Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Perfunctory Approach to Mitzvos

Finally a movie has been made for Charedim. Trouble us they will never see it. This is the conclusion reached by Professor Alan Nadler in a review published in both the Forward and Ha’artez.

Professor Nadler makes a couple of interesting observations, one of which I have made myself. It is in the accuracy of this film in portraying what Charedi life is really like. I am therefore really looking forward to seeing it if and when it comes to Chicago.

I’ve made similar observations recently about two episodes of two different TV series. There has definitely been a change in the way ‘Hollywood’ portrays Frum Jews. And this production seems to be the best yet.

This award winning film was made in Israel by 37 year old David Volach - a former Charedi who was raised in a family with 19 siblings and who learned in Ponevezh Yeshiva. He dropped out of observance at age 25 and pursued a career in film. He therefore has a unique ‘inside’ perspective of what Charedi Judaism looks like.

There is however another facet this film has over and above other such films which is far more important. It examines the philosophy and modus operandi of Charedi Judaism, tackling some very fundamental issues. Director Volach has an understanding of the Hashkafos unlike any other director and brings it all to the film.

The problem is that he very likely also brings with him the baggage that caused him to drop out of observance. The film is therefore subject to that bias. One can then fairly question his motive and even his understanding of Charedi philosophy. Besides - as I said, I haven't seen the film. I therefore cannot fairly judge the film or Professor Nadler’s rave review. Too many questions.

But Volach was there. He was a full fledged member of the flock. And he does bring a perspective of Charedi life that has never been seen before in any film, raising many questions of his own… all worth contemplating.

What do I mean? Proffesor Nadler describes one particular scene (among others) which illustrates the point:

Menachem and his classmates are powerfully drawn to the dove’s nest on a windowsill of their heder, mesmerized by the tenderness of the mother bird toward her foundlings. In the film’s most repercussive and religiously loaded scene, Reb Avrohom rushes to shoo away the mother, in fulfillment of the biblical imperative of Shiluach Ha-Ken that prohibits taking eggs or chicks from a nest so long as the mother is still present, requiring rather that “You must first send off the mother and only then take the offspring, so that you may fare well and have a long life.” (Deuteronomy 22:7) But as Reb Avrohom has no actual use of the chicks, they simply remain bereft in the nest, while he prays nearby, beseeching God for the promised length of days promised by the Torah. The entire purpose of this commandment, at least as understood by the classical Jewish philosophical tradition — namely, to show mercy to all of nature’s mothers — is blindly and blissfully ignored by Reb Avrohom.

I have long wondered about this particular Mitzvah. I have never performed it and I wonder how many people have. Is this the way this Mitzvah should be performed? Is Shiluach HaKan done in exactly this way? Is it perfunctory? Do we just shoo away the mother bird even if we don’t need the eggs or the chicks? Is this considered fulfilling the Mitzvah, too? If so isn’t this just being unnecessarily cruel to animals? This is just one of the philosophical questions the movie raises while questioning the behavior he attributes to Charedim. I assume this is how he was raised.

The depictions of how the Charedi world observes this Mitzvah and others in the film are not flattering in the least. Yet even as it raises these questions, I still have to wonder if director Volach’s take is accurate

Definitely food for thought.