Summer blockbusters and Jewish values


So here we sit at the halfway point of summer vacation. Thus far it has been a good summer. And by that I mean it has been a good summer for movies. We have been treated to the normal diet of blockbusters and the obligatory Will Smith movie; however, this year we have seen movies that have been significantly better than the pabulum we are normally fed. This year we have movies with substance, good ideas and serious Jewish content. Allow me to demonstrate.

Iron Man

A great movie to be sure. There is plenty of action, smashing and crashing, bad guys getting whacked and an odd hero, Tony Stark. The days of the classic anti-hero (Clint Eastwood) have long come and gone but here we have a new 21st century version. The rabbis teach us that modesty is a virtue, to a point. When one gets carried away with humility one can be led to one of three serious transgressions:

1) Cessation of creativity

2) Not doing the right thing due to a sense that “I am not worthy” or “I am incapable”

3) Assuming that since one is so low, others are as well; ultimately leading us to think less of our neighbors.

Tony Stark is a genius. He knows he is. He lives to kill. He does not do the killing himself, rather his company creates weapons that are state-of-the-art and he is duly proud of them. Perhaps, as the movie opens, he is too proud of them. Luckily, (for his neshama) he is taken captive by some bad guys. In captivity, he literally has a change of heart (some technical stuff that is not too well-explained; not that I would have understood it anyway) and he emerges from his captivity as a new man — Iron Man. He dons a costume full of flash and technology that enables him to save the world. Ultimately he has to defeat someone who he had thought was an ally but who turns out to be his arch-nemesis.

It is this “change of heart” that leads to the seminal moment in the movie. (For those who have not seen it please look away…) At the end of the movie after he has saved the day and made peace with his new persona he comes to a press conference where his advisors have told him to deny, deny, deny. Instead, preceded by a beautiful pregnant pause he announces, “I am Iron Man.” Now, Moshe was the leader of the Jewish people but he was, as it is written in the Torah, “a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth. (Num. 12:3)”

How could he be both very humble and a great leader? If you were to ask Tiger Woods who is the greatest golfer in the world right now and he replied anything other than Tiger Woods, he would be lying.

Sincerely assessing one’s own level of skill and ability is not conceit. It is honesty. Tony Stark regards himself as a genius because he is a genius. He should not deny it; neither should Stephen Hawking. However, it is only after Tony Stark’s heart is changed — and he has donned his new uniform — that he comes to truly understand his greatness. We should all understand and accentuate those things at which we excel and construct our world to emphasize our individual “greatness.”

Kung Fu Panda

Oh boy, what a movie! There is so much in this one, I predict myriad UCLA doctoral theses will be written about this movie (family relations, being part of a group, etc.). Po, a goofball noodle chef, works for his dad (mysteriously a stork).

He dreams of being a great kung fu warrior. Of course, this seems completely unreasonable as he has the athletic ability of oh, a spastic panda, maybe? You know where this one is going from the very beginning. Getting to the somewhat predictable end is worth the investment of time and arriving at the final lesson is definitely worth it. Judaism teaches us that the individual is important, Ezekiel says, “Son of man, stand upon your own feet and I (God) will speak to you. (Ez. 2:1)” We need to stand up for ourselves, be our true honest selves and God will reward us for that.


An instant classic kids movie! Wall-E, is a lonely little robot who goes about his life with efficiency, curiosity and suffering great loneliness. He does his job but he really lives his life to the soundtrack of Hello, Dolly awaiting the chance to hold a hand, to make genuine contact (perhaps, he is familiar with what Martin Buber said, “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable: through embracing one of its beings.”). We meet him on the Earth after trash has taken over the world. He works alone after all of the other robots have fallen apart; cleaning things up, dreaming of someday holding someone’s hand. That someone lands and then adventure begins.

Again, we jump to the end of the movie. The people who have been immobile for 700 years are going to return to Earth. However, before they do, a group of outsider robots led by Wall-E and his girlfriend Eve save the day. Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch said, “Join a community, by which alone your work can be made universal and eternal in its results.” Whilst Wall-E was working alone his task was daunting and could not ever be completed. However, with the help of the robots and the humans on the spaceship, the Axiom, they will return the earth to its former habitable state (as we see when the credits roll at the end of the movie). There is probably a Tu B’Shevat message here too, but that will be for another time. Although seemingly contradictory to the lesson of Kung Fu Panda, it is not until a damaged WallE is restored to his previous, imperfect self that he and the others can go about the business of tikkun olam, literally repairing their world.


Not a movie for little kids. He uses bad language, drinks way too much and is generally an unpleasant character. That is all true until he meets Ray Embry, a P.R. guy. Ray wants to save the world; he really does. He cannot do it alone. He needs to find someone to bring attention to his efforts. Although he denies it, Hancock needs someone to care for him and help him come to terms with his mysterious past. This movie makes some uncomfortable and odd twists along the way. Ultimately, one must bear in mind what Yehoshua ben Parchiah said in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, “Accept for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend and in all things judge everyone favorably.” Luckily for Hancock he gets the first and second in Ray and by the end of the movie has learned to do the third.

The Incredible Hulk

I have saved the best for last. This is a great movie. There is plenty of action, amazing visual effects and characters that are as real as they can be in a movie like this. Essentially this is a movie about the importance of the Yester Rah (the Evil Inclination) and its eternal battle with the Yester Tov (the Positive Inclination). Long ago the rabbis recognized that without the Yester Rah we would not build homes, get married, have children or make a living. We need to acknowledge the good and bad in ourselves and learn to balance them. The bad guy in this movie, the Abomination (is that a biblical name or what?) seeks his power and greatness for himself.

Our star, Bruce Banner has greatness thrust upon him due to a laboratory error. He was trying to save the world; the Abomination was trying to rule the world. Moshe was the leader of the Jewish people because God insisted that he be the leader, he resisted plenty. In the parasha that we read a couple of weeks ago Korach tried to seize power because he thought it was his to take.

In the end, although the Abomination is larger and stronger, our Hulk, the good Hulk, wins the day. Although the Hulk is incapable of speech and seemingly without cogent thought, he sees his love interest in trouble and uses that motivation to defeat the larger and stronger Abomination. (By the way, both the Abomination and Korach have somewhat unclear destinies.)

Those who seek greatness for themselves are slaves to their Yester Rah and will not win. Those who accept their natural leadership roles and do so to serve the community, balancing the Yester Tov with the Yester Rah, are the true leaders; they are destined for greatness.

Now it is true that one can get carried away. After all, these are only movies but when the lessons are this obvious and this important we must discuss them with our children, students and friends. Pop culture is infused with Torah; it is everywhere — we just need to find it!

I can hardly wait for the new Batman movie! It’s been a great summer so far!

Michael Raileanu is director of the Shaare Shalom Religious School.