November 20, 2018

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

Hollywood, ADL gather to honor ‘The Bible’ power producers

Actress, producer and philanthropist Roma Downey, who was born in Northern Ireland, speculated that Jesus must have been Irish, too.

“Many wonder if Jesus was Irish. He never got married, he lived at home until he was 30 and his mother thought he was God,” she said, speaking to a crowd of approximately 500 people who gathered at the Beverly Hilton Hotel last night, May 9, where Downey and her husband, Mark Burnett, received the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 2014 Entertainment Industry Award.

“That’s how you know he was Jewish” came the muttered response of someone in the audience.

The ADL Entertainment Industry Award, an annual honor given out by the ADL, is awarded “to individuals based on leadership and extraordinary innovation in the entertainment industry,” an ADL statement said.

“It’s an acknowledgement of the commitment that Mark and I share with the ADL, a commitment to help people and build bridges,” Downey said last night as she accepted the award.

The evening at the Hilton spotlighted the religiously themed work of Downey and Burnett. Together, the Hollywood power couple produced the 2013 cable miniseries “The Bible.”

This year, they released the film “Son of God.”

In a statement, the ADL praised the honorees, saying their productions “support the organization’s work … fighting hatred of all kinds.”

Burnett is the producer of some of reality television’s biggest shows, including “Survivor,” “The Voice,” “Celebrity Apprentice” and “Shark Tank.”

Downey is known for decade of work on the television series, “Touched By an Angel.” Her production company, LightWorkers Media, creates children’s programming.

The evening netted more than $1 million for the ADL’s Pacific Southwest chapter, which serves Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Riverside and Kern counties.

ADL President Abe Foxman presented the award to Downey and Burnett.

In an interview, Foxman said the entertainment industry promotes ADL-cherished values.

“People look and watch and respond to entertainment in ways they don’t respond to anything else,” he said.

Indeed, the evening highlighted the coming together of two worlds. Foxman; ADL regional director Amanda Susskind and ADL regional board chair Seth Gerber joined Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg; “Survivor” host Jeff Probst; model-actress-television personality Brooke Burke; Gary Barber, the chairman and CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; and Israeli film producer Avi Lerner last night.

Neither of the honorees are Jewish. Last night at the Hilton, Burnett said his upbringing taught him to embrace other faiths.

He said he’d never heard the notion that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus — it was not until later in life that he discovered that people actually thought that way.

He credited the ADL with not just improving his work, but with making people him a better person.

Previous winners include Katzenberg and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

Letters to the editor: Exodus, spirituality and anti-Semitism

Barking Up the Wrong ‘Free’

I must admit that each time I read a good argument supporting each position (1) the Bible is to be taken literally and (2) the Bible is not to be taken literally, I find I am moved by both positions (“Did the Exodus Happen?” April 18). They are both intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. The question then becomes, for me, what are my motives in accepting one position as opposed to the other. Which position brings me closer to God, a being I cannot prove exists? And if I cannot prove God exists, though I can experience his existence as I experience love, why am I required to prove these events occurred to a standard of scientific certainty? The desire for proof and certainty becomes the new prison, the new idol, the new Pharaoh, which prevents our heart from completely opening up to freedom so that we can then walk with God, as Moses did, and we can truly live the life of a free Jew.

Ilbert Philips via

To add another well-known name to the discourse, Freud described the story of the Exodus as a pious myth. And yet, in one of his controversial books he wrote profoundly and with reverence about Moses the remarkable national leader of the people of the Exodus. He followed his life from the time he was plucked out of the river until his death at the edge of the Promised Land. 

The story of Exodus, regardless how it happened, is a recurring event in Jewish history. It is the eternal struggle of monotheism in a polytheistic world with tragic results. The Exodus from Egypt probably was no different from the exodus of Jews from Muslim Iran, Czarist and Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, or Catholic Spain. The Exile to Babylon and Rome would also classify as a reverse exodus. Whether Rabbi Wolpe or Dennis Prager is right is not the question. The issue is whether the unleavened bread displayed on a silver platter in a festive setting is the proper and worthy symbol of the struggle for freedom by a people willing to suffer and pay the price for it. So we ask: “Manishtana?”

Ken Lautman Los Angeles

To Thine Own Selfie Be True

Kudos to Danielle Berrin for her informative article on Alan Morinis and the Mussar Institute (“Selfie Spirituality,” April 18). I was privileged to learn about how effective this ethical system is when I visited the California Institute for Women where my friend, the Rev. Gabbai Shayna Lester, was honored on Pesach by inmates and her peers alike. The inmates — both Jews and gentiles — who took part in the Mussar classes, learned among other principles the importance of avoiding lashon harah — gossip and negative comments about others. And it was reported on several occasions that the parole board looked favorably on this program in their consideration of an inmate being found suitable for parole.

This was the most moving seder I have ever attended, written by the inmates themselves as part of a creative writing project. The inmates were also able to have a rare “real food” meal, and to socialize with outsiders like me who take our freedom for granted. I urge my fellow Jews to familiarize themselves with this program’s leader, Rabbi Moshe Raphael Halfon, and Am Or Olam. 

Gene Rothman, Culver City

Overseeing From Overseas

Adelson’s acquisitions simply because they are an interference in Israeli internal affairs from an outside entity would be just as wrong if they were from the left (“Why Adelson Newspaper War Matters,” April 18). We have the same problem in the UK with a Russian oligarch, Alexander Lebedev, buying up our press and now even owning a TV station, to say nothing of Rupert Murdoch and his all-pervasive influence in every corner of the media. It would be a simple matter for the state to pass a law preventing foreign influence in the media. Of course, the State of Israel will not do so until Netanyahu goes, but it is something for the opposition parties to think about before the next election.

Josephine Bacon via

Praying for the Enemy

I read with great sadness about the increased anti-Semitic violence in Los Angeles and the haunting viral hatred on the Internet (“Anti-Semitism sees decreased incidents, increased violence,” April 4). 

Those who hate to such extreme do so to mask an inner weakness that they will not admit to. They rise above their own shame through violence to prove themselves as brave. 

We saw it in the Nazi’s and we see it in people who use Nazi hatred for their self worth. 

The Jewish people have seen it all before. 

I pray not for the victims, but for those who use violence as a means of righteousness. 

For if we can turn hate into something better and useful, then society benefits in every way.

George V. Hill via e-mail

Internalizing the concept of history

If you were paying attention during Genesis, the opening statement of this week’s parsha may be perplexing: “And God (Elohim) spoke to Moses and told him: I am Adonai, I have appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make myself known to them by my name Adonai” (Exodus 6:2-3).

How can that be possible? All through Genesis, God speaks to the patriarchs using the Tetragrammaton; the Ineffable Name; the Name written with the four quiet, almost mute letters Y, H, V and H but spelled Adonai, the Master. How can He tell Moses now that he never revealed this name to the patriarchs?

A name mentioned in the Bible connotes an inner quality — a special strength or character trait, as can be seen when Adam is asked to name all living creatures. It’s similar to today’s marketers running complex programs to find the best name for new medicines or other products.

A name can also indicate one’s status or relationship with family and friends, as is the case with Ishmael. When he is driven away by Sarah, in one short paragraph the Torah calls him by four different names: the maidservant’s son, Abraham’s son, the lad and the child.

So when God speaks about the names He uses, it pertains to a representative quality. The meaning here, therefore, is not that the patriarchs were not familiar with the name, but rather that the special characteristic of the name Adonai had not yet been witnessed or understood by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The name YHVH is derived from the Hebrew root HYH or HVH — to be — and contains all tenses of the verb, past, present and future. This name symbolizes the eternity of God, the God of history. The name El Shaddai was enough for the patriarchs, which is exactly its meaning: He who is all sufficient.

When the patriarchs were chosen, they were promised that their immediate descendants would grow to be a populous, prosperous nation; but nothing more than that. There is a covenant between God and the patriarchs, but it is quite unilateral — I shall be your God, without the familiar reciprocation “and you shall be my nation.” For the patriarchs it was difficult enough to break ranks with and depart from the surrounding pagan world to trail blaze a new monotheistic path. They were not ready yet to be handed the greater mission that extends to the End of Days, to that ideal future where all humanity lives in peace and harmony.

As Nachmanides aptly puts it, the patriarchs were the Book of Individuals, but it was with the passionate, dedicated freedom fighter Moses that we begin the Book of the Nation, Exodus. It is the nation transformed from a group of desolate, spirit-broken individuals, into a Kingdom of Priests, in the sense of teachers and guides who know the name of God that will accompany the Israelites throughout history.

The Israelites had to internalize the concept of history. They had to learn and understand the past in order to live the best-possible present and bring the whole world into a better future. The Jewish People never forget. We remember the Holocaust, which just happened; the expulsion from Spain, 517 years ago; and the destruction of the Temple, 1,937 years ago. Yet we are not stuck in the past; we don’t dwell there and let the terrors of the past haunt us and stifle our quest for truth and justice.

We also remember the Giving of the Law and the Golden Age in Spain and all the wonderful achievements of our brethren throughout the ages — achievements made possible thanks to that historical perspective introduced by God to Moses in the name Adonai, and reiterated toward the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:7): “Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past.”

Or, in the words of renowned historian Paul Johnson in “The History of the Jews”: