Friday, January 17, 2014

Academy Awards Best Picture Nominees and the Ten Commandments

EVER SINCE THE ACADEMY AWARDS expanded to include up to ten nominees for best picture, it has become an annual tradition for me to try to match each selected film to the theme one of the Ten Commandments. This year, with the Jewish calendar running so early the revelation of the ten movies for 2014 comes just in time for the reading of the Ten Commandments. So here are the (almost) ten nominees written in stone.

There is, of course, no comparison between the transformative moment at Sinai and the artificial pomp and circumstance attending the giving of the Oscars. However, as incomparable as receiving the Torah was, the content of the Torah and its Commandments were not meant for a singular moment of awe, but to inspire us day in and day out. Their lessons are not only found etched in stone, but even imprinted on celluloid.

So, the nominees for Best Commandments are:

X You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug The second installment of Peter Jackson's take on JRR Tolkien's classic the Hobbit is not actually up for an Academy Award like the other nine on this list. Still,I couldn't resist including it for several reasons, not the least of which that its one of the few movies I have actually had a chance to see! Also, however, while its larger than life version of Tolkien's children's tale runs the gamut from murder to honoring one's father to worshipping idols of gold, the story is driven by coveting, for good or for ill. The dwarves covet the return to their home, the humans covet the wealth under the mountain, and even the elves allow their nobility to corrupted by what they covet. Only the title character, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins manages to be driven not by what he desires from others, but by a sense of responsibility to them. Tolkien understood the o ability to avoid coveting to be far from human nature and yet something very valuable for which a human should strive.

IX You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. American Hustle Often this commandment is reduced to two simple words: Don't lie. However, the full language of the verse drives home what is really at stake when someone misrepresents themselves. In American Hustle, the main characters have raised deception to what they see as an art form, complete with a kind of work ethic and maxims such as selling the lie "from the feet up." While they prey for a living on hapless targets, the heartbreaking consequences of bearing false witness only hits home after the victim is someone considered not only a neighbor but a friend.

VIII You shall not steal. Philomena What is the worst thing you can steal from someone? Obviously, we have possessions dearer to us than our most valuable material goods. The majority of Sages actually understood this commandment as referring to kidnapping another person. Philomena tells the true story of a woman and her son who were stolen from each other when the Catholic Church in Ireland forced a young unwed mother to give up her child to the convent. Even her courageous efforts to find him again after 50 years cannot fully return what was taken from each of them.

VII You shall not commit adultery. Dallas Buyers Club Ron Woodruff was, by his own description, a Texas good ol' party boy in the eighties - a man given to extremely promiscuous sex and drug use who harbors bigotry against gays and minorities. Still when he receives the almost certain death sentence that was AIDS in 1985 he is ostracized by his own acquaintances who assume that only homosexuals could get the disease. Dallas Buyers Club tells his story as he reorients his life and its goals and helps start an illegal but life prolonging enterprise to make medicines like AZT available to others, mainly gay men, who are HIV positive. While the Seventh Commandment is commonly understood as adultery -- cheating on a spouse, it is understood by some authorities as a general proscription against sexual immorality and impropriety. While the movie is notable for avoiding a moralizing tone, Ron Woodruff's tragic experience transforms his assumptions about sexuality and identity as he sees the humanity in those he had despised and recognizes the consequences of his own carelessness with the life he had led up until his diagnosis.

VI You shall not murder. Captain Phillips Another true story relates the harrowing experience of the Captain and crew of the unarmed container ship Maersk Alabama that was taken captive by Somali pirates. While the crews fight against each other, much of the focus centers on the relationship between the Somali captain Muse and Captain Phillips whom he has taken hostage. Even though the conflict speeds toward its inevitable deadly climax, the movie does not take lightly the preciousness of all the lives at stake, the very preciousness that makes this commandment a resounding principle in our traditions.

V Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. Nebraska The command to honor one's mother and father is more than a nicety or a sense of politeness. Recognizing the inexhaustible debt that we owes to a parent is a gateway to recognizing that we do not bring ourselves into this world alone. Nebraska, through dry humor and a poignantly extreme situation, traces a journey not only of a father and son through the Great Plains region, but deep into what it means to find a way to show one's father real honor

IV Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. 12 Years a Slave What is Shabbat? On one hand Shabbat is a way to remember that the Holy One rested on the Seventh Day. However, we are also told that Shabbat teaches "to remember that you were once slaves in Egypt" So Shabbat is a day not only to rest, but to inspire liberation for all who are enslaved. Few movies have brought home so palpably the injustice and horror of American Slavery. As the protagonist of 12 Years a Slave goes from a free existence in New York to bondage in the South and eventually to the struggle for abolition, we are once more reminded of the urgency behind this commandment and the absolute commitment to freedom from all masters, on which it is based.

III You shall not take the name of the Lord for no worth. The Wolf of Wall Street The true story of the moral bankruptcy of one of the worst offenders on Wall Street in the 90's could have been used to illustrate just about any negative commandment - from stealing to coveting to adultery. Still, while the film is a study in excess of corruption of just about every type, I was struck by a throw away line in a review that said that this movie set a record "using a common F-word over 400 times, not to mention taking the Lord's name in vain at least 30." Why is it they go together and how is it that the word swearing has come to mean both making an oath to do something and using certain words considered obscenities? The connection is buried deep in human nature that leads us to ascribe powers to certain words almost like magic. Using the Divine name outside of its proper placement, then is a waste at best and perhaps blasphemy to boot. A movie like this captures how much waste and disregard for holiness there is in the actions of its protagonist by stringing together colorful epithet after colorful epithet and throwing God's name in for good measure. Like a bad stock, the language shows how worthless everything becomes when any and all grounding in sacred purpose is lacking.

II You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Her To the familiar command against fashioning physical images, we now might have to add virtual one's as well. The movie Her, in which a man falls in love with a computer operating system, doesn't make it so easy to draw the bright line between the consciousness of a human and one created artificially. Still, in exploring the questions, director Spike Jonze makes us think of what could make the distinction significant and perhaps what that could tell us about our own Creator.

I I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; Do not have any other gods before me. Gravity In its stark portrayal of two human beings clinging to hope against the impossibly vast backdrop of deep space, Gravity has reminded some of the eerie and awesome science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, while 2001 points to an unfathomable alien intelligence manipulating humankind, Gravity generates its awe within the universe as we strive to know it - bound by science, even as it is also boundless in unexplored mystery. This means the movie is neither a confirmation nor a denial of the heart of the First Commandment, but leaves space for interpretation, in all senses of the word. What drives us to struggle for our own survival against that which would seem to dwarf us? To be moved by the particularity of our own stories, even as everything points to those stories being cut short? To have faith in our own abilities even as we feel that only a miracle can save us?
While the movie has no answers, the questions can once more bring us back to what it means to ground the source and purpose of our humanity in the existence of God and the revelation of the commandments that give meaning to our own existence.

I hope these thoughts spur even more questions - things to think about whether sitting in synagogue or sitting through the coming attractions.

Rabbi Michael Bernstein received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1999 and is rabbi at Congregation Gesher L'Torah in Alpharetta, Georgia. Follow him on Twitter at @RavBareket.