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IS FORREST GUMP JEWISH?

by Rabbi Herbert J. Cohen, Ph.D.    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

One of the key motifs of Passover is freedom and its definition. Most of the rabbinic commentators tell us that freedom should be understood as freedom with responsibilities, not freedom as license to do whatever one wills.

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One of the key motifs of Passover is freedom and its definition. Most of the rabbinic commentators tell us that freedom should be understood as freedom with responsibilities, not freedom as license to do whatever one wills. The Jewish people in Egypt, upon being granted freedom, were not free to conduct themselves as barbarians that would take revenge on their Egyptian taskmasters. Rather, they were free to carry out new found responsibilities and to demonstrate their special humanness.

At Passover time we should think about the Jewish concept of freedom. In America, we tend to think of freedom as the ability to do whatever we want, without any restrictions. Freedom in America means no censorship: we are free to write, read, and see whatever we want. But is this Jewish? I think not. Which brings me to the question: is Forrest Gump Jewish? Many people claim this recent film to be a celebration and affirmation of life; and therefore the film, though not Jewish in character or tone, is Jewish in its life-affirming message.

The truth is that Torah does not speak about movies or art or books or plays. The Torah does tell us that we need to be moral human beings who relate both to G-d and to man. The Torah, a book of instructions for living, tells us what our priorities should be in life; and being Jewish means that our priority in life must be to do what Hashem wants us to do.

Everything comes from Hashem, all aspects of life. Therefore, all of life potentially has value, for everything emanates from the Almighty. Movies, books, and art potentially can be vehicles through which one can approach the holy, but are not necessarily so.

The question is how do we know what is appropriate for us to read or to see as Jews and what is not appropriate. I would follow the suggestion of a mentor of mine, a Rosh Yeshiva (the head of an advanced school of Jewish learning) with a Ph.D. in English from Harvard. He believed that the way to evaluate the worth of works of art was to become familiar with the touchstones of great literature or art. If we know, for example, the works of Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer, and we understand their greatness, then we can develop a discriminating ability which will help us evaluate other works of art.

From the Jewish perspective, we can also develop a sense of what is great cinema by viewing some of the great motion picture classics. But there is always a tension that our immersion in this secular world may be degrading rather than ennobling, for it touches on the old debate of art versus pornography. At what point does our involvement with art/cinema enrich our human experience and at what point does it make us less sacred, less Jewish?

If we look at the Torah, we can derive some idea of where we should draw the line. The Torah deals with all aspects of life -- murder, sex, violence. However, it usually deals with it in a discreet way. We hear about the murder of Abel by Cain and it is dealt with in one sentence. We learn about the rape of Dina, but it is also dealt with in one or two brief passages. We learn about violence from many of the episodes of war in Tanach (the tripartite compilation of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings), but they are described in a measured way.

This should cause us to think: is it important for me to see the latest perversions of violence and sex on the screen, which critics may call art, if it will hurt me spiritually. In other words, will what I am about to see or read enhance my spirituality or diminish it; and this is a question we all have to ask before we immerse ourselves in various aspects of secular culture. It is a fact that films and books can teach us about the complexity of human experience and enhance our understanding of all of life. However, we must always be on guard and recognize that confrontation with the latest in contemporary culture may lead to a lessening of our religious/Torah sensitivities. We are certainly blessed with freedom in America, but the challenge of a Jew is to use that freedom to enhance, and not devalue, our spiritual sensibilities.

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Rabbi Herbert J. Cohen, Ph.D., Ph.D. has been the dean of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta for the past two decades.

You are invited to read more Passover articles.

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