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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.