Herbert J. Cohen
Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Dark Waters

Dark Waters (2019), directed by Todd Haynes

As a synagogue rabbi in Atlanta, it was my job to service the synagogue’s members. Yet, every once in a while I would meet someone, a non-member, who presented me with a personal issue and wanted my counsel. I generally accepted such a request because I felt I had a larger calling, not just meeting the needs of synagogue members but that of tikun olom, making the world a better place by giving people helpful advice. That mindset of meeting the world’s needs and not just your own is epitomized in the work of Robert Bilott, a corporate attorney who decides to help a poor farmer in distress.

In 1998 Robert Bilott was a corporate defense attorney in Cincinnati, Ohio. One day, farmer Wilbur Tennant, a neighbor of Robert’s grandmother, arrives at his office with boxes of videotapes showing strangely misshapen cow parts. The parts indicate that 190 of his cows have died of a mysterious malady, and he wants Robert’s help. Robert does not have time to speak with him at that moment; but intrigued by Wilber’s visit, he decides to travel to his hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia, to see his grandmother and then to see Wilber. There Wilber directly gives him evidence of foul play at the Dupont chemical factory in town, a company that gives jobs to many in the town while at the same time poisoning the city’s water supply.

Although Robert is a corporate lawyer who usually defends companies from people who want to sue them, in this case, Robert takes on the cause of a non-paying plaintiff. In spite of initial reluctance to become embroiled against Dupont, the largest employer in the town, Tom Terp, Robert’s boss, agrees to allow Robert to take the case assuming it will take little of his time. Thus begins a legal battle that goes on for years before justice is served.

In spite of setbacks, Robert perseveres. He discovers that Dupont used PFOA-C8, a man-made chemical used in the production of Teflon. He gathers evidence that the chemical actually caused cancer and birth defects in the town’s residents. This leads to a quest for justice that consumes him. It becomes clear that Wilber’s farm was the reservoir for Dupont’s toxic waste; and it is no accident that he, his wife, and his farm animals suffer from disease. Robert’s persistence in the face of obstacles ultimately leads to some level of success, but he pays a heavy personal price. His generosity of spirit and self-sacrifice are worthy of emulation.

Rabbi Yisrael Rutman writes about the presence of philanthropy and concern for the downtrodden throughout Jewish tradition. He describes three types of giving: giving of wealth, the giving of oneself physically, and the giving of wisdom. He elaborates on the giving of wisdom: “Giving advice is another way of giving wisdom. It can take the form of counsel in medical, business or legal matters, areas where a special expertise is needed.” This is what Robert does for Wilber Tennant.

Moreover, Rabbi Rutman discusses the importance of giving when it is done on a daily basis. If you have a choice of giving $100 in one lump sum or giving $10 for 10 donations, it is better to give many small amounts rather than one because it will habituate the giver to giving. The end result: achieving perfection of personality by becoming a person whose essence is kindness. That aptly describes Robert Bilott.

Dark Waters portrays Robert Bilott’s journey to self-perfection. It is not his goal, but his selfless behavior to help another human being is inspirational. Dark Waters entertains, informs, and provides a model for ethical living. It is an ideal “kosher movie.”

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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