Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Minority Report

Several years ago, I went to a wedding of a friend in the Midwest. There I met a number of teachers who taught in the local day school. One introduced himself and reminded me that he was once a student at Yeshiva High School of Atlanta and had actually dormed at my home for half a year. I did not immediately recognize him, but when he told me his name, a flood of memories rushed through my head. I remembered that he came from a small Southern town and that his parents wanted him to take advantage of high school Jewish education and so they enrolled him at my school. Although he did well academically, he never subscribed to the ethos of the school and regularly challenged authority. Upon graduation, I felt sure that he would abandon whatever Judaism he possessed.

But my prediction was all wrong. At some point, he was “born again” and blossomed as a student of Torah. Never would I have guessed that he would eventually make his career Jewish education. The entire encounter reminded me that one snapshot in time is not a reliable indicator of one’s future success or failure. The future is ultimately unknowable.

Minority Report, a dark and very tense science fiction thriller, suggests the opposite, that you actually can know the future of person and can even intervene to prevent him from committing a crime. In the year 2054, there is a “PreCrime” program that is operational in the nation’s capital In Washington, DC, John Anderton and his team of “PreCrime” police officers are able to act on information obtained from “precogs,” three mutated humans who can see into the future. They can predict the time and date of the crime, the culprit, and the intended victim. Once this is known, the data is forwarded to the police who proactively intervene to prevent the crime.

Because the country is poised to take the program nationally, the United States Justice Department sends its own investigator, Danny Witwer, to evaluate the program. Danny discovers some internal inconsistencies in the program and determines that PreCrime is flawed and subject to human manipulation. At first he sees John Anderton as the prime suspect, but eventually his attention turns elsewhere as he doggedly pursues his leads. The film raises the provocative question of whether one should take action against people you view as criminals, even if they have yet to commit the crime.

Interestingly, the Bible speaks of a pre-crime scenario in which capital punishment theoretically is meted out to one who will commit a crime in the future even though in the present he may be guiltless. This is the instance of the “wayward and rebellious son” who is brought to the court by his parents for capital punishment. Although his behavior at present is gluttonous and he is guilty of thievery, he has not yet murdered anyone. Yet the Bible prescribes the death penalty.

The Talmud, however, in the final analysis is inconclusive on this matter, stating that the case of the “wayward and rebellious son” never actually occurred and, indeed, will never happen. Then why, ask the Sages, do we have the law on the books? One answer is that the passage teaches us lessons about parenting and serves as a warning to children to listen to parents and to voices of authority in general. Minority Report, which explores the notion of pre-crime punishment, concludes that no one can truly know the future; and, therefore, we can only respond to infractions in the here and now, not future ones. This, indeed, affirms the Torah value of judging people as they are now, not as the villains they may become.

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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