Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Tenet

As I get older, time takes on added significance. I do not know when God will consider my mission of earth completed so I count my minutes, always asking myself if I have made the best use of my time on any given day.

The Ethics of the Fathers tell us that this world is considered the antechamber to the eternal World to Come (Avot 4:21). One of the Sages, Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel observes that a person should view this world as an introduction to the next, not as an independent experience unrelated to the future. In this way, we will lead more meaningful lives in the present. Tenet is a film that plays with the notion of time, suggesting that what we do now can have a ripple effect into the future.

It is difficult to summarize the plot of this complicated thriller, so I will just offer a broad outline. The main character, known as The Protagonist, learns about a future technology that allows objects to have their entropy reversed and move backward through time. As an example of the technology, a scientist demonstrates to The Protagonist that bullets can fire in reverse. She believes that war is coming and objects are being streamed back in time from the future. The protagonist learns that this time-reversing technology is under the control of a Russian arms dealer, Andrei Sator, and The Protagonist sets out to meet him. To accomplish this, he needs to approach Sator’s estranged wife Kat, who despises her husband but is unable to break free of him.

Sator is a misanthrope with diabolical motives. He is dying of inoperable pancreatic cancer and wants to spread death to all of humanity. To accomplish this, he needs to assemble an algorithm, currently in nine pieces, which, once put together, can cause entropy, the time direction of the world, to reverse. Essentially, it is a doomsday device.

It is the mission of The Protagonist and his Tenet team to thwart those plans and save the world. In conceptual terms, they are saving the world from what might have been. Neil, The Protagonist’s ally and friend, sums up the human dilemma when he tells him: ”What’s happened, happened. Which is an expression of fate in the mechanics of the world. However, It’s not an excuse to do nothing.”

His observation speaks to the Jewish belief in free will. God is in charge of the world, but he leaves man with a corridor of free will in which his actions can determine his own fate and the fate of the world.

How do we actualize our free will for the good? Rabbi Noach Weinberg, a renowned Torah teacher and ethicist, offers some practical suggestions that speak to Jews on a spiritual journey: (1) Don’t be a sleepwalker. Make decisions actively. (2) Don’t be a puppet of society’s goals, or a slave to your old decisions. (3) Be aware of the conflict between the cravings of your body and the aspirations of your soul (4) Identify with your soul, not your body, and (5) Make your will God’s will. The implication: when people are more aware of how their present decisions affect the future, it is more likely that a better future will occur.

Tenet makes no pronouncements about God’s place in the universe, but it does expand the notion of time. Past, present, and future are separate, but they also reflect a continuum in which all influence each other. It becomes very clear that what one does in this world affects the next. The Protagonist attempts to understand the flow of time and its consequences for mankind.


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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