Kosher Movies: Casablanca

Decision-making is complex. It involves considering not only the present but the future as well. Let me share a tale of two families. In family number one, parents want to control the destiny of a child, and so, out of love and concern, they limit their child’s options when it comes to choosing a college. The college must be in the same town where the parents live. No matter that the college is small and has limited educational options. What triumphs above all is proximity to home. Family number two is motivated by what is in the best long term interests of the child. They, too, love their child and would prefer him to be nearby in the critical college years, but what guides them is what will serve the child’s needs, not their own. They understand that loving may mean letting go.

It is this kind of dilemma that is at the center of the classic film Casabanca. The story opens near the beginning of World War II in that Moroccan city, which desperate people are using as a transit point to flee Nazi-occupied Europe. Many congregate around Rick’s Café Americain, where many deals, legal and illegal, are made. Rick Blaine, the owner of the saloon, is an American expatriate with a cynical streak because of a love affair that ended badly some years earlier. Originally, an idealist, he now is a realist who has no illusions about life.

Things become tense when Rick inadvertently becomes the possessor of impeccable letters of transit that will permit the bearer to travel freely around German-controlled Europe, with the possibility of emigrating to the United States. Precisely at this moment, his old flame Ilsa re-enters his life together with her husband Victor Laszlo, a Czech resistance fighter who has escaped from a concentration camp. They offer to purchase the letters of transit to enable Victor to continue his valuable work from America. The problem for Rick is whether to give them the letters of transit or to withhold them in view of his past history with Ilsa, the woman who left him stranded at a train station leaving no explanation for her sudden disappearance after an intense love affair.

When they see each other after so many years, their love is rekindled. The dramatic encounter between Rick and Ilsa in which they reaffirm their love for one another creates a moral dilemma for Rick when he has a choice of whether or not to enable Victor and Ilsa to escape from Morocco to freedom. Do the interests of the illicit lovers prevail or does Rick, recognizing the larger issues of survival and freedom that are at stake, decide to part from Ilsa and allow her to flee with her husband?

Rick, a man with a conscience, considers the present and the future in his decision-making. Schooled in the ambiguities of life, he is capable of making thoughtful decisions. The Ethics of the Fathers tells us the wise man can see the future, and Rick, a wise man, envisions what his life with Ilsa will be like if she leaves Victor and runs away with him. He knows that in the future Ilsa will carry guilt with her for the rest of her life if she abandons Victor at a time of crisis. Rick weighs that future eventuality as he ponders the present. Rick, indeed, loves Ilsa dearly, and she returns his affection; but ultimately, from the aspect of eternity, his love for her transcends that specific moment. The true testimony to his love requires letting her continue on without him.

Casablanca affirms that the purest form of love may be the love that gives and asks nothing in return, the love that gives the other freedom to fly and freedom from guilt.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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