October 23, 2018

Reclaiming Our Mystical Mojo on Shavuot

Rabbi Joseph Karo.

It is time to take back mysticism, and Shavuot is the perfect time to reclaim our mystical mojo.

Modern man has become skeptical and cynical. We demand evidence and logical arguments. Usually, that is a good thing, but without an unreasonable suspension of disbelief or religious imperative, modernity turns mysticism from inspiration into “fake news.”

There is a tradition to study Torah all night on Shavuot. The origins of this practice are cloaked in mysticism and mystery. Rabbis Joseph Karo and Shlomo Alkabetz lived in 16th century Safed, Israel, with a small group of dedicated disciples. Alkabetz, who composed “Lecha Dodi,” was an extraordinary poet and musician. He was pure soul. Karo, compiler of the “Shulchan Arukh” — Jewish Code of Law — was a halachist without peer. His study partner could only be an angel of God. Karo studied with an angel and he recorded their conversations in a book called “Maggid Meisharim.” Nobody knew about Karo’s special chavruta until Shavuot night 5733.

Karo and Alkabetz made a pact to study Torah for the entire night with their students, reverently chanting the holy words. At midnight, a disembodied voice began to speak through Karo:

“You are blessed in this world and the next word because of the crown you have returned to my head. Years ago, I was thrown into the garbage heap and my crown was taken from me. I was inconsolable but tonight you have restored my crown to its glory. Be strong! Be courageous, my loves! Rejoice and celebrate!”

Alkabetz understood this heavenly voice was Karo’s study partner.

Stories do not need to be true to inspire and invigorate us spiritually. They just need to be good.

After the monologue, the group studied mystical secrets of the Torah together with the voice. However, they were informed that they lacked a minyan (a quorum of 10 men), so they could not hear all the secrets of the Torah.

The group diligently completed their vigil of Torah study until morning. Three students missed the learn-a-thon because they went to sleep. When they heard the story, they were heartbroken. So they decided to do study for a second consecutive night.

On the second night, the voice did not wait until midnight. When the group began to study, the voice returned with more praise, love and insights. The angel said that on both nights, their Torah was able to touch God and hasten the redemption.

And so, a tradition was born.

Judaism ceded mysticism and mystery to the Charedim. Everyone else is a skeptic. But we all need the legends of the mystics in our Judaism. Stories do not need to be true to inspire and invigorate us spiritually. They just need to be good.

We need great stories like Karo and the voice of God on Shavuot night to inspire another 500 years of Judaism.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

‘Avengers: Infinity War’ and the Power of Evil

One of the most endearing elements of superhero stories is that the good guy always wins, but in the real world, that’s not always the case.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

That’s why the ending of “Avengers: Infinity War” is so shocking, because Thanos — the bad guy — wins. I keep thinking about sweet Peter Parker, moody teen Groot, and all the other casualties of the Infinity Gauntlet. But most of all, I find myself thinking about how Thanos — the embodiment of evil — could win. There has to be a mechanism within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that explains this.

I think the answer is in the Torah in the story of Korah’s rebellion. Moses and Aaron led the Israelites from Egypt to the Holy Land. Moses was the de facto king and Aaron the high priest. Korah, a Levite, led a rebellion challenging the authority of his cousins Moses and Aaron to exclude him from the priesthood.

A contest of competing sacrificial fire pans determined the victor. The moment of truth arrives and God commands Moses and Aaron to separate from the group. Then, a Godly fire consumes Korah and his rebellion forces. Adding insult to injury, the ground opens and swallows them whole.

Reb Tzadok of Lublin (1823-1900) writes that God commanded Moses and Aaron to leave the area because the rebels had a special power that could have defeated them. Had they stayed with the group, they, too, would have been consumed by the fire. The good guys would have lost.

One who has pure intentions and is willing to give everything he or she  has to a holy cause — even a cause that is not correct — is given this superpower.

What were the rebels special powers? Reb Tzadok says it was their pure intentions and willingness to sacrifice everything for a holy cause. Incredibly, the rebels wielded this power even though they were wrong. One who has pure intentions and is willing to give everything he or she has to a holy cause — even a cause that is not correct — is given this superpower.

That explains Thanos. He had to exchange the life of a true love for the Soul Stone. His adopted/kidnapped daughter Gamora laughs when she hears this condition because she believes that Thanos is so evil that he has no true love. But Thanos begins to cry and it quickly dawns on Gamora that she is going to be the sacrifice. Thanos throws her into the abyss and the stone appears.

Thanos is not purely genocidal. He is a utilitarian fundamentalist. He truly believes that it is best for the universe that he erase half the population. We call this a holy cause.

Thanos was willing to sacrifice his true love for the sake of his holy cause. There’s great power in these things. Thanos completes the Infinity Gauntlet and with a snap of his finger uses his power to murder fifty percent of all living things, leaving us to marvel and mourn the loss of several beloved superheroes. Such is the power of giving everything we have to a holy cause.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Connecting With My Roots in “Disobedience”

Rachel McAdams (left) and Rachel Weisz.

“Disobedience” is a film about forbidden love in an insular Orthodox Jewish community and about the choice of whether to stay or leave. It’s also a stunning portrayal of the torment nonconformists suffer in a conformist community.

The lovers in question, Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Ronit (Rachel Weisz), were raised in the Orthodox Jewish community in Hendon, London. Ronit’s father was the revered rabbi of the community, and after he discovered Ronit and Esti’s affair, Ronit chose to leave the community. Esti remained and tried to “cure” her “deviant” sexuality by marrying Dovid, the rabbi’s protégé. When Ronit returns home years later following her father’s death, the tryst between the women is renewed and revealed.

Orthodox Jewish viewers will notice inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the portrayal of the community, but there were subtle things that were accurate and awakened a real sense of nostalgia in me.

The way Dovid awkwardly squeezes by a woman standing in a doorway to avoid accidental contact was perfect. I loved seeing Ronit discover the obituary for her father in Hamodia — a real Charedi newspaper — and read that he was childless. As Dovid remarks, factual errors are not uncommon, especially “errors” that hide undesirable information such as an apostate child. I smirked when a discussion about selling the rabbi’s home is halted because “nisht Shabbos g’redt” (“we do not speak about such things on Shabbos”). I smiled when I noticed the keyless entry “Shabbos locks” commonly found in Orthodox homes.

The ritual songs in the film are ones I grew up hearing and singing at shul, home and yeshiva. Ronit left the community but the music did not leave her. It stirs something inside her and she can’t help but hum along. Generally, Esti is melancholy but her face brightens when she hears her students singing Adon Olam.

It was striking to feel my personal nostalgia matching the nostalgia of the characters. It’s partially why “Disobedience” moved me so deeply.

 

It was striking to feel my personal nostalgia matching the nostalgia of the characters. It’s partially why “Disobedience” moved me so deeply.

The struggle between love and nostalgia is palpable in the film. Esti stayed because she loved her community more than her freedom. In a heated moment she yells at Ronit, “It’s easier to leave, isn’t it?” and Ronit yells back, “No, it isn’t!”

The film’s ending represents this struggle beautifully. Nothing is solved by a decision to stay or leave. The nonconformist raised in a conformist community will always be tormented by the tension between the nostalgic comfort of their community and the harsh reality of ostracism. Neither choice is easier because, either way, it is disobedience.

Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

The Jewish Dimensions of ‘Ready Player One’

I recommend putting on the glasses and watching “Ready Player One” — Steven Spielberg’s latest high-octane adventure story, about a boy who saves the world — in 3-D. The film is even better when you put on your JD (Jewish Dimensional™) glasses.

“Ready Player One” is an adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2012 novel of the same name. It takes place in a not-too-distant dystopian future when people have given up on fixing the world’s problems and spend their time playing an immersive virtual reality video game of infinite possibilities called OASIS.

The players revere the game’s creator and study his love for ’80s pop culture like a religious text. When he dies, he bequeaths the game to the first player who can solve a series of challenges and puzzles, but an evil corporation enslaves thousands of players to win the contest. Together with his friends, the hero, Parzival, works to defeat the evil corporation and save their virtual world from monetization.

Unfortunately, critics argue, Parzival and his friends spend all their time saving a fake world when they should be saving the real world. However, the morally questionable message of this film seems to be that saving the game is the correct choice.

Initially, I agreed with the critics. But when I put on my Jewish Dimensional™ glasses, I saw it differently.

The rabbis of the Talmud teach that it is worth creating a world for one person and that each person is like a world. We all contain a dark, heavy world of despair. We also contain a world of infinite possibilities, creativity and hope. We need both to live. Without hope, the struggles of life can consume us. If we are unaware of the darkness, we can get lost in our fantasies and neglect important parts of life.

Today’s social media culture vacillates between broadcasting extremist voices and silencing them.

The real world and virtual world of “Ready Player One” are symbols of the worlds inside us all. The “real world” in “Ready Player One” is the harsh, finite world of darkness. The game is the optimistic, infinite world of light. Parzival and his friends save the world of light. Nothing could be nobler.

Spielberg’s film changes the challenges from Cline’s original novel. There, the challenges rely more on encyclopedic knowledge of ’80 s nerd culture. Spielberg creates challenges that measure and stretch the moral character of the contestants. One challenge encourages thinking outside the box, another encourages taking a leap of faith, while a third reminds us that winning isn’t everything.

In its preachiest moment, “Ready Player One” reminds us: “As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”

Today’s social media culture vacillates between broadcasting extremist voices and silencing them. The message of “Ready Player One” is that to save our world, we need to restore balance and moderation using hope, kindness and creativity.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Rabbis Take a ‘Live’ Look at Passover Themes

At a pre-Passover live-streamed online video gathering at the Journal’s office on March 25, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller, Temple Beth Am Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Open Temple Rabbi Lori Shapiro and Rabbi Eli Fink of the Journal staff sat down with Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa to discuss the holiday for “Table for Five — Live.” They touched on the rituals of the seder, the metaphorical concept of slavery, modern twists on biblical themes and anecdotes from their own Passover experiences.

Suissa kicked off the event, co-sponsored by Global Limmud, by asking why Passover seems to resonate with so many people. According to Geller, it’s because it works on four levels at the same time. It reminds Jews of their history, and that they can’t stand idly by when others are oppressed. It’s political, because it reminds Jews that there is a Pharaoh in every generation. It’s psychological, because everyone has his or her own Egypt.

“But the most important thing is, it’s a measuring stick,” Geller said. “We grow up around the Passover table. When we were little, we asked the Four Questions, and then we get a little bigger and our little cousin asks the Four Questions. We sit in the seats where our parents sat, [and] where our grandparents sat. At some point, it moves from older generations to our homes, the family recipes to our kitchens. We change. The story doesn’t.”

“The most important thing [about Passover] is, it’s a measuring stick. … We change. The story doesn’t.” — Rabbi Laura Geller

Suissa and the rabbis dived deep into the haggadah, and explained how they bring it to life at the seder table and make it relatable for guests. Kligfeld said that a number of years ago, at his meal, he said to everyone, “Conjure your maror. Conjure a personal bitterness. Imagine it was in the middle of the table. And don’t speak about it, but speak to it.”

Kligfeld’s father, who is still alive, was battling cancer and six months into his chemotherapy treatments. “He named his cancer and spoke to his disease,” Kligfeld said. “He told his disease that although it was a bitter story inside of him, the end of the story is not bitter. The end is salvation.”

Transitioning into a talk about the meaning of “freedom,” Suissa said Passover is about “liberation. It’s about freedom. But yet the word ‘freedom’ is so mysterious and complicated.”

Fink brought up the Talmud, which says that Passover is not about being “freed,” but from moving from one master to another. “They are freed from the Pharaoh, but they don’t get to do whatever they want,” he said. “They’re now servants of this new ruler, God. There’s no such thing as real freedom, the story tells us.”

Fink said true “freedom” is about finding what traps in life you’re comfortable with, and being honest about what you can and can’t do.

On this note, Shapiro brought up that our huge egos make us believe we can be something that is impossible, like becoming the next Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Instead, she said, “It’s being who we are meant to be. I think that’s what Pesach is asking us to do.”

Shapiro also said that Jews need to find their Mitzrayim (Egypt) and “name it, tame it, [and] find redemption.”

Looking forward, Suissa and the rabbis discussed what Jews do following Passover, and how to keep up the spirit of the holiday year round. Kligfeld said that he often spends a lot of time with engaged couples and tells them they are going to be doing tons of planning and spending money on a wedding that is five hours of their lives.

“What about the next morning?” Kligfeld said. “The most significant aspect of this is not the night you get married. It’s the morning you wake up, the next morning, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that. That’s where kiddushin is found.”

Kligfeld continued, “One of the best things we can do as religious leaders in our community is undervalue the seder night so that [Jews] can start to bring Jewish rituals and concepts of freedom into their Jewish lives all other nights of the year.”

Exodus As Performance Art?

John Legend as Jesus.

Most of the stories in the Bible are written using a traditional storytelling narrative format. It reads like a book. There is one glaring exception to this structural conformity in the Exodus story.

Immediately following the 10 miraculous plagues and their dramatic escape from Egyptian servitude, the Israelites are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. On one side, the Egyptian legions are in hot pursuit of their coveted slaves, while on the other, the raging waters of the Sea of Reeds impede the path of the fleeing Israelites. On God’s command, Moses stretches his arm over the sea and with a Harry Potter-esque flick of his staff, the waters recede. The Israelites dash across the channel to their freedom and the waters crash down upon the Egyptian hordes.

Here the Bible inserts its first, and only, musical number into the narrative. Inspired and awakened by their newfound freedom, Moses and his sister, Miriam, lead the people in the Song at the Sea — a spontaneous ballad offering thanksgiving to God. “I sing a song to the LORD for the LORD is highly exalted … The LORD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him.”

To me, nothing in the Bible requires a greater suspension of disbelief than this moment. Seconds earlier, the Israelites were rescued from certain death by the slimmest of margins. Sure, they felt great relief, but real people in real life do not spontaneously burst into song. That happens only in musicals.

The Song at the Sea is built right into the original text of the Exodus story. It is ready for Broadway.

When I want to say thank you in real life, I make a phone call. I write an email or send a text. I definitely do not grab a microphone, strike up the band lying in wait just in case I need to serenade somebody and sing a song of gratitude. But that does describe the Song at the Sea. The Israelites are saved, Miriam picks up a tambourine and Moses starts singing. It is such a cliche. A classic trope of musical theater or film — singing a wordy song instead of speaking like people do in real life.

I had this epiphany while watching NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on NBC on Easter Sunday, along with 10 million other viewers. There are no songs in the original text of the Jesus story, so Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice created a musical version. But the Exodus story actually includes a “musical episode.” The Song at the Sea is built right into the original text. It is ready for Broadway.

Music possesses an extraordinary power to convey emotion more efficiently and effectively than words. Art does not always attempt to impart facts or historical truth. Rather, it moves us, inspires us, nourishes our souls.

In many places, the Torah is more like art than like real life. Torah is a collection of stories, ideas, rules and wisdom for improving ourselves and the world. Torah should move us, inspire us and nourish our soul. Sometimes performance art — even Torah — needs a shortcut like music to get us there.

The emotional peak of the Exodus is the moment our forefathers set foot on the other side of the sea and turned their heads to witness the entire Egyptian fleet drowning. In order to feel that moment, we need a shortcut. We need a song. At this point, we might even need an entire musical.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Movies that Stirred My Passovers

The best Bible stories are religious epics. The best Hollywood filmmakers are some of the greatest storytellers in the world, and I have been spiritually moved and inspired by Hollywood retellings of our ancient religious stories.

With Passover upon us, I’m reminded of three specific movies that opened my eyes anew to the story of the Exodus.

“The Prince of Egypt”

This 1998 kid-friendly animated version of the Passover story from Dreamworks focuses on two brothers — Moses and Rameses, the eventual Pharaoh of the Passover story. I never even thought of this sibling dynamic until I saw this movie. It is the simplest insight but profoundly transformative.

Moses knows Rameses and the royal family better than he knows his brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam. Imagine Moses’ inner conflict. He is being pulled in opposite directions as his Jewish and Egyptian identities wrestle for control of his destiny. That inner struggle sounds like every inner monologue of every Jewish American I know. Moses becomes more relatable through “The Prince of Egypt.”

“Exodus: Gods and Kings”

This 2014 movie starring Christian Bale as Moses was awful, but it still transformed the Exodus story for me.

One of the film’s biggest flaws is how we are made to empathize more with Rameses than with Moses. Like “The Prince of Egypt,” the two brothers are set on a collision course for control of the dynasty. Moses does not want the position, but he is superior to Rameses in every way. Rameses is fueled by jealousy, which turns to rage.

My then 4-year-old said, “How could a movie about this story not be amazing? It’s the greatest story of all time!”

The most emotional part of the story is Rameses losing his son to the plague of the first born. It’s a jarring feeling but it awakened a part of the story in me that is usually too easy to ignore. Pharaoh and the Egyptians had families and lives. Even if many of them deserved to be punished, their suffering should tug at our heartstrings.

“The Lion King”

This 1994 animated film is about a prince who is exiled because he is afraid of being prosecuted for murder. He has a supernatural vision that convinces him to return to his birthplace and rescue his tribe. It sounds just like the story of Moses to me.

The twist is that Simba is convinced to return to Pride Rock only when Nala mentions his family back home is hoping for his return. God does the same for Moses when he tells him that his brother, Aaron, is waiting for him back home. I find this especially meaningful because Passover has become the holiday of family.

Hollywood showed me the depth of the Exodus story as a story, and now I relate to it as a child hearing the story for the first time. I’ll never forget my then 4-year-old son’s shock when I told him “Exodus: Gods and Kings” was a flop. He said, “How could a movie about this story not be amazing? It’s the greatest story of all time!”


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

The Emotional Mission of ‘7 Days in Entebbe’

Operation Thunderbolt ranks as one of the most dramatic events in the brief history of the State of Israel. The miraculous story of Israeli commandos flying literally under the radar to liberate hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 1976, sounds more like a military fantasy than reality.

When I heard “7 Days in Entebbe” was opening in mid-March, I did some quick math and calculated the Hebrew date was on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. Passover is in the month of Nisan and Nisan is affectionately called the Month of Redemption by the rabbis of the Talmud. There could be no better time to experience a new film about the rescue mission to liberate the captive hostages of the Air France flight. So, on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, I went to see the film with a friend whose father was an Israel Defense Forces commando in Operation Thunderbolt.

I was rooting for this movie but it is overwrought and its messages are unnecessarily ambiguous. Artistically, the film is dragged down by a strange recurring dance sequence punctuated by an even stranger selection of music. Politically, anti-Zionists may call it hasbara (public relations) and Zionists may call it pro-Palestinian propaganda. In fact, it is neither, and that is a very good thing. But I did not go to the theater for the film’s messages, artistry, or its politics. I was there to feel something.

Every Passover, we read the haggadah at the seder and we are reminded of the obligation to imagine ourselves being redeemed from Egypt. For my ancestors, this may have been possible. They were regularly oppressed and routinely persecuted for being Jews, and it was hardly a giant leap to imagine personal slavery in ancient Egypt. But to a proud American Jew, living with equality and freedom, it seems impossible.

I may not be able to imagine myself as a slave in ancient Egypt, but I do have some idea of what freedom feels like.

I think the section of the haggadah asking us to imagine being redeemed actually is teaching us a powerful secret. The point is not to imagine we were actually enslaved and redeemed but to approximate the feelings of redemption that our ancestors felt. The seder and all of its rituals are meant to evoke those feelings. If it doesn’t, we should seek alternate means of achieving this result.

Storytelling is one way to consciously create feelings. A good story connects us to its characters and we are able to experience a version of their feelings. Ideally, the haggadah tells a story that creates this kind of empathetic feeling of redemption for us. However, there are other forms of storytelling that can help us feel the freedom of liberation from slavery, like movies. It’s why I went to see “7 Days in Entebee.”

Toward the end of the film, Defense Minister Shimon Peres celebrates with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Peres and Rabin are the Moses and God of the Entebbe story — a dynamic duo working together to save lives. Peres turns to Rabin and says, “Congratulations, Mr. Prime Minister. You saved 100 Israeli lives today.” When I heard those words, I felt a strong tug on my heart. It was the emotional punch I’d been looking for. The joy of freedom. It was not my freedom, but I felt it anyway.

I will hold onto that spark of redemption and bring it to the seder. I may not be able to imagine myself as a slave in ancient Egypt, but I do have some idea of what freedom feels like thanks to “7 Days in Entebbe.”

Mission accomplished.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Trusting Our Flaws

Reese Witherspoon is Mrs. Whatsit and Storm Reid is Meg Murry in Disney’s A WRINKLE IN TIME.

While watching Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time” I felt I had been transported to the study halls of my yeshiva — and not in a good way.

Until a week ago, “A Wrinkle in Time” was an award-winning fantasy novel beloved by children, teens and adults for more than half a century. But now, it’s a big-budget flop that tantalizes and teases but ultimately fails to move or inspire.

The movie generally sticks to the novel’s storyline about Meg, a brilliant but troubled young girl whose scientist father goes missing. With the help of omniscient ancient witches, played by Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Oprah Winfrey, Meg learns how to “tesser” — find the wrinkles in the universe to travel through space and find her father. The witches tell Meg that her father discovered “tessering” and had been on a space journey when he was trapped by the all-encompassing dark force of evil called The IT. They accompany Meg on her journey to defeat The IT’s darkness with the light of love.

The broad strokes of the story are the same in the book and the film. However, the film does not practice what it preaches. It is afraid to embrace itself.

The lesson of ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ is that we are most powerful when we accept that our flaws are what make us unique.

Madeleine L’Engle wrote “A Wrinkle in Time” in the same spirit C.S. Lewis wrote “The Chronicles of Narnia” series: A fable with modern, liberal Christian values. In the novel, Christianity is part of the story. In the movie, it does not exist.

The novel often explains the supernatural with fantasy physics, giving it a very academic and science-y feel. The witches are considered angels of light and are quirkier in the book than in the movie. Their conversations are more thought-provoking and frequently riff on philosophy and religion in ways that challenge the readers.

Meg is darker and stranger in the book than in the movie and her father is more flawed and less forgivable in the book.

I understand that Disney stripped the movie of its strong, Christian overtones and made its difficult themes more palatable for fear of alienating audiences. Instead, it decided to tell the story with a “universalist” message.

This form of insular thinking also plays out in our religion. The Orthodox Jewish community also is afraid of the outside world. Unnecessary interactions with outsiders often are discouraged, for fear a yeshiva student might bolt if they see too much of the outside world.

The lesson of “A Wrinkle in Time” is that we are most powerful when we accept that our flaws are what make us unique. Erasing our flaws is not the goal. Struggling with our flaws and using our personalities to make a difference in the world is the goal.

“A Wrinkle in Time” succumbed to The IT of strict conformity and groupthink. It is not just a beautiful story being held back by its flaws. The challenging non-universalist “flaws” make it special. They replaced its imperfections with perfect costumes and impeccable set design because they thought we couldn’t handle it. That is why it flopped.

Religion and films like “A Wrinkle in Time” should embrace their limitations and trust their audiences. We can handle it.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Watching the Watchers

Every year, Hollywood creates a handful of culturally significant movies that captivate a wide audience and sweep us away on what can be described as a cultural wave. Recently, I’ve taken to rewatching those films that had a lasting impact on me. Rewatching, but not re-experiencing. Rather, I’m sharing them with my sons.

For me, rewatching is not simply the act of “watching again.” By default, rewatching bypasses the hype and hoopla of a new release. All that remains is the actual film. There is no cultural wave to sweep us away but something more meaningful is left in its place.

I want to share those feelings with my sons and I hope they will feel something, too. I watch the screen with one eye, the other eye on my boys, to see their reactions to powerful moments in the story. You get only one chance to see your kid’s face when he finds out Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

“Game of Thrones” is one of the most popular shows in television history. It is also one of the most intense, and you can watch videos of people’s reactions to scenes from the show on YouTube. Those who had read the “Game of Thrones” books were ready for these moments and used their phones to record their friends’ and family’s reactions to them on the screen. Uploading these videos to YouTube helped propel the “Game of Thrones” phenomenon. The show pushes our most sensitive, emotional buttons and arouses our most primal feelings.

You get only one chance to see your kid’s face when he finds out Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

James Cameron’s “Titanic” was a cultural tsunami. It was big and beautiful, sad and spectacular, and infinitely rewatchable. Some teens saw the film dozens of times. They went not only to rewatch the movie but to watch others watching it for the first time.

Sharing feelings with words is clumsy. Sharing experiences that create those feelings is Divine, and it’s this idea that explains Jewish holiday rituals.

We weren’t there for the original cultural mile markers. We weren’t liberated from bondage by Moses; we weren’t present when God split the sea; we weren’t imperiled by Haman’s xenophobia; and we weren’t saved by Esther’s heroism. But those who were there shared their stories with their children so they could feel the same thing as their parents.

That is why we retell our stories and why our holiday rituals are so important.

Judaism does not live in the past. It is the past that lives in us.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Purim Parallels in ‘Black Panther’

Marvel’s latest blockbuster, “Black Panther,” is an epic sermon on multiculturalism and the struggle to tame identity politics. Its grand themes of personal identity and ethnic pride are especially meaningful in today’s polarized socio-political climate, where a new sense of ethnocentric pride is galvanizing the outrage-driven left while also making American white nationalism “great again.”

The film is set in the fictional wealthy African kingdom of Wakanda, a highly sophisticated modern country with ancient traditions, rituals and beliefs. Since ancient times, when their technological advances were further ahead of the rest of the world, Wakanda’s foreign policy has been isolationist. The kingdom shuns outsiders to protect its most important resource, a secret mineral called Vibranium that powers their scientific achievements and would be deadly in evil hands.

The titular Black Panther and king of Wakanda is a man named T’Challa. His militant nemesis is Erik Killmonger. Having experienced and witnessed grave racial injustice, Killmonger believes Wakanda’s isolationist tradition is wrong. A supremacist, Killmonger plots to arm black people all over the world with Wakanda’s super-weapons in an attempt to conquer the world.

T’Challa also agrees that isolationism is wrong but he plans to enrich the lives of black people around the world through generosity, education and kindness.

T’Challa is cut from the same royal cloth as Queen Esther. His ethnic pride also inspires charity and kindness, as well as thriving within the global community.

Similarly, the Purim story is also about multiculturalism and ethnic pride. The entire threat of Haman’s genocidal plot turns on the fact that Queen Esther is a Jew but is hiding her identity because her people are refugees in exile. However, they do not intend on melting into Persian society. Their plan is to retain their Jewish identity and return to the Promised Land, but the memory of Israel and our Temple is beginning to fade at the beginning of the Purim story. We were so broken and downtrodden that King Achashverosh was nonplussed by the idea of exterminating us.

Our salvation came about because Esther owned her Jewish identity. She sparked a renewal of Jewish pride and identity across Persia that was so great, it inspires Purim traditions of charity and rituals of kindness to this day.

T’Challa is cut from the same royal cloth as Queen Esther. His ethnic pride also inspires charity and kindness, as well as thriving within the global community.

On one level, “Black Panther” is a metaphor for the historical struggle between Black nationalist extremism and the civil rights movement. Both are inspired by the same identity politics but yield opposite results.

Esther embraced her identity to save her people, and when her people were safe they celebrated by bringing light into the world. “La’Yehudim hyta ora v’simcha” – “There was light and joy for the Jews.”

Similarly, T’Challa’s ethnic pride inspires him to add light into the world by raising up the oppressed and downtrodden.

“Black Panther” makes the case for embracing identity politics to uplift others and inspire brotherhood. That is the opposite of supremacy. Ethnic pride is not an end in itself. At its best, it’s part of a vibrant and unifying multiculturalism.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

A Charedi Sitcom that Teaches Co-Existence

Our world is in the midst of a massive social experiment. “Shababnikim,” the surprisingly popular Israeli sitcom about the lives of four yeshiva students, is a perfect laboratory to conduct some analysis.

For almost all of human history, diversity was not a value — it did not even exist. A principal culture ruled each place and time. Minority cultures were assimilated into the dominant culture and communities were not multiethnic societies.

This evolved into the American melting pot. Popularized by Israel Zangwill’s play “The Melting Pot” in 1908, America was not a dominant culture absorbing others, it was an amalgamation created by millions of immigrants contributing to the greater whole. For 200 years, this ethos built America. The tired, poor and huddled masses immigrated to the New World and melted into Americans — e pluribus unum, out of many, one.

Zangwill’s vision echoes one Jewish tradition about the coming of the Jewish Messiah. In the future, all the nations of the world will assimilate into a moral universe, and the world will be one.

A new ethos is now emerging. It’s less like a melting pot and is more like a kaleidoscope. The new ethos values diversity and seeks to create a multicultural society built on principles of tolerance and respect among groups. No one culture is privileged with dominance — not even the new American culture. Instead of assimilating, we co-exist. No melting required.

This is the world of “Shababnikim.”

Instead of assimilating, we co-exist. No melting required.

It is remarkable that a secular Israeli society loves a show about Charedi yeshiva students. “Shababnikim” tells an empathetic story about the authentic struggles and triumphs of people living in that world. The show is a hit because it feels real. The jokes the yeshiva boys tell, the way they see the world, the way they see themselves, and the way they speak in conversation is remarkably authentic. Equally important to the show’s success is that there is no agenda to vilify Charedi society or create any antipathy in “Shababnikim.” If anything, the show humanizes yeshiva students so well that I predict it will inspire greater empathy for the Charedi community.

In one scene, a secular Israeli woman with a crush on a yeshiva student remarks how much she admires his chastity and appreciates being seen as a person as opposed to an object. “You’re in the ’50s,” she says with a smirk. But the show immediately reminds us that the ’50s are not ideal, either. In the following scene, Meir, one of the yeshiva boys from a simple, poor family, confides to his friend that he wants to date a girl from a very prestigious family. The friend is from an upper-crust family and he not-so-gently explains that “his kind” does not marry “Meir’s kind.” The 50’s giveth and the 50’s taketh.

On a meta level, “Shababnikim” is really about the challenge of multiculturalism. We are accustomed to the challenge of Jewish assimilation expressed as the tension between maintaining Jewish identity vs. blending into society. “Shababnikim” turns this idea on its head. Their challenge of assimilation is the tension between the opportunities of the outside world vs. their inability to engage it.

To an outsider, it can seem easier to melt into society’s pot, but the yeshiva boys are proud of their religious identity and commitment. While off on one of their misadventures, the most pious of the group exclaims, “I don’t need to see the world — I love my world of the yeshiva!” It is true, the young men have their struggles, but they do not wish to abandon the yeshiva. They want to access the rest of the world, and in a kaleidoscope world it is possible to maintain one’s unique cultural identity while living in the bigger world. But it does make things more difficult on both ends. It’s hard to be a non-insular yeshiva student and it is hard to be a yeshiva student in a multicultural world.

“Shababnikim” reconfigures the multi-cultural experiment as a page of Talmud. Using talmudic tools like questions, debates and anecdotes, “Shababnikim” gently appropriates from the yeshiva to inspire our world.

Perhaps that is the formula for multi-culturalism’s success.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Joseph and Paddington

Photo from Vimeo

It is unanimous.

Movie review site Rotten Tomatoes aggregated all 176 critic reviews of “Paddington 2” and every single one has been glowing with adulation — making it the best reviewed movie of all time. The children’s story of an immigrant CGI bear living in real-world London has captured the hearts of even the most hardened film critics.

It is fitting that a mean word cannot be said about a movie without a single mean-spirited or cynical moment. “Paddington 2” manages to entertain, enlighten, enchant and inspire without an ounce of negativity. The world of “Paddington 2” is exactly what we wish for our world: a community of decent people with curiosity, mutual respect and so much joy. Visiting this world, even through a children’s film, is so powerful that everyone who sees “Paddington 2” leaves the theater with the same exact thought: How do we make our world into that world?

This question led me to consider the story of the most likely Biblical inspiration for “Paddington 2”: Joseph.

The superficial parallels are striking. Both Paddington and Joseph are dreamers who get into trouble by oversharing their aspirations. Both are outsiders falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned. Both manage to keep their morals and good spirits in prison by being super helpful to other inmates. Both are rescued because of their helpfulness and both experience a yearning to be reunited with their family — despite feeling like foreigners in their own families.

With role models like Paddington emerging from the juggernaut of Hollywood, we can change the world.

There is something deeper in the Joseph story that explains the simple beauty and joy in “Paddington 2.”

How did Joseph see an interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams that no one else saw? He has no superpower or special wisdom other than his ability to see things in a novel way, without the same biases as his Egyptian overlords.

Ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun god and lived by the predictable rhythm of the Nile overflowing into its irrigation canals. It was a world with very firm cycles. Measuring time with the sun gives you the same 24 hours in a day, every day, and 365 days in a year. It’s pretty regular. Joseph comes from a family that lives by the moon and worships a conversational, relationship-based God. The moon seems unpredictable because it grows and shrinks throughout its lunar phase. The lunar month has irregular cycles of 29½ days. The God of Joseph and the Bible is unpredictable and changes plans or ideas in reaction to human intervention.

Pharaoh’s dreams appear to be so contrary to the fixed order of nature. Lean cattle swallowing bigger, fatter cattle and small ears of grain swallowing larger ears of grain make no sense in a world of strict order. Pharaoh’s dream interpreters were completely stumped. But in Joseph’s moon-based culture, anything is possible. Hope springs eternal, cynicism and despair are the enemy, and there is always hope for a better tomorrow. He saw years of plenty followed by overwhelming years of famine in Pharaoh’s troubling dream — and he was right. But Joseph also saw reasons for optimism and believed in Egyptians’ ability to roll up their sleeves,  work hard and endure.

Paddington embodies this idea. He unabashedly believes in the power of unconditional kindness and the strength in optimism. When confronted by life’s struggles, Paddington “keeps calm and carries on” with British aplomb and a contagious sincerity. Everyone who comes into contact with Paddington is better for the experience because cynicism is poison and Paddington is the antidote.

The most compelling message of “Paddington 2” is that the world thrives when we follow Paddington’s golden rule: If we live with hope and kindness, reject cynicism and negativity, we can change people. Thankfully, the world is watching “Paddington 2” and loving it. Society is responding to Paddington’s modest proposal with a resounding and reassuring, “Yes, more please.”

Indeed, with role models like Paddington emerging from the juggernaut of Hollywood, we can change the world. As Paddington fondly quotes from his Aunt Lucy throughout the film: “If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right.” Amen.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Spielberg Goes Biblical

The credits were rolling when it hit me: “The Post” was over. Time to go home. “Why am I still sitting here?” I looked around and saw others still sitting in their seats. “Why are they still sitting here?” “Why are we all still sitting here?!”

In my opinion, the answer is in the Bible.

It is accurate to frame Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” as a retelling of the 1971 Pentagon Papers drama, but it is also overly simplistic. Spielberg transforms a historical narrative into a profound commentary on American culture, partially conveyed by the choices made for the beginning and the end of the film.

Stories usually open with “Once upon a time” and end with “The End.” The soft ambiguity of “Once upon a time” signals that whatever preceded the story is unimportant. Correspondingly, the hard certainty of “The End” says that everything important to the story has been told. The narrative exists only in the space between “Once upon and time” and “The End.”

The Bible does the opposite.

It starts with a jarringly definitive “In the beginning” and it ends so gently that the narrative is never formally closed. It follows that the Bible, by its narrative structure, is signaling to the reader that the Bible is important from The Beginning — it has always been important. More significantly, the teachings of the Bible endure long after the story ends, — it always will be important.

Spielberg faced a dilemma about the beginning of “The Post.” When does the story of the Pentagon Papers begin? The first moment of this story is a finite place and time. But which moment?

“The Post” begins its story in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, the man who eventually leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press, is on the battlefield documenting the war. A soldier notices Ellsberg and wonders aloud, “Who’s the longhair?” meaning, who is the hippie civilian?

That phrase stuck with me because Ellsberg is an outsider and is identified by his long hair. For the duration of the film, the outsider is the publisher of The Washington Post, Katharine “Kay” Graham, played by Meryl Streep. She is an outsider in a corporate world dominated by men and, as a woman, she is also identified by her long hair. Graham’s journey in the film is the story of how and when she found her voice as a strong, confident, trailblazing woman who confronted and stood up to a powerful White House.

In a movie with consequences of biblical proportions, Spielberg seems to take a cue from the Bible.

There is a third outsider identified by her long hair in “The Post.” Meg Greenfield, played by Carrie Coon, is the only woman on the editorial board of The Washington Post. As the film rises to its crescendo, Greenfield is holding court in the newsroom. She is on the phone with a contact at the court, and she is relaying everything she is hearing. Greenfield has the attention of the entire newsroom. The air is silent and heavy with dramatic pause when a middle-aged white male editor barges into the newsroom and steals her thunder. Reading from a slip of paper, he exuberantly announces victory. For a moment Greenfield’s face falls, but she composes herself and gets another chance to shine a few moments later when she dictates Justice Hugo Black’s forceful opinion — uninterrupted.

In a profound film about women’s empowerment, this moment was a reminder that we adapt and evolve slowly. Kay Graham may have found her voice but women could still expect to be interrupted by men oblivious to the shifting social environment around them.

“The Post” could have ended with the euphoric reaction to the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the media against the president. But Spielberg ends by setting the stage for the Watergate scandal. In a movie with consequences of biblical proportions, Spielberg seems to take a cue from the Bible and opts for a gentle, open-ended final scene.

Long after the Pentagon Papers were published, freedom of the press remains an issue. Long after Kay Graham found her voice, treating women fairly remains an issue. Long after Meg Greenfield was interrupted, respecting women remains an issue.

“The Post” does not conclude with finality because, just like the Bible, it is the beginning of a long struggle, not a story about one particular struggle. And that explains why we lingered in the theater watching the credits roll.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal

Mrs. Maisel and the Jewish Revolution

Screenshot from Twitter.

I was delighted when “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” won the Golden Globe for best television series — but not for the reason you think. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is as Jewy as it gets. It is witty and humorous and deserves its award. But more than its laughs and giggles, Hollywood — and the rest of us — really need the very serious and timely message hidden in this overtly Jewish show.

We are witnessing a massive cultural shift in Hollywood and Western culture. For decades, abusive behavior and mistreatment, especially toward women, went unchecked. As the most powerful people in Hollywood summarily announced at the Golden Globes, “Time’s up.” The revolution is well underway.

The trouble with revolutions, though, is the extremist nature of revolutionaries. People who upheave society are not just rebels, they are zealots. Average people don’t take on city hall. Hollywood and Western culture desperately needed drastic change, and it took the strength, courage and near-recklessness of incredibly brave revolutionaries to inspire this transformation.

As is often the case with revolutions, initially the #metoo movement brought everyone together. But the subsequent hedging and handwringing by more moderate voices was inevitable. The pushback began. It was then followed by the pushback to the pushback as people quickly retreated from the harmonious center to their partisan corners.

“Mrs. Maisel” embodies the Jewish secret to resolving this vicious cycle.

In the show, 20-somethings Miriam and Joel Maisel are living out their scripted lives along with their two children in 1950s New York City. Everything changes when Joel confesses to an affair and Miriam, or Midge, as her friends call her, kicks him out. As per “the script,” Midge’s parents expect a quick reconciliation, but when Joel apologizes and begs for a second chance, Midge goes off-script and says no. Viva la revolución!

The trouble with revolutions, though, is the extremist nature of revolutionaries.

Midge’s rebellion leads her on a winding road to a bright future as a trailblazing female comic and a strong, powerful woman. The most impressive part of Midge’s personal cultural revolution is that her path is entirely original, yet she manages to include multiple parts of her previous, scripted life in her new life. In other words, Midge does not innovate at the expense of her entire past. She rejects all that is bad in the script and embraces all that is good. Her parents, her family, her fashion, her etiquette, her femininity, her Judaism and her sentimentality are all brought along into Midge’s journey.

In the season’s final scene (mild spoiler alert), Midge confirms her identity is independent from her past but also rooted in that same past when she creates her stage name: Mrs. Maisel. Despite the fact that she is divorcing Mr. Maisel, and despite the fact that she is an independent woman, Midge appropriates the name she was given and turns it into the name she chose.

In some ways, this frames Midge as a moderate revolutionary — a feminist hero toppling society’s conventions, gently. Midge’s foil in the show is her manager and adviser, Susie Myerson. She is the other kind of revolutionary. Susie is completely cut off from her family, she dresses and acts androgynously, and she has enough chips on her shoulder for herself and for Midge. There’s nothing gentle about Susie.

Some may think that a gentle revolutionary is weaker than a scorched-earth revolutionary. But the historic Jewish cultural revolutions of deity, ritual, philosophy, literacy and justice were not scorched-earth revolutions. We validated and valued the past while molding the present to create a better future. We have adapted and adopted from every culture we have visited on our 2,000-year Diaspora journey. We have created Judaisms that are unique to their time and place, interpretations specific to different academic spirits, and rituals that connect us to our surroundings. We are the gentle revolutionaries.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is the story of Jewish revolutions retold for a postmodern world. To inspire Hollywood’s cultural revolution, we needed scorched-earth revolutionaries. Now, to make Hollywood’s cultural revolution stick, we need gentle revolutionaries.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Pixar and the Zohar

If you’ve seen the trailer or any advertisements for “Coco,” you already know that it’s Pixar’s most Mexican film yet. What you don’t see in the trailer is that Coco is also Pixar’s most Jewish film. You probably would not see that by watching the movie, either, but it’s all I saw.

“Coco” tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a Mexican boy who travels on Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) to the Land of the Dead, where he must reconnect with his deceased ancestors to return to the Land of the Living. “Coco” fits neatly in the pantheon of familiar Pixar stories and the film is bursting with wholesome values.

The Jewish idea that aveira goreret aveira — once we step onto a dark path of sin, it can lead to an endless cycle of darkness — is prominent in “Coco.” The filmmakers sprinkle simple truths and lessons throughout: Fame is not correlated with talent or ability; our role models should be the people in our lives who are good, not those who appear to be most successful; we should follow our dreams but not hurt others in the process. Seeing Hollywood teaching good values is worth the price of admission.

On a deeper level, “Coco” is much more. It’s the stuff of primordial storytelling. Many stories dazzle us with mind-bending plot twists and vibrant original characters. “Coco” has neither. The story is not particularly remarkable and the characters are not unique.

“Coco” is a different kind of story — it is a fable. Specifically, it is the kind of fable that has been the bedrock of religious storytelling for thousands of years. “Coco” is a biblical story with new people and modern dilemmas.

Bible stories are not known for their plot twists, but they are brilliant vehicles for life lessons. The purpose of a Bible story is not to entertain — it is to enlighten. “Coco” is certainly entertaining and its agile lesson-teaching impresses. But its true brilliance is the way it enlightens the audience.

Religious stories, loaded with religious meaning and morality, serve a social function, as well. They connect people through ritual and common beliefs. They form a moral fiber that binds religious people to their communities while also answering the “big questions” of life. They connect and enlighten people. This is how religion builds society through storytelling. Without answers to “big questions” and meaning to pull everything together, people don’t build societies.

“Coco” is Hollywood’s most financially successful attempt to tell a universal story with lessons addressing one life’s “biggest” questions: What happens after we die?

“Coco” is a spectacular sermon on the afterlife. Consider this: Pixar spent $200 million to respectfully and faithfully teach the world about Día de los Muertos — authentically. There’s a lot of explaining in the movie as the theology and traditions of Día de los Muertos are doled out in bite-sized pieces.

“Coco” is a spectacular sermon on the afterlife.

The religious moviegoer expects Hollywood to get religion wrong and to subvert whatever it manages to get right. Incredibly, “Coco” does the opposite. It gets Día de los Muertos right. In a nutshell, on Día de los Muertos, the dead visit with the living. Only when we celebrate the dead will their memories live on, enabling them to visit and celebrate along with the living.

This is a powerful teaching. Another movie of biblical proportions, “Interstellar” (2014), also conveyed this idea. Coop, its protagonist, tells his daughter, “We [parents] are the memories of our children.” We find a similar idea in Jewish mysticism. The Zohar says that on days of great celebration, when the living inevitably remember the dead, the souls of the dead leave their heavenly domain and join in the celebration with the living.

This is the kind of “big idea” that traditionally was exclusively religion’s domain. “Coco” is a film doing what religion used to do. It is building culture and meaning. It is building society. Most of all, it is not replacing traditional religious stories with something new, but faithfully retelling the old in a modern way.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.