Thursday, June 16, 2011

Mussar From Movies?

Back in my super-charedi yeshivah days, I used to argue with a non-charedi acquaintance of mine about getting mussar from movies and secular books. He was a big proponent of it, while I insisted that Torah bagoyim - al ta'amin! Fifteen years later, I have matured, and I recognize that one can draw both inspiration and valuable lessons from every culture and medium. Nevertheless, I still have grave reservations about presenting movies as vehicles for mussar. In this post, I will discuss one movie which I think presents a powerful lesson, and another movies which teaches harmful lessons.

The Lion King is one of the most amazing animated films I have seen. But I think that it is a movie which teaches bad lessons! More precisely, I think it is a movie which teaches precisely the opposite of the valuable lessons that it purports to be teaching.

There are two lessons that The Lion King presents itself as teaching. One is the importance of everything in the ecosystem. The spectacular opening sequence shows everything from tiny ants to majestic elephants, all being part of  "The Circle of Life."

Except that in the world of Disney, there are "good" animals and "bad" animals. Good animals are majestic lions, cute meerkats and amusing warthogs. Bad animals are ugly lions that speak with a British accent, and especially hyenas. Hyenas, apparently, aren't part of the Circle of Life. They don't appear in the opening sequence, despite their prominent role on the film, and they don't live amongst the other animals.

Yet in reality, there is no such thing as good animals and bad animals. Hyenas are an essential part of the ecosystem. Their scavenging habits are invaluable not just from an ecological perspective, but also from a Jewish perspective, as you can read about in Perek Shirah: Nature's Song. Hyenas are a very important part of the Circle of Life - they are the chevra kaddisha!

The second message purportedly taught by The Lion King is the importance of responsibility. The story of the film is all about how young Simba initially wants to just have fun and live a carefree life, but ultimately has to learn to take responsibility as king of the Pridelands.

Except that in practice, the movie teaches exactly the opposite lesson. It spends much more time, and far more engagingly, teaching about abusing power ("I just can't wait to be king!") and evading responsibility (Hakuna matata - no worries!). That's what kids are more likely to remember from it!

I could write volumes on similar cases of Disney teaching bad lessons, often the opposite of the lessons that it claims to be teaching, but I'll leave them for future posts. For now, I'll turn to a little-known old film from about twenty years ago that I think is very inspirational. (It also features one of the greatest animal actors of all time - a fifteen hundred pound grizzly bear - which is another reason why I like it!)

The Edge is about two people, played by Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, who are stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash. They face all kinds of challenges, including getting back to civilization, finding food, surviving attacks by a killer bear, and dealing with each other. The story powerfully illustrates how the way in which we use our free will, when challenged with adversity, transforms us. Baldwin constantly makes self-destructive bad choices, while Hopkins rises to the occasion almost every time, even when he has every excuse not to.  Interestingly, the writer of the film, David Mamet, was in the news recently for being chozer b'teshuvah not only in his affiliation to Judaism and Israel, but also in his political views.

In general, though, movies are about entertainment, not education. To my mind, the written word is a vastly superior educational medium than the talking picture.


  1. Reminder: Anonymous comments are not posted. Please read the comments policy!

  2. I think the major question with movies, or even secular novels, literature, etc. is whether or not the ideas/ideals presented therein can serve as a useful starting point for a Torah-based discussion.

    Excluding the entertainment/relaxation value in those movies whose content is inoccuous, movies can give us a certain window into the "spirit of the times," which is often beset by certain questions/ideas of major contemporary importance. Often implicit value statements are made, frequently dressed up in a medium that plays more on our emotions than our intellects. While there can be dangers with that, if the content is relatively innoccuous (i.e. Lion King), it can serve as a springboard for a Torah based discussion.

    Hakuna mattata--is there such a concept in Judaism? How does this differ from slogans like "gam zu latova," or the importance of having bitachon in Hashem, etc? By comparing and contrasting, one can, I think, grow in their understanding of themselves and their role in the world about them.

    I kind of view it as separating the wheat from the chaffe. If the overall movie appears to be positive, I don't see an issue, providing no significant issurim are involved. Obviously it is great to feed ones children (as well as oneself) as much wheat as possible, but, unlike my chareidi counterparts, I don't feel that it is possible, or even desireable, to live a life where we are exposed only to wheat, and not exposed to chaffe. In fact, to borrow a little from strains of Chassidic thought, this sifting process may in fact be a fundamental part of our Avodas Hashem.

  3. I've recently been reading the Harry Potter series. My prior experience is having read the first three about ten years ago.

    I've found the books (along with LOTR) to be very stirring. I find I resonate with the epic nature of the struggles faced. One thing I've noticed, after reading the 3 LOTR and the first four HP, is that good and evil seem to be quite polarized and obvious, at least once the disguises are thrown down.

    I felt inspired by the protagonists' fight against evil, but I was disappointed to realize that it does not seem possible to transfer this to real life! In the world I see, good and evil forces are not as easy to sort and personify, and so one is hard-pressed to identify the cause he should be fighting for. In my experience, anyhow.

  4. mate,
    im pretty sure they could have made the lion king with people, call it "the people king" and the basic plot would have stayed the same. even with your point about maturing the movie concludes and shows that being king wasnt about partying at the top of a giraffe mountain, it was about becoming the strong courageous king. again, could have been portrayed by people.
    im pretty sure nobody went away from that film thinking "those scum hyenas" they just played the role of baddie. just like when i play angry birds i dont believe that pigs are eggs stealing villains in real life.
    i have always been a fan of finding strong life lessons from films/books/music. there is so much out there.

  5. > im pretty sure they could have made the lion king with people

    They did. It was called "Hamlet."

  6. Come on- let's be honest. We watch TV/films because we can't be bothered doing anything useful and want to "kill" time. If you really want to learn some mussur, open a mesilas yeshorim.

  7. I recall that R' SR Hirsch speaks fire against indiscriminately feeding children fairy tales, in Collected Writings VII; I don't remember precisely the reasoning, but something about instilling false or distorted values and perspectives where you should be instilling Torah-based conceptions. He specifically mentions Red Riding Hood, and another tale I didn't recognize. The volume is filled with food for thought about parenting, and other facets of education.

    Also, a tangentially related post from Curious Jew:

  8. Shirley Temple's The Little Princess played a huge role in shaping my morality, although seeing it after I became frum, I was disappointed by the completely unnecessary roguish bits in it, which I hadn't remembered at all.

    The Fox and the Hound is one of the very few good movies from Disney as far as values goes. (It is also possibly the most complex.) Bambi II is another. Iron Will was another very good one and the Native American character emphasizes some very frum hashkafas. I actually think that Star Wars is very authentically Jewish, especially the first two movies (or what were the first two when they first came out in the Eighties), but because of all the action, I guess it's not necessarily appropriate for frum kids. But if you take out/tone down the action and death sequences, I think it could be very inspiring viewing in the frum world!

    I think you could use any of them as a starting point for a Torah-based discussion.

    I completely agree with your assessment of the Lion King.

  9. > Yet in reality, there is no such thing as good animals and bad animals

    Yes there is. A good animal fetches my slippers or purrs when I put it. A bad animal sinks its jaws into me after mistaking me for its overdue dinner.

  10. Yitznewton, I agree with your choice of examples of inspiring books. I also agree that inspiration and practical application are two very different matters. The fact that these books represent the seemingly unequal but ultimately victorious struggle against very powerful and purely evil forces, is just a dramatic device used to heighten the tension and interest of the reader. As to epic fantasy novels (your examples), that is characteristic of the genre. They generally feature a heroic figure and loyal companions on a quest against evil forces of far greater power.

    The moral lessons here are the struggle against evil, the virtue and ultimate success due to that struggle, loyalty to companions and mission, together with the willingness for self-sacrafice in the service of a great cause.

    For me, the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) movie trilogy (particularly the extended versions on DVD and currently playing)resonated as much as the novels because of how the script writers developed the character of the heroic, hidden heir of kings - Aragorn. As they developed the character, he becomes a virtuous, victorious warrior and leader who is, nonetheless, plagued by self-doubt and refuses to assert his rightful role as king, for fear of inducing conflict and the corrupting influence of power. Ultimately, he is forced into a kingly role in order to rally forces to defend against impending doom. The book, in addition, depicts his early rule after the defeat of the angelic power turned evil (Sauron). He exhibits great wisdom and forbearance together with his earlier character traits of reverence for those who raised and guided him, and a broad knowledge of the history of Middle-Earth. In sum, he is depicted as a messianic figure who is long hidden, but ultimately assumes his proper role. It is interesting that such a role model should be depicted by a religious Catholic writer (JRR Tolkien).

  11. Apropos to "good" vs "bad" animals: Sharks!

    Check out

    If you have time, the show transcript (faster than listening) is here:

  12. Every Yeshiva student should see the move "Twelve Angry Men". It is about a trial of a Puerto Rican kid in New York of the 1950's who is on trial for murdering his father. The kid is facing the electric chair. There is a wide variety of men who serve on the jury, one of whom wants a quick guilty vote because he has tickes for the ball game that night! This is a beautiful film that makes us understand how the jury system works and what the search for justice really is. Israelis in particular should see it since there is a lack of civil protection for the accused here.

  13. I'm currently in a study group in Israel with haskamas (approval)by many well known Orthodox Rabbis.

    We use Torah but mostly modern non Jewish sources to help us understand many issues that can help other Jews.

    As long as the sources don't directly contradict Torah Hashkafa they are 100% Kosher and can be used without reservation.

    Mussar like other concepts are for healing a person and making them better people, better Jews therefore it's a refuah regardless of the source.

    Further Jews should realize that God gave other nations wisdom and knowledge that are for the benefit of the entire.

    I love this blog.


  14. Am I the only person who can't post anymore using their google account? Every time I try and post it asks me to sign up for a blogger account.

  15. Rabbi Slifkin I'm surprised at you. I think the animal lover in you has clouded your judgement. Of course there's no such thing as good or bad animals. There's no such thing as talking animals either. The animals in this movie are a obviously a metaphor for people just like in the book Animal Farm and are meant to teach people lessons.

  16. Y. Aharon:

    Though it's much discussed exactly what this means, Tolkien apparently baked his Catholicism into LOTR, more consciously as he progressed in revision. Resurrection, messiah...

    I appreciate the tempered, unlikely "heroic" character of both Frodo and Harry. Neither chose his quest. Not sure how typical that is in literary history; I hated studying literature until I got to college, so I never paid much attention.

  17. The animals in this movie are a obviously a metaphor for people just like in the book Animal Farm and are meant to teach people lessons

    To be sure, but at the same time, there's supposed to be a lesson about ecology. And that's what the movie messes up.

  18. yitznewton, I suppose you've heard of

    I'd like to get a list of Disney movies in which the phrase "follow your heart" is preached. Is this idea ever endorsed in Judaism? I mean, we say v'lo taturo acharei l'vav'chem every day, but is it ever the case where we /should/ follow our heart?

    "Back in my super-charedi yeshivah days

    Is that like when non-Orthodox Jews call Orthodox Jews Ultra-Orthodox Jews?

  19. I think books make it easier to sort things out than movies do. Tolkien's Catholicism is pretty much divorced from Sinai; I don't think I would have been able to come to that conclusion from just the movies, though.

    I had an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying discussion with one of my teachers regarding the concept of animal soul in Chassidut. It was prompted by my having read the late poet, philosopher and animal trainer Vicki Hearne's fascinating book, Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name. in which she argued (using numerous real animals as examples) that dogs and horses have not only an intellect, but also a desire to achieve and be challenged and a capacity for moral understanding.

    It seemed to me that since human breeding of dogs and horse is merely selection of what was there in the first place and not the creation of anything new, we can learn something about animal nature (which I thought we tend to underestimate and deprecate; meaning that actually transcending animality and being human was much more difficult that we tended to think) from them. My teacher responded that since, for example wolves are pretty untrainable, dogs essentially partook too much of human nature to draw such conclusions.

    Wonderful storytelling, as well as meditations on human and animal nature can be found in Donald McCaig's novels involving border collies, in the development of which human beings certainly made use of innate canine predatory behavior while at the same time ruthlessly culling dogs that actually killed sheep.

  20. Just to give a different pshat in the Lion King. It is not advocating responsibility as an 'I just can't wait to be king', 'hakuna matata' sort of responsibility. Rather, it is comparing that with real responsibility. Simba, by leaving home, rejects responsibility. By eventually returning it, he re-accepts it. But in doing so, it's message is powerful, especially for us today: how easy it is to live a hakuna matata life, and ignore social responsibility. Eventually, however, we must make a choice to grow up and take responsibility! It is thus a story of hakuna matata VS responsibility, and an inspiring message for us all!

  21. Phil:

    Meh. I think I may have seen that years ago, before I became interested in the books. To me the appeal is human, not magical: the friendship, death, and epic struggle themes. The magical aspects are cool, especially the feeling of discovering this world with Harry; but to me it's spice mixers and cooks.

  22. Strange, why not just admit that we have secular interests and this is why we watch movies, read books etc... Why try to turn this into Mussar?
    I do have a secular identity that is very much alive, vibrant and evolving. That part of me enjoys the secular world. Why so many people are trying to pretend that it doesn't exist for them? The Charedim hide their forays into the secular world, the modern people are trying to dress it up as study of Mussar and somehow being part of Yiddishkeit? I just don't understand this shtik. This is really crazy.

  23. Criticizing Disney for thin plots and contradictory messages?

    I'm afraid that if you're going to shoot fish in a barrel Wildlife regulations prohibit using any shotgun larger than 20 gauge.

  24. 1) Related to Yitz Newton's mention of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings: I've wondered if there were any responses from major rabbinic figures to the fantasy writings of J.R.R. Tolkein, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis (which to my mind would be most fascinating), or other fantasy writers.

    2) I agree with Leo's pshat in Lion King. It's certainly what I got out of it. Simba's whole adulthood is about getting out of the hakuna matata mentality which his lazy friends taught to him. I disagree about the hyenas and Scar as well; the hyenas eventually end up serving a purpose by recognizing how they were manipulated by Scar and make sure he'll never take over again (okay, they eat him. For his part, Scar's evil and has forfeited his place in the Circle of Life through his evil. He's like Amalek. Or something...).

    This might not seem important -- okay, it's not that important -- but I think people are too quick to criticize the products of modern culture.

  25. 1) I think your point about The Lion King's portrayal of the ecological system does not register with kids.

    2) I think one can find both good and bad morals in movies (I can't even count in how many movies the good guy does not kill the bad guy [usually a murderer] because he is "better" than him and does not want to "stoop" to his level).

    That being said, unfortunately many movies have a few crude jokes and about 30 seconds of inappropriate visuals -- which presents huge problems to Orthodox Jews. I really find this very unfortunate because otherwise movies are a great source of entertainment and sometimes good values too.

  26. "The Lion King" Broadway show was even worse than the movie. In addition to all the movie's faults, it included racial stereotypes. I wanted to leave at intermission but had a five year old niece who wanted to see the whole thing. Yet for years it has been the hottest ticket on Broadway. If you are in New York go to the Bronx Zoo instead.

  27. "the major question with movies, or even secular novels, literature, etc. is whether or not the ideas/ideals presented therein can serve as a useful starting point for a Torah-based discussion."

    Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein's many writings prove that the answer is clearly "yes".

  28. yitznewton, you wrote: "To me the appeal is human, not magical"

    Good. That's why you might like the fact that a lot in the HarryPotterTorah book is mussar-related. The "meh" you gave is probably because you forgot about that part?

    Could anyone think of a Disney movie in which the moral, "follow you heart" was not taught?

  29. "To my mind, the written word is a vastly superior educational medium than the talking picture."

    While I admit to being a bit of a bibliophile, I don't know that the written word is "vastly superior." Like any tool, writing has its place. However, humans are a "visual" animal (if you'll excuse the phrase) and pictures do have their place. We can write about behavior or we can watch it: in general we will react more emotionally to the picture. Ultimately, for teaching a lesson the best is to use the proper balance of media: written, spoken, visual, and even the other senses--smell, touch, taste.

  30. Carol:

    If we can draw growth out of our secular interests, why not? It makes them more justifiable too.


    Sorry; I was judging by the marketing on the website, of which my impression was, "ghouls, goblins and magic min ha-Torah minayin."


    Not really to your point; but I've been fantasizing for a while about writing an epic-fantasy-like work based on a Torah narrative. I have no experience writing long fiction, though, so I'm stalling by reading HP :)

  31. The HarryPotterTorah website is simplistic and focuses not on the actual themes of the book, but on reading Torah themes any which way it can into Harry Potter in an attempt to make Torah relevant to a Harry Potter audience.

    For a more in depth look at Harry Potter check out (Here's a good first post to read:

    On the general topics of movies, anything by the Coen Bros. is well worth watching (The Big Lebowski most of all).

  32. 'If we can draw growth out of our secular interests, why not? It makes them more justifiable too'

    Yitz, you said it: 'more justifiable'. This is why it's a shtick - because people are justifying behavior that they feel guilty about by claiming to learn mussar out of it. No, I am not doing anything wrong I am learning a gevaldiker mussar from it! sit for two hours in front of a tube and claim to learn mussar instead of, say, learning Pirkei Avos is a MO shtik. Chareidim know better than this.

    I do watch movies and read secular literature but I don't think that I am mekaem mizvas Talmud Torah by doing it. Sometimes I do feel guilty about watching or reading certain things, but I am honest about my feelings and think that no rabbi in his right mind would kasher half of that stuff. Can't we just call a spade a spade?

  33. >Interestingly, the writer of the film, David Mamet, was in the news recently for being chozer b'teshuvah not only in his affiliation to Judaism and Israel, but also in his political views.

    Why is becoming right wing politically considered being b"chozer b'teshuvah"?

    Excluding the Israel issue, which you rightfully put into a separate category as you can be pro Israel and not necessarily be right wing (see Alan Dershowitz for example).

    I'm not convinced as you seem to be, and as are many Rush Limbaugh listening OJs are, that being right wing politically (at least in the US) is necessarily the proper way, and certainly not on every issue.

    I, myself, am an independent, and believe that on any given issue, either the right or the left may in fact be more in line with Torah values.

    No man made system can be correct all the time as Rush and his other talk show hosts would have one believe.

    I feel that thinking Jews should think for themselves.

    Perhaps it was just a slip of the pen on your part. would you mind clarifying?

    (This need not turn into a political discussion- just a short clarification on the issue would be fine.)

  34. on Hakuna matata - no worries:

    As you write here, Hakuna matata - no worries is bad.

    But somewhere in your 'focus' books you point out the positive side of it. (i think the book was out before the movie.)

    i think both are true, depending on the context.

    good shabbos

  35. Of course. Pretty animals are good. Hyenas look ugly so they must be evil.

  36. "The HarryPotterTorah website is simplistic"

    I'd say "simple" instead of "simplistic." And perhaps that's how mussar is supposed to be.

  37. Every book we read, and every movie we see, will sway us. The question remains, is it always a healthy influence?

    This is why most of the Rabbis strougly recommend, to refrain from going to the movies and reading non-educational material.

    Their argument is. e.g. People can be watching a movie about the world coming to an end, and then think about it for the next two weeks, and it can have a negative affect on their decision making.

    True, I agree with this argument, by all means.

    The question remains, what do we do for entertainment and to get away from it all, for a while?

    The answer that became helpful for many was "education." Educating oneself on the reality of the movie, as well as entertaining yourself with educational movies.

    But, the Rabbis that oppose the seeing of movies, also believe that no one is smart enough to educate themselves, to know the right from wrong, the good from bad, etc. of the reality of a movie, especially when their head is in movie land and eating popcorn.

    I agree with this as well, but only during the movie, not after.

    Education is fine for the adults, but what of the children, they too need the entertainment, and it is impossible by any means, to keep them away from it, that is, if you don't want to break their little hearts.

    Some kids are smarter then many adults. e.g. If you have a problem with a computer software, who do you ask for help?

    One thing experience has taught me in this matter, "Do not underestimate the ability of the little people."

  38. There are many problems in Disney movies. I have no problems watching them myself, but they do indeed give bad lessons which can affect people who do not realize they are there.

    I once took a sociology class in college and we took a film like Aladdin and broke it down to highlight certain bad messages such a movie gives children. In the world of Aladdin, good people look American, bad people look foreign (in that case semitic). Good people talk normal, bad people talk funny. Women need men to save them, etc. Disney are simply well known for presenting these kinds of ideas.

    Relevent article: 7 Classic Disney Movies That Taught Us Terrible Lessons

  39. Why is becoming right wing politically considered being b"chozer b'teshuvah"?
    Excluding the Israel issue, which you rightfully put into a separate category as you can be pro Israel and not necessarily be right wing (see Alan Dershowitz for example).

    The Israel angle was the only thing I was thinking of. I'm not American and I am thus not attuned to American politics.

  40. Are movies good for kids? I think that they are an important vehicle to expose them to the ideas that are either not taught or distorted in our educational system. I want my kids to see how people in other countries live and that they are human beings just like us that can be good and bad, kind and cruel, have spirituality and noble principles. Movies are more powerful means to achieve it than all my preaching. When they were in high-school, I used to show them excellent award winning foreign movies appropriate for their age. I don't know much about Disney or Hollywood but I used to preview the movies that they wanted to watch. I would allow the innocent stuff but can remember few good films.' Twelve Angry Man' was one of them and I think most of Beis Yakov of Boro Park saw it.

  41. "I insisted that Torah bagoyim - al ta'amin"

    Can you elaborate on your position regarding this concept today?

  42. Carol:

    Good point. I discovered another side of this, that I've been mulling over since posting that comment. Epic fantasy has a unique ability to captivate me and stimulate some very inspirational emotions. I don't get this anywhere in the Torah world, though R' SR Hirsch sometimes comes close. I feel the need to bring whatever it is about epic fantasy back to Torah, so that this central force in my life can enjoy the same power as the fiction. It's in that spirit that I began thinking about porting the literary genre to Torah narratives.

    (I used to be a church musician and got a lot of inspiration through the music and other musicians I met, and also have found no analog in the Torah world; but that's another post.)

  43. " sit for two hours in front of a tube and claim to learn mussar instead of, say, learning Pirkei Avos is a MO shtik. Chareidim know better than this."

    I doubt that Modern Orthodox have cornered the market on "shtik" or rationalization. I've seen plenty of "bad" behavior in the Yeshiva/Charedi world that was rationalized in fascinating ways. And I'm not talking about TV: drugs, alcohol, sex, etc.

  44. 'I used to be a church musician and got a lot of inspiration through the music and other musicians I met, and also have found no analog in the Torah world; but that's another post.'

    Yitz, I am with you on this one. I love church music from Bach to Spirituals. It's truly awesome!

  45. "the major question with movies, or even secular novels, literature, etc. is whether or not the ideas/ideals presented therein can serve as a useful starting point for a Torah-based discussion."

    Rav Elchanan Samet uses the Japanese movie “Rashomon” to analyze Yehuda's Monologue in Parshas Vayigash.

  46. Epic fantasy has a unique ability to captivate me and stimulate some very inspirational emotions. I don't get this anywhere in the Torah world, though R' SR Hirsch sometimes comes close. I feel the need to bring whatever it is about epic fantasy back to Torah, so that this central force in my life can enjoy the same power as the fiction.

    I don't think anyone can go through Chumash and much of Nach and not be enthralled by the recurrent epic struggles of good vs. evil throughout.
    From the struggles of the Avos with their progeny and Imahos with infertility through the struggles of the Shevatim which brought them to Egypt-- through the struggles of Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness-- which we are reading about right now--through the struggles of Joshua and the Judges conquering Cana'an. It's literally chok full of epic stuggles.
    If you haven't picked up on it, you haven't really been learning Tora Shebichtav with the sense of breadth and sweep it deserves.

    Reading Rav Soloveichik will certainly give you a sense of epic struggles of good vs. evil in Chumash like no-one else can.

  47. Of course, nothing in secular literature comes close to providing the religious insights, lessons, and guidance that Tanach does. That is how I interpret the talmudic statement, "Don't believe that there is torah among the Gentiles (only wisdom)".

    However, fiction has its advantages, too. It can depict model people who always act virtuously, feerlessly, and selflessly such as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo, the principal hero of that series, is more realistic and nearly fails in his mission. Harry Potter is another fictional hero exhibiting consistent virtue and selflessness.

    Real people, as depicted in Tanach, are more complex, nor are their failings hidden. They can, of course, inspire, but it often appears necessary to explain away their faults in order to preserve their function as models.

  48. To quote a work of fiction "Fable has a stronger back to carry more of the truth than facts can." One of if not the most important way we teach is through stories.

    Completely factual tales are less effective than fanciful ones. The real world is full of ambiguity, difficult choices, conflicting imperatives and lesser evils. The lessons we learn from it are not always clear. A story engages emotions, beliefs and imagination. It can be crafted to affect a person on many levels in a clear, powerful manner.

    We have an entire mind control industry, advertising, which is based on replacing our critical faculties with stories designed to make us buy things. Politics is largely a matter of one set of stories gaining dominance over another. The most effective parts of Torah are the stories. Children don't gain a moral compass through logical exposition nearly as much as they do through hearing and identifying with the stories we tell them.

    Movies can be especially powerful. They force the viewer to travel at the director's pace, not his own. They are more immersive than narratives let alone text. The question is whether the lessons being taught are ones you want to be learning.

    Kenneth Branagh's Othello? Absolutely.

    Triumph of the Will? Absolutely not.

    If City Lights doesn't move you to tears and make you a better person you don't have a soul.

    24 made torture acceptable for millions of Americans.

  49. Besides "Follow Your Heart," the other ubiquitous lesson taught in Disney movies is "Believe In Yourself." I'm sure the Talmud has what to say about that.

    And, concerning Batman:

    Here's Rav Miller on Batman

    Many years ago, one of Rav Miller's students was in charge of a children's minyan in his shul. For Simchas Torah, the man had made Simchas Torah candy bags which the shul gave out to the young children. One year he included in the bags little comic books featuring Mickey Mouse, the Lone Ranger, Superman or Batman. The kids got a kick out of the books and it was a real treat for them.

    Another congregant in the shul rebuked him, "How can you give these books out? Look what these kids are reading! You're causing them to sin! You should be giving out Tehillims instead!"

    But the man replied, "It will be an even bigger sin if you give them Tehillims because the kids won't treat them respectfully and they'll end up in the garbage." Both men decided to ask Rav Miller what to do.

    The student brought Rav Miller six comic books and Rav Miller promised to look them over. The following week he told the man, "Tell the person who said it's a sin to give these books out -- that he's wrong and it's even a mitzva. The books teach law and order to the kids by making sure the hero always overcomes the villain. The heroes even teach humility since they disguise their true identities and keep their good deeds confidential."

    -- from

  50. I think that the movie Hancock with Will Smith is an inspirational movie about overcoming shortcomings and actualizing ones true potential by finding out who they really are. It is also a story of mussar nefesh.

  51. Yitznewton - There was some Catholicism "baked into" the Lord of the Rings. The Elves are related to minor orders of angels in Christian mythology according to a friend who studies such things.

    The ideal that evil cannot create but only imitate and mock God's creative works is also a Catholic one but not that far from Jewish beliefs.

    And there's a point where Sam is near the end of his strength, lugging his Master along through the brush. Suddenly, he gains new depths of strength, grace undeserved and unrequested.

    But Christianity really plays a minor part in the work. Tolkien's prodigious background in old often pre-Christian languages and folklore is much more evident. So are his hellish experiences during World War I.

    According to the author it also owed much to current events. It was written during the era of the *spit* Nazis and reflected JRRT's conviction that Good removes the dross and makes you more what you really are while evil strives to turn everyone into slavish copies of itself.

    The lessons are mostly universal human ones.

  52. Zach - Sharks don't have the brains to be good or bad. They're just predators on the lookout for their next meal. If you'd said chimps I could see it. They're bright and self-aware enough. My wife's best friend is a curator at the Honolulu Zoo (rough life!). From her description there are definitely good chimps and just plain evil chimps.

    And crows. Crows can have a low sadistic sense of humor inciting cats to fight each other for amusement or driving squirrels out into traffic. The Everett, Washington crows decide that the whole Police Department had earned its wrath. Now they attack the officers at every opportunity and crap on the squad cars every morning.

    Crows worry me.

  53. Here's a fascinating PBS Nature program on crows I saw a few months ago

    Y. Aharon said:
    "Harry Potter is another fictional hero exhibiting consistent virtue and selflessness."

    I don't agree, but I think responding in full would be too far afield. If anyone wants to discuss, email me (follow the yitznewton link) and perhaps I'll blog it.


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