The 2012 Israeli film “Fill the Void,” now being released in the U.S., is almost unique in being about haredi Jews and directed by a member of that sector. Haredi Jews are that sector of orthodox Jews who isolate themselves as much as possible from gentile, and indeed from all non-haredi society. The English term that is used is ultra orthodox but this, I think, is misleading. What distinguishes them from non-haredi orthodox Jews (known as modern orthodox) is not greater religious observance but the aforementioned isolationism. Put it this way, a modern orthodox Jew is more likely than a haredi to attend a baseball game, serve in the Israeli army, visit an art gallery, or read a Jane Austen novel. Furthermore, within the haredi sector are two distinct groups. One of them, the hassidim, are more emotional and have a more mystical attachment to their leaders (known as rebbes). This film takes place amongst a hassidic group in Israel.
Director Rama Burshtein does not idealize her hassidim, and, with the exception of one scene, avoids using the film as a way of educating viewers about the haredi way of life. The exception, or so it seems to me, is a scene in which the rebbe receives people who are in need of money, hears their tales, and tries to help them out. It does not fit into the plot of the film.
The film is focused upon eighteen year old Shira (Hadas Yaron), the youngest of three daughters. The eldest, Esther (Renana Raz), dies and, while doing so, gives birth to a son. Her widower, Yochay (Yiftach Klein) is considering marrying a Belgian Jewess which would involve him and his young son moving there. His mother-in-law, who has been caring for Esther’s child, does not want her grandson to be moved so far away so she proposes that Shira marry Yochay.
The film is a character study, primarily of Shira and secondarily of Yochay. It is a good one and, like most good ones, leaves room for contemplation and speculation because it recognizes that there is a tangledness to human nature and an element of opacity as well. The film tells its tale well.
When the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement within Judaism issued guidelines for homosexual marriage by a vote of thirteen in favor, none opposed, and one abstention earlier this year, a Gentile friend of mine e-mailed me wondering how Conservative Judaism could approve of such a thing. Perhaps one good place to try to understand this is the recently published book, The Birth of Conservative Judaism, by Michael R. Cohen.
In the book, Dr. Cohen traces the origin of the movement to Solomon Schechter, a noted Jewish scholar who came to the United States from England in 1902 to become head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. The seminary had been established in 1887 by some who found the Reform Movement and its Hebrew Union College too dismissive of Jewish tradition. Schechter was influenced by Zacharias Frankel, founder of “positive-historical Judaism” in Europe. According to Frankel, Judaism consists of the interplay between divine revelation and the response of Israel to it. Because of this human response, there is an element of Judaism that is changeable and adaptable to circumstances.
Schechter’s program of reform was modest, not involving halacha (Jewish law), but encountered some opposition. He advocated sermons in English, more decorum during services, and using modern pedagogical methods of instruction in schools. While, following Frankel, he thought halacha could adapt and change, he thought this should only be done by what he termed Catholic Israel, i.e. the Jewish People as a whole not by some segment or denomination. (more…)
“The discussion of socialist and Marxist attitudes to antisemitism … has often been confused by the erroneous and illogical assumption that left-wing parties are immunized against racial, religious, or ethnic prejudice.” So says Robert Wistrich in his latest book, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: the Left, the Jews, and Israel, another of his invaluable contributions to the scholarship on anti-semitism.
Dr. Wistrich, a professor at Hebrew University and head of its Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Antisemitism, is a leading scholar on anti-semitism whose immediately preceding book, A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad is perhaps the best history of the subject. He has long had an interest in the relationship of the left and Jews, back at least as far as his doctoral dissertation at the University of London in 1974.
Dr. Wistrich’s range in this study is most impressive, going back to Marx before he developed his ideology of dialectical materialism. He deals with important personalities as well as movements. All the while, he takes differences and even nuances into account. He also does not ignore the pro-Zionism of some socialists. The carefulness of the analysis matches the extensiveness of the history. The author recognizes the prominent Jewish presence on the left and, notably, does not try to shy away from considering the strange and ugly phenomenon of Jewish anti-semitism. (more…)
Israel, alas, is widely viewed with disdain, if not outright hostility, in the contemporary Western world. The biggest exception to this sentiment is the United States and, arguably, the primary reason for this is the Christian Zionism of many American Christians, particularly Protestants. Caitlin Carenen’s recent book, The Fervent Embrace: Liberal Protestants, Evangelicals, and Israel is a history of this phenomenon, in which she highlights some unexpected and, at least for a contemporary observer, surprising facts: First, it was the the liberal mainline of Protestant Christianity which was most enthusiastic about Israel in the early years of its existence. At least prior to the 1967 Six Day War, many liberal Protestants supported Israel for humanitarian reasons after the Holocaust though some of their liberal confreres continued to deny the legitimacy of a continuing Hebrew national existence following the establishment of the Christian church.
Liberal Protestant support for Israel, at least amongst its elites, eventually faded, of course. At roughly the same time, the the position of Evangelicals moved from positively-inclined but passive onlookers to the Hebrew struggle for statehood to active supporters of the state. Dr. Carenen here notes another important, and often overlooked, point: within Evangelical circles the emphasis has shifted. Rather than focussing so much on prophecies concerning the end times, Evangelicals now tend to stress the promise in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you.”
The American Protestant world’s attempt to come to terms with its past anti-semitism, the Holocaust, and the founding of the State of Israel has been the impetus for wide-ranging and profound changes, and even while these changes have been different for Evangelicals than for liberal Protestantism, they have been more significant and thorough than a skim of the subject might suggest. For readers interested in this fascinating chapter of American religious history, I know of no more complete survey than this book.
In reading an essay by Peter Collier on the late Christopher Hitchens in the February 2012 issue of the New Criterion, I was brought up short when I came across this: “…former New Leftists who, like us, had resigned from our radical generation and embraced America as the hope of the world rather than its curse.”
American exceptionalism is nothing new, of course. It’s not even exceptional. Russia had a tradition of considering itself the Third Rome; the Roman Empire itself, in the Aeneid, is thought of as having a divine mission; and France under Napoleon crusaded for liberty, equality, and fraternity. In addition, the Noam Chomskys of this world are also American exceptionalists—only they see the U.S. as exceptionally evil rather than exceptionally good.
What surprises me a bit, I confess, is how frequently and insistently the idea of American exceptionalism now appears among conservative intellectuals. One hopes for a keener sense of human limitations and a general sober-mindedness that does not consider any human being or human institution as either the hope or the curse of the world. It seems, though, that much of the American right has fallen into its own brand of political romanticism. It may be that any democratically active conservatism tends to shy away from the salutary astringency of, say, Reinhold Niebuhr or Irving Babbitt, to say nothing of Genesis 8:21 (“…the inclination of the heart of man is evil…”).
Eric Ambler (1909-1998) is one of my favorite authors of light fiction and certainly one of the pre-eminent writers of spy fiction. I admire equally his plots and his prose. Recently I reread his Judgment on Deltchev (1951). This was the first novel he wrote after the Second World War and indicated a break he had made from his pre-war communist sympathies. It is also, in a sense, his most “philosophical” tale. Ambler even uses a quote from Nietzsche before the text proper begins: “Many things in your good people cause me disgust, and, verily, not their evil. I would that they had a madness by which they succumbed, like this pale criminal”
Deltchev is the leader of a fictional Balkan state and a popular hero. He bungles badly which leads to a communist takeover of the country and he and his Agrarian Socialist party are the only effective opposition. The government decides to put him on trial, accusing him of cooperating with a shadowy, violent organization. Foster, an Engloish playwright is hired by an American newspaper publisher to cover the trial.
While Ambler portrays the communists mercilessly, he does not seem to try to persuade the reader to embrace democratic ideology. Indeed what he seems more concerned with is character. What drives people to embrace an ideology In the first place? Is Deltchev truly a hero or is he in fact in league with an evil force, or is he a man so ridden by self-doubt as to be an ineffective political leader?
I hope I am not putting words into Ambler’s mouth, but It seems to me that, in this book, Ambler is skeptical of all ideology per se. (Even in his pro-communist period before the war, Ambler’s protagonists often were trying to escape from dangers brought on by ideological conflicts and to return to a non-political life in England). He seems to think the best one can do politically is to rely on leaders of good character. But can one expect to to find good character and sound judgment in capable leaders? If Deltechev failed, can anyone be expected to succeed?
I saw this fine Israeli 2008 film last week. So far as I am aware, it is the first film by writer-director Omri Givon. At first the main theme seems to be terrorism. Galia was on a bus that was blown up. She was terribly burned and her lover, Oren, killed. Galia was actually clinically dead for seven minutes but a paramedic did not give up on her and saved her life. Galia’s memory is spotty at best and she tries to fill in the gaps. At one point, a man involved with Zaka, a (real life) voluntary religious rescue organization, who assisted in Galia’s rescue, relates to her a mystical notion that if a soul ascends to heaven before its proper time, it is sent back to be reunited with the body, but, before, that, is told what its earthly life will be.
The film uses this notion to create an effective and unusual drama. It avoids didacticism and indeed seems to me to really have no thesis of the afterlife to propound nor even a general idea of the course of true love. If this means the film is not obviously deep, it also helps it to avoid the absurdity and sentimentality of many films with mystical aspects (e.g. the ludicrous Sam Mendes flick American Beauty).
Seven Minutes to Heaven turns out to be about love and destiny with the terrorism element in service to these themes. This is a stylistically mature and well-constructed film. It is one of the more intriguing love stories I know of and has a thought-provoking ending that is about as far from mawkishness as it is possible to be.
Recently the World Jewish Congress held a conference in Jerusalem at which famous Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky gave the keynote address. In it he maintained that people need both to be free and to belong. If people lack liberty it leads to tyranny. If people lack identity it leads to decadence, lives that are trivial and meaningless. The Hebrew nation received both liberty and identity at the time of the Exodus, which shows that they are not necessarily opposed but can complement each other.
Europe may be beginning to see this. Since the end of the Second World War, European liberal intellectuals generally have opposed national identity as leading to conflict. Hence their tendency to oppose the State of Israel, a national state of the Jews. There are signs this opposition to national identity is beginning to change, e.g. German Chancellor Merkel stating that multiculturalism has failed.
An edited version of Mr. Sharansky’s speech can be found here, about twenty minutes into the radio program.
While I have read (and enjoyed) a number of Graham Greene’s spy stories (what he called entertainments), I have never read any of his religious novels, including Brighton Rock. Therefore, I do not know how faithful the new adaptation of the film is to the novel. I also have not seen the 1947 film version. The current film is an effective gangster tale, but the religious elements (with one exception) are, I think mere decoration.
Pinkie Brown, a vicious thug, kills a member of a rival gang. He winds up wooing and marrying (so she cannot be compelled to testify against him) a young, innocent waitress, Rose, who has information that may lead the police to him. Both Pinkie and Rose are Roman Catholics. There is material here for an exploration of how sincerely held religious beliefs may not influence behavior, but the film does not deal with this matter in any serious way.
The exception I mentioned above is the ending. It is one of the most darkly and ironically comic endings I know of in film and literature. While it explicitly connects religion to illusion, I do not take this as any serious, general statement. The ending is merely a very clever contrivance providing grim amusement.
Last evening I heard a piece on National Public Radio about a twenty-one year old man who has left orthodox Judaism. The piece also included an interview with someone involved in an organization who assist people who have left or are thinking of leaving. The brand of orthodox Judaism involved is often called, in English, ultra-orthodox because they are very isolationistic, shunning most contact with the outside world. (This is in contrast to what are called modern orthodox, who are just as committed to religious observance but see value in certain aspects of modern western thought and culture.) We learn that this man came from a divorced home which is unusual in his community, so his attachment might have been weakened in that way. It was an interest in science that seems to have spurred his break however. (His family allowed the reading only of religious texts.) We know a little of how he lives. He attends college. He eats pork. He does not wear a skullcap. That is about all we are told. We are not told if he still believes in God and prays, or if he tithes, or if he is living a hedonistic or a morally disciplined life.
It seems that for many religious people, especially, perhaps, members of small, intense communities, it is difficult to separate out different strands of their religion, so if they discover one strand that is hard or impossible to credit, they may throw out the whole thing which can easily lead to faddishness and moral debasement. I hope that has not happened, and does not happen, to the subject of the NPR segment.
I have previously written in this space of Eric Rohmer’s film L’amour après-midi, in my opinion, the best film of one of the best filmmakers after the incomparable Robert Bresson. (I have written about Bresson here) There is another of Rohmer’s films that I think is especially noteworthy, L’heure bleu (The Blue Hour). It is the first of four short films that make up The Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle (1987). (Alas, so far as I can tell, there is no DVD with English subtitles, though VHS tapes with them are available from Amazon.com.)
This compilation of shorts is unusual for Rohmer in that romance is not central to it, in fact is mentioned only briefly once. It is rather a film about friendship. The Blue Hour is the first of the shorts. In it, the bicycle of Mirabelle, who is visiting the countryside, has a flat. A total stranger, Reinette, who happens to come along helps her. Reinette is a recent high school graduate who is going to study art in Paris. Mirabelle is a chic and somewhat reserved Parisian college student; Reinette is friendly and ingenuous. As we get to know them, however, Rohmer surprises us. Mirabelle is more open than she first appears and Reinette less uncomplicated.
The blue hour (I am not sure if this is folklore or an invention of Rohmer) is actually a brief moment of total silence when the night sounds have ended and morning ones have yet to occur. Reinette tells Mirabelle of this, saying, if the world ever ends, she thinks it will be at the blue hour. She very much wants Mirabelle to experience it, but the first attempt is foiled. The second (largely due to Mirabelle herself) succeeds. I have seen The Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle a number of times and have always liked it as nice, amusing shorts that, to some extent, provide a study of friendship. But at my most recent viewing in the spring, the ending of the The Blue Hour really struck me. The penultimate scene conveyed to me a sense of cosmic joy I have not seen in any other film.
Shmuel Ben-Gad is a librarian at George Washington University.
Recently I saw the 1943 Ernst Lubitsch film, Heaven Can Wait. In it, a roué dies and winds up being interviewed by a very gentlemanly Satan to see if he qualifies for hell. The roué himself is also a gentleman:, well-mannered and with good taste. The film is a witty, light confection. And yet, at the end of the day, it maintains that adultery is a mere peccadillo, at worst, at least if the adulterer is a charming sophisticate with an amazingly forgiving wife. Reflecting afterwards upon this film, whose defense of vice is all the more dangerous because of the film’s stylistic virtues, I wondered if any film encouraging virtue matched Heaven Can Wait in sophistication, wit, and effectiveness; and so my thoughts turned to Eric Rohmer’s 1972 film, L’amour l’apres-midi ( released in the U.S. under the title Chloe in the Afternoon).
Chloe is the sixth and final film in his series Contes moreaux (Moral Tales). Each film is a separate tale but all have as a plot a man committed to one woman, meeting another, and having to choose. In this film Bernard, a youngish businessman, is married to a beautiful teacher, Helene, and has a baby girl and another child on the way. He loves his wife but is often at loose ends in the afternoons. Chloe, a former lover of a friend of his, makes an appearance at his office looking for work. They have never been friends and have not seen one another for years. Chloe is something of a bohemian and eventually makes it quite clear she wants a baby and has chosen Bernard to be the father. While Bernard does not offer her a job, they grow increasingly close.
One of the many themes not dealt with adequately if at all, by contemporary fiction is a realistic portrayal on the effect of religion upon sincere believers. Often modern portrayals are hostile and even when not, they are often mythic (think of Flannery O’Connor) or sentimentalized. A happy exception to this is the Israeli television series, Srugim.
First a word about the title. Srugim refers to the knitted skullcaps worn by orthodox Jews who do not isolate themselves from others or the modern world itself. They are often called “modern orthodox.”)
The characters in this series are modern orthodox Jerusalem residents in their twenties or thirties. The five original central characters include two men (a physician who has trouble making a commitment to marriage and his divorced friend, a teacher in a girls’ high school) and three women (an attorney, a web designer, and a daughter of a rabbi and a student of the Bible who decides to become secular). The stories mostly deal with their romantic lives. Two of the characters wed each other and we witness the joys and difficulties of their marriage. Other characters also draw our attention. For example we meet a religious young man struggling against his homosexual inclinations and the father of the physician whose wife dies and who rather quickly remarries.