Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Margin Call

During my years in Jewish education, there were stressful moments when I felt a need to take counsel with someone older and wiser than me. Fortunately, experienced lay leaders in the community often provided me with a fresh perspective on an issue as I navigated my school through a challenging time. One lay leader, in particular, was skilled at enabling me to shift my paradigm and arrive at sound decisions. His conversations would always begin with the phrase: “conventional wisdom says…” and then he would launch into his own analysis of the situation. Talking with him was helpful because his valuable insights helped me see beyond the obvious.

There is a mesmerizing scene in Margin Call, a profanity-laced story of a Wall Street meltdown with moral ambiguities at its center, which reveals senior wisdom at work. Although it is a negative example applied to the world of finance, it demonstrates how an older person sees things differently from a young person.

Seth Bregman, an engineering PhD from MIT who now works as a risk management analyst, discovers that his firm is on the verge of a total financial meltdown. He shares the information with his superior, who in turn shares the information with his superior. A middle of the night meeting of all the senior executives is called to determine how the company will deal with this impending crisis. One suggests selling off the toxic stock before the market can react to news of their worthlessness. Another feels that this approach will forever ruin the company because people will never trust the company again. And so the issue is debated throughout the night until the moment of reckoning when the stock market opens and we witness the consequences of decisions made in an environment of moral compromise.

It is fascinating to observe the way John Tuld, the CEO, approaches the problem. He does not ask for the minutia but rather wants to understand the big picture. When Seth attempts to explain the crisis, Tuld tells him: “speak as you might to a young child, or to a golden retriever and tell me the nature of the problem.” He informs the group that he gets paid the big bucks because he can predict the future of the company, not because of his everyday scrutiny of details. The details are best left to the analysts like Seth who can understand the numbers in sophisticated ways.

What emerges from this scene is an understanding of the radically different approaches of the young and old to the same problem. Both kinds of wisdom are useful. The young man knows facts and figures. The old man sees beyond the detail and into the heart of the matter. His desire for a simple explanation of why this calamity has occurred reflects his profound grasp of the problem and its ripple effects both now and in the future. In my own memory, I can recall many board meetings that meandered until one senior member of the board asked the simplest of questions to bring everyone back to the core issue being discussed.

The Ethics of the Fathers teaches us that the wise man learns from every man, but there is a cautionary note: “ Learning from the young is like eating unripe grapes whereas learning from the old is like eating ripe grapes or drinking aged wine.” The Sages suggest that one should favor the wisdom of the older man who speaks from experience as well as from knowledge.

Moreover, the Talmud tells us that as man ages, he becomes fit for attaining deeper levels of wisdom. For example, at five years of age, he may know Scripture, but it is not until age forty that he really begins to understand it. Margin Call reminds us that considering things from a senior’s point of view, even if we disagree with him, may enhance our own understanding of a problem.

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
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