Kosher Movies: Stranger Than Fiction

As a rabbinical student, I would often have discussions with teachers about free will. Simply put, if God is in charge and knows all, how can man have free will to choose? One response that a teacher gave to me made some sense and I share it with you.

We are finite creatures, who only live in the present. In this life, we are watching a video which opens with the caution: formatted to fit your screen. In contrast, God sees past, present, and future. He sees the wide-screen version, for He exists in all three time periods. This is why He knows all and we cannot. Yet in spite of God’s knowledge of our future, Judaism believes that God, in his infinite kindness, limited Himself and gave man free will. This problem of free will versus destiny is the crux of Stranger than Fiction, which depicts the ordinary and extraordinary life of Harold Crick.

Harold Crick is a lonely IRS agent whose life is defined by numbers. One morning as Harold is getting ready to go to work, he begins to hear an authorial voice narrating what is happening to him at that very moment. The conceit of the film is that an author, Kay Eiffel, is actually writing his life, leaving him with little free will to exercise. It is a frightening when Harold realizes that he no longer is in control of his destiny, especially when Kay Eiffel writes that he will die “imminently.”

This realization that life will end soon moves Harold to be more proactive in the life he has left. He begins a romantic relationship and even learns to play the guitar. Our Jewish tradition tells us that we do not know the day of our death; it could be any day. For example, our Sages teach us to “repent one day before your death (Avot 2:15).” The commentators explain this to mean that since no man knows the day of his death, he should repent every day. In other words, value time and make every day a special day, filled with meaning.

Harold understands this life lesson. One of his mentors poetically observes that only we can determine if our life will be a comedy or a tragedy. Will our lives affirm the continuity of life or the inevitability of death? The believing Jew lives with this constant dialectic as he makes daily decisions.

Moreover, the film presents a morally sensitive character in the author, Kay Eiffel. She decides to change the tragic ending of her novel, changing it, from a literary perspective, from a masterpiece to just an average work of fiction in order to protect and save someone. What is paramount to her in the final analysis is not fame but doing the right thing. Morality trumps personal ego.

The movie concludes with Eiffel reminding us that we need to thank God for the small pleasures of life that we often take for granted, for the “accessories of life” that are here to serve nobler causes and save our lives emotionally and spiritually. She speaks of the importance of the loving gesture, the subtle encouragement, the warm embrace. It is these little things that make life precious. Harold Crick appreciates this truth when he finds life after almost losing it.

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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