It is first important for us to clearly define this request.
Many years ago, I was asked to lead a Hebrew High School class on Jewish movies. The movies that were to be covered included ones such as “Fiddler on the Roof” or “The Fixer.” Indeed, these are what are ones commonly referred to as Jewish movies – i.e. movies with Jewish themes or openly Jewish personalities or stories – and these were the types of movies that were to be discussed in this class. If the present request is simply how one can find out about these types of Jewish movies, the answer really is very simple. All one needs to do is simply google ‘Jewish movies’ and one will find many websites that focus on such Jewish movies.
This request, though, was for “information about Jewish values in the movies.” It would seem to be about more than Jewish movies but, rather, about Jewish values. Around the same time that I was leading this class on Jewish movies in this Hebrew High School, I was also approached by the New York Jewish Board of Education to become involved in a new project which they were considering. Their objective was not to look at Jewish movies per se but rather to develop a curriculum on Jewish subjects that would use popular movies or television shows to initiate discussion and subsequent education. In this regard, they asked me to review the movie “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” – the theme of which was euthanasia -- and develop a piece on how this movie could be used in teaching Jewish values on this subject. In this vein, when I find someone referring to information about Jewish values in the movies my thoughts immediately are upon such studies and so it is in this case. As such, this request, from my perspective, is not on how one can find information about Jewish movies but rather on how one can find Jewish value critiques and studies on modern movies..
I have already mentioned that the New York Board of Jewish Education many years ago was considering the development of curriculum material of this nature. I unfortunately do not know what happened to this project but one may wish to contact this Board to see if they have further material on Jewish values in movies. Personally, though, I have continued my interest in this study for a variety of reasons and have extended this interest into my present work with Nishma. In this vein, on the Nishma website (www.nishma.org) one will find a column (under the general authorship of my daughter Dodi-Lee Hecht) entitled “Hollywood and Sinai” which, as presented in the Introductory essay in this column, will “examine various films in light of Jewish thought and a Halachic/Hashkafic framework.” In this column, one will find at least some information on Jewish values in the movies.
Of course, in any presentation on a subject of this nature, it must be stated that there is much debate and discussion within the Orthodox world regarding movies -- even regarding even the question of whether one should watch them or not. There are many sources throughout the Torah literature, including such directives in the Torah itself such as Numbers 15:39 (not to follow after your heart and eyes – a verse in the Shema) and Exodus 23:7 (to distance oneself from falseness), that inform us that we should be careful as to the stimuli that we allow ourselves to encounter. Clearly, this must be a consideration when viewing movies and determining what one should allow oneself to watch. Yet, movies provide us with glimpses into the world and, for many of us, worlds with which we are not familiar. One could clearly also argue that there is value in confronting such circumstances and consider how to properly respond and react to them. Movies can articulate values, some of which are consistent with Jewish thought and some of which are directly in opposition to it. Such consideration is worthy of study and thus a request for information on Jewish values in the movies is an important one. There may be other resources besides the ones I mentioned but this is, at least, a starting point.
You pose a very interesting question and challenge. When it comes to the movies, there are many different types, especially in regards to Jewish topics. For example, there are movies whose theme is primarily Jewish in nature, for example, Schindler’s List, Exodus, Munich or Gentleman’s Agreement. There are also those movies that are secular in nature but have Jewish themes or characters in them, for example, A Serious Man, Woody Allen’s movies, An American Tail, or Funny Girl.
Regardless of whether it is strictly Jewish in nature or not, you can find Jewish values within many movies. For example, the values of honesty, generosity, compassion, integrity, to name but a few can be found in movies ranging from science fiction to westerns and anything in between. Though these values are certainly not solely Jewish in nature, this gives you the opportunity to find these values, morals and ethics in so many films, in more than you might imagine.
I have searched for places where you might find information about Jewish values (or values, in general) in films and there is not much written specifically about the topic. I would suggest looking at a particular value you are interested in and then doing some research (Google is a wonderful resource) to determine how that particular value is treated in the film. There are a few sites that could be of help to you, e.g., “Jewish Film – A Rabbi’s Commentary” (http://jewishfilm.wordpress.com/), The National Center for Jewish Film (http://www.brandeis.edu/jewishfilm/index.html) and “Chizfilm: Jewish Movie Reviews (http://chizfilm.net/index.html). However, if you are interested in a topic for an article or book, you now have a perfect one!
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