Vayikra 18:3, God commands the Jewish people not to adopt the actions of the Egyptians or Canaanites. This command, it must be stressed, is separate from the command not to copy the ways of idolaters, although the two commands are linked. Many of the commentators are quick to ask why these two nations are singled out. Rashi gives what is, perhaps, the most famous answer: these two nations were worse than all the other nations in their cultural degradation. Included in Rashi's description of what cultural icons must not be mimicked, again to hearken back to the last entry, are theatres and arenas. The Be'er Yitzchak explains on this Rashi that even the most apparently neutral actions should be avoided. However this leads to the question, as quoted from the Sifra by Nechama Leibowitz in her "New Studies in Vayikra," Aharei Mot 3, of what can be adapted from these two apparently depraved societies.
Nechama Leibowitz's spin on this query is most appropriate for our discussion. She remarks that both Egypt and Canaan were highly developed civilizations but their moral core was decidedly substandard. God's command to the Jewish people is one of caution: all that glitters isn't gold. While it would be foolish for God to restrict the Jewish people from absorbing the technological lessons of these nations, one must be careful not to mistake advanced technology for advanced ethics. Therefore, God commanded the Jewish people to avoid the Egyptian and Canaanite culture, as much as possible.
With this in mind, we can return to Hollywood. At this point it might be wise to consider a few quotes from some of Hollywood's own. Fred Allen, a noted comedian from the first half of the Twentieth century, once said of Hollywood that, "You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a firefly and still have room enough for three caraway seeds and a producer's heart." Marilyn Monroe, the famous comedienne and sex symbol (a term which, in itself, raises critical questions about Hollywood priorities), provided this comment on Hollywood ethics: "Hollywood is a place where they'll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul." And, finally, Rita Rudner, a stand-up comic, declared that, "In Hollywood a marriage is a success if it outlasts milk."
If we combine all of these quotes and add to the mix the, almost daily, flow of gossip about Hollywood's most glorified citizens, we come up with a modern day parallel to the struggle of Ancient Israel in regard to the cultural contributions of Egypt and Canaan. What do we take from Hollywood? What do we disregard? Implicit in each of these questions must be the ever present concern that one of the morally questionable aspects of Hollywood philosophy might slip through our radar or, perhaps even more tragically, we might become so paranoid as to lose out on valuable knowledge which movies might offer. Suddenly, watching a movie is anything but passive. It becomes a necessity to not only engage the movie itself but we must investigate and evaluate the origins of the movie, the cultural premises of its directors and producers and, possibly, actors. In regard to this, one might even argue that there might be some ethical obligation to "be up on the latest Hollywood gossip," with a filter to block out the sensationalism, of course and the intensity of sincere analysis to avoid being sidetracked by the side track.

For further reading on the topics discussed in this entry check out:

- Nechama Leibowitz's New Studies in Vayikra (Aharei Mot 3: "Neither Shall You Walk in Their Ways.")
Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm's "Torah Umadda."
- Rabbi Zvi Y. Teichman's "Chukat Ha'Akum: Jews in Gentile Society" in
"Halacha and Contemporary Society" edited by Rabbi Alfred S. Cohen.
- Rabbi Benjamin Hecht and Howard Pasternack's "
Celebrities and the
Law: All the News that's Fit?
" at www.nishma.org, commentary from
December 2003.

To comment on this entry or on a relating issue, please contact me at
dhecht@nishma.org. Until next time, thank you.

Dodi-Lee Hecht