Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Moneyball

I like teachers and have great respect for them. This is why in my early years as a school principal, I always found it difficult to fire a teacher even when it was clear to me that it had to be done. One particular case still haunts me. The teacher was a wonderful person, but was boring. After much observation, I knew I would have to terminate him, but I was conflicted. He had a large family and my firing him would have great consequences for his family. I agonized and finally called a mentor for advice. He was quick and to the point. He said: “You are not an employment agency. You must do what is in the best interest of the students.” It was one of those whiplash moments. Everything became clear. Students come first, and that conversation guided much of my subsequent decision-making in my professional career.

I was reminded of that conversation as I watched Moneyball, a smart, insightful movie about the business side of baseball. Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics must release a player and he does it with intelligence and style. He knows that his goal is to win games, and he will do whatever is necessary to achieve his end. He never loses his focus. He calls the player in the office and with a smile informs him: “Jeremy, you’ve been traded to the Phillies. This is Ed Wade’s number. He’s a good guy, he’s the GM. He’s expecting your call. Buddy will help you with the plane flight. You’re a good ballplayer, Jeremy, and we wish you the best.” The parting is necessary, but it is humane and brief.

Beyond serving as a model of management, Billy Beane’s story also has other important life lessons. Billy determines that players are valued incorrectly and that even a team with limited financial resources can find undervalued players who can be melded into a winning team. His strategy: select players with the highest on base percentage. Don’t buy players; buy runs and you will win ballgames. The strategy is successful, setting a precedent for how players will be recruited in the future. The lesson: sometimes we have to shift our paradigms in order to be successful at solving problems.

I had to shift my paradigm when I first began teaching. At first, my primary concern was teaching the material. In a few years, I realized that to be successful, I needed to alter my perspective. The successful teacher focuses on students, not just information. That paradigm shift would make a dramatic difference in the way I taught and the way students learned. I was now teaching people, not facts, and the classroom dynamic changed.

Another life lesson: statistics alone cannot predict the future. Scouts saw Billy Beane as a first round pick and they offered him a huge contract with a major league team right out of high school. Billy then came to the proverbial fork in the road: should he go to Stamford on a full scholarship or sign with majors. He chose the latter, but never fulfilled the potential that scouts saw in him. Money and fame were the allure; but when he left professional baseball, he vowed never again to make a decision based upon money alone.

These lessons reflect Jewish sensibilities. The ability to see alternate points of view, to shift paradigms, is the essence of talmudic learning. The great rabbis Hillel and Shammai looked at the same realities but possessed vastly different approaches to solving problems. Moreover, King Solomon reminds us at the end of his life that wealth does not bring happiness. The truly wise man is the one who is happy with what he has.

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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