Entry #2: What is a movie?

In the Halachic world an action or item is generally placed into one of five categories: (i) prohibited, (ii) permitted but discouraged, (iii) permitted, (iv) permitted and encouraged, (v) commanded. Although these categories seem straightforward and discreet they tend to behave much more like a fluid spectrum. It is often the fact that the journey of an object, or act, through this spectrum is a dynamic and constantly nomadic one which requires great understanding, by the posek, of the specific details of a case. Nevertheless, there is always an initial standing point that demands an equally great understanding of the generic object or act, outside a specific case.

So, our first task with respect to the movie should be to assess the initial placement of the movie and the act of movie-watching along this halachic spectrum. However, since the movie is only a century old and the great majority of halachic literature was written prior to its invention, this assessment is made much more difficult. Therefore, although the eventual question must be which category should contain movies and, by association, the act of watching a movie, we must first define the movie with respect to an older art form or medium and then assess where this more ancient medium has been placed along the spectrum. Finally, only after we come to understand the nature of this placement and the relationship between movies and the other medium, can we hope to understand different viewpoints on the movie's place along the aforementioned spectrum of halachic classification.

It is generally accepted that the movie is an outgrowth of the theatre, i.e. performance art, or an outgrowth of the book, i.e. the written word. So, our investigation demands that we ask which one of these art forms is the forerunner to the motion picture. Of course it is possible, and to some extent likely, that we will uncover that both mediums together birthed the movie and that Halacha must look at movies from both points of view. The best metaphor that I can think of for this potential duality is the modern view of light -- that it must be considered mathematically as both a wave and a stream of particles. (It is important to note that there is the theory that the parent of the movie is visual art and not theatre or the written word. However, this semantic connection -- "movie" is short for "moving picture" -- can be dismissed since visual art, while it can tell a story in a metaphorical sense, does not convey a complete thought in the same way that theatre, books and movies do. This distinction, for the sake of brevity, can be attributed to the time factor -- visual art can be absorbed in a moment or a lifetime but there is a fixed time one must devote to the latter three mediums.)

It is necessary at this point to clarify the distinction between the medium of the movie and the content of a specific movie. Content of a movie can fall under many different headings and it may be that, eventually, we will conclude that each movie must be judged halachically on an individual basis because of the unique combination of many factors which make up a movie's content. However, the discussion of content will have to wait for a later article. In this article the topic of analysis is the medium itself. In light of this, please recognize that this attempt to define the movie medium along the halachic spectrum is a focused look at only one axis of a multidimensional description which will be improved upon as each axis is added to the halachic definition of the movie. For now, we must return to the most pressing issue of establishing a medium which directly precedes the movie and which can be used to understand the movie, as a medium, through the eyes of the great poskim who codified Halacha prior to the birth of this medium.

To return to the original premise, are movies to be classified as the evolved theatre or the next generation of the book? The distinction is a crucial one. Theatre, from its invention until today, has always functioned, primarily, as a source of entertainment. The medium has been, and continues to be, defined by this singular purpose -- to entertain the audience -- despite any other secondary goals of a given playwright to convey a religious, political or educational message through the content of his play. This emphasis on entertainment is easily explained by the fact that any message encased in a theatrical production has to be enforced through strong bouts of entertaining visualization. No audience can leave the theatre or arena with anything more than a memory of what transpired on stage so all messages must be memorable. It is also important to note that theatre is a very passive medium -- the viewer of a play is a passive receptacle of the imagery. Any involvement of the audience in the medium is one of a purely receptive nature. Therefore, even if the transmission of a message is the primary intention of the playwright, to control an audience's attention, the production must be entirely captivating.

Conversely, the book's role, as a medium, is much less clear than that of theatre -- entertainment is often the secondary purpose of a book and it is knowledge of various sorts which is the primary focus. However, there are certain book genres in which entertainment tends to be primary. Still, the medium itself seems to have an intrinsic value above pure entertainment. Case in point would be the world-wide response of adults to the Harry Potter phenomenon; many parents were happy that their children were reading regardless of the fact that the children were reading for the sake of entertainment. (As well, this issue can be seen as an aspect of content distinction and not reflective of the medium as a whole.) The act of writing is one of transmitted communication, not just to a generation of masses but across time and place. In other words, despite distinctions between various contents of books, the medium is seen as one of edification and not entertainment. This is partially because of a book's ability to engage the audience in a much more active way than does theatre. A reader is physically involved in the acceptance of the medium's information. As well, unlike theatre, a book is tangible and can be reviewed. This allows for scholarly study of the medium in a way that theatre never could. (For example, I noticed a year ago that Harry Potter was added to the syllabus of a children's literature course taught at Stern College.)

[To further clarify this difference between theatre and books, consider a comparison between the performance of one of Shakespeare's plays and the text of the same play. The text can be analysed and torn apart word by word but no human being could show the same attention to detail while sitting in the audience viewing the performance. The intensity of the interaction between the text and the reader is completely absent in the relationship between the performance and the viewer. However, the entertainment value is, in most cases, much higher with respect to the performance than with respect to the reading of the script. (This is not withstanding the inherent entertainment value of Shakespeare's use of language which may only be fully appreciated upon reading the script.)]

In the halachic realm, books have always been ascribed great value. While it is true that secular literature is viewed by some poskim to be off-limits, this is much more an issue of content than one of medium. Similarly, the belief that wisdom can be found among the nations of the world has led many great Torah scholars to become experts in the fields of philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, biology, and, perhaps more controversially, poetry and literature. Halachic giants throughout history have also made contributions to these fields and others. In both cases, the acquirement of knowledge and the contributions, have been done with the use of the written medium. Verily, it is the medium of the book which has always been used to record great works of Halacha and Hashkafa, Jewish philosophy, when there was a fear that the information might be lost or a sense that the information needed to be shared. Books have been the communal letters with which scattered Jewish thinkers and scholars have been able to communicate across continents and history. A sefer, a text of Jewish thought, is treated with the greatest respect, a respect which almost mirrors the respect one would give the author, or any Jewish scholar, himself. Although the danger of the written word is duly noted by these Rabbis, as evidenced by the use of book bannings to excommunicate the voice of an unwanted opinion, books have always been seen as the most revered gift of knowledge to the human being and the historically high literacy rates in Jewish communities has always attested to the Jewish love of this art form.

In contrast to the strong historical relationship between Jews and books, the general Orthodox Jewish relationship with theatre is less clear. In the Talmud, the apparent general attitude regarding theatre was negative. In Avodah Zarah 18b the Rabbis present two reasons for why one should not go to the theatre. Effectively, between these two reasons, there would seem to be limited argument to allow attendance. At first the rabbis cited the idolatrous roots of some theatre but then they added that even in the case of non-idolatrous theatrical productions, the theatre is still forbidden under the precept of bittul zman, wasting time. This concept underlies the Jewish perception of schedule; time is seen as a valuable and fleeting commodity which must be used wisely and treasured. Kohelet, one of the five megillot read throughout the year, is a work whose theme can be said to encapsulate just such a philosophy. King Solomon's warning to reflect upon the details and overall patterns of one's life to ensure that life is well lived can be considered to denounce any actions of a hedonistic nature, especially when one considers his final conclusion that Man's true purpose is to serve God and keep the Torah. The general feeling of the Talmudic rabbis appeared to be that theatre fell into this category of behaviour as elucidated by Solomon.

Nevertheless, the modern halachic view of theatre may have changed through time as did the medium itself. The connection of the theatre to idolatry is no longer applicable. Even the most right-wing yeshivas have been known to indulge in humorous student plays on Purim. Still, the halachic relationship with theatre is hesitant and clearly does not bear any resemblance to the well-established and entrenched relationship the Jewish world has with books. This could, perhaps, be partially due to the theatre's glorification of effortless entertainment. As further elaborated in Rabbi Norman Lamm, Faith and Doubt "A Jewish Ethic of Leisure," a Torah view of relaxation time, in today's more leisurely world, must still take into account bittul zman and even entertaining pastimes should incorporate the Jew's overriding purpose in life. This may be better illustrated with a further glance at the previously mentioned comparison of Shakespeare. The text is more likely to be read in a right-wing Jewish high school than it is likely for the play to be watched or performed. The educational usefulness of Shakespeare can be much more easily argued than can the entertainment usefulness when one is calculating how to spend time to its fullest.

Neither the relationship between Halacha and books nor between Halacha and theatre have been fully investigated herein; that investigation, for our purposes, depends upon which birthright belongs to the movie. Regardless, our pending goal is still to investigate the relationship between Halacha and movies, notwithstanding its birthright. While theatre is temporal, passive and primarily a source of entertainment, books are tangibly reusable, interactive and primarily a source of knowledge. And, while the theatre does not appear to have a radar-worthy place in the eyes of Halacha, books have an almost overly-sentimentalized place in the hearts of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, movies have components which mimic both these mediums and, as was postulated, this leads to a complicated understanding of the medium.

Similar to theatre, movies are most often viewed as sources of entertainment. In the movie theatre (an ironically pertinent name which cannot be ignored) an audience sits passively awaiting the onslaught of imagery just as they would in Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. However, movies are not intangible; the recorded nature of film implies a direct descendence from the art of writing. The movie, when viewed at home on VHS or, even more so, on DVD, allows the viewer a much greater interaction with the medium. The viewer can pause and rewind to examine a portion of the film in greater detail just as one would with a passage in a book. Furthermore, movies, through all genres and not just the documentary, embrace a more complex mission in regard to their production. Filmmaker James Cameron's attention to detail in his movie "Titanic," a work of historical fiction, implies an understanding that his movie will be studied carefully and not just watched. A movie like "Primary Colors" has awakened viewers to controversial philosophical questions which are only enhanced through multiple viewings. In a way, one could classify these movies as the "Thus Spake Zarathustra" and "Utopia" of modern times -- philosophically and historically necessary works couched in a thin veil of fiction. Yet, the question remains, is the movie, qua medium, more like a book, qua medium, or like a theatrical performance, qua medium?

Despite the billions of people who watch movies regularly, it remains an unanswered realm of speculation as to which art form is the more dominant ancestor of the modern film industry. Still, it is only when the definition is determined that one can begin to look for a historical parallel in order to see where the movie should lie on the halachic spectrum. Perhaps one cannot simply classify the movie by the criteria of either more ancient medium. If this is so then halachic precedent in regard to theatre and books must be approached with caution or, at least, taken with great consideration of the nuances which differentiate the movie from its ancestors.

How to define the movie medium is not an easy task and yet it would appear to be the first step demanded in our Halachic analysis of the question. To comment on this issue or on a relating issue, please contact me at dhecht@nishma.org. Until next time, thank you.

Dodi-Lee Hecht

2004 NISHMA