The Corner of Hollywood and Sinai Summer Series: The Hero

In ancient Greece, a hero was a man who died in battle and, in doing so, brought glory and posterity to his name. Today’s hero is more likely to be a man who fulfills his dream against all immeasurable odds, minus the dying, hopefully. Sometimes a hero is one who upholds the law against those who would challenge it; sometimes the hero is the very one who challenges the law. A hero can be an ordinary person who, in the face of the unordinary, does the extraordinary. A hero can be an extraordinary person who, in similar situations, does the same. A hero can be real or fictional, fantastic or fantastical. In the movies, though, a hero tends to mean one more thing: big box office sales in the summer.

For the next few months, The Corner of Hollywood and Sinai will be focusing on the portrayal of heroes, a popular central theme in summer movies. We will be considering what the definition of a hero is and how this definition parallels, both positively and negatively, the Jewish definition of a hero. During the course of this series we will be deviating from the normal format. We will also be joined by guest critics to offer fresh outlooks on the chosen focus of our series. It is, after all, rare to find that everyone is in agreement when it comes to heroics.

Cinderella Man’s Prince Charming

Ron Howard’s recently released “Cinderella Man” was well advertised across Manhattan several weeks prior to its release. The poster, an unavoidable piece of scenery on even a short walk down Broadway or through many of the larger MTA subway stations, featured brightly lit lead actor Russell Crowe wearing a towel around his neck surrounded by a shadowed mass of people in 1930s style hats and jackets. The exuberant crowd, defying their frozen photographed form, implores Crowe for attention: an interview or an autograph or, at the very least, recognition. There is pride in Crowe’s eyes as he feels the youth-like admiration of the struggling, working-class, depression-era fans. The tagline reads: When America was on its knees, he brought us to our feet. Below the title, in slightly fainter all-caps, is the attractive complimentary addendum: Based on the extraordinary true story. A successful poster: Russell Crowe, will you be my hero?

‘Cinderella Man’ does not mark the first pairing of Russell Crowe and director Ron Howard. The two worked together on ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ the ‘based on a true story’ of schizophrenic economist John Nash. Like ‘Cinderella Man,’ ‘Beautiful Mind’ tells the story of a man with exceptional talents who uses his incredible will to defeat the challenges that life presents him with. In fact, this seems to be a favorite theme of Howard’s. ‘Apollo 13,’ ‘Backdraft,’ ‘Ransom,’ and even ‘The Paper’ are all Ron Howard films that put men of incredible will and talent in positions of challenge. The exploration of the concept of ‘the hero’ is clearly one of Ron Howard’s interests.

The real-life hero featured in ‘Cinderella Man,’ embodied with confident and silky focus by Crowe, is boxer Jim Braddock. The less you know about Braddock’s life-story, the more you will gain from the deft momentum Howard brings to this movie. Without risking the reader’s chance at sailing alongside the film, I say only that this is the story of a family man, a man of the people who stands beside them and rises above them. Braddock, a gifted man, an above-average boxer, advances beyond the sum of his parts. He represents, to the thousands who witness his inability to accept defeat, greatness. He stands tall for all those who cannot stand tall themselves. He overachieves and the workingman cheers. Such is the way of a hero.

Except for a painful gut reaction to the Magen David on the shorts of Jewish Heavyweight champion (and Braddock opponent) Max Baer, and despite the vast number of Jews portrayed, ‘Cinderella Man’ did little for my sense of Jewish identity. I was not moved to disassociate myself from the average audience member due to my Jewish roots. Unlike a Holocaust movie, or a Chaim Potok novel adaptation, Braddock, I thought, was a hero for all people. I felt the shivers along my arms and down my back just as any other enthralled viewer.

But, as the credits rolled and I left the theater, I wondered: Is a hero a breathing example of potential for us all, or is a hero an excuse to avoid our own potential? And my mind immediately shifted to something my mother had read to me earlier that day from Rabbi Dr. Hillel Goldberg’s The Fire Within: “The students of the Nevardik Yeshiva turned weaknesses into strengths.” The shivers I felt watching the greatness of boxer Jim Braddock, which seemed so appropriate with the lights down and the uplifting soundtrack filling my ears, now felt more like a momentary solution to my personal drive for greatness. The fact that the majority of the population would surely fail where Braddock ascended is never dealt with in the movie. The audience is asked only to enjoy the greatness of Braddock and feel the glory vicariously.

This concept of ‘vicarious glory’ seems like it would be just the kind of thing disdained by Orthodox Judaism. Halacha is action-oriented and, unlike many other prominent religions, it is fundamental to our belief system, as brought down by Rambam in his Thirteen Principles of Faith, that the relationship an individual has with God cannot depend upon an intermediary. Nevertheless, the Torah is filled with stories of heroes and heroines and the interplay between the masses and the heroes of our culture is often a highlighted factor in the progression of the Torah narrative. Although God first desired to read the Ten Commandments to all the people at once, the people were not capable of maintaining such an unfiltered connection with God. They required someone to stand on the mountain in place of them, someone who could withstand the light emanating from God’s voice. They needed their teacher, Moshe, to rise to the occasion, while they retreated. They needed a hero.

It seems that this was a crucial moment in Jewish history. How different a people would we be if we had each heard the commandments directly? How unique would our status be if we had followed through with God’s original intentions, if we had each found the will to stand before God, as Moshe found within himself? As Moshe laments, “Were it not that all of us were prophets.” (Bamidbar 11:29)

It is said that many of the distinctions found between Rambam’s Halachic work, the Mishne Torah, and his philosophical work, the Moreh, are due to Rambam’s careful attention to his audience. He wrote very differently when his words were intended for the masses. The inability of the people to stand before Sinai, to hear God’s words, resulted in a hierarchy of classes. We have, in many ways, erroneously become a religion of heroes and hero-worshipers: the thinkers think so we don’t have to.

This is not to say that Halacha does not believe in division of labor. Halacha clearly delineates differing roles for men and women, slaves and free men, children and adults. An opposition to class distinction does not necessarily imply all people are equally fitted for every purpose. I don’t think it was ever part of God’s agenda that we all climb the mountain to receive the Torah together. Moshe was a prophet unlike any prophet that will ever arise again (as stated by Rambam in his fundamental principals of faith) and James Braddock was a boxer the likes of which most of us do not have the physical capacity to mimic. We still must recognize Moshe’s unprecedented relationship with God. We still must marvel at Braddock’s will. Greatness is never a thing to be ignored.

It seems then that there is no solution: a world absent of heroes is a world absent of greatness, but a world of heroes implies the existence of non-heroes and therefore a world in which there are those who have underachieved. Of course, however, we still have yet to produce the perfect hero. Therefore, within every hero there is a member of the struggling masses. The hero at a distance compels us to try harder. But being a hero means achieving your own potential. Both are important. The problem with ‘Cinderella Man,’ the thing that left me wondering as the lights came up, was not only the ‘vicarious greatness’ of the masses. The element that was truly lacking in ‘Cinderella Man’ was Braddock’s hero. The filmmakers were content to isolate Braddock as a hero, flawed and human as he was, and did not feel the necessity to admit that Braddock too had heroes. In the very same parsha in which the Ten Commandments are given, Moshe asks advice from his father-in-law, Yitro. The juxtaposition of Moshe’s greatness with his own admission of weakness puts in context the humble heroism of Moshe. Braddock’s hero would have redeemed ‘Cinderella Man’ of its most blatant flaw, a flaw apparent even on the early posters: when America is on its knees, the man who brings us to our feet must be on his feet first. Who brings such a man to his feet? The answer must be: a man already standing. And who brought this standing man to his feet? The question extends ad infinitum. And so, of course, who brings us to our feet when we are on our knees? All together we must rise. Because your hero’s hero may be you.

Chai Hecht