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The Invention of Lying


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When I read about this movie, I asked my daughter if I could write the next installment of Hollywood and Sinai. The reason was two-fold. One was the substantive nature of the film which portrayed the relationship between religion and truth or, rather, from this movie’s perspective, the supposed lack of a relationship. The other was that I also felt that it would give me the opportunity to express why I believe that a column such as Hollywood and Sinai is valuable and why, of course with moderation and within certain parameters, watching movies can have an important value.

Actually, there are numerous potential values in watching certain films. While concern for wasting time must always be a consideration, human beings do need forms of relaxation and entertainment; each individual must face the responsibility of determining and meeting their specific need. Too much time devoted to such pursuits can result in a transgression of bittul Torah, squandering time that is otherwise available for Torah study. How we use our time is most significant. Not meeting this proper need for rest time, though, can also have negative consequences by lessening a person’s ability to concentrate, think, and internalize the lessons of Torah. The challenge of determining what is personally proper for oneself is a powerful yoke that we all must bear; it cannot be taken lightly.

It is within this framework that I approach the activity of watching movies. The question is not just how long we rest but how we rest. Watching certain movies can be an excellent way of spending this time. This, of course, really depends on the careful choice of what one watches and this is where Hollywood and Sinai comes in. If it can positively assist individuals in making this decision, the column has met its purpose. This is not just in informing someone of what not to watch and/or of halachic problems with certain films but also in describing what a movie is about so that a person can determine if it is the correct relaxation activity for what is needed. The Hollywood and Sinai columns can also direct a person to certain aspects of and issues within a film that make the experience, from an overall Torah perspective, even more worthwhile.

Films such as this one, however, add another dimension to watching movies that can further benefit one’s Torah growth. The famous statement of Avot 2:14, v’da mah she’tashiv l’apikorus, “and know what to respond to a heretic,” has many connotations but, above all else, it informs us that we do not live in a vacuum. In the broadest sense, we live within a world that has mores and ideas that are not only different than our own but are, in many ways, almost beyond our conception and comprehension. The narrower, specific world that we live in – and should live in – does not allow us to encounter many of the underlying structures and rules of behaviour that actually drive the broader world of global humanity. A movie can often be the only way that we confront these perspectives and gain some insight into how to navigate within this broader, “strange” world around us.

Watching a movie with this intention must clearly be approached with caution, partially for the same reasons that we do not wish to confront these mores within our daily lives. There is also the concern that the presentation of these mores within the movie may be so subtle that we can become engulfed by a value contrary to Torah before even recognizing it and, then, never even see how we have been negatively affected by this presentation. It is no wonder that many look negatively on the viewing of even what may be described as family (and harmless) movies, as even such movies may subconsciously convey values contrary to Torah. Nevertheless, as long as we do live in this world, it is important for us to know what we are encountering –or subliminally absorbing on so many different fronts – and movies often give us the opportunity to survey realms of existence with which we are otherwise not familiar. They also, thereby, can give us insights that may even be of import in our study of Torah, which we otherwise will not encounter.

It was precisely for this reason that I wanted to see this movie. Of course, I know the Freudian and Marxist perspective of religion that is built on a belief that it was an invention that served a human purpose but I felt, that within the context of a performance, this movie could add a dimension to this perspective that could be of value. This story is built on the premise that religion was invented to alleviate the human fear of death. There was something, though, in watching this theme develop in a context of human relationships and dialogue that, I believe, added to my understanding of the mechanics of this perspective and, also, how various specific religious beliefs may have been adopted. It also indicated to me a further dimension as to why so many view religion not only as false but absurd.

Of course, the limitations of fiction must also be considered, as well as the further specific objective of this movie as a comedy, but it clearly does give one some insight into how segments of our world view religion, a perspective that, given our specific environment, we may never otherwise, so startlingly, encounter. This is a value in movies, in art, that we cannot discount. The movie showed me that there are those who believe religion was invented as a response to a need and/or desire in human beings but it also showed how religion further defined itself in these very terms thereby opening itself up to the further challenge of being absurd. It is religion itself that led to the charge that it was invented, for, in wishing to sell itself, it presented itself as the answer to any and all challenges human beings faced – with absurd results. It was this presentation of absurdity that, in turn, led to further critiques that it must really be a human invention. This reinforced within me the importance of the Torah position that, while we consider the purpose of Torah from the human perspective, we also recognize the limitations of such a perspective and recognize the essential imposing nature of the Word of God. See, also, my Kiruv: A Paradox of Hashkafa, Nishma Update 5754-1. It is precisely the fact that Torah does not pretend that there are quick answers to questions of existence – that the realm of the question is a fundamental realm of Torah – that is one of its strengths, although, from a marketing perspective, this is not an attribute.

Having said all this, though, in many ways I found the movie disappointing. As is often the case with many comedies, the desire to get a laugh can challenge the basic premise of the story. Under the microscope, there was much to critique in the details of the movie. Various moral issues are swept under the rug as is often the case in such films. Is it not interesting how, in so many movies, theft from large businesses is simply not seen as an ethical problem? Yet is this not one of the insights into our surrounding society that may be worthwhile to further contemplate? The weaknesses in the plot of the movie may actually further serve this purpose of outlining, for us, aspects of the mores of our society of which we should learn. Yet it does take away from other potential insights.

It is important to note that the movie did include some off-colour remarks that would be challenging for the ear of one with the mida, attribute, of tzniut. It also seems that in writing this movie, the authors wished to include in the concept of not lying the idea that one should speak whatever is on one’s mind. That did make me think, though, of what actually is perceived to be lying in our society. Do people believe that not sharing any idea is a form of falseness even if a person never actually articulates a false idea? Halacha is very cognizant of a distinction between articulating a falsehood, simply not speaking thereby allowing another to maintain a false perception and voicing any idea, even if true, that is on one’s mind. In a certain way, this movie may actually be making a positive statement regarding the very importance of the distinction that Halacha makes regarding these categories – but it may also be informing us that many don’t actually recognize the nature of these distinctions.  In the end, though, the movie does show how members of our society perceive the relationship between truth and falsehood, on so many different planes – and clearly there is a chasm between this view and the Torah view. This is something that we should know.

In conclusion, the best movies set our will to reason in motion. The world is a classroom – so I must ask after I view a film: what was its message? what is my response to its declaration? and, most importantly, how does this knowledge further my understanding of Torah? Watching movies merely to be distracted has limited benefit especially since, with properly chosen films, it can serve a strong purpose in further our understanding of life and Torah.

Dodi-Lee Hecht

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